Art and Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506): China and Japan relations and artistic mystery
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Sesshu Toyo was born in 1420 and died in 1506 and this remarkable individual left a rich legacy behind. However, one of his most startling art pieces remains a mystery and this applies to the masterpiece called “Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma.” In this artwork you have many interpretations but have these theories been digging deep enough?
Before focusing on “Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma” it is important to give a brief account of Sesshu Toyo. After all, without focusing on his psyche and what made Sesshu Toyo tick, then it is impossible to draw to any strong conclusions about“Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma.”
Sesshu Toyo during his lifetime was highly admired because of his artistic prowess towards visual arts. His reputation is also a reminder about the closeness of China and Japan throughout history and how recent history related to Japanese imperialism is an anomaly.
This applies to the fact that Sesshu Toyo was highly revered in Japan and China because both nations in history, alongside Korea, nourished each other. China or the “Middle Kingdom” gave so much to world history in the field of knowledge, science, architecture, philosophy, medicine, and in many other areas.
Therefore, just like Rome was the pulling power of Catholic Christian Europe and Constantinople was the pulling power for the Orthodox Christian world; the same applies to China because the “Middle Kingdom” was extremely rich in many fields.
In this period of history Japan and China were like “brothers” because the greatest scholars, visionaries, and religious leaders, visited each society and learnt so much from each other. Sesshu Toyo naturally visited China and his individualism shone out while in the “Middle Kingdom” because he was clearly a free thinker.
Sesshu Toyo had been educated and brought up in order to be a Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest but he had a deep passion for art and sometimes this clashed with the ritual nature of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Of particular interest to Sesshu Toyo was the rich landscape art of the Chinese Song Dynasty.
This art form during the Chinese Song Dynasty was full of beauty and the richness of landscape art appealed greatly to Sesshu Toyo. However, he was disappointed by Ming Dynasty art because according to him the creativity and power wasn’t the same. Despite this, Sesshu Toyo was deeply impressed by Buddhist temples and other aspects of the Ming Dynasty and he learnt a lot of knowledge during his time in China.
In a past article I stated that “Xia Gui and other Chinese artists influenced Sesshu Toyo but he had a distinctive style despite this. This applies to a more pronounced variance related to light and shadow and his lines were heavier. Other areas were notably different and this applies to the depiction of space and dimensional attributes.”
“Sansui Chokan” (Long Landscape Scroll) highlights the stunning art of Sesshu Toyo and shows his distinctive style and it may have also expressed other meanings? This applies to “freedom” and the reality of “the natural world” but the reality of life meant that many constraints were being put on Sesshu Toyo.
After all, when Sesshu Toyo was younger it is reported that he suffered beatings by Rinzai Buddhist priests because he was more devoted to art rather than the rituals of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Artists throughout history have faced similar problems in the “Christian world” and “Islamic world” but in the “Hindu world” artists were not constrained to the same level because of the pluralism of Hinduism.
Indeed, even today artists have little options in nations like Saudi Arabia because of the countless demands put on all individuals. Therefore, expressing freedom, religious pluralism and so forth, is very dangerous even today in conservative Islamic societies like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.
Sesshu Toyo’s love of art did get him into trouble with conservative Rinzai Buddhist priests because he wasn’t one hundred percent focused on Buddhism. This does not imply that he rejected Buddhism but Sesshu Toyo was unhappy about not being allowed to focus fully on his “real path.”
Therefore, the stunning art piece called “Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma” is extremely intriguing. Also, the fact that this masterpiece was done in 1496 is another powerful dimension because by this time he was nearing the end of his life. Given this, the constraints of youth and adulthood no longer concerned Sesshu Toyo who was deeply admired by this time.
This art piece is based on Bodhidharma who was the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism and below him was Huike, who became the second patriarch. However, when you look at “Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma” then all may not be what it appears?
Sesshu Toyo shows Huike who had cut his arm off after Bodhidharma had rejected Huike many times. However, if this was to show the deep admiration of Huike to Bodhidharma then at no time is this expressed in “Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma.”
On the contrary, while the art piece provides a mysterious aura to Bodhidharma and shows his power by being ranked higher to Huike, it does not show any piety from Huike. Therefore, why did Huike cut his arm off if no love, passion, piety or admiration?
It doesn’t matter if the image was a metaphor or not because the real power is the interaction and lack of respect. Maybe the image is showing that Huike is the real master and that power belongs to him but this would imply a deep devotion to Huike and a profound religious statement.
However, Sesshu Toyo wasn’t a religious fundamentalist and it wasn’t about a power shift. After all, in early Christianity some people were Pauline in thinking and revered St. Paul but St. Paul warns about this during his lifetime. However, even today you have many people who have Pauline thinking based on 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament being written by St. Paul.
Sesshu Toyo, however, wasn’t entering a religious minefield and of course you have many interpretations to the real meaning behind“Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma.”
In a past article I stated that “Many interpretations can be given but in the painting it appears that Huike desires knowledge and he will do anything to obtain this. However, does he desire the knowledge in order to reach another dimension?”
“If Huike revered Bodhidharma then why doesn’t he offer the arm with respect and at least seek eye contact in order to express his piety by kneeling? It seems that the arm which was offered and the knowledge that Huike desires from Bodhidharma, is a means to an end and that he seeks to reach deeper into the spiritual world but seeks to surpass his master.”
However, at no time does the painting show passion, love, care, reverence, interaction, wisdom, or anything relating to continuity. Yes, Bodhidharma is clearly highlighted being higher but why would an arm be offered if natural harmony or enlightenment had been achieved?
It is my thinking that Sesshu Toyo who was elderly by this time was showing his real thinking towards the constraints in his lifetime. Therefore, Bodhidharma is Rinzai Zen Buddhism and Huike is Sesshu Toyo.
If this was so, then the arm cut off was based on so much wasted time during his lifetime. Therefore, the depiction is a duplicate towards Sesshu Toyo’s real thinking. This would imply that he was limited by religious thought and the rituals he had to perform because his passion was art but he could not focus on this one hundred per cent.
Therefore, the arm cut off wasn’t a sacrifice because it was enforced by the beatings of his early life. Given this, in the art piece called“Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma” the elderly Sesshu Toyo was expressing his real thinking and this is why the image shows no love, passion, interaction and care.
It also could be a final act of defiance while the shadows of death were gaining in power or a willing admission that he gave his arm away but that he was an artist before a religious priest – and that Rinzai Zen Buddhism and Bodhidharma were mere bystanders and just watching over him but he was looking in another direction.
In my last article about Sesshu Toyo about this matter I comment that “Of course, you will have many different interpretations and different cultural and religious thinking alongside individualism and other areas. However, the painting does not show “love,” “piety” or “trust” but instead it shows realism and coldness.”
The real truth will probably never be known and art scholars and individuals may scoff to the suggestions made in this article. However, the image is powerful and surely a “hidden meaning” is being depicted? If not, then the image is clearly showing “aloofness” and the two early patriarchs aren’t united in any way nor do you have any passion despite the huge sacrifice given by Huike.
Art was clearly in the psyche of Sesshu Toyo and embedded within his soul but the cold reality of day was the power of Buddhism and the ritual nature of Rinzai Zen Buddhism.
The art piece “Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma” by Sesshu Toyo is extremely powerful and I believe that it shows “a deep sinister element” of humanity whereby religious customs have trampled down on individualism and freedom.
Sesshu Toyo wasn’t a revolutionary when it came to politics, religion, and culture. However, he was an individual who was blessed with extreme skills and his life enriched this world when it comes to art and culture.
Therefore, I believe that the message of“Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma” was based on forces which prevented Sesshu Toyo from focusing fully on his real love and this applies to art.