Zen Buddhism's Influence on Art

Rock gardens are considered a form of art in Japan.
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Zen Buddhism started in China as a combination of Buddhist religion and Taoist philosophy. The place where Zen Buddhism took strongest root, however, was Japan, where it became hugely popular with the ruling samurai class in the 13th century because of its emphasis on self-reliance, simplicity and learning from a teacher instead of texts. Over the next four centuries, Zen exerted a pervading influence on all the arts of Japan. Here we will discuss three of the most popular arts: painting, gardens and tea ceremonies, as well as Zen's influence on modern art in the West.

1 Painting

The art form most strongly associated with Zen Buddhism is ink painting, called sumi-e in Japan. As with everything else in a Zen monk's life, painting was the result of meditation on the essence of the subject, whether religious or secular in nature. Because of this, Zen painters tended to be unconcerned with giving the illusion of realism. Instead, the subject was painted with a few lines forcefully and economically rendered by a single horsehair brush and ink on either silk or paper. These were then given for free to whomever wanted them.

2 Gardens

Japanese stone gardens, or karesansui -- roughly translated as "dry mountain water" -- also grew out of the Zen monk lifestyle. To Zen monks, every day tasks were a form of meditation, and stone gardens were valued because they required constant vigilance and maintenance: pulling weeds, raking gravel and grooming plants to keep the garden pristine. After the Chinese introduced miniature trees, known in Japan as "bonsai," these were added to the gardens along with rocks to imitate landscape paintings. In contemporary Japan, these gardens continue to be a form of high art and a focus of meditation.

3 Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony, or chanoyu, is one of the most emblematic arts of Japan and embodies the Zen practice of using every day tasks as a vehicle for meditation in the brewing, serving and drinking of the tea, as well as the Zen aesthetic of rustic simplicity in the implements of the tea ceremony and the design of the Japanese tea house. The basic elements of the Japanese tea ceremony -- grinding the tea leaves before adding hot water, then mixing with a bamboo whisk -- were first established by Myoan Eisai, the founder of Zen Buddhism in Japan, who believed tea could serve both a religious and a medicinal purpose.

4 Modern Art

Starting in the 19th century with the opening of Japan to the West, Japanese art has exerted a strong influence on European and American artists, particularly 20th century modern art. Although modern artists such as Joan Miró and Jackson Pollock were not Zen Buddhists, and therefore their work cannot properly be classified as "Zen;" their pieces do share important philosophical elements with Zen Buddhism. These and other artists focused on gestural brush strokes or simple forms and used their art as a form of meditation, seeking to represent the essence of the subject rather than create a realistic representation.

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.