Kobayashi Taigen – Brushed Zen Mind.

Tea Room with Kobayashi Taigen's Calligraphy

Some time ago a Zen Buddhist calligraphy was exhibited in the tea room of Berlin’s East Asian Art Museum. In a carefully selected and beautifully arranged composition, paired with a big, round vase of contemporary potter Tsujimura Shiro (*1947), the lightly swung characters of the hanging scroll were charming mind and eyes. The colours of the mounting matched perfectly with those of the tea room’s walls and floor and resonated harmonically in the natural ash glace of the vase. However, next to the heavy piece of stoneware the calligraphy comes along with easiness and a certain kind of carefreeness, expressed in the big dynamically roundly brushed characters. It seems here, that the style of the script makes evident itself what the meaning of the sentence speaks of. The five character with the spelling Heijōshin kore 平常心是道 are saying: “A well balanced heart, always calm and quite – that’s the way.”

The single line was written by Daitoku-ji’s Zen master Kobayashi Taigen (*1938). In his playfull handwriting he offers the viewer a complex and sophisticated game of meanings, which is typical for Zen Buddhist art. The first term heijō means “normality” or “everyday”, but consists of the two characters which literally mean “calm, quite or peacefull” and “always”. Together with the third character shin (“heart”) it gets the literal meaning “self control” and “readiness of mind” and is offen a bit misleadingly translated as “the every day mind”. The best explanation, however, is given in the historical Chinese book, this short quotation refers to: the Wumenguan 無門関 (“The gateless gate”, Jap. Mumonkan) that was published in year 1229 by the Zen master Wumen Huikai 無門慧開 (1183–1260). In the collections of commented texts, the publisher Wumen offered in the 19. chapter following episode:

Zhaozhou asked Nanquan: “What is the way?” Nanquan answered: “A well balanced heart, that is the way.” Zhaozhou asked: “Should I try to direct myself toward it or not?” Nanquan said: “If you try to do so, you betray your own practice.” Zhaozhou asked “How can i know the way if I don’t direct myself?” Nanquan said: “The way is not subject to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion, not knowing is blankness. If you truly reach the genuine way, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How can this be discussed at the level or affirmation and negation?” With these words Zhaozhou had sudden realization.

Wumen commented the story with following poem: “Spring has its flowers, autumn the moon. Summer a fresh breeze and winter the snow. When idle concerns don’t hang in your mind – that’s the men’s best season.”

 Kobayashi TaigenKobayashi Taigen 小林太玄 was born 1938 in Shenyang and lost his parents at the age of six. At this time he was given to monastery, where he was raised up. In 1961 he completed a degree at Hanazono University in Kyōto where he thereafter trained under Ōtsu Rekidō, the 130th abbot of Shōkoku-ji. He then succeeded Ōbai-in’s abbot Miyanishi Genshō at Kyōto’s famous Daitoku-ji.


Galerie Kommoss is currently offering a calligraphy and a brushed and inscribed Ensō circle by Kobayashi Taigen. Have a look on www.galeriekommoss.com. We look forward to your visit!


Buddha’s Hand – A Heian Period Sculpture’s Fragment

Hand fragment of a Heian periode colossal sculptureDuring my frequent strolls as a guide through the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin, I always find something new and interesting. This is partly due to the fact that only ten percent or so of the museum’s treasuries are on display. The objects are changed regularly in the exhibition areas. And so was this. A piece, I have never seen (or recognized?) before, suddenly attracted my attention: A wonderful Japanese hand fragment of a colossal buddhist statue from the Heian period (794–1185). The about 30 centimeter long item is depicting the right hand of a Buddha in the gesture of abhaya mudrā (“gesture of fearlessness”), which is presented quite popularly by several Buddha and Bodhisattva pictures as a posture of greeting and protection for those who are taking refuge in the way of Buddhism. The right arm raised, fingers pointing up and the flat palm facing towards the viewers standpoint, it is symbolizing as well the prevention from evil and is also a commonly depiction of Hindu deities.

However, someone might ask, why I claim this a Buddha’s hand, since it has a palm and five fingers like any common hand too? If you watch closely, one can identify a connection between the fingers (broken at the thumb, but obvious between small and ring finger). These ‘webs’ are referring to one of the 32 major “characteristics attributed to a Great Man” (Skt. mahāpuruṣa lakṣaṇa). They are listed and described in the Lakkhaṇa Sutta, thirtieth article of the Buddhist scripture Dīgha Nikāya (“Collection of Long Discourses”, one of three parts that compose the earliest and most complete buddhist literature, the Pali Canon). As quoted there at the sixth position, the toes and fingers of a Great Man are finely webbed. So this small detail, which at first glance appears to be a mere construction help for the dry lacquer made (Jap. kanshitsu-zukuri 乾漆造) and gilded hand, clearly indicates this fragment to be the hand of a Buddha.

With its elegantly and delicately detailed finger position, the hand is giving a glimpse of the former, entire figure’s peace and harmony. Even if it is true, that Buddha has reached parinirvāṇa, the final deathless state, and abandoned his earthly body, it seems here, he left us self-sacrificially a trace leading to enlightment.