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:

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!

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:!