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Critique of Zen Buddhist Painting

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Critique of Zen Buddhist Painting:

Portrait of Bodhidharma, Anon. 12th Century.

Sarah Greensmith

Zen Buddhist painting is an art form with few rules. An inherent simplicity is vital to it. Emptiness features heavily in the works. The paintings typically have a directness as well as an evasiveness to them; a mix of the subtle and the obvious. Key Zen Buddhist figures are featured in very human, rather than godly or transcendental forms. Often, the portraits of these figures are intended to provide inspiration and insight to Buddhist disciples. These key Zen Buddhist elements of painting are evident in this anonymous Japanese 12th century ink on paper hanging scroll showing a portrait of Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China.

At first glance the monochrome artwork is childlike and cartoonesque. Rapid, grey ink lines make up a basic face with exaggerated features. Bodhidharma's robe is suggested at with a few rough strokes. The whole piece has a hasty, careless look to it. It could easily be dismissed as vey basic, unskilled work. This simplicity however, is at the core of Zen Buddhist painting and it's a simplicity not derived from lack of skill or talent but from a well considered sense of a work's purpose. Only that which is strictly relevant is included. Photographic detail, decorative embellishments, shadows, a middle distance, are all omitted in order to avoid distraction from that which is primarily important in any Zen Buddhist painting. That which we can see is all of large significance and is present as a result of the artist's careful discretion and there is a purpose for everything.

Bodhidharma's figure is slightly to the right of centre in the work. We are confronted with a sense of the man's importance through his sheer size in relation to the paper he is represented on. Bodhidharma's form extends to reach two thirds of the page in height. His girth is also impressive and his body extends further than the page. The soft, downy grey washes that create the background and colour his skin ensure that the mood he conveys despite his size is not imposing or intimidating but a calmness and serenity are instead born.

The hair of Bodhidharma's beard, head and eyebrows is painted in such a washed out delicate way as to resemble the hair of a young child or furry animal. This effect lends an endearing, harmless quality to the man. We respond to his image in a positive, fearless way. The entire face is painted with a soft brush, and with the exception of the eyes and earring, possesses a softness of colour and a harmony of line. All planes of the face flow. There is no abruptness just a tranquility of form. In contrast, Bodhidharma's robe is much harsher. It's painted in fiercer, more aggressive strokes with a harder brush and darker colours. Buddhism teaches that attachment is at the root of all unhappiness in the world. That which is materialistic and a component of attachment, the robes, hint at this teaching. The robes, the material, lack the harmony and tranquility that the immaterial, Bodhidharma himself, exudes.

In the Portrait the rough lines of Bodhidharma's robe are painted in a technique called 'flying white'. This is a method of painting where ink is applied to the brush so sparsely that the mark created leaves white streaks of the underlying paper visible. The technique traditionally speaks of energy and authenticity. A robe covers the wearer's body; it drapes and surrounds the human figure in its folds. Painting Bodhidharma's clothing in such a way underlines that the man surrounds or immerses himself in that which is true and authentic and reinforces that he is of a sound, reliable character.

When looking objectively at the composition of the work an interesting form takes place. The dipping lines of Bodhidharma's robe appear to form a basic mountainous landscape. In the centre of these mountains emerges the patriarch's head. He literally appears as one with nature. Bodhidharma appears as entirely removed from the material and attachment as one can be, he grows from within rock. The concept of a will solid as a rock cannot be bypassed.

Perhaps the most predominant elements of the Bodhidharma portrait are the patriarch's eyes and earring. While the body, face and robes are painted in washed out shades of grey and are composed of loose, loping lines the eyes and earrings are in contrast a more solid black and their form is tighter and round. The viewer's eye is instantly drawn to them. The artist, in keeping with Zen tradition has obviously considered the main point of emphasis of the work and made it apparent. Bodhidharma is often painted wearing oversized earrings. Their exotic look hints at his worldliness and knowledge. The basic nature of his robes, accentuated by a handful of haphazard marks speaks of his modest needs and the Buddhist abandonment of the materialistic.

Bodhidharma's earring, boldly apparent in its confident, controlled circular form against the looser paler strokes of the remainder of the figure bears a notable likeness to an 'enso'. The enso is a Japanese word meaning circle. It too is drawn in black ink. It's made in only one stroke and is never quite a perfect circle. In Zen Buddhist art it is considered an expression of the spirit. It symbolizes freedom of the mind. To draw what is considered a true enso a person has to be complete in mind and spirit. That Bodhidharma should be depicted with an allusion, whether or not intentional, to the Enso is quite significant. It points to his highly developed spirituality and the freedom he creates for himself through his dedication and meditation.

Bodhidharma's eyes are very basic, rounded areas of unadorned space with two black dots peering up and out of the painting. His unwavering gaze possesses a relaxed intensity. His mouth is slightly

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