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 Seeing Through Zen - by John McRae - Highly recommend this book

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PostSubject: Seeing Through Zen - by John McRae - Highly recommend this book   Sat Jan 14, 2012 2:03 am

SEEING THROUGH ZEN: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism by John R. McRae

The tradition of Chan Buddhism--more popularly known as Zen--has been romanticized throughout its history. In this book, John R. McRae shows how modern critical techniques, supported by recent manuscript discoveries, make possible a more skeptical, accurate, and--ultimately--productive assessment of Chan lineages, teaching, fundraising practices, and social organization. Synthesizing twenty years of scholarship, Seeing through Zen offers new, accessible analytic models for the interpretation of Chan spiritual practices and religious history.

Writing in a lucid and engaging style, McRae traces the emergence of this Chinese spiritual tradition and its early figureheads, Bodhidharma and the "sixth patriarch" Huineng, through the development of Zen dialogue and koans. In addition to constructing a central narrative for the doctrinal and social evolution of the school, Seeing through Zen examines the religious dynamics behind Chan's use of iconoclastic stories and myths of patriarchal succession. McRae argues that Chinese Chan is fundamentally genealogical, both in its self-understanding as a school of Buddhism and in the very design of its practices of spiritual cultivation. Furthermore, by forgoing the standard idealization of Zen spontaneity, we can gain new insight into the religious vitality of the school as it came to dominate the Chinese religious scene, providing a model for all of East Asia--and the modern world. Ultimately, this book aims to change how we think about Chinese Chan by providing new ways of looking at the tradition.

Review from Amazon.com: “As a Zen priest who is also an academic, I am frequently frustrated both by scholarly books on religion that dismiss practitioners' perspectives and by religiously oriented books that accept religious claims uncritically. In Seeing Through Zen, John McRae synthesizes a great deal of recent scholarship on Ch'an (Zen) and shows that many of its central claims -- an unbroken lineage of patriarchs, the biographies of key figures such as Bodhidharma and the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, a "golden age" of iconoclastic masters during the Tang Dynasty -- are not "true" in the modern historical sense. At the same time, McRae's first rule of Zen studies is: "It's not true, therefore it's more important."

His careful scholarship is balanced by sensitivity to the religious meanings and the institutional value of these myths for Ch'an/Zen practitioners. I highly recommend this book to academic students and religious practitioners of Zen.

The book opens with four axioms for Zen studies that can be applied usefully to almost any historical study. The subsequent analysis focuses on the Ch'an lineage and the literature of "encounter dialogue" (koans). McRae helps readers to understand the content of Ch'an myth and doctrine, the process by which it developed, and the ways it shaped the religious identities of institutions and individual practitioners.

He cautions readers not to accept portrayals of heroes or villains at face value, but to look beneath the rhetoric to what's at stake in their portrayals: whose interests are being served, and how? He also cautions against assuming that the more precise a Zen story is, in details of place and time, the earlier it is likely be. In fact, the opposite is more likely. The details of Bodhidharma's life, for example, accumulated gradually over a thousand years. His identity was continually reinvented by successive generations of practitioners, according to their religious identities and ideals. Likewise, the teachings of many great Tang Dynasty masters were attributed to them retrospectively by later generations of students. This does not mean, however, that the mytho-poetic accounts are worthless. They tell us about the concerns and aspirations of the people who developed them, and help us to think more carefully about the religious claims of our own era and institutions.

Western Zen is often built on misunderstandings of the tradition, in part because of the vast divide between our culture and that of Song Dynasty China, when many elements of Zen tradition took shape. For modern practitioners, it is not possible to do a careful and thoughtful job of interpreting Zen tradition for our own circumstances if we accept traditional stories unquestioningly in a literal, fundamentalist way. McRae offers helpful resources for re-thinking the tradition.

The book does have some limitations: it pays almost no attention to gender; and it focuses almost entirely on texts, rather than on, say, archaeology, religious objects, or art, all of which tell us something about how religious traditions were actually lived. The focus on texts is a bias of western Buddhist studies that has been critiqued in recent decades, because religious literature may tell us more about what elites thought practitioners should do and believe, than about what practitioners actually did. McRae also might have drawn more connections between Indian and Chinese traditions: the question-and-answer format of koan literature, for example, seems reminiscent of The Questions of King Milinda.

Despite these constraints, Seeing through Zen is an engaging, accessible, highly informative book that demonstrates both rigorous scholarship and sympathy for the people he studies. This is a difficult balance, and McRae accomplishes it with flair.

Another Review from Amazon.com: Separating fact from fiction in history is problematic at best. Religious history is especially difficult as there are many stakeholders propagating certain lines of belief and practice. McRae's book strips away much of the mythology of the development of Chan/Zen from the time of Bodhidharma through to the Song Dynasty (ca. 950-1300) in China. This demythologizing is sure to upset some Zen practitioners and teachers whose faith in Zen Buddhism is intimately tied to an idealized version of Zen's history.
McRae not only presents a refreshing view of the Chan lineage charts and their role in the development of Zen's history, but also gives a detailed analysis of the Northern/Southern Schools split and the development of "encounter dialogues", which laid the foundation for koans. Along the way, he takes a swipe at Heinrich Dumoulin's interpretation of Zen history, the Platform Sutra as history (it never happened), and even the idea that Chan was a distinct and separate Buddhist school in ancient China. For those whose faith is based on these colorful but historically inaccurate myths, this book will be troubling and thought-provoking.

McRae and other academics in the field are providing a valuable service to Buddhism's migration from the East to the West and books such as this one should be required reading in Zen centers around the world. McRae tackles the issues with a light touch and even non-experts in the field should have little difficulty in reading this. I highly recommend this book to all who are interested in Zen's true history.

Another Amazon.com Review: I didn't get too far into this book before getting [banned term] off. And that's a GOOD thing! John McRae , as a zen student, has taken on the task of looking at the history and hagiography of zen and tried to sort out fact from fiction, uses of the fiction, implications for practice, and much more. As you read this book, if you are a zen student like I am, you will find some of your most cherished beliefs challenged in regard to zen. I find this a refreshing book. The early part on lineage is particularly interesting as most zen groups I am aware of place heavy emphasis on lineage and "proving" how they are descendant from Shakyamuni himself. This was a very rewarding read and I look forward to reading more by this author on Northern school of Zen.

Another Amazon.com Review: I appreciate McRae's book for its new (to me) perspective on Chinese Chan (Zen). My introduction to Zen through the radio talks of Alan Watts, the Zen stories in "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones" and the books of D. T. Suzuki instilled in me a romantic view of the old masters. This book grounds this romanticism and offers a new way to regard the evolution of Zen and to engage in its practice. Of particular interest to me is the discussion of the arising in China of the importance of lineage. Lineage is still taken quite seriously in many of our current Zen/Chan/Son schools in the West. I suspect many readers will balk at McRae's perspective. However, I like being cast adrift, as it were. "Be a beacon unto yourselves," as Gautama is reported to have said. And I thank the professor for opening a discussion on this topic. I'm eager to hear what others say!
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PostSubject: Re: Seeing Through Zen - by John McRae - Highly recommend this book   Sun Jan 22, 2012 2:53 am

Buddhist scholar John R. McRae passed away. In an announcement for H-Buddhism (the Buddhist Scholars Information Network), A. Charles Muller wrote: “It is with heavy heart that I pass on to you the sad news [of John McRae’s] passing away in Bangkok Hospital at 12:30 pm on October 22, 2011, at the age of 64, after a 16-month bout with pancreatic cancer.”
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PostSubject: Re: Seeing Through Zen - by John McRae - Highly recommend this book   Mon Jan 23, 2012 9:01 pm

Thanks for the review, Josh. I just ordered Seeing Through Zen and look forward to reading it.
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PostSubject: Re: Seeing Through Zen - by John McRae - Highly recommend this book   Thu Feb 16, 2012 2:55 pm

Seeing Through Zen looks highly worthwhile Josh.

Thnak you for the review.
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PostSubject: Re: Seeing Through Zen - by John McRae - Highly recommend this book   Wed Apr 25, 2012 1:48 am

I am putting this essay here because it uses McRae's work:

Awakenings: The Development of the Zen Figural Pantheon - from the Japan Society website

by Yukio Lippit

ZEN BUDDHISM boasts a colorful and idiosyncratic cast of patriarchs and exemplary practitioners. It shares certain Buddhas and bodhisattvas with other Mahayana Buddhist sects, but its additional religious paragons would seem motley by most standards: figures at the periphery of medieval Chinese social life, often peripatetic or otherwise unmoored from society, characterized by ragged, unkempt appearances and inscrutable behavior; early Chinese monks who engaged in fictional debates with the opponents of Buddhism; and even a variety of practitioners known for specific acts of iconoclasm, such as Danxia (J: Tanka), who burned a wooden statue of the Buddha in order to stay warm in winter, or Xianzi (J: Kensu), who survived by eating the prawns that he caught, thereby breaking one of the foundational taboos of the Vinaya, or monastic code of behavior. The roll call of characters associated with Chan/Zen communities historically could also include figures drawn from mainstream religious culture in general—Confucian exemplars, Daoist Immortals, Japanese deities (kami), and even poets of renown. All of these figures, either implicitly or explicitly, were mobilized to reflect sectarian identity in highly elliptical and sophisticated ways. They were often given pictorial form in monochrome ink, accompanied by the inscriptions of prominent abbots of Chan/Zen monasteries. This practice, which began in the circles of a few highly influential and charismatic monks in early twelfth-century China, became widespread by the next century, when it expanded to the Japanese archipelago; there it flourished, and inscribed figure paintings constitute one of the most representative art forms associated with medieval Japan’s Zen Buddhist culture. Hundreds of Japanese Zen figure paintings survive from this period, as well as dozens of Chinese works, which were brought to Japan by émigré masters, returning pilgrim-monks, and merchant traders. As a whole, this corpus enables considerable insight into the myriad ways Chan/Zen communities once imagined themselves and their formation.

The present essay offers a general introduction to this body of material, as well as a historical framework for understanding how and why this “Zen pantheon” came to be. The subjects of Chan/Zen paintings are exemplars of Buddhist awakening, and some explanation is required in order to fully appreciate the specificity of the Chan/Zen purchase on this concept in relation to those of other Buddhist sects.

Chan/Zen Buddhists have for centuries claimed to represent a special, unbroken transmission of the Buddha’s dharma, or wisdom, down to the present. As the tradition itself asserted, this transmission was intuitive, from “mind to mind,” and took place entirely apart from the study of Buddhist scripture. According to this understanding, whereas most other Buddhist sects attempt to access the dharma through sutras—religious texts that purport to record the Buddha’s own words—Chan/Zen adherents emphasize more instinctive or somatic forms of practice, such as meditation, one-on-one encounters and training sessions with religious masters, or the study of koan, that is to say, fragments of inscrutable dialogue by previous Chan/Zen exemplars that offered case studies of enlightened insight. It was through these daily activities that Chan/Zen Buddhists eventually achieved awakening (C: wu, J: satori ), one of the main goals of religious practice, and became members of the lineage of special transmission.1 Awakened practitioners became the bearers of the “lamp” or the “flame”—the privileged metaphor for the ineffable dharma suggesting the fragility and potential evanescence of the Buddha’s knowledge in the course of transmission—and were responsible for nurturing and transmitting it to later generations. 2 Because of their evocativeness in conjuring up the patriarchal past, and the seemingly personalized nature of their inscriptions, Chan/Zen figure paintings are most commonly understood to be catalysts for religious training, bestowed by masters upon their disciples and lay followers to provide models of exemplary practice or awakened behavior.

Whereas the pictorial representation of religious paragons played an important role in many different traditions of Buddhist practice, its function and significance for Chan/Zen communities emerge as much more than hortatory or inspirational when examined within the framework of what will be referred to here as the “ideology of the special transmission.” Over the last several decades scholars of East Asian religious history have argued convincingly that the Chan/Zen dharma genealogy did not achieve its most elaborate and mature expression until the Song dynasty (960–1279). The historical components of this process will be presented in greater detail below; what is most significant about this collective new understanding is that it dates the emergence of the full articulation of Chan/ Zen’s special transmission well after the purported Golden Age of Chinese Chan Buddhism during the Tang dynasty (618–907), and well after the era when most of the subjects of Chan/Zen figure painting were assumed to have been active. In other words, as a historical phenomenon, the emergence of figure painting as a preferred vehicle for the visualization of the school’s own lineage is not far removed from the emergence of a sustained and systematic rhetoric asserting the uniqueness of that very lineage. The argument set forth here is that these two phenomena are closely related—that painting functioned as a resonant and highly effective medium for the representation of the lineal prerogatives of Chan/Zen communities. Pictorial representation was certainly not the only arena in which genealogical premises were articulated and disseminated; the systematic promulgation of structured speech and texts in many different forums by Chan/Zen monks and authors worked to the same end. Yet in its artifactuality and its suitability to uniquely pictorial forms of persuasion, painting proved to be a particularly potent means of Chan/Zen self-definition. And its role only grew more pronounced over time; the pictorial surface came to provide a unique space in which the invention of new iconographies, the appropriation of religious charisma from beyond the borders of Chan/Zen communities, and the relationships between religious masters and their various constituencies, could be given visual and material form. These same characteristics marked figure painting once it was adopted by Japanese Zen communities during the thirteenth century; there it continued to assimilate new subjects and to facilitate the communal imagining of the special transmission, and in the process introduced a fundamentally new role for pictorial representation to the Japanese archipelago.

The idea that painting played a prominent role in the articulation of the special transmission has many implications for an understanding of the function and audience of Chan/Zen figure painting. Until now, most accounts explaining the subject matter of such works have tended to be overly reliant upon the biographical entries for these figures that are found in contemporary texts (the “lamp histories,” see below), which were to a large degree intended to document and lend tangibility to the special transmission. We must be aware, however, that these lamp histories functioned in tandem with paintings and other texts to weave a rich mythopoeisis of Zen across East Asia. By the same token, heightened awareness of the ideological aspect of Chan/Zen figure painting strongly suggests that its audience included not only aspiring monks, but also lay followers, scholar-officials, warrior leaders, and other extramonastic constituencies. Although the specific circumstances under which these works were produced are largely unknown, circumstantial evidence and a small number of documented cases imply that the recipients of these scrolls were oftentimes situated at the peripheries of monastic communities, but precisely because of this were in a position to offer financial and various other forms of patronage. The ideology of the special transmission as acted out in Chan/Zen figure painting can be understood as a form of communication carefully crafted to speak to those peripheries. To this end of mediating monk-recipient relations, the accompanying inscriptions played a key role. Like other brush traces from Chan/Zen masters, these pithy, allusive, but at the same time highly repetitive verses allowed religious masters to demonstrate their insights into their own dharma lineages. Calligraphic commentary provided Chan/Zen monks with a forum in which to perform their own awakened status in front of the various audiences with which they interacted. Prefaced by these brief observations concerning function and audience, then, the following sections take a closer look at several of the historical and institutional conditions for the development of Chan/Zen figure painting, as well as the who’s who of its evolving pantheon.
The Special Transmission

The ideology of the special transmission was meant to radically distinguish Chinese Chan Buddhism from other Buddhist schools of the Song period, most prominently the Tiantai, Lü (S: Vinaya), and Huayan. Such distinction was significant because many religious groups vied for imperial patronage and for the favorable attention of the scholar-official class. The importance of this attention was not negligible, as scholar-official favor could often influence imperial abbacy appointments and the sponsorship of monastic infrastructure. In competing for such real-world gains, rhetorical self-presentation played a crucial role, all the more so because in daily practice Chan Buddhists did not differ all that much from other schools laying claim to a special understanding of the dharma. As T. Griffith Foulk has demonstrated, during the Song period there was little that distinguished the rituals, routines, and monastic life of Chan practitioners from those of the adherents of other sects.3 Despite their claims to “not posit words” (C: bu li wenzi, J: furyu monji), Chan Buddhists also studied many of the same sutras and religious commentaries as did the other sects, and performed rites for similar occasions according to comparable ritual calendars. Conversely, Buddhists of other affiliations carried out meditative practices and other forms of religious introspection similar to those of Chan Buddhists.

Even the layouts of their monasteries followed the same organizational principles, due to the similarities in their relationships with the state. The Song dynasty witnessed the emergence of a system of public monastic registration (C: shifang, or “ten directions”) in which the state controlled abbacy appointments and the sectarian designations of many of the largest Buddhist monastic compounds.4 The overwhelming majority of monasteries during this period were so registered. Participation in this system provided Buddhist establishments with the prestige of an imperially bestowed name plaque as well as, possibly, grants of land and money and protection in times of persecution.5 The government, for its part, was able through this system to regulate the Buddhist church more effectively, while mobilizing its supernatural assistance on behalf of the state and emperor. Such compounds could infra-structurally support a wide variety of religious activities and often, over the course of their existences, accommodated several denominations sequentially or even simultaneously. The built environments and daily practices of Chan Buddhists during the Song period did little in and of themselves to project a strong sense of sectarian identity to the outside world.

Within this general homogeneity of monastic Buddhism during the Song, modes of rhetorical self-conception, such as the ideology of the special transmission, as well as the social practices that accompanied its dissemination, played a significant role in generating a widely shared sense of distinction and particularity for Chan. Although assertions regarding the primacy of one’s own lineage were not unusual among Buddhist communities, Chan adherents made their dharma lineage the central focus of almost all of the sociocultural activity in which they engaged. To fully appreciate such a disposition requires, as historians of religion such as John McRae have shown, an “analysis of Chinese Chan religious practice as fundamentally genealogical.”6 Individually this practice included the authorship and delivery of lectures, homilies, eulogies, gatha verses, “dharma words,” and koan commentary, the writing of calligraphies, and one-on-one training sessions with disciples and lay patrons. Communally it encompassed the publication and circulation of texts such as koan anthologies, the “recorded sayings” (C: yulu, J: goroku) of venerable masters, and “lamp histories” that documented the past members of the special transmission. This religious and literary production was saturated with a keen awareness of the singularity of Chan/Zen pedigree. Through word and image, those who partook of this pedigree articulated and elaborated upon a complex mythistorical genealogy that would have lasting implications for Chan/Zen practice and influence.

Mahakasyapa’s Smile. Unkei Eiji (act. early to mid-16th c.).
Japanese, Muromachi period, 16th c.
Hanging scroll (middle scroll of triptych), ink and light colors on paper; 112.1 x 52.1 cm.
Tokiwayama Bunko Foundation, Kamakura

As McRae demonstrates, the Chan transmission scheme as it achieved mature expression in the Song period consisted of two parts.7 The first section begins with the historical Buddha Sakyamuni (later amplified into the “Seven Buddhas of the Past”) and continues through the twenty-eight Indian patriarchs—the last of whom, Bodhidharma, became the first Chinese patriarch—and five further Chinese patriarchs. Transmission in this initial section is conceived of as “straightline succession,” a form of spiritual primogeniture in which only a single patriarch in each generation embodies the dharma and passes it on to one chosen individual in the next. During the eleventh century Chan Buddhists developed an origin myth that served to set the entire monosuccessional sequence in motion. Known as “Mahakasyapa’s Smile,” this episode was redacted into one of the Buddha’s legendary sermons on Vulture Peak.8 According to this episode, when the Buddha held up a flower to the assembly, everyone in the samgha, or monastic community, remained silent, but the disciple Mahakasyapa broke into a (knowing) smile. Upon observing this, the Buddha declared Mahakasyapa the recipient of a “separate transmission outside the teaching,” the first such transmission within the Chan/Zen tradition. As the origination of dharma transmission, “Mahakasyapa’s Smile” occupied a privileged place within the Chan/Zen imaginary, and was frequently made the subject of koan, verses, lectures, and paintings (Fig. 5.1).9 So potent was the rhetorical charge of this new detail of the Buddha’s life—nothing less than the primal scene of Chan/Zen’s lineal origins—that it was explicitly refuted on numerous occasions by authors of the rival Tiantai school, and even aroused skepticism among Chan/Zen’s own exegetes.10 As opposed to the unilinearity of the first section of the Chan/Zen lineage scheme, its second part branched out after the sixth Chinese patriarch into an extensive group of sublineages, each with equal purchase on the Buddha’s teachings. The advantages of such a structure were obvious, as it encompassed the numerous dharma lineages that aligned themselves with the separate transmission during the Song period, and had the potential to accommodate a potentially infinite number of new lines of transmission as well.

Thus conceived, the special transmission was documented and given tangible form in so-called lamp histories, a genre of Chan literary production new to the tenth century. Lamp histories comprised biographies of members of the Chan dharma lineage and its many branches, and were offered to the imperial throne roughly once every generation from about 1000 CE onward. The apparent prototype to the genre, Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (Zutang Ji), was submitted in 952 to the court of the southeastern regime of Min, just before reunification by Zhao Kuangyin, founder of the Song dynasty in 960.11 Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall included not only basic patriarchal biographies (or hagiographies), but also hundreds of early “encounter dialogues,” which would be mined and interpreted by later generations of adherents. It also stands as the earliest source of the miraculous tales and legendary episodes adhering to many members of the special transmission. In its scale, composition, and legitimizing function, the Anthology served as a prototype for what would eventually become the most influential lamp history in the Chan/ Zen tradition, The Jingde-Era Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (Jingde Chuandeng Lu), which was completed in 1004 and included biographies of over 1700 members of the special transmission, compiled in some thirty fascicles.12 The Jingde-Era Record was offered to the Song imperial throne and promptly included in the Tripitaka, or official Buddhist scriptural canon. Chan compilers would continue to offer lamp histories to the throne throughout the Song period, with new texts completed in the years 1036, 1101, 1183, 1204, and 1252, each updating the Chan/Zen dharma genealogy to its own time.13 Members of the special transmission gained additional validation and an expanded public profile by inclusion in the lamp histories, to be sure, but these official genealogies also served a more practical purpose—one related to abbacy appointments. In the public monastery system, an abbot’s term was limited, and his replacement had to derive from a different dharma lineage, thus ensuring that a monastic administration could not be continuously monopolized by a single dharma fraternity. In consequence, abbots circulated frequently, and with each opening certain complex bureaucratic protocols were enacted in the appointment of a new monastic head. The lamp histories appear to have played an important role in authenticating a given candidate and specifying the branch with which he was affiliated in the Chan/Zen dharma community.

Texts such as the Jingde-Era Record effectively circulated the ideology of the special transmission throughout the national networks of meaning that were being newly formed as a result of the Song unification and the emergence of an expansive print culture.14 Several other types of printed texts served a similar function, albeit with a different emphasis. One such genre specific to Chan literature was the koan compilation, in which snippets of “encounter dialogues” between monks from the newly canonized classical age of Chan were gathered together, accompanied by an ever-growing body of commentary. 15 The Song period also witnessed the emergence of texts known as “recorded sayings,” in which the biographies, lectures, homilies, encomiums, dedicatory sermons, funerary orations, verses, and painting inscriptions of Chan masters were gathered together and published for wider circulation by disciples.16 As the inclusion of painting inscriptions in the recorded sayings literature suggests, the emergence of Chan/Zen figure painting can be understood as part of a larger phenomenon in which the special transmission began to be communally imagined through both word and image.

Figure painting in Chan communities can be understood as a visual component of the enormous volume of commentarial literature on the Chan patriarchal past that proliferated during the Song period. This explosion of interpretive gloss stemmed directly from Chan monks being under continual mandate to publicly demonstrate their dharma transmission, upon which their assumption of spiritual authority and other entitlements were based. Despite its theoretically ineffable nature, insight deriving from the special transmission had to be continuously and performatively expressed, and one way to do so was through commentary on the inscrutable behavior and speech of earlier patriarchs. Painting, in this regard, served as a highly effective ground for the inscription of such metacommentary, intended to reveal the imprint of authentic dharma transmission on its authors. Although the inscriptions of Chan monks were frequently included in their recorded sayings, thereby providing multiple avenues of circulation for any given verse, that verse’s presence on a picture scroll gave it a materiality and context absent from most other media. Painting inscriptions were thus one type of the repeated demonstrations of awakened behavior that were expected, or indeed required, of the fully enlightened Chan/Zen master.

These same inscriptions appeared to personalize pictorial representations of awakened Chan beings for specific individuals. Whereas some figure paintings—especially those executed on silk in mineral pigments—could serve as icons in ritual settings (Cats. 26–28), and self-inscribed portraits of monks were used primarily in mortuary rites (Cats. 29, 30), the vast majority of figure paintings that survive into the present were originally pictorial objects gifted by prominent monks to as yet unidentified associates. Only infrequently was the name of a recipient included in a recorded sayings compilation, and only rarely was it mentioned in a pictorial inscription itself. Nevertheless, there is reason to assume that the initial audiences of such works were primarily of the scholar-official class. As many scholars have noted, sustained Chan cultivation of literati sympathies had created a strong symbiosis between monks and scholar-officials from the early Song period onward.17 This was fully evident by the mid-eleventh century, as witnessed by the ardent devotion to Chan of the celebrated poet and scholar Su Shi (1037–1101) and members of his circle.18 Close interaction with such literary figures encouraged Chan monks to pursue the cultural forms most favored among scholar-officials of the period, namely, the “three excellences” of poetry, calligraphy, and painting. These were exchanged with literati patrons and followers in ways that differed little from the protocols of gifting and obligation governing mainstream Chinese gentlemanly culture.19 Morton Schlütter observes that “the real audience for Song-dynasty Chan literature was the educated elite, many of whose members enjoyed reading Chan works for entertainment and edification.” “In the Song,” he continues, “the success of a Chan master was, to a large degree, dependent on his ability and willingness to participate in literati culture.”20 A Chan abbot owed his institutional prominence in large part to the degree to which he could fashion his enlightenment into literary and artistic expression. Prominent monk-poets such as Juefan Huihong (1071–1128) began to appear and to publish their own verse collections, much as literati did.21 Monk-painters such as Huaguang Zhongren (ca. 1051–1123) developed new genres of monochrome ink painting—in his case momei, or ink plum—which appealed strongly to literati tastes and would eventually constitute one of the most orthodox subjects of the literati painting repertoire.22 Figure paintings can be understood as one more type of pictorial artifact that proliferated within this economy of lay-monastic exchange. Like other such artifacts, they served to mediate relations between important members of Chan communities and the elite lay followers who were so crucial to their ongoing institutional success. By possessing these pictorial objects, lay patrons were able to partake of the charisma, both past and present, of the special transmission, and even implicitly to become a part of the transmission themselves—certainly not in any official or religious sense, but as lay bystanders to the dharma community whose sense of identity derived from it.

Scholar-official viewership provides an important framework for understanding why the various traditions of Chan/Zen figure painting look the way they do. In general, their amateurish expression—conveyed through the use of monochrome ink on paper, simple compositions, abbreviated brushwork, the avoidance of any decorative gestures and details, and interdependence with their textual enclosures—was closely aligned with the aesthetic principles developed by leading scholarofficial theoreticians from Su Shi’s era onward. The poetic effects that began to be transposed into ink paintings at this time in scholar-official circles also conditioned the basic modes of pictorial representation that characterized Chan/Zen ink painting in later centuries. Indeed, several Chan monks studied painting with the scholar-official Li Gonglin (1049– 1106), whose figural styles had a profound influence on Chan figure painting during the Southern Song period (1127– 1279).23 Li’s figural styles would eventually be varied and elaborated into the wide array of compositional templates, modes of linearity, and rich spectrum of tonal effects that characterize the Chan/Zen figural tradition. Even as this tradition was professionalized over time, moreover, it continued to foreground habits of depiction that enabled the rhetoric of spontaneity and naturalness of expression in which Chinese scholar-officials were invested.
The Zen Pantheon

A limited group of figure-painting subjects appears to have been established as inscriptive spaces for Chan masters during the early to mid-twelfth century, as observed in the recorded sayings of Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163) and Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157).24 It is no coincidence that this practice would be developed by Dahui and Hongzhi, as these two religious masters significantly expanded the reach of Chan congregations in the early decades of the Southern Song dynasty. Both emphasized the cultivation of lay followers of both genders and many different social backgrounds, and both played leading roles in defining the nature of Chan meditative practices for the remainder of the school’s history. Both also strategically employed the distribution of their self-inscribed portraits to raise funds, build networks, and disseminate their own charisma among ever-growing numbers of new constituents.25

The manner in which monks such as Dahui and Hongzhi utilized pictorial objects to facilitate their social practice was greatly expanded by succeeding generations of religious leaders, and by the mid-thirteenth century a wide-ranging menu of figural subjects was graced with the brush traces of Chan masters. Judging by the recorded sayings of prominent abbots such as Wuzhun Shifan (1177–1249), Xutang Zhiyu (1185–1269), Yanxi Guangwen (1189–1263), Xisou Shaotan (act. mid to late 13th c.), and others, by this period monks were adding “verse-eulogies” (C: zan, J: san) to a vast array of subjects, everything from the historical Buddha Sakyamuni to the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (C: Guanyin, J: Kannon); from the growling Chan patriarch Linji (J: Rinzai) to the laughing Budai (J: Hotei); from the first Chan patriarch Bodhidharma miraculously crossing the Yangzi River on a single reed stem to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng achieving awakening upon hearing a recitation of the Diamond Sutra; from Layman Pang’s daughter selling baskets to support her parents to imaginary encounters between Chan patriarchs and prominent Confucian scholars of the classical past.

The subject matter of paintings that a monk might be asked to inscribe was taxonomized in the recorded sayings literature hierarchically, under a section titled “Eulogies for Buddhas and Patriarchs” (C: fozu zan, J: busso san). This section, as distinct from the “Self Eulogies” (C: zizan, J: jisan) or “True Eulogies” (C: zhenzan, J: shinsan) sections recording inscriptions on portraits, typically commences with a listing of subjects related to Sakyamuni, followed by Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the Mahayana pantheon, luohan, “uncommitted saints” or avatars, and finally the historical patriarchs, represented either in iconic portraits or in narrative episodes. Many dozens of Song- and Yuan-period (1279–1368) Chinese works depicting such themes have been carefully preserved in Japan, reflecting a cross-section of the cultural production of the masters, monastic environments, and dharma lineages with which Japanese pilgrim-monks came into contact in the southern Jiangnan region.26 These works are assumed to have been created by monk-painters in the circles of prominent abbots; the names of several (Zhirong [1114–1193] and Hu Zhifu) have been recorded, and several works of Zhiweng (act. early 13th c.) have survived, but otherwise little is known about those Chinese monk-painters, and the anonymity of most figure paintings suggests that their makers were not of high ecclesiastical rank.27 The mid-thirteenth century also witnessed the emergence of monk-painters such as Muqi (Cat. 18), who appear to have worked in a semiprofessional capacity, a trend that would continue into the fourteenth century.28

The figural subjects depicted by these monk-painters closely reflect Chan’s institutional dominance of—and yet rhetorically oblique relationship to—the Chinese Buddhist church. Although familiar deities such as Sakyamuni were taken up for pictorialization, they were unmoored from customary iconic settings such as his seat underneath the bodhi tree (the site of the historical Buddha’s awakening) and situated in traditionally less recognized moments in the Buddha’s life, such as his haggard descent from the mountaintop on which he had practiced austerities for six years (Cats. 1–3). Other subjects clearly reflect the mutualism of Chan and scholar-official interests, such as the White-Robed Guanyin (Cats. 39–43), a subject that depicts the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in his mythical island-abode of Mt. Potalaka (C: Putuoluoshan, J: Fudarakusan). This iconography has a complex history and its origins are overdetermined, but suffice it to say here that it appealed to scholars as a sacred embodiment of the reclusive ideal so celebrated in elite officialdom.29 Another genre reflective of Chan interaction with the lettered bureaucracy was the “Chan encounter painting” (C: chanhui tu, J: zen’e zu) (Cats. 24, 25).30 In works of this category, an eminent Chan patriarch was depicted in debate—typically amidst an abbreviated outdoor setting—with a prominent Confucian official or lay follower. The most popular imaginary encounters paired the monk Yaoshan (751–834) with the Confucian official Li Ao; the renowned Tang master Mazu Daoyi (709–788) with Layman Pang; and the monk Huangbo (d. ca. 850) with his lay supporter Peixiu. The mis-en-scène of such pairings, in which the monk was always the dominant figure, was clearly intended to assert the superiority of the Chan tradition over its historical critics, many of whom were either associated with or contemporaries of the scholar-official Han Yu; Han Yu famously polemicized against Buddhism and served as a partisan model for Song-period literati such as Zhu Xi. Chan encounter paintings also served as models for contemporary laymen associates, who were provided with pictorial precedents for their own associations with Chan people and institutions. In this regard, one of the most influential models was Layman Pang, who was so popular as a painting subject in Zen circles that images of his wife, son, and most notably his pious daughter (Cat. 47) became common subjects in their own right.31

Another characteristic of the Chan/Zen figural pantheon is that many of its members do not actually originate from within the Chan school itself. The immigrant status of many themes reproduced in Chan/Zen environments has been continuously misrecognized. Many subjects in their initial incarnations had little or nothing to do with its dharma genealogy and accompanying lore. Mañjusri in a Braided Robe (Cats. 32, 33), for example, is closely associated with Mt. Wutai, a sacred religious site in Shanxi Province in northern China. Mt. Wutai was believed to be the dwelling place of the bodhisattva Mañjusri, and accordingly was a thriving monastic center as well as a popular pilgrimage site. In the painting subject associated with it, Mañjusri appears not as a bejewelled bodhisattva but as a long-haired boy wearing a braided robe, holding a sutra in his right hand. This particular aspect of the bodhisattva records a vision experienced by the scholar-official Lü Huiqing during the Yuanfeng era (1078–1085), which was canonized in popular Buddhist lore and eventually attracted considerable interest among Chan/Zen monks.32 Similarly, the Fish-Basket Avalokitesvara (C: Yulan Guanyin) (Cats. 45, 46) reflects a popular character in Buddhist folklore as opposed to a deity or patriarch intrinsic to the special transmission. Beginning in the twelfth century, accounts relate the story of a poor but beautiful young woman who appeared in Jinshatan (Golden Sand Bay) carrying a basket full of fish. She offered herself in marriage to anyone who could memorize the Lotus Sutra, but disappeared after no one proved capable of meeting her challenge; later she was discovered to be an incarnation of Guanyin.33 The legend was especially popular in coastal areas, and soon found its way into the pictorial menus of Chan and Zen monastic environments. Neither Mañjusri in a Braided Robe nor Fish-Basket Avalokitesvara are, strictly speaking, Chan/Zen patriarchs: nevertheless, Chan/Zen monks assumed the authority to comment and versify upon their visual representations. Furthermore, their inscriptions often playfully alluded to the illusory or disguised nature of these deities’ appearances and voiced a “Channish” interpretation of the deities and the specific episodes evoked in the paintings.

Many of the most eccentric members of the Chan pantheon, however, appear to have been originally akin to folk deities, objects of local legend or cult worship who were never officially appropriated into the Chan patriarchal line but nevertheless were associated with the awakened qualities of the special transmission through their inclusion in the lamp histories. These figures include such popular painting subjects as the paired eccentrics Hanshan and Shide (J: Kanzan and Jittoku) (Cats. 15–17) or the portly vagabond Budai (Cats. 9–14), and constitute perhaps the most misunderstood sector of the Chan/Zen figural canon.34 Because they were pictorialized over and over in Chan/Zen circles, with even a separate section for their inscriptions in the recorded sayings of religious masters, these “uncommitted saints” (C: sansheng, J: sansei ) are often assumed to have been Chan practitioners.35 Yet what little is known about their circumstances suggests otherwise.

Hanshan, for example, appears to have been a poet of the early Tang dynasty, but his dates of activity are still debated. What little is known about this shadowy figure, including his name, is derived from a collection known as The Poetry of Hanshan (C: Hanshan Shi) and from a later pseudo-biography that was anonymously compiled to create an authorial profile to accompany the poetry. Some commentators do not even view Hanshan as a single poet, and regard his companion Shide (“gleanings” or “foundling”) as an invented figure to whom several of the poems in the anthology were attributed.36 For reasons unknown, Hanshan was closely linked to Mt. Tiantai in Zhejiang Province, a traditional center for the Tiantai school; perhaps he eventually became conflated with a deity associated with the site itself. Whatever the case may be, his association with Chan began sometime after Chan institutions appropriated the religious center during the ninth century, and was clinched after his inclusion in the Jingde-Era Record of the Transmission of the Lamp.37

In similar fashion, Budai is associated in biographical entries with the Chan monastery Yuelinsi, but his priestly identity and affiliations are secondary to his profile as a mythical mendicant—a corpulent, half-clothed vagabond carrying a large burlap sack (the meaning of his name), who wandered through villages playing with children and laughing nonsensically and, most importantly, was understood to be an incarnation of the Future Buddha Maitreya.38 These characteristics suggest that Budai too was originally an entity resembling a local folk deity, who was then elevated into the Chan sphere in part through his link to Mt. Tiantai. This trajectory suggests that Budai and the other “wandering saints” of the Chan/Zen figural pantheon were local cult figures whose charisma was appropriated by Chan and assimilated in its ongoing institutional expansion. Although the development of a hegemonic iconography by an expanding organized religion is a phenomenon that Chan/Zen shares with many other religious traditions, in this instance Bernard Faure has conceptualized Chan’s embrace of the above-mentioned “wandering saints” in terms of the paradigm of the “trickster.” “One strategy in Chan for domesticating the occult,” writes Faure, “was to transform thaumaturges into tricksters by playing down their occult powers and stressing their this-worldly aspect. Typical of this new ideal of Chan are characters such as Hanshan and Shide, Budai, and Puhua. Thus for several centuries, Chan chose the trickster over the thaumaturge (although there was always much overlap between the two figures), the this-worldly mediator over the other-worldly mediator.”39

Luohan Crossing the River.
Zhou Jichang (act. second half of 12th c.).
Chinese, Southern Song dynasty, ca. 1178–1188.
Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk; 111.5 x 53.1 cm.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Denman Waldo Ross Collection, 06.291

The Chan/Zen pantheon, then, was filled with imposters, or figures whose original non-Zen character was never acknowledged as they were pressed into the service of the school. Numerous members of the special transmission, as listed in the lamp histories, appear to have followed this trajectory. The monk Xianzi, for example, otherwise known as “Prawn Catcher” or “Shrimp Eater” (Cats. 18–20), is described in the Jingde-Era Record as a follower of the Chan master Dongshan Liangjie (807–869), who by day caught shrimp and prawns to eat and by night slept under the paper money donated to the monastery Baimasi in Luoyang. Despite the prohibition against the Buddhist clergy eating living creatures, Xianzi is said to have achieved awakening while catching a prawn.40 Even if it were meaningful to do so, no information is available to either corroborate or challenge the cursory narration in the Jingde-Era Record; what is important here is that the profile found therein bears the traces of a Chan adaptation of some idiomatic lore, perhaps an urban legend surrounding an outcast associated with Baimasi. As Faure states, “The powers and popularity of such personages made them essential, if unpredictable, allies.”41 Some of those annexed into the Chan canon never completely lost their identities as divinities of a different order. Budai, for example, always retained his status as an auspicious folk deity as well as a Chan exemplar, maintaining dual citizenship in the worlds of the Chan monastery and the village street.42 And his national recognition was not always framed within an exclusively Chan context, as indicated by his inclusion in the Biographies of Eminent Monks Compiled during the Song (C: Song Gaoseng Zhuan).43

Even the affiliations of orthodox members of the special transmission are less stable than might seem the case at first glance. Bodhidharma, as scholars of Chan history have made clear, was more an accretion of texts and legends than an actual historical figure, and served as the “virtual focus” of a centuries-long hagiographical process that witnessed the folding of ever more fantastic episodes into his biography.44 One of the latest of these to emerge was his miraculous crossing of the Yangzi River on a thin reed after his failed encounter with Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (Cats. 5, 6). This wondrous traversal appears to have emerged as a component of the Bodhidharma legend during the twelfth century, and applies a trope familiar to the Chinese conceptualization of the miraculous powers of enlightened sagehood.45 Many Chinese paintings of this period, for example, depict luohan similarly crossing the waters without a vessel (Fig. 5.2). The reed episode, then, is paradigmatic of the way in which non-Chan pictorial and narrative tropes could be enlisted to dramatize the numinous aura of the Chan patriarchal line.

Sakyamuni Descending the Mountain.
Liang Kai (act. first half of 13th c.).
Chinese, Southern Song dynasty, early13th c.
Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk; 119 x 52 cm.
Tokyo National Museum

Another subject that illustrates this point is Sakyamuni Descending the Mountain, which appears to have had no direct textual basis. Sakyamuni’s life and its various individual episodes have been a part of the Buddhist iconographic tradition from its inception. Among the episodes of the Buddha’s life described in sutras, the moment of his passage into Nirvana, and his practicing of austerities in the mountains for six years, were frequently taken up for depiction in established Buddhist iconography. Perhaps the most popular event for depiction was his meditation under the bodhi tree, where, despite attempts by the demon Mara to distract him, Sakyamuni attained complete and perfect enlightenment at the sight of the morning star. This climactic moment was often chosen for representation of the Buddha as a ritual icon. Among Chan Buddhist circles in Song-period China, however, a pictorial subject emerged that focused on the moment between the Buddha’s austerities and his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, a moment that was commonly referred to as Descent from the Mountain (C: Chushan, J: Shussan). Although Sakyamuni’s reentry into the non-ascetic world is implied in textual accounts, the specific moment at which he left the scene of his mountain austerities is never explicitly mentioned either in Mahayana scripture or in biographies of the Buddha found in the flame histories. Instead, the imagining of Sakyamuni’s Descent was carried out within the Chan sphere, and primarily in pictorial terms. Representations of this moment tended to depict a haggard, withered monk descending a rugged mountain path, seemingly tranced, world-weary, resigned to his non-enlightenment, and deeply introspective, yet somehow moving forward (Fig. 5.3).

As Helmut Brinker has written, Sakyamuni’s Descent reflects the developing conception of the Buddha as an ideal Chan monk, one whose grueling descent was viewed as an example of inapprehensible but awakened behavior typical of many other legendary transmitters of the flame.46 The Buddha’s life was viewed increasingly as a sequence of inscrutable acts, whose true interpretation was available only to the enlightened. 47 The Buddha’s own enlightenment, in turn, came to be understood less as an ultimate realization (S: bodhi) than as a series of momentous instants of transcendent insight (C: wu, J: satori ), in keeping with a conception of awakening common to Chan communities.48 Sakyamuni’s Descent thus provided a Chan awakening narrative for Sakyamuni himself—a satori experience that could be woven into the life of the Buddha only by fundamentally changing the standard account of the Buddha’s single complete epiphany beneath the bodhi tree. As a painting subject, Buddha’s descent became a pictorial emblem of the Buddha’s enlightenment as localized, mutually contingent, and cumulative satori.

The Priest Dongshan Fording a Stream.
Attributed to Ma Yuan (act. first half of 13th c.).
Chinese, Southern Song dynasty, early 13th c.
Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk; 81 x 33.1 cm.
Tokyo National Museum

This process of dislocation and reinscription, however, could only be realized through a juxtaposition of word and image. Paintings of Sakyamuni’s Descent unsettled the classical narrative of the patriarch’s awakening by visualizing in powerful and evocative ways a newly staged interstitial episode, one that provided a perfectly ambiguous ground for the inscription of Chan rhetoric. Their liminal settings and sense of inbetweenness, underscored by Sakyamuni’s ambiguous posture, posed something of a pictorial query to which Chan masters could offer exemplary responses. Indeed, it is often unclear in these works whether Sakyamuni is standing still or moving forward. A cosmic breeze wafting his robe forward implies motion, but is contradicted by the hunched pose, heavy stance, and inward stare, resulting in something like a pictorial caesura. This effect is possible because the visual conceit of the figure in transit (Fig. 5.4)—with which the Chan figural tradition is replete—lends itself well to the inscription of unexpected epiphanic moments, insights that arrive as the figure is immersed in some other activity. Although the ideology of the special transmission may have been the mechanism by which the Chan figural domain was populated, the specific ways of depicting its most revelatory moments had everything to do with preexisting compositional templates and pictorial ideas. The scenography of Chan was very much an outgrowth of the visual culture of the Song period.
From Chan to Zen

As Zen established itself in Japan during the thirteenth and fourteenth century, the dynamics that characterized the affiliations between Chan monks and scholar-officials in China were transposed to a new setting, and provided the basic templates for new relationships with military and aristocratic patrons. These religious master–lay disciple relationships were similarly mediated by paintings.49 A prime example of such mediation in the early heyday of Japanese Zen survives in Red-Robed Bodhidharma (Fig. 5.5), a work dating to the 1260s and now preserved at the temple Kogakuji in Yamanashi Prefecture.50 This scroll, one of the earliest and most significant works of Zen figural subject matter to survive in Japan, depicts the first patriarch of China dressed and hooded in a red robe, seated cross-legged on a flat rock against a blank background. The implied setting of the painting is a mountain cave in the vicinity of the monastery Shaolinsi on Mt. Song in Henan Province, where Bodhidharma is said to have meditated facing a wall for nine years after a frustrating encounter with Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty in southern China. The inscription is by Lanqi Daolong (J: Rankei Doryu; 1213–1278), a Chinese monk who came to Japan in 1246 and became the founding abbot of Kenchoji in Kamakura. It reads as follows:

Red-Robed Bodhidharma.
Painter unknown.
Inscribed by Lanqi Daolong (1213–1278).
Japanese, Kamakura period, 1260s.
Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk; 108.2 x 50.6 cm.
Kogakuji, Yamanashi Prefectuer

The youngest son of King Xiangzhi, the faithful follower of Prajnatara’s lineage. Seeing through the heretical views of the Six Sects in India He came to China and his teaching flowered into a beautiful five-petaled blossom, whose fragrance has now reached Japan. Auspicious signs are as endless as the Ganges. Shaolin Monastery—the sprouting of the miraculous bud has not been hindered. Now it has rooted in the presence of a noble figure and is growing into an extraordinary flower. Respectfully inscribed for Layman Ronen by Lanqi Daolong, Abbot of Kenchoji.51

In keeping with many of the inscriptions of Chinese monks for Japanese patrons during this era, Lanqi’s verse is unambiguously intended to affiliate its recipient, this “noble figure” (J: komon), with the Zen dharma lineage. In this case the inscription and painting appear to have been produced for the young Kamakura regent Hojo Tokimune (1251–1284) sometime during the mid- to late 1260s, soon after Lanqi was reappointed abbot of Kenchoji.52 Red-Robed Bodhidharma seems to sanction the incorporation into the dharma lineage of the young Tokimune, only a teenager at the time the painting was made. It manifests an early example of how the ideology of the special transmission functioned in recruiting belief and patronage in ever newer environments throughout East Asia.

The inscriptive practices of émigré Chinese monks such as Lanqi inaugurated a radically new role for painting in the Japanese archipelago from the mid-thirteenth century onward. From 1246, when Lanqi came to Kamakura, until the middle of the fourteenth century, at least twenty-eight monks are known to have journeyed to Japan and to have established Zen Buddhism as an interregional religious macroculture encompassing several different polities in East Asia.53 In addition, hundreds of Japanese monks traveled to China to study under a handful of charismatic Zen masters in the Jiangnan region; upon their return they brought current continental religious practices with them, including those related to the conferral of inscriptions.54 Their practice of gifting paintings and calligraphies as a form of socioreligious interaction established the importance and appeal of these cultural forms among ever growing constituencies, while closely associating the arts of the brush with Zen teachings, literature, and the aura of the special transmission. Foreign monks and the communities that formed around them became centrifuges for the diffusion of entirely new painting subjects and modes of pictorial representation, first and foremost ink painting. In this regard, the history of early Japanese ink painting is most effectively understood as a by-product of the newly imported inscriptive practices of Chinese émigré masters and their circles of monks.

Among the most celebrated of the émigré monks was Yishan Yining (J: Issan Ichinei; 1247–1317), who originally came to Japan in 1299 as the head envoy of the Yuan government. 55 Before passing away he trained numerous Japanese disciples and promoted many religious and cultural practices that were new to Japan. Yishan was especially famed for his literary and calligraphic abilities, and promoted sinophilic activity among the communities he oversaw in Japan. When serving as abbot of Kenchoji, for example, Yishan is said to have required monks to pass a text in Chinese gatha versification before being accepted into the monastery.56 Yishan inscribed a great number of paintings and calligraphies during his eighteen years in Japan (1299–1317). At least fifteen paintings bearing his inscriptions survive, by far the largest number for any single monk of this era, and many more are known from later copies and from Yishan’s own recorded sayings. Several of these works bear painter’s seals with names such as Kakkei, Kikkei, and Shikan, indicating that the monk had ties—and may even have surrounded himself as a part of his inner circle—with both amateur monk-painters and Buddhist professional painters. The range of subjects represented by this group is revealing of Yishan’s role in establishing pictorial commentary as an accepted, if at the time still infrequent, mode of religious engagement. Some of these subjects are unsurprising, given what is known of the activities of Chan monks of the time, such as Chan/Zen portraiture, White-Robed Kannon (Cats. 41–43), Hanshan, and Bodhidharma Crossing the Yangzi on a Reed (Cats. 5, 6).57 Other surviving works inscribed by Yishan, however, including an Esoteric Buddhist icon and the portrait of a monk of the Ritsu school, bear little or no relationship with the contemporary inscriptive practices of Chan monks, and reflect the uniqueness of Yishan’s circumstances in his new Japanese environments.58 The following generations would witness the continued influx of new painting practices and subjects under the influence of continental masters such as Qingzhuo Zhengcheng (J: Seisetsu Shocho; 1274–1339; arrived in Japan 1326), as well as the emergence of Japanese monkpainters specializing in figural works, such as Kao (Cat. 19) and Mokuan Reien (Cats. 12, 13, 16).59
The Expanding Cast

Portrait of the Poet Hitomaro.
Attributed to Takuma Eiga (act. 14th c.).
Inscribed by Shokai Reiken (1315–1396).
Japanese, Muromachi period, 1395.
Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk; 85.1 x 41.8 cm.
Tokiwayama Bunko Foundation, Kamakura

As Yishan’s career demonstrates, Chinese inscriptive practices underwent idiomatic adjustments in the new social and monastic environments of Japan. This phenomenon manifested itself most visibly in the make-up of the Chan/Zen figural pantheon. Over the course of the fourteenth century Japanese poets also became the object of pictorial encomiums by Zen monks, and by extension honorary members of the special transmission. A prominent example is Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (d. 710?), one of Japan’s most famous early poets. Long the focus of admiration in court circles, Hitomaro eventually became the subject of commemorative poetic gatherings focused on his painted likeness displayed in front of a ritual altar.60 Given the popularity of poetic composition—both traditional Japanese waka poetry and Chinese-style verse—in Zen circles from the fourteenth century onward, it is not surprising that Hitomaro portraits eventually began to emerge in Zen circles as well. There was ample precedent on the continent for the Chan production of poet-portraits; not only were poets such as Du Fu and Su Shi extolled in Chan circles, as in literati culture at large, but Su’s aesthetics figured largely in conditioning the approach of Chan monks to both painting and versification. In medieval Japan painting subjects related to Su Shi were easily among the most popular (Cat. 34).61 Already in the thirteenth century the émigré monk Wuxue Zuyuan (J: Mugaku Sogen), while serving as abbot at Kenchoji in Kamakura, had accommodated local preferences by inscribing a portrait of Bai Juyi (742–846), a poet of mixed estimation on the continent but highly esteemed in Japanese court circles.62 Such works served as precedents for Portrait of the Poet Hitomaro (Fig. 5.6), a work inscribed by the monk Shokai Reiken (1315–1396) in 1395, and the earliest dated example of its subject to survive in Japan.63 This work, too, was probably used for a Hitomaro commemorative ritual. In his inscription Shokai calls the poet “the First Patriarch of the thirty-one syllables,” referring to Japanese waka, a poetic form of thirty-one syllables in lines of 5-7-5-7-7. The term “First Patriarch” likens Hitomaro to Bodhidharma, thus welcoming him into the special transmission as a patriarch by proxy.

Yet the most important addition to the Zen figural canon as it established itself in Japan was the indigenous kami deity known as Tenjin. A legend emerged during the early fourteenth century that Tenjin had travelled to China and achieved awakening under the renowned Chan prelate Wuzhun Shifan. Tenjin Visiting China became vastly popular as a painting subject soon thereafter, with many dozens of surviving examples (Cats. 35, 36). The manner in which it embodied both local and interregional religious prerogatives, as well as its complex amalgamation of disparate iconographic regimes, makes it nothing less than the signature subject of medieval Japanese Zen.

Tenjin was the deified spirit of the courtier Sugawara no Michizane (845–903), who, wrongfully accused of treasonous actions by rival courtiers, died in exile. A series of natural disasters and deaths at court, following his banishment and death, were attributed to his vengeful spirit, and a shrine was erected to appease the wrathful kami. As Tenjin’s popularity grew, the shrine Kitano Tenmangu in northern Kyoto became the head of a nationwide network of related institutions that promoted him increasingly as a god of poetry. He became the subject of iconic representation and the protagonist of his own celebrated narrative, “The Miraculous Origins of the Kitano Shrine,” which was pictorialized in handscroll format from the thirteenth century onward.64 In Zen circles, however, Tenjin Visiting China (J: Toto Tenjin) became the role of choice. In this guise, Tenjin is depicted in Daoist robes and traditional Chinese scholar’s headgear, holding a plum branch and a bag containing a Zen monk’s mantle (kesa). The conceit behind this iconographic configuration is that, while Tenjin maintained his identity as a patron kami of poetry—signified by the plum branch, closely associated with both his legend and his verse—he also received a kesa from Wuzhun, which he kept in his bag as a sign of his authentic dharma transmission.

The development of the Tenjin legend serves as a veritable index for the institutional development of Zen Buddhism in Japan. The story itself appears to have been originated in Kyushu by monks of a dharma lineage associated with Enni Ben’en (1202–1280). It most likely developed as a miraculous origins legend (engi) for the temple Komyoji in the city of Dazaifu, a monastery founded by Enni’s disciple Tetsugyu Enshin (1254–1326).65 This legend includes an account of Tenjin’s dharma transmission from Wuzhun, which accords Enni a prominent role as the figure who directed Tenjin to his own Chinese master; it also goes on, however, to state that Tenjin left the kesa with Enshin for safekeeping, and that Komyoji was built to enshrine it. Intriguingly, the origins tale transposes an episode already found in Wuzhun’s own biography, in which a guardian deity for a temple (J: garanjin) appears to him in a dream, holding an aquatic plant known as a water shield (J: bo). Thus the accommodations Chan monks made to local deities were adapted and embellished to conceptualize the negotiations Zen monks made with Japanese kami. Indeed, kami were very much on the minds of Zen monks during the early history of the school’s institutionalization in Japan, and Japanese Buddhist literature is replete with stories concerning kami traveling to China to invite prominent abbots to Japan, and shrine deities receiving robes from or bestowing robes on Zen masters.66

Later the story of Tenjin’s conversion appears to have been enlisted by members of Enni’s dharma genealogy in northern Kyushu to assert their claim to the abbacy of the temple Sufukuji in Dazaifu against a rival lineage.67 This association with Enni’s dharma lineage would continue throughout the Muromachi period (1392–1573), and the legend appears to have been one effective means of reestablishing the legitimacy of the Enni transmission in the face of the institutional dominance of the Muso Soseki (1275–1351) lineal community circa 1400.68 At the same time members of the Muso transmission began to demonstrate a keen interest in the legend and incorporated painted representations into their own inscriptional repertoire. As the fifteenth century progressed, factionalism appeared to become less and less of a factor conditioning the production and circulation of Tenjin Visiting China paintings, and the subject was embraced as a pansectarian myth, one that claimed perhaps the most popular and venerated kami deity of medieval Japan as a part of its own transmission scheme.

The rhetoric surrounding Tenjin’s “conversion” legend within the medieval Zen community, however, was more complex than one might assume. Some monks openly expressed doubt about the veracity of Tenjin’s transmission. Banri Shukyu (b. 1428), for example, claimed that it was a “murky tale” (byobo no setsu), and one not meriting inclusion in the National Histories.69 Even if not as strident as Banri, many monks revealed an undertone of skepticism with regard to Tenjin’s crossing, and attempted to convince doubters by first articulating and then overcoming their own suspicions concerning the legend. Kazan’in Nagachika (d. 1429), the author of Record of the Two Worthies (J: Ryosei Ki ), one of the oldest known records of Tenjin Visiting China, had already stated in his account that for “those of ordinary bodies and shallow hearts” (orokanaru mi no asaki kokoro ni te wa) it would be “difficult to grasp that such a thing could have happened” (saru koto arubeshi to sadamen koto, habakari ooshi ). In a lengthy prose inscription the Muso-lineage monk Kaimon Jocho (1374–1443) describes how a guest one day queried why, if Tenjin is commonly depicted in formal (Japanese) court attire (J: sokutai chofuku), it was necessary to depict him as a hooded Daoist sage. This alleged visitor continued by asking how Tenjin could have visited Wuzhun Shifan, when in human form he predated Wuzhun Shifan by more than three hundred years and lived several thousand li apart. Kaimon responded by pointing out that no fixed rules governed the appearances of the bodhisattva Kannon’s incarnations. To question the essence of a kami such as Tenjin was meaningless, for one was simply pursuing shadows (J: ei ).70

Tenjin Visiting China.
Painter unknown.
Inscribed by Fang Meiya (act. early to mid-16th c.).
Chinese, Ming dynasty, mid-16th c.
Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk; 66.3 x 29.7 cm.
Rinkain Temple, Kyoto

Tenjin’s overseas adventure held a special significance for those Japanese who made the crossing in medieval times, and it appears to have entered a standard menu of pictorial objects that commemorated interactions between Japanese monks and their Chinese counterparts, along with certain Chinese literati families who hosted them.71 Banri Shukyu, the monk noted earlier as a doubter of Tenjin’s conversion, recorded in his diary coming across a Chinese “storefront painting” (tenpitsu) of the subject.72 In fact, a small group of Chinese paintings of Tenjin as a Zen pilgrim-monk have survived in Japanese collections (Fig. 5.7).73 In contrast to their Japanese counterparts, Tenjin’s face, showing a barely perceptible smile, is rendered with a high degree of verisimilitude through techniques such as soft vermilion modelling, in keeping with the characteristics of Ming-period funerary portraiture. Other features, such as the angularity of the sleeve contours, ornate footware, and the wide white sash with both ends hanging down evenly in the front, are also unique to Tenjin Visiting China paintings of continental origin. These works are believed to have been made by professional painters in the Chinese port city of Ningbo for Japanese visitors; in them, the Tenjin legend has come full circle. The subject itself is doubly marked by both the interregional transactions that characterize the macrocultural dynamism of East Asian Zen, and the complex negotiations between Chan/Zen and its many local environments and practices. It demonstrates as well as any other subject in the Chan/Zen figural canon the ways in which painting facilitated the communal imagining of the irrepressible special transmission.
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