A shabbily dressed figure holds out at arm’s length a small fish. He is completely focused on his catch, and his mouth almost seems to drool. The face, hands, and feet are sketched in a deliberately simplistic way, while the costume is drawn with only a few swift slashes of the brush, and the strokes bleed into each other.
Among the new categories of imagery introduced to East Asian art by Zen is that of the “eccentric.” A Zen eccentric defies the restrictions of the human body or the basic norms of Buddhist behavior, and in so doing demands that we question our ready assumptions about logic and reality. Artists reveled in the chance to paint eccentrics, and these works are often full of visual wit and humor.
From the traditional Buddhist standpoint, the subject is eccentric because he is violating a taboo against the consumption of flesh. The Zen view is that distinctions between ostensible opposites—vegetable, non-vegetable—are illusory.
Hanging scroll with five large calligraphic kanji characters. The lower right contains further text and orangish read seals. The background brocade on which it is mounted is green and gold and has a floral design. Two strips of other material lie across the top and bottom of the white material on which teh calligraphy is painted. These strips also have a floral design and a light gold/yellow background.
In traditional China, calligraphy was regarded as the highest of the arts because it was held to be the truest reflection of one’s character. For Chinese Chán and Japanese Zen monks, who were immersed in Chinese literati culture, calligraphy could thus be a form of self-portraiture.
The verse here, piously attributed to Bodhidharma, is the second of a two-line poem and seems to predict the future flourishing of the five lineages of Zen: “One bud opens into five petals, and naturally ripens into fruit.”
The calligrapher of this scroll, Ôbaku Tetsugen, was among the first generation of Japanese converts to the Ôbaku sect of Zen; he was a disciple of Muan Xingtao (known in Japan as Mokuan).
The large character for snow in block script is juxtaposed with lines of smaller characters in running script. The large character is drawn with unhurried, thick, even strokes in dense, unbroken black ink with blunt contours, while the smaller characters are brushed rapidly, with strokes of varying thickness, a pronounced diagonal tilt, and sharp edges.
Muan Xingtao (known in Japan as Mokuan) was a native of Fujian, China. He took his monastic vows at Wanfusi Monastery at the age of eighteen and in 1655 followed his mentor to Japan, where he helped to found several monasteries. Muan became the second abbot of Manpukuji in Uji, the great Ôbaku Zen sect’s monastery on the southern outskirts of Kyoto.
The calligraphy reads, “Snow: the fragrance of the plum blossoms in snow catches my nose.”
A woodblock print on paper depicting the image of a woman in a red robe and holding a smoking pipe. A corresponding poem inscribed at the top in both Chinese and Japanese.
A female prostitute wearing a red robe with a hood, disguising herself as the Bodhidharma. This is a parody of the fact that the nickname for a prostitute was daruma, an epithet for Bodhidharma. The image depicts an equivalence between the prostiue and the patriarch Bodhidharma.
The shape of the circle repeats four times in this painting. It appears in the plump body of Hotei, his head, his large white sack, and the overall shape of the fan.
Hotei (known in Chinese as Putai) is the fond nickname for a tenth-century Chinese monk named Qici, who attained legendary status as an exemplar of Zen ideals. Hotei is recognizable by his large belly and his equally enormous alms bag, which he carried everywhere. His very name is a pun: Hotei literally means “cloth sack”—and by extension, “glutton.”
Hotei became a favorite subject for Zen monk-painters in China and Japan as early as the thirteenth century. Artists delighted in the possibilities for visual punning, drawing both Hotei’s belly and his sack as enormous circles. An empty circle—a perfect geometric shape without beginning or end—is used in Zen as an abstract symbol representing the erasure of opposites, a fundamental Buddhist teaching.
Circular tsuba, made of iron. It has two holes in the middle. Two figures, Kanzan and Jittoku, are carved on the lower right corner. Kanzan, who holds a scroll on his hand, and Jittoku, who holds a bloom stick and pointing to the sky, are looking upward. The two figures are carved slightly higher than the surface. On the back, there is the moon partially obscured by clouds. Gold and silver alloy inlays are applied to the moon and the clouds. Gold is also inlayed in their eyes, parts of the garments, and Kanzan's scroll. Shakudô (copper-gold alloy) is inlayed in Jittoku's bloom and his jacket collars.
Kanzan and Jittoku are Taoist eccentrics of whom little is known, but they are frequently represented (almost always together) in East Asian arts. Both lived in the monastery of Kuo Ching, spending most of their time in the kitchen, and speaking a gibberish unintelligible to anyone, resenting visitors, and noticing them only with insults. Kanzan holds a scroll, which he expounds to Jittoku, who stands by leaning on his broom. Both have a dwarfed and somewhat boyish appearance, but Kanzan's face is furrowed by age. (Reference: Edmunds, Will H. Pointers and Clues to the Subjects of Chinese and Japanese Art).