Kennin-ji: Zen and the Roundabout Road to Enlightenment

Tawaraya Sotatsu's Wind God and Thunder God

In his classic book Yen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel makes it clear that trying too hard to hit the target is a sure way to miss it. This paradox struck me recently at the Suntory Museum's exhibition of art and artifacts from Kyoto's 800-year-old Kennin-ji Zen Buddhist temple; an exhibition that is surprisingly less about the didacticism and preaching of religion than the aesthetics of pure artistic enjoyment.

"For most Buddhist sects, the focus was to make people believe that Buddhism would save them," museum curator, Nobue Mito explains. "The thing that distinguished the Zen monks from the other sects is that they didn’t think that directly saving people was the most important thing."

Rather than the short route of proselytizing, Zen monks preferred to take a longer, more scenic route to spiritual redemption; one that involved intellectual, cultural, and aesthetic activities, like studying, writing poetry, performing the tea ceremony, and producing and collecting beautiful works of arts. All these aspects are in evidence with examples of calligraphy, poems, and other documents, as well as beautiful paintings executed on various surfaces.

The portraits of the Buddhist monks, like the 15th century hanging scroll depicting Kennin-ji's founder, Myoan Yosai (1141-1215), characteristically depict Zen monks seated on chairs with their legs folded under their robes in the lotus position, and their empty shoes below on the ground as if they were levitating. These scrolls are now sadly much besmirched with incense smoke.

A portrait that has stood the test of time much better is the 14th century painted wooden statue of the monk Chugan Engetsu. Although most of the color has now faded, the hard, lifelike stare emitted by the crystal eyeballs and the tension with which the figure appears to hold the rod used to discipline monks during zazen breathing exercises, makes you almost expect a sudden admonitory thwack.

With its strong links to Sung Dynasty China, Zen Buddhism was a natural conduit of Chinese culture. This is seen in the Tenmoku tea bowls on display. Although made in Japan, the name recalls a mountain in China famous for Zen monasteries and the growing of tea.

"During the Tang dynasty in China, the best tea bowls were celadon ware, as this made the tea seem greener," Mito explains. "But in the Sung dynasty, foamy tea with a rather white surface became popular so tea bowls with a contrasting black glaze were preferred."
Introducing Chinese fashions into Japan also helped to make Zen popular with the elites, who invariably viewed foreign culture with a sense of wonder and emulation.

The imagery in Buddhist art sometimes seems an amalgam of Oriental myths and legends. Among the fabled creatures on loan from the temple the most impressive is Kaiho Yusho's series of eight vast hanging scrolls from the Momoyama period, depicting two enormous, brooding, storm-like dragons. While the motif of the most famous object on display, Tawaraya Sotatsu's folding screen, Wind God and Thunder God has more relevance to Shintoism than Buddhism. This astounding 17th-century national treasure will be displayed from the 25th of June, in the meantime being represented by a copy.

Westerners with their history of holy wars are often amazed by the apparent degree of tolerance and mutual acceptance in Oriental religion. A triptych of hanging scrolls from the 17th century by Kano Tan’yu shows the Buddha harmoniously flanked by Confucius and Lao-tzu. Mito suggests that the true reason for such tolerance was the fact that both Confucianism and Taoism were regarded more as philosophies than religions. This is symbolized by the fact that only the Buddha directly faces the viewer, while the two sages, like the portraits of the Zen monks, are all three quarter views.

Just like other religions, Buddhism was occasionally guilty of intolerance and sectarianism. Persecution by the established Buddhist sects meant that Myoan Yosai was only able to establish the temple of his new sect in Kyoto after he won the support of the shogun, Minamoto-no-Yori'ie. While a letter from Oda Nobunaga dated 1574 to one of Kennin-ji's sub-temples, assuring it that it could still raise taxes on the land it owned, testifies to the continued importance of patronage.

By not aiming directly at the target of religious salvation, Zen Buddhism through its intellectualism and aestheticism greatly enhanced and enriched the spirit and culture of Japan. But the sect's popularity with the political elite and the benefits it reaped leaves the suspicion that part of Zen’s mission, like that of other great religious sects, was to curry favor with the politically powerful.

Japan Times
12th June, 2002

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