Wind in the Pine Trees – Writings by Zen Buddhist Masters


Since the 13th century writings by Zen Buddhist masters are called bokuseki 墨跡, “ink traces”. The two main aspects of the Zen Buddhist art of writing are expressed in the two Chinese characters: On the one hand, writing is a visible trace of language, that is able to remove meanings from any time-spatial distances. On the other hand, the ink, soaked in the writing ground, refers to the creative act of writing, whose process of movements can be “re-traced” in viewing the art work. According to Chinese art theory the second aspect is, moreover, also considered as a possibility to get an instant impression of the writer’s character and attitude. “Words are the sound of the mind and script is the picture of the mind”, says a quote by Han-time philosopher and poet Yang Xiong (53 b.c. – 18 a.c.), that reminded Chinese Author Guo Ruoxu in his 1080 published work on history and theory of art. Against this background, it was more or less self declared aim of Japanese Zen monks to visually express their serene mind that was liberated over years of meditation and to give this way proof of their “true self”. Due to one reason writing is sought to be one of the preferred instruments to do so: the ink-saturated brush detects seismographically the smallest change of the position of the hand, the pressure or movement and uncorrectably records even the slightest indecision on the writing ground. Thus, writing this way is less to be regarded as an artist’s free expression – and therefor also not to be mistaken as a type of “calligraphy” (the beautiful writing) – but more as a quasi-religious act.

The way of writing as a visual expression of the own inner self was particularly cultivated in the monasteries of the Rinzai school, what centered all modes of Chinese learning in Japan from the 13th to 16th century. Already the Chinese Zen master and founder of this Zen school Linji Yixuan (?–867) stressed the importance and efficiency of actively dynamic exercises as tools on the way to enlightenment. The Rinzai monasteries where thereby creating a context, which enabled the monks to make usage of poetries, painting and writing to legitimately express Buddhist insights. With the usage of writing also the transmission of textual knowledge was ensured as fragments and quotations from the rich canon of Zen Buddhist literature were reproduced as short aphorisms. These mostly own a deeper and often not obvious meaning on which the viewer is stimulated to reflect on. Beyond that, further meanings are often added through the pictorial qualities of the Chinese script and the painting qualities of writing with a brush. This way, most complex and multilayered artworks arise, which successfully detract from a clear categorization like a distinction between script and picture or between pictorial art and literature. As works of high formal and aesthetic standard as well as a medium of religious and epistemic contents, ink traces by Zen Buddhist masters enjoy high recognition since the 13th century not only within sacral circles.

On exhibit are eight works (including two circular ensô paintings) from the 20th century written by six different Zen masters of the Daitoku-ji temple, which can be viewed against this background of the 700-year old tradition described above.

Enjoy to discover further informations about each scroll and the meaning of their content on:!

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.