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Japanese art and Buddhism: Sesshu Toyo and Sengai Gibon in opposite directions

Japanese art and Buddhism: Sesshu Toyo and Sengai Gibon in opposite directions

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506) and Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) are two famous individuals in Japanese history. However, despite belonging to the same Rinzai school of Buddhism both individuals had hugely different views of art and the faith they shared. Therefore, for Sengai Gibon he turned to art late in life after neglecting the hidden talents he clearly had because he wanted to focus on spirituality. Alternatively, Sesshu Toyo felt crushed at times by the rigid nature of Rinzai Buddhism during his lifetime.

Sengai Gibon also focused his art by turning away from depicting high culture and traditional forms. Instead his art highlighted humor but with a deeper message providing the individual shares the same mind concepts but of course the interpretation is left open for the individual to decide. Also, Sengai Gibon wanted to connect Rinzai Buddhism with all the people of Japan irrespective of status and light natured aspects of his art could reach a wider audience.

However, Sesshu Toyo focused on sublime art which based itself on the rich traditions of the time but fused with individualism and new thinking. Yet Sesshu Toyo, unlike Sengai Gibon, struggled with his love of art and the religious vocation which he had. Therefore, at times he felt trapped between the religious world and his inner-artistic nature which flowed throughout his veins.

Ironically, we will never know the real artistic skills of Sesshu Toyo and Sengai Gibon but for different reasons. After all, Sesshu Toyo had suffered beatings by Rinzai Buddhist priests because of his love of art over religion when he was young. Alternatively, Sengai Gibon had the ability to express more sophisticated art if he had desired but clearly his main emphasis in life was on spreading the Rinzai Buddhist message and connecting the richness of Buddhism with ordinary lay people.

At no point does Sesshu Toyo reject Buddhism but the beatings of his earlier life and later constraints meant that he felt artistically unfulfilled. This can be seen by a very intriguing piece of art called “Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma” because many aspects of this painting raises serious issues.

In an earlier article related to the “Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma” I comment that “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.”

The significance of Sesshu Toyo highlighting such an intriguing image in the late period of his life should not be lost. Therefore, I believe that Sesshu Toyo is highlighting his inner-anger towards the hierarchy of Rinzai Buddhist leaders. This means that the image of Bodhidharma is depicting Rinzai Zen Buddhism and Huike is the real Sesshu Toyo.

In this sense, Huike is Sesshu Toyo in this piece of art and he is showing his disrespect towards the institutions of Rinzai Buddhist leaders who desire to limit his artistic nature. Also, this stunning piece of art shows no feeling towards both individuals and clearly you have little reverence and respect in this art work between Bodhidharma and Huike. This also implies that the artistic passion of Sesshu Toyo was crushed and that Bodhidharma (Rinzai Zen Buddhism) only cared about power and keeping a watchful eye on individuals who desired to express themselves.

Of course, this is based on my own interpretation and the truth is that nobody will ever know because Sesshu Toyo took his true thinking to the grave. However, something is amiss in Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma.”

Likewise, but for very different reasons, the real art ability of Sengai Gibon will never be known but unlike Sesshu Toyo he limited his artistic nature in order to focus on Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Therefore, Sengai Gibon only focuses more on art when he reaches the later stages of his life. Not only this, but Sengai Gibon wants to enlighten all and sundry towards the Buddhist faith he holds dearly.

It must be stated that at no time does Sesshu Toyo reject Buddhism because his qualms are related to institutionalism and clamping down on his artistic nature. Also, the approach of both individuals to art is very different and the sense of humor that Sengai Gibon was blessed with shines through deeply within his artwork.

Michael Dunn in an article published by The Japan Times comments that “As an artist, Sengai was not only an outsider to the established art schools and academies, but a free spirit, whose manifesto expounded that painting was not a subject that could be limited by rules. This philosophy is apparent at first sight in any of his paintings, which look sketchy, improvised and perhaps — to the Western eye — unfinished. No careful studies of light or color impressions here; expression is all! And yet they each convey some profound Zen principle or aphorism in an easily understandable form, much like the pithy insight seen in parables, proverbs or political cartoons.”

“Despite the hastily sketched roughness of his paintings, Sengai was perfectly in command of brush and ink, an artistic discipline — unlike oil painting — where the result of ink contacting paper is final, leaving no chance for mistakes to be rectified. This mastery is apparent in his painting of bamboo that matches in skill the best efforts of the Nanga (Japanese literati) painters of his time, or his evening view of Hakozaki Beach, where a single broad brush stroke shades from black through gray to capture the volume of a sea embankment.”

Art for Sesshu Toyo took pride of place in his heart but for Sengai Gibon art was a tool to express humility, humor, Buddhism, and thought provoking questions. The reason I state “humility” is because Sengai Gibon had huge potential but in time “all potential turns to dust” and only “a shell” remains of people who are remembered in history. Therefore, reality is clouded based on different perspectives and how individuals view the world.

Meanwhile, for the 99.99% per cent of other individuals then in time nothing is remembered and all names are forgotten. In a way, the art of Sengai Gibon was aimed at the 99.99% of individuals and only elites through reinterpretation have put them on a higher plain based on “images of Zen.” However, “the real Zen,” just like the “real Christianity,” the “real self,” and so forth, is nothing more than an illusion based on multiple factors.

For Sesshu Toyo art was deeply impassioned within his heart and religious dogma and tradition ate away at his soul. Yet for Sengai Gibon art was rejected in his earlier life in order to focus on Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Therefore, the art produced by both is not only a million miles away but their real spiritual and artistic vocations meant completely different things to both Sesshu Toyo and Sengai Gibon.

Neither rejected Rinzai Zen Buddhism or art but clearly their paths and passions went in different directions. However, in a world based “on interpretation” then what is “real” and what is “false” is up to the individual to decide.

http://www.japanese-arts.net/painting/zen_sesshu.htm

http://www.dharmanet.org/Zenart.htm

http://moderntokyotimes.com

leejay@moderntokyotimes.com

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2012 in Japan

 

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Art and Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506): China and Japan relations and artistic mystery

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.

http://www.japanese-arts.net/painting/zen_sesshu.htm  

http://www.dharmanet.org/Zenart.htm

http://moderntokyotimes.com

 

 

 

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Sesshu Toyo and historical art in Japan (1420-1506)

Sesshu Toyo and historical art in Japan (1420-1506)

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Sesshu Toyo during his lifetime was highly revered in Japan and China because of his artistic talent related to the visual arts. He was educated with the intent of being a Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest and the importance of interaction between China and Japan was the norm in this period for the elites within society.

Chinese Song Dynasty landscape art was very important to Sesshu Toyo unlike Ming Dynasty art which didn’t have the same creativity according to him.  However, other aspects of the Ming Dynasty appealed to Sesshu Toyo and this notably applies to temples built in this period.

His art work titled “Sansui Chokan” (Long Landscape Scroll) highlights the richness of Sesshu Toyo. However, with the psyche of culture being very different from Western norms whereby individual artists desire to highlight themselves, this logic did not enter the mindset of many Japanese artists because of cultural differences in this period.

Therefore, many art pieces may state Sesshu Toyo by bearing his signature or seal but many of these paintings were done by his pupils or were copies of his work. This complicates things for art lovers who are lay people but the discerning eye of experts have distinguished his artwork based on several factors.

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.

My personal favorite piece is the “Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma” because you have a clear spiritual dimension. This stunning artwork was done in 1496 and is based on the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, and below him is Huike who became the second patriarch.

Despite Huike cutting off his arm after being rejected many times by Bodhidharma you don’t feel any warmth or reverence. Instead a battle of minds is at play and the aloofness provides a mystical aspect because while Bodhidharma is depicted with a different aura and power, this does not deter or infringe on the thinking of Huike. Therefore, does the real power belong to Bodhidharma or Huike?

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 or at least seek eye contact and 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.

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.

Could it be that the depiction is a duplicate and in truth the meaning is far from what it is perceived to be?  In other words, Bodhidharma is Zen Buddhism and Huike is Sesshu Toyo and the arm depicts his love of art.

This may appear far-fetched to many individuals but this artwork was done near the end of his life. Also, it is reported that he was punished for loving art more than studying Zen Buddhism when he was much younger. Therefore, while Zen Buddhism was a powerful reality within his mindset the pull of art was also deeply embedded within his soul and psyche.

Irrespective of personal views about this remarkable piece of art it is clear that Sesshu Toyo enriched this world.

 

http://www.japanese-arts.net/painting/zen_sesshu.htm 

http://www.dharmanet.org/Zenart.htm

leejay@moderntokyotimes.com

http://moderntokyotimes.com

 

 

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2011 in Japan

 

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