NISHIGAKI SŌKŌ 西垣宗興 (1908-1985): “Nothing” (Mu 無)

In dark, saturated ink, the Zen monk Nishigaki Sōkō wrote an impressive, solitary character with a bold and a vigorous brush stroke on the paper. The strong contrast between ink and paper as well as the massive character that was set without any trace of pause give a clue of its importance. Though the calligraphy was written in jet black ink, some parts within the brush strokes give the look free on the paper. The so called “flying white” speaks of the moment when the brush’s hair is not touching the paper as if flying over the ground. The ink captures a dynamic process and irretrievable writing gesture in time. Its vibrant impression invites the viewer to follow the movement of the brush and its “ink trace” (bokuseki 墨跡) – as calligraphies of eminent Zen monks were called since 13th century. Nishigaki Sōkō started with a thin horizontal line that is then crossed from the left to the right with three vertical, bold brush strokes. The last one is a bit longer and continuous in a loop followed by a narrow, downward zigzag that keenly abbreviates the four tiny dots of the normed character “wu” 無. The single Chinese word – that is spelled “mu” in Japanese – means “no” or “nothing” and hints as an abbreviated quotation to several stories of the Zen Buddhist canon.

In his famous poem for succeeding the dharma transmission, the sixth patriarch Huineng (638–713) is said to use the word in the quintessential line: “Originally, [there is] not a single thing” (本来無一物, J.: honrai muichi butsu). The single poem line grasps the very essence of the Zen Buddhist teaching in five Chinese characters. It states that basically there do not exist any concepts of the world or of our self by nature. They are a construction of our own mind. According to the Buddhist conviction of emptiness (Skr. śunyatā, Jap. kū 空) the world does not consist of permanent, unalterable things or substances. The world is rather an everlasting becoming that cannot be expressed in its wholeness by discriminating and thus limiting words or concepts.

The same idea is expressed in a more humorous way a bit later in form of an kōan that was published 1229 in the Wumen guan 無門關 (Jap. Mumonkan, “Gateless Checkpoint”). According to that case, a monk came to master Zhaozhou Congshen 趙州從諗 (778–897, Jap. Jōshū Jūshin) and asked him: “Does a dog has the Buddha nature?” Zhaozhou just replied, possibly in a barking like tone: “Wu!” (“No [such thing]!”). Here, Zhaozhou does not directly answers the question by just saying that a dog has no Buddha nature. Rather, he replies on the concept that underlies the question of the monk, which is a dualistic distinction between the enlightened and the unenlightened mind. What he says is: Stop speculative thinking! If one realizes that there is “no single thing” in the world we can stick on, one frees himself from suffering and abides in the peaceful serenity of nonassertion. That is what the calligraphy reminds of.

Want to buy this scroll? Have a look here:


CHAIRE! – Japanese Tea Caddies


Chaire are Japanese small lidded ceramic containers for carrying tea (cha means „tea“ and ire is a word for „put sth. in“). Originally they came from 12th century China where this kind of container was used for holding medicine or valuable oils. But at least at the end of Muromachi period (1336–1573) they were used as exquisite tea caddies to contain the green tea powder during the tea ceremony. It is said that for some members of the ruling warrior class they were even more valuable than the own sword. Due to high demand and exclusive prices for the Chinese items and a change of taste, the first Japanese production was just a matter of time. Potters from the six old kilns, the oldest Japanese pottery production sites, developed soon an own language of forms according to their traditional technics. Since then a distinction was made between karamono – objects in a Chinese manner – and wamono – the Chaire in a Japanese style.

All pieces selected for the exhibition are from the last category of wamono made by masters from Bizen and Shigaraki in Japan. One is a rare work by the higly talented and far too early passed Bizen artist Masamune Moriyasu (Satoru) (1954-2006). Like Ueda Naokata IV. (1898-1975) from Shigaraki, Masamune was orientating on the old, rather simple pieces made in the Momoyama period (1573-1603) – the golden age of tea ceramics. The Ueda family is along with the Takahashi family, the oldest potter family in Shigaraki and largely responsible for preserving traditions, especially after the second world war. Ueda Naokata IV. was designated as Shigaraki’s first „Intangible Cultural Property“. Takahashi Rakusai IV. (*1925) – presented here with two exceptional pieces – is probably the most famous Shigaraki potter. He succeeded his father the third Takahashi who was designated as „Intangible Cultural Property“ by government. But also Bizen artist Kimura Tōhō (*1928) arose from a familiy traditon with a long history. The Kimuras were designated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) himself as o-sakunin (honorable craftsmen).

For more informations about the objects visit:

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 We look forward to your visit!

Kōgō 香合 (var. 香盒) – Incense Case

Kōgō are small lidded containers for storing incense. Another japanese name is kōbako 香箱 („incense box“). During the japanese tea ceremony the kōgō is brought into the tea room on a tablet when preparing the charcoal (sumitemae 炭手前). The incense is then placed near the charcoal and the container decoratively positioned on a shelf. In a shorter variant of the sumitemae the kōgō is just placed decoratively in the decoration niche of the waiting room (machiai 待合) on a small cloth, the so-called kobukusa 古帛紗, or a special mat made of several layers of paper (kamikamashiki 紙釜敷) for charming the guests eyes.

Although kōgō are quite small objects they enjoy a great attention through connoisseurs. Like most others tea utensils kōgō too are distinguished according to their origin. But this mostly gives more a mere orientation about the origin of the technic instead about the origin of the art piece itself. On the one hand there are the chinese pieces (karamono 唐物). They include those objects made of black and red carved lacquer, lacquer ware with mother-of-pearl inlay, blue painted porcelain (sometsuke 染付け) or the three-colored Jiao-zhi ware (kōchi-yaki 交趾焼き, from a today’s region of Vietnam). On the other hand there are the Japanese pieces (wamono 和物), like Japanese pottery, lacquer ware associated with Japanese technics like gold painting (maki-e 蒔絵) or lacquers with a foundation of Japanese paper (ikkanbari 一閑張り) as well as kōgō made of different woods, also gourd et al.

Furthermore the material dictates the usage of the kōgō depending on the season. Since different incense is used in summer and winter and – according to that – a different container. Kōgō are then also distinguishable from those used only in summer, when a portable brazier is used (furoyō kōgō 風炉用香合), and those used only in winter, when a sunken fire-place is used (royō kōgō 炉用香合). In summer kōgō made of lacquer or wood go along light aromatic woods. But in winter you will find predominantly pottery kōgō. This is due to the usage of nerikō 練香 in the colder season – an incense made of essential oils like musk or agar wood mixed to a paste with honey or sugar. In order to avoid the material absorbing the scent when using nerikō it is common to use a camellia leave to cover the inside of the kōgō. Shell, metal or even ivory made items can generally be used for both seasons, but they are mainly found in the preparing room (mizuya 水屋) for storing the incense.

For delivering insight into the tremendous number of types and variants of the modelled kōgō, the Katamono kōgō ichiran 形物香合一覧 („Chart of kōgō models“) was published as woodblock print in 1855. This paper lists some 230 various designs ranging from a lot chinese examples (215 in total), some lacquer works (3), the most representative japanese pottery works (7) and a few more. The funny thing is, that the listing is arranged in the manner of a traditional sumō-banzuke 相撲番付 – a ranking for popular japanese sumo wrestling.

Opening Exhibition – Autumn 2012


The Japanese tea ceremony is possibly one of the world’s most elaborate ways of welcoming a guest. The four principles formulated by Sen no Rikyū 千利休 (1522-1591) for the ‘way of the tea’ in the words wakei seijaku 和敬清寂 could also be regarded as appropriate criteria for an art gallery:

harmony (wa 和), between guest and host and in the selection of art works;
respect (kei 敬), for humans and expressed within the attentive handling of the objects;
purity (sei 清), meant as cleanliness and order, but within the heart too, in the sense of sincerity;
calmness (jaku 寂), which should be understood here as contemplative viewing of the art works and the resulting insight and serenity.

Against this background, the gallery’s opening exhibition is bringing together a small number of carefully selected tea utensils. Among the exhibition’s highlights is a tea bowl by Shigaraki potter Ueda Juhō 上田寿方, who is much-admired and prized for his enthusiasm in following and preserving the traditions of Shigaraki pottery, an excellent incense case (kōgo 香合) by the twice Nitten awardee and later juror, Taniguchi Ryōzō 谷口良三 as well as a rare Bizen pottery tea caddy (chaire 茶入) by Masamune Moriyasu 正宗杜康.

But central to the idea of this exhibition is a single lacquer work by Yamazaki Geishū 山崎迎舟, the father of the well-respected lacquer master Yamazaki Mushū 山崎夢舟. The black flat tea caddy (hira-natsume 平棗) is coated with silver powder on the inside. The top is decorated with a festive maki-e ornamental knot, joining together three differently-patterned ribbons. These patterns are the very positive symbols of paulownia (empress tree), chrysanthemum, cherry blossoms, maple leaves and stylized branches of pine tree, as well as turtle shell and waves.

The depiction of a festive ornamental knot shall reflect on the occasion of our gallery’s opening exhibition the wish for a good long-lasting relationship for the future.

For further informations visit our exhibition on

Tomobako 共箱 – Accompanying Boxes

Tomobako for a Tea Caddy by Masamune Moriyasu

Rarely is light shed on one of the most important topic when handling Japanese arts and crafts – even if it is one of the first things you will get hold of for sure! Thus I’d like to explain at the beginning the new logo of Gallery Kommoss which refers to the crosswise knotted ribbon of the tomobako 共箱. Tomobako is the name for the wooden boxes in which Japanese artworks, ranging from paintings, over small sculptures till ceramics, porcelains and lacquer works – just to say some – are stored. They consist of a wooden body and a lid holded together by a woven or braided ribbon. 

The boxes are usually made of either two basic materials: one is cedar wood (lat. Cryptomeria japonica, jap. sugi ) and another is paulownia wood (lat. Paulownia tomentosa, jap. kiri ). Far more seldom but also coming across sometimes are boxes made of materials like chestnut (tochinoki ), mulberry (kuwa ), rosewood (shitan 紫檀), ebony (kokutan 黒檀) or ironwood (tagayasan 鉄刀木).

Cedar (l.) and Paulownia Wood (r.)

Especially kiri wood is recognized for its several advantageous characteristics. It is lightweight and for that also relatively break-proof, it has plain wood almost free from knotholes and transports no humidity. The lid should close tightly to protect the content from atmospherical influences. Sensitive items like works of paper benefit from this protections against too extreme deviations of air humidity in the moist Japanese climate.


Example of a kabusebuta

The lid can be separated in two main construction types: the slid lid or “covering” lid (kabusebuta 覆蓋) and the “inserting lid (okibuta 置蓋). Okibuta can be further devided into lids which are flat (hirabuta 平蓋) and lids with a frame construction beneath fitting neatly inside the box’s mouth (sanbuta 桟蓋). This frame of sanbuta consists of either four wooden strips (shihōsan-buta 四方桟) or only two strips (nihōsan-buta 二方桟蓋). 


To hold the box and the lid closely together a string is used, which is knotted above the lid in a slip knot (himokake 紐掛け). It was once round, but since the beginning Edo Period (1603-1868) a flat cotton string (sanada-himo 真田) is most common.


Collecting Japanese art works it is very important to have them within the original according to size and requirements of the objects individually manufactured wooden boxes (tomo = together). Not only to know them safely stored when they are not in exhibit but for reference reasons as well. These boxes recognize some importance since they bear informations about the item stored inside from the artists hand itself. Like questions of style, type, name, date and his signature. For that reason the tomobako is also as an object of evidence of great importance. Every student for Japanese art history knows the often told story of a western museum registrar who had thrown all the boxes he just thought to be packing material away and losses this way a lot of value.

But note that this kind of artist’s proof on the tomobako is common at least since the Meiji period (1868-1912) and is not to be mistaken with a hakogaki – an inscription on the box of the owner or an admiring person.