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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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Heirinji Zen Temple in Saitama: quiet contemplation amidst nature

Heirinji Zen Temple in Saitama: quiet contemplation amidst nature

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Modern Tokyo Times image

Heirinji Zen Temple is located in Niiza and while this part of Saitama prefecture may not appear to be out of the ordinary, the same can’t be said about this temple which is blessed with large grounds. Therefore, given the closeness to Tokyo this temple is accessible to tourists who visit this huge metropolis and a visit to such a beautiful place is rewarding.

The original temple was based in Iwatsuki in the same prefecture but the original area was destroyed by the centralizing forces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590.  This in itself also reminds us of the violent aspect of Buddhism in Japan because this faith, which was not indigenous to Japan, was certainly a major power base. Therefore, Oda Nobunaga who began the centralization of Japan also attacked fanatical Buddhist sects who were violent and intent on preserving their power base.   

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Josh Baran states “Japanese Zen, especially the Rinzai lineage, had long been linked to the samurai culture and bushido, the way of the sword. For hundreds of years, Zen Masters trained samurai warriors in meditation, teaching them enhanced concentration and will power. Zen helped them face adversity and death with no hesitation, to be totally loyal and act without thinking. To put it bluntly, bushido was a spiritual way of killing infused with Zen philosophy. The sword had always been a Buddhist symbol for cutting through delusion, but under bushido it was taken literally, evolving from metaphor into concrete reality. The sword became an object of veneration and obsession, idealized and worshipped.”

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Therefore, when I visit the beautiful Heirinji Zen Temple and the surrounding grounds I am under no illusions because the tranquil nature of this beautiful place does not distort my reality.  However, time does not wait for nobody and while “Buddhism is in a shell” in most parts of Japan it can still be felt in places like Heirinji Zen Temple.

The ethics of simplicity, open space, serene backdrops, the noise of birds singing and the other world does play on the senses when you visit Heirinji.  After all, the architecture, serene grounds and singing birds amidst “the daily stress of life” and the passing of time, does strike a chord within the inner-soul. 

Heirinji is certainly worth a visit and for myself, I have been many times and I will continue to re-visit.  Not because I am Buddhist, this is not important, but the contemplation aspect of Heirinji is vital because it is all too easy to forget about what really matters in this life. 

Often, people only see “the bigger picture” when something dramatic happens in their life but when you visit Heirinji you understand “the bigger picture” of life irrespective of your current situation.  This is the beauty of Heirinji and Buddhist monks on a whole are in the backdrop and hidden and you have no commercial aspects of this stunning and well preserved area apart from a basic fee to enter.

Modern Tokyo Times image

Today the temple still trains Buddhist monks but unless you knew this fact then just like the history of Buddhism in Japan; it may pass you by and this is why Heirinji is so special.  It is not about gimmicks or showing anything because Heirinji is spiritual by being itself and not bending to the modern world of commercialism.

If you are lucky enough to either reside in Tokyo or Saitama then Heirinji is accessible because from Ikebukuro in Tokyo it only takes around 30 minutes in total train and bus time to arrive.  Therefore, Heirinji is well worth a visit and this applies to visiting several times because the changing nature of the seasons is very striking in Japan.

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Heirinji is surrounded by the usual aspects of a build-up area but once you are close to this stunning place then you can feel the pace of life changing.  The none-missionary feel of Heirinji is also welcomed because zealous religious people from all faiths try to convert people through language and only seeing one world view.

However, the monks of Heirinji don’t need words because the architecture, lovely grounds, quaintness of the graveyard and other aspects of the grounds do all the talking. 

All religions and ideologies distort reality within literature and architecture. Therefore, just like nationalism the dream of shortsightedness is just that, it is a dream and an illusion. 

Irrespective of the past of Buddhism in Japan and the same applies to other faiths which have abandoned inner-truths in order to gain from privilege.  The simple fact is that other religions could learn from Heirinji because “the talking is done by saying nothing.”

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This applies to allowing individuals to enjoy their own quality time within the tranquil grounds of this beautiful Buddhist area. Therefore, if you want to experience the finer qualities of Japanese culture and witness the passive nature of Buddhism in modern Japan then Heirinji provides this.

I myself revere this majestic place and time, history, stresses of life, economic reality, and so forth; is simply forgotten.  Heirinji is a place of tranquility and who needs to read books about philosophy and religion when you have a place of sublime beauty amidst simplicity and the reality of your own reality.

If you are a visitor to Tokyo or you reside in either Tokyo or Saitama, then a visit to the stunning grounds of Heirinji should be on your list because the simplicity of this place is a real treasure.

http://www.heirinji.or.jp

http://moderntokyotimes.com

 

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2011 in Japan

 

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