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Past Exhibitions: 2003

Arts of Zen

February 15–June 15, 2003 Japanese Gallery

Ogata Kôrin, Japanese, 1658-1716

Ogata Kôrin, Japanese, 1658-1716
Hotei (detail), late 17th-early 18th century
Fan mounted as a hanging scroll, ink and light color on paper
Museum Purchase for the Margaret Watson Parker Art Collection

Zen is a strain of Buddhist practice that originally took shape in China (where it is known as Chan), whence it spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. At its core is an emphasis on individual striving toward a mental and spiritual awakening through meditation. (Chan/zen is a translation of the Sanskrit word dhyâna, or meditation.) Each practitioner strives to personally re-enact the methods and results of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. This was a profoundly liberating approach, and Zen discourse disparages the use of icons, sacred texts, magical spells, or ritual paraphernalia—tools that had become an integral part of other schools of Buddhism. Zen literature celebrates ideals of simplicity, directness, and spontaneity, untrammeled by tradition or attachment to the physical world. This ascetic Zen, stripped of material accretions, has by now become so familiar to Americans that it animates our comic strips and advertising campaigns.

Painting by Yiran Xingrong (Itsunen, 1601–1668)
Inscription by Muan Xingtao (Mokuan, 1611–1684)
Bodhidharma, one of a triptych of Zen Patriarchs
Hanging scroll, ink and light color on paper
Museum purchase made possible by the Margaret Watson Parker Art Collection Fund

Painting by Yiran Xingrong (Itsunen, 1601Int1668)


Yet as anyone who has visited East Asia can attest, living Zen is far from this austere ideal. Zen temples are furnished with elaborate altars, where sculpted images are surrounded with banners and flowers, and before which sutras are chanted on a regular schedule. For a school that claims to have no use for texts and images, Zen has generated an enormous body of writings and inspired the creation of art in many forms. This exhibition features painting, calligraphy, and tea objects—the portable and enduring media of Zen art—made in China or Japan between the sixteenth and twentieth century.

What makes a work of art “Zen”? The popular view takes Zen discourse at its word, and demands that the work convey a certain austerity or spontaneity; in other words, style is the sole criterion. If we take historical practice as our guide, however, the field of Zen art becomes much richer and more complex, as the criteria expand to include subject matter, the identity of the artist, and the context in which a work was produced and viewed. Thanks to the depth of the Museum’s holdings and the generosity of several private lenders, we are able to present here a broad overview of the major categories of Zen subject matter, executed by both professional and monk-artists, made for monastic communities and lay audiences. In order to accommodate the rich selection of works available to us, there will be a rotation of several paintings and calligraphies in mid-April.

We would like to thank the several private lenders in the United States and Japan who helped make this exhibition possible. Support for this exhibition has been provided by the Blakemore Foundation and the University of Michigan’s Office of the Provost and the Center for Japanese Studies.

Maribeth Graybill
Senior Curator of Asian Art


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