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Title: Zen Buddhism - and Its Relation to Art
Author: Waley, Arthur, 1889-1966
Language: English
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  and Its Relation to Art


  LUZAC & CO., 46, Great Russell Street, W.C.1.




Books on the Far East often mention a sect of Buddhism called Zen. They
say that it was a “school of abstract meditation” and that it exercised
a profound influence upon art and literature; but they tell us very
little about what Zen actually was, about its relation to ordinary
Buddhism, its history, or the exact nature of its influence upon the

The reason of this is that very little of the native literature which
deals with Zen has yet been translated, perhaps because it is written
in early Chinese colloquial, a language the study of which has been
almost wholly neglected by Europeans and also (to judge by some of
their attempts to translate it) by the Japanese themselves.

The present paper makes no attempt at profundity, but it is based on
the study of original texts and furnishes, I hope, some information not
hitherto accessible.

       *       *       *       *       *

Before describing the origins of Zen itself I must give some general
account of Buddhism. At the time when it reached China[1] there were
two kinds of Buddhism, called the Lesser Vehicle and the Greater. The
former, Primitive Buddhism, possessed scriptures which in part at
any rate were genuine; that is to say, they recorded words actually
used by Shākyamuni. The ordinary adherent of this religion did not
hope to become a Buddha; Buddhas indeed were regarded as extremely
rare. He only aspired to become an Arhat, that is “an ascetic ripe
for annihilation,” one who is about to escape from the wheel of
reincarnation--whose present incarnation is an antechamber to Nirvāna.
To such aspirants the Buddha gives no assistance; he is what children
in their games call “home,” and his followers must pant after him as
best they can.

[1] First century A.D.

Those who found this religion too comfortless invented another, which
became known as Mahāyāna, the Greater Vehicle. Putting their doctrines
into the mouth of Shākyamuni, they fabricated _ad hoc_ sermons of
enormous length, preached (so they asserted) by the Buddha himself in
his “second period” to those who were ripe to receive the whole truth.

The great feature of this new Buddhism was the intervention of the
merciful Bodhisattvas, _illuminati_ who, though fit for Buddhahood,
voluntarily renounced it in order to help mankind.

The first Buddhist books to reach China emanated from the Lesser
Vehicle. But the Greater Vehicle or Bodhisattva-Buddhism soon
prevailed, and by the sixth century A.D. over two thousand
works, most of them belonging to the Greater Vehicle, had been
translated into Chinese.


There were already many sects in China, the chief of which were:

    (1) _The Amidists._

    This was the form of Buddhism which appealed to the uneducated.
    It taught that a Buddha named Amida presides over the Western
    Paradise, where he will receive the souls of those that worship
    him. The conception of this Paradise closely resembles the
    Christian idea of Heaven and may have been derived from it.

    (2) The _Tendai_ Sect, founded at the end of the sixth century.
    Its teaching was based on a scripture of enormous length called
    the _Saddharma Pundarīka Sūtra_, which is translated by Kern in
    the Sacred Books of the East. It was perhaps the broadest and most
    representative sect. It laid great stress on the ethical side of

We now come to _Zen_.

In the year 520 A.D. there arrived at Canton a missionary from
Southern India. His name was Bodhidharma and he appears to have been
the younger son of an Indian Prince.

The reigning Emperor of China was a munificent patron of Buddhism. He
had built monasteries, given alms, distributed scriptures, defended
the faith. Hearing that a Buddhist prince had arrived from India he
summoned him at once to his Capital. The following conversation took
place in the Palace at Nanking:

    _Emperor_: You will be interested to hear that I have built many
    monasteries, distributed scriptures, given alms, and upheld the
    Faith. Have I not indeed acquired merit?

    _Bodhidharma_: None at all.

    _Emperor_: In what then does true merit consist?

    _Bodhidharma_: In the obliteration of Matter through Absolute
    Knowledge, not by external acts.

    _Emperor_: Which is the Divine and Primal Aspect of Reality?

    _Bodhidharma_: Reality has no aspect that is divine.

    _Emperor_: What are you, who have come before my Throne?

    _Bodhidharma_: I do not know.

The Emperor could make nothing of him. Monasticism, a huge vested
interest, decried him, and after a short stay in Nanking he started
northward, towards the Capital of the Wei Tartars, who then ruled over
a large part of China. The Wei Emperor, like his Chinese confrère, was
also a great patron of Buddhism, and he, too, desired an interview with
the Indian priest. But Bodhidharma had done with Emperors, and settled
in a small country temple, where he lived till his death nine years
later. Some say that he tried to visit the Capital of the Weis, but was
prevented by the intrigues of the monks there.

He left behind him a few short tractates, the substance of which is as

    There is no such person as Buddha. Buddha is simply a Sanskrit
    word meaning “initiate.” The Absolute is immanent in every man’s
    heart. This “treasure of the heart” is the only Buddha that exists.
    It is no use seeking Buddha outside your own nature. Prayer,
    scripture-reading, fasting, the observance of monastic rules--all
    are useless. Those who seek Buddha do not find him. You may know
    by heart all the Sūtras of the twelve divisions, and yet be unable
    to escape from the Wheel of Life and Death. One thing alone
    avails--to discover the unreality of the World by contemplating the
    Absolute which is at the root of one’s own nature.

Some one asked him: “Why may we not worship the Buddhas and
Bodhisattvas?” He answered:

    “Ogres and hobgoblins can at will assume the outward form of
    Bodhisattvas; such are heretical and not of the true Buddha. There
    is no Buddha but your own thoughts. Buddha is the Way. The Way is
    Zen. This word Zen cannot be understood even of the wise. Zen means
    ‘for a man to behold his fundamental nature.’”[2]

[2] Zen (_Sanskrit: dhyāna_) means literally “contemplation.”

       *       *       *       *       *

    The highest truths cannot be written down or taught by speech. A
    man who cannot write a word, can yet contemplate his own heart and
    become wise. Knowledge of 1,000 Sūtras and 10,000 Shāstras cannot
    help him to realise the Absolute within him.

He was asked: “Can a layman with wife and children, one given over to
the lusts of the flesh, achieve Buddhahood?” He answered:

    “Provided he contemplate his own inner-nature, he will achieve
    Buddhahood. It does not matter about his lusts. Even a butcher can
    achieve Buddhahood, if he searches in his own heart.”

“What,” cried his listeners, “a butcher, who lives by taking life, and
_he_ achieve Buddhahood?” The master replied:

    “It is not a question of the man’s trade. If he has learnt to know
    his own nature he will be saved.

    “I have come from India only to teach you that Buddha is Thought.
    I care nothing for monastic rules or ascetic practices. As for
    walking on water or through fire, climbing sword-wheels, fasting,
    sitting upright for hours without rest--all such practices are
    heretical; they belong to the World of Being.

    “Thought, Thought, Thought! It is hard to seek. Expanding, it
    covers the whole world; shrinking, it is too small to lodge a pin.

    “I seek the heart; I do not seek Buddha. For I have learnt to know
    that the outer world is empty and untenanted.”

Such was the teaching of Bodhidharma. It was Vedantic[3] rather than
Buddhist. The terms “thought,” “Buddha,” etc., used by Bodhidharma
correspond exactly to the _brahman_ of the Upanishads. Mystic
contemplation or _yoga_ had been used by the Brahmins and was not
unknown to the early Buddhists. But Bodhidharma was the first to insist
upon it as the sole means of salvation.

[3] Dr. McGovern tells me that Zen would seem to be more immediately
derived from the Nihilistic School of Nāgārjuna (1st century

Yet though his whole teaching turned on this “meditation” or “Zen,”
he left behind him no exact directions for the practice of it. Having
shown the end, he left it to each individual to find his own means.
Rules, dogmas and definitions were precisely what he set out to destroy.

Less than a hundred years after his death another Indian, Buddhapriya,
came to China and there defined with exactitude and blunt materiality
the various forms of meditation.

The transition from the spirituality of Bodhidharma to the grossness of
his follower is, however, typical of religious history. The poetry of
Christ turns into the theology of Paul; the hovel of Saint Francis into
the mansion of Brother Elias.


He first describes the different attitudes in which Zen may be
practised, with an exact account of the correct position for hands,
feet, head, etc. The normal attitude of meditation, cross-legged, with
upright back and hands locked over the knees is familiar to every one.

Zen could also be practised while walking and, in cases of sickness,
while lying down. Buddhapriya’s instructions are in the form of
question and answer.

    _Question._--How does the Zen practised by heretics and by the
    other schools of Buddhism differ from our Zen?

    _Answer._--The Zen of the heretics is not impersonal. The Zen of
    the Lesser Vehicle is material. The Zen of the Greater Vehicle
    only abstracts man and phenomena.

    _Question._--How ought one to set about practising Zen?

    _Answer._--First put far away from you all anger and malice, and
    fill your heart with kindness and compassion.

    _Question._--Can the beginner at once proceed to the contemplation
    of non-Being?

    _Answer._--By no means! He must by stratagems gradually enter in.
    I have never yet seen one who straightway achieved the vision of
    non-Reality. If for example he were meditating in this room he
    must first banish from his mind every part of the world except the
    city of Ch’ang-an. Next every building in the city except this
    monastery. Next, every room in the monastery except this cell,
    every object but himself, every part of himself except the end of
    his nose. Finally the end of his nose hangs in space like a drop of
    dew and on this nose-end he concentrates his mind.

    This is only a preliminary exercise. There are others of the same
    kind. For example--persuade yourself that your navel is a minute
    rivulet running through the sands. When this conception is firmly
    achieved, you will see a bright light and ultimately, the body
    growing transparent, you will behold the working of your bowels.

    Or again, regard your head as the top of a hollow pipe which runs
    straight down through your body into the earth. Meditate upon the
    top of your head, that is to say, upon the mouth of the drain-pipe,
    and then gradually ascend in your thoughts to a height of four
    inches above the head, and concentrate firmly on this conception.
    You will thus easily pass into the contemplation of non-Being,
    having performed the transition from elementary to complete Zen as
    comfortably as a workman climbs the rungs of a ladder.

    _Question._--Are there any signs whereby I may know that I have
    attained to Samādhi?[4]

    _Answer._--To be sure there are. Sometimes you will feel a
    sensation as of bugs or ants creeping over your skin; or again, it
    will appear to you that a cloud or mass of white cotton-wool is
    rising immediately behind your back. In neither case must you be
    discomposed or put out your hand. Sometimes it will seem as though
    oil were dripping down from your head and face; sometimes a light
    will shine from out of the ground you are sitting upon.

    These are all preliminary signs.

    Sometimes when you have been sitting for a long while and your
    back is aching, you will suddenly hear a sound of rapping with the
    fingers or a noise as of some one bumping against the door. Do not
    be disquieted. These are the Good Spirits of Heaven, come to warn
    you against sleep.

    Again, it may happen that you have an agreeable sense of lightness
    and floating; this is a good sign. Beware, however, of a _painful_
    sense of lightness; for this may merely indicate flatulence.

    Patches of heat on the body are a sign of Fiery Samādhi. A light
    filling the whole room is a premonitory sign of Zen; to smell
    strange fragrances not known on earth is a sign of whole and utter

    Such and many more are the signs of Zen. The practicant must not
    heed them; for if by them he be encouraged or dismayed, all his
    work will be undone.

    _Question._--Can Zen be practised in a Buddha Shrine?

    _Answer._--No, indeed! Zen should be practised in a quiet room or
    under a tree or among tombs or sitting on the dewy earth.

    _Question._--Can Zen be practised by many sitting together?

    _Answer._--To be sure it may; but each must face his neighbour’s
    back. They must not sit face to face. When there are many sitting
    together at night, a lamp or candle may be lit; but when there are
    few together, it ought not to be used.

    _Question._--Need I wear monastic vestments at my meditations?

    _Answer._--Vestments? Why, you need wear no clothes at all, if so
    be you are alone.

[4] Concentration.


Zen was at first a purely personal discipline, non-monastic,
non-ethical, not demanding the acceptance of any Scripture or any
tradition. In modern Japan it has to some extent regained this
character. In China the habit of quoting written authority was
too strong to be easily discarded. The Zen masters soon began to
answer difficult questions by quoting from the Buddhist Scriptures.
Convenience dictated that practicants of Zen should live in communities
and monasticism was soon established in their sect, as in every other
sect of Buddhism. Questions of conduct arose, and Zen was squared
with the contemporary ethical outlook; though in medieval Japanese
literature wicked and cynical persons are generally depicted as adepts
of Zen.

Bodhidharma denied the existence of Good and Evil; but it was pointed
out by later apologists that the Zen adept, having viewed the Absolute,
is convinced of the unreality and futility of those pleasures and
possessions which are the incentive to sin. The Zen practicant, though
he makes no moral effort, nevertheless is certain not to sin, because
he is certain not to be tempted.

Finally, Zen forged itself a tradition. Probably during the eleventh
century a Scripture[5] was fabricated which recounts how once when
Buddha was preaching, he plucked a flower and smiled. Only the disciple
Kāshyapa understood the significance of this act. Between him and the
Buddha there passed a wordless communication of Absolute Truths. This
communication was silently passed on by Kāshyapa to his disciple, and
so ultimately to Bodhidharma, who brought it to China.

[5] _Dai Bonten Monbutsu Ketsugi Kyō._

The method of teaching by symbolic acts (such as the plucking of a
flower) was extensively used by the Zen masters. For example, when
a disciple asked Enkwan a question about the nature of Buddha, he
answered, “Bring me a clean bowl.” When the priest brought the bowl,
the master said, “Now put it back where you found it.” He signified
that the priest’s questionings must return to their proper place,
the questioner’s heart, from which alone spiritual knowledge can be

The object of the Zen teachers, as of some eccentric schoolmasters
whom I have known, seems at first sight to have been merely to puzzle
and surprise their pupils to the highest possible degree. A peculiar
“brusquerie” was developed in Zen monasteries. The literature of the
sect consists chiefly in an endless series of anecdotes recording
the minutest happenings in the lives of famous Zen monks and their
(apparently) most trivial sayings. But behind these trifling acts
and sayings a deep meaning lay hid. The interpretation of such
teaching depends on a complete knowledge of the symbolism used. I
am not inclined to agree with those students of Zen who assert that
its written teaching are wholly devoid of intellectual content or so
completely esoteric as not to admit of explanation in words. Like other
Buddhist philosophers the Zen masters were chiefly concerned with the
attempt to define the relation between the One and the Many, between
the subjective and objective aspects of life.

The idealism of Zen does not mean that the phenomenal world has no
importance. To those who have not reached complete self-realisation
the urgencies of that world remain paramount and are the only
stepping-stones upon which he can climb higher.

On the day of his arrival at the monastery a novice presented himself
before the abbot, begging to be allowed to begin his spiritual
exercises without further delay. “Have you had supper?” asked the
abbot. “Yes.” “Then go and wash your plate.”


Let us begin with Enō, a master of the seventh century. He lost his
parents when he was young and earned his living by gathering firewood.
One day when he was in the market-place he heard some one reading the
Diamond Sūtra.[6] He asked where such books were to be had and was
told “From Master Kōnin on the Yellow Plum-blossom Hill.” Accordingly
he went to Kōnin’s Monastery in Anhui and presented himself before the
Master. “Where do you come from?” “From the South.” “Bah! In the South
they have not Buddha in their souls.” “North and South,” replied Enō,
“are human distinctions that Buddha knows nothing of.”

[6] Translated by W. Gemmell, 1912. Its use by Kōnin shows that Zen did
not long avoid the use of scriptures.

Kōnin accepted him as a lay-brother and put him to pound rice in the

Kōnin was growing old and wished to choose his successor. He therefore
instituted a poetical competition in which each monk was to epitomise
in a quatrain the essence of Zen. The favourite candidate was the
warden Shinshū, who sent in the following verses:

    _The body is the trunk of the Bodhi-tree;
    The mind is the bright mirror’s stand;
    Scrub your mirror continually,
    Lest the dust eclipse its brightness._

Enō, as a lay-brother, was not qualified to compete. Some one told him
of Shinshū’s quatrain. “Mine would be very different,” he exclaimed,
and persuaded one of the boys employed in the bakery to go stealthily
by night and inscribe the following poem on the monastery-wall:

    _Knowledge is not a tree;
    The Mirror has no stand;
    Since nothing exists,
    How could dust rise and cover it?_

The authorship of the poem was discovered and the abbot Kōnin visited
Enō in the bakery. “Is your rice white or no?” he asked. “White?”
answered Enō; “it has not yet been sifted.” Thereupon the abbot
struck three times on the rice-mortar with his staff and departed.
Enō understood his meaning. That night at the third watch he came to
Kōnin’s cell and was invested with the abbot’s mantle, thereby becoming
the Sixth Patriarch of the Zen Church. He died in 712 A.D.,
without having learned how to read or write.


The warden Shinshū had lost the Patriarchate and with it the spiritual
headship of Zen. But as a compensation Fate had in store for him
worldly triumphs of the most dazzling kind. Leaving the rural monastery
of Kōnin, he entered the Temple of the Jade fountain in the great
city of Kingchau. His fame soon spread over central China. He was a
man of “huge stature, bushy eyebrows and shapely ears.” The Empress
Wu Hou, who had usurped the throne of China, notoriously cultivated
the society of handsome priests. About 684 A.D. she summoned
him to the Capital. Instead of commanding his presence at Court she
came in a litter to his lodgings and actually knelt down before him.
The friendship of this murderous and fiendishly cruel woman procured
for him temporal dignities which in the eyes of the world completely
outshone the rustic piety of the Sixth Patriarch. Shinshū at the
Capital became as it were the Temporal Father of Zen, while Enō at his
country monastery remained its spiritual pope. The successors of Enō
became known as the Fathers of the Southern School; while the courtly
and social Zen of Shinshū is called Zen of the North.

Was it in sincere goodwill or with the desire to discredit his rival
that Shinshū invited Enō to join him at the Capital? In any case Enō
had the good sense to refuse. “I am a man of low stature and humble
appearance,” he replied; “I fear that the men of the North would
despise me and my doctrines”--thus hinting (with just that touch of
malice which so often spices the unworldly) that Shinshū’s pre-eminence
in the North was due to outward rather than to spiritual graces.

Shinshū died in 706, outliving his august patroness by a year. To
perpetuate his name a palace was turned into a memorial monastery; the
Emperor’s brother wrote his epitaph; his obsequies were celebrated with
stupendous pomp.

His successor, Fujaku, at first remained at the Kingchau monastery
where he had been Shinshū’s pupil. But in 724 the irresolute Emperor
Ming-huang, who had proscribed Buddhism ten years before, summoned
Fujaku to the Imperial City. Here princes and grandees vied with one
another in doing him honour. “The secret of his success,” says the
historian,[7] “was that he seldom spoke and generally looked cross.
Hence his rare words and occasional smiles acquired in the eyes of his
admirers an unmerited value.” He died at the age of 89. On the day of
his interment the great streets of Ch’ang-an were empty. The whole city
had joined in the funeral procession. The Governor of Honan (one of
the greatest functionaries in the State), together with his wife and
children, all of them clad in monastic vestments, followed the bier,
mingling with the promiscuous crowd of his admirers and disciples.

[7] _Old T’ang History_, 191.

Religion was at that time fashionable in the high society of Ch’ang-an,
as it is to-day in the great Catholic capitals of Munich, Vienna or
Seville. When I read of Fujaku’s burial another scene at once sprang
into my mind, the funeral of a great Bavarian dignitary, where I saw
the noblemen of Munich walk hooded and barefoot through the streets.

I shall not refer again to the Northern School of Zen. One wonders
whether the founders of religions are forced by fate to watch the
posthumous development of their creeds. If so, theirs must be the very
blackest pit of Hell.

Let us return to the Southern School, always regarded as the true
repository of Zen tradition.


Ōbaku lived at the beginning of the ninth century, and was thus a
contemporary of the poet Po Chü-i. He enjoyed the patronage of a
distinguished statesman the Chancellor Hai Kyū, of whom the Emperor
said, “This is indeed a true Confucian.” It is to the Chancellor that
we owe the record of Ōbaku’s conversations, which he wrote down day by
day. I will make a few extracts from this diary:

    Hai Kyū.--Enō could not read or write. How came it that he
    succeeded to the Patriarchate of Kōnin? The warden Shinshū was
    in control of 500 monks, gave lectures, and could discourse upon
    thirty-two different Sūtras and Shāstras. It was certainly very
    strange that he was not made Patriarch.

    Ōbaku (replying).--Shinshū’s conception of Thought was too
    material. His proofs and practices were too positive.

“The master told me that when he was studying with Enkwan, the Emperor
Tai Chung came dressed as a monk. The master happened to be in the
chapel prostrating himself before an image of Buddha. The Emperor, who
thought he had learnt the lesson of Zen idealism, said to him: ‘There
is nothing to be got from Buddha, nothing from the Church, nothing from
Man; for nothing exists. What do you mean by praying at your age?’

“Ōbaku answered him: ‘I seek nothing of Buddha, the Church, or of
Man. I am in the habit of praying.’ The Emperor said: ‘What do you do
it for?’ Ōbaku lost patience and struck him with his fist. ‘You rude
fellow,’ cried the Emperor. ‘Since nothing exists, what difference
does it make to you whether I am rude or polite?’ and Ōbaku struck him
again. The Emperor retreated hastily.”

In his old age Ōbaku visited his native village and stayed a year in
his mother’s house, without revealing his identity. After he had set
out again for his monastery, his mother suddenly realised that he was
her son and went in pursuit of him. She reached the shore of a certain
river, only to see him disembarking on the other side. Thereupon she
lost her reason and flung herself into the water.

Ōbaku threw a lighted torch after her and recited the following verses:

    _May the wide river dry at its source, to its very bed
    If here the crime of matricide has been done;
    When one son becomes a priest, the whole family is born again in Heaven;
    If that is a lie, all that Buddha promised is a lie._

Henceforward the throwing of a lighted torch into the bier became part
of the Zen funeral ceremony; it was accompanied by the reciting of the
above verses. Probably formula, ritual, and story alike belong to a
period much more ancient than Buddhism.

In the seventeenth century a Chinese priest named Ingen[8] carried the
teaching of Ōbaku to Japan, where it now possesses nearly 700 temples.

[8] 1592-1673 A.D.


Baso was a master of the ninth century. One day he was sitting with his
feet across the garden-path. A monk came along with a wheel-barrow.
“Tuck in your feet,” said the monk. “What has been extended cannot be
retracted,” answered Baso. “What has been started cannot be stopped,”
cried the monk and pushed the barrow over Baso’s feet. The master
hobbled to the monastery and seizing an axe called out “Have any of you
seen the rascal who hurt my feet?” The monk who had pushed the barrow
then came out and stood “with craned head.” The master laid down his

To understand this story we must realise that the wheel-barrow is here
a symbol of the Wheel of Life and Death, which, though every spoke of
it is illusion, cannot be disregarded till we have destroyed the last
seed of phenomenal perception in us.


Ōbaku, as we have seen, taught wisdom with his fists. When the novice
Rinzai came to him and asked him what was the fundamental idea of
Buddhism, Ōbaku hit him three times with his stick. Rinzai fled and
presently met the monk Daigu.

    _Daigu_: Where do you come from?

    _Rinzai_: From Ōbaku.

    _Daigu_: And what stanza did he lecture upon?

    _Rinzai_: I asked him thrice what was the fundamental doctrine of
    Buddhism and each time he hit me with his stick. Please tell me if
    I did something I ought not to have done?

    _Daigu_: You go to Ōbaku and torture him by your questions, and
    then ask if you have done wrong!

At that moment Rinzai had a Great Enlightenment.

Rinzai substituted howling for Ōbaku’s manual violence. He shouted
meaningless syllables at his disciples; roared like a lion or bellowed
like a bull. This “howling” became a regular part of Zen practice,
and may be compared to the yelling of the American Shakers. Upon his
deathbed Rinzai summoned his disciples round him and asked which of
them felt capable of carrying on his work. Sanshō volunteered to
do so. “How will you tell people what was Rinzai’s teaching?” asked
Rinzai. Sanshō threw out his chest and roared in a manner which he
thought would gratify the master. But Rinzai groaned and cried out, “To
think that such a blind donkey should undertake to hand on my teaching!”

It was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that Zen most completely
permeated Chinese thought. Upon the invasion of the Mongols[9] many Zen
monks from Eastern China took refuge in Japan; the same thing happened
during the Manchu invasion in the seventeenth century. But by that time
Zen had a serious philosophic rival.

[9] On the attitude of the Mongol rulers to Zen, see an article by
Prof. Kunishita, _Tōyōgakuhō_, xi., 4, 87.

In the fifteenth century the philosopher Wang Yang-ming began to
propagate a doctrine which, in all but names, strongly resembled the
philosophic side of Zen. He taught that in each one of us is a “higher
nature,” something which, borrowing a phrase from Mencius, he called
“Good Knowledge.” Of this inner nature he speaks in exactly the same
terms as the Zen teachers spoke of their “Buddha immanent in man’s
heart.” He even uses the same kind of doggerel-verse as a medium of

Rigid Confucianists, who would not have listened to any doctrine of
professedly Buddhist origin, were able through Wang Yang-ming’s tact to
accept the philosophy of Zen without feeling that they were betraying
the Confucian tradition. The followers of Yang-ming are to-day very
numerous both in China and Japan. They cultivate introspection, but not
the complete self-hypnosis of Zen.

In China, where Zen is almost forgotten, the followers of this later
doctrine are not even aware of its derivation.


I said at the beginning of this paper that Zen is often mentioned
by writers on Far Eastern Art. The connection between Zen and art
is important, not only because of the inspiration which Zen gave
to the artist, but also because through Zen was obtained a better
understanding of the psychological conditions under which art is
produced than has prevailed in any other civilisation.

Art was regarded as a kind of Zen, as a delving down into the Buddha
that each of us unknowingly carries within him, as Benjamin carried
Joseph’s cup in his sack. Through Zen we annihilate Time and see the
Universe not split up into myriad fragments, but in its primal unity.
Unless, says the Zen æsthetician, the artist’s work is imbued with
this vision of the subjective, non-phenomenal aspect of life, his
productions will be mere toys.

I do not mean to suggest that Chinese artists found in Zen a short
cut to the production of beauty. Zen aims at the annihilation of
consciousness, whereas art is produced by an interaction of conscious
and unconscious faculties. How far such an interaction can be promoted
by the psychic discipline of Zen no layman can judge; moreover the
whole question of the artist’s psychology is controversial and obscure.

Perhaps it is not even very important that the artist himself should
have a sound æsthetic; but it is of the utmost importance to the artist
that the public should have some notion of the conditions under which
art can be produced--should have some key to the vagaries of a section
of humanity which will in any case always be found troublesome and

Such a key Zen supplied, and it is in the language of Zen that, after
the twelfth century, art is usually discussed in China and Japan.


One institution, about which till recently very little was known,
seems to have been an important factor in the propagation of Zen art
and ideas. About 1215 A.D. a Zen priest came from the far
south-west of China to Hangchow, the Capital, and there refounded a
ruined monastery, the Rokutsūji, which stood on the shores of the
famous Western Lake. His name was Mokkei. He seems to have been the
first to practise the swift, ecstatic type of monochrome which is
associated with Zen. In hurried swirls of ink he sought to record
before they faded visions and exaltations produced whether by the
frenzy of wine, the stupor of tea, or the vacancy of absorption.

Sometimes his design is tangled and chaotic; sometimes as in his famous
“Persimmons,”[10] passion has congealed into a stupendous calm.

[10] See Kümmel, _Die Kunst Ostasiens_ Pl. 118.

Of his fellow-workers the best known is Rasō, a painter of birds and
flowers. Ryōkai, once a fashionable painter, left the Court and with
his pupil Rikaku worked in the manner of Mokkei.

Examples of Ryōkai’s work before and after his conversion are still
preserved in Japan.

Finally, about the middle of the fourteenth century, a Japanese priest
came to China and, under circumstances which I shall describe in an
appendix, confusingly became Mokkei II. It may be that it was he who
sent back to his own country some of the numerous pictures signed
Mokkei which are now in Japan. Which of them are by Mokkei and which by
Mokuan is a problem which remains to be solved.

This Zen art did not flourish long in China, nor in all probability do
many specimens of it survive there. But in Japan it was a principal
source of inspiration to the great painters of the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries. Sesshū himself is the direct descendant of Mokkei;
as in a decadent way are Kanō masters such as Tsunenobu.

Zen paintings are of two kinds. (1) Representations of animals, birds
and flowers, in which the artist attempted to identify himself with the
object depicted, to externise its inner Buddha. These were achieved
not by study from the life, as the early Sung nature-pieces have been,
but by intense and concentrated visualisation of the subject to be
painted. This mental picture was rapidly transferred to paper before
the spell of concentration (samādhi) was broken. (2) Illustrations of
episodes in the lives of the great Zen teachers. This branch of Zen
art was essentially dramatic. It sought to express the characters of
the persons involved, subtly to reveal the grandeur of soul that lay
hidden behind apparent uncouthness or stupidity. Typical of this kind
of painting are the pictures of “Tanka burning the Image.”

One night Tanka, a Zen priest, stayed as a guest at an ordinary
Buddhist monastery. There was no firewood in his cell. As the night
was cold he went into the chapel, seized a wooden statue of Shākyamuni
and, chopping it up, made himself a comfortable fire. To him the
idol of Buddha was a mere block of wood; his indignant hosts took a
different view. The controversy is the same as that which occupies the
central place in the Nō play _Sotoba Komachi_.

There is another aspect of Zen which had an equally important effect on
art. The Buddha-nature is immanent not in Man only, but in everything
that exists, animate or inanimate. Stone, river and tree are alike
parts of the great hidden Unity. Thus Man, through his Buddha-nature
or universalised consciousness, possesses an intimate means of contact
with Nature. The songs of birds, the noise of waterfalls, the rolling
of thunder, the whispering of wind in the pine-trees--all these are
utterances of the Absolute.

Hence the connection of Zen with the passionate love of Nature which is
so evident in Far Eastern poetry and art.

Personally I believe that this passion for Nature worked more
favourably on literature than on painting. The typical Zen picture,
dashed off in a moment of exaltation--perhaps a moonlit river expressed
in three blurs and a flourish--belongs rather to the art of calligraphy
than to that of painting.

In his more elaborate depictions of nature the Zen artist is led by his
love of nature into that common pitfall of lovers--sentimentality. The
forms of Nature tend with him to function not as forms but as symbols.

Something resembling the mystic belief which Zen embraces is found
in many countries and under many names. But Zen differs from other
religions of the same kind in that it admits only one means by
which the perception of Truth can be attained. Prayer, fasting,
asceticism--all are dismissed as useless, giving place to one single
resource, the method of self-hypnosis which I have here described.

I have, indeed, omitted any mention of an important adjunct of Zen,
namely tea-drinking, which was as constant a feature in the life of Zen
monasteries as it is here in the régime of charwomen and girl-clerks.
I have not space to describe the various tea-ceremonies. The tendency
of monasteries was to create in them as in every part of daily life a
more and more elaborate ritual, calculated to give some pattern to
days otherwise devoid of any incident. We possess minute descriptions
of every ceremony--the initiation of novices, the celebration of birth
and death anniversaries of the Patriarchs, the procedure in cases of
sickness, madness, disobedience, disappearance or death of monks;
the selection and investiture of abbots; the lectures, liturgies and
sessions which constituted the curriculum of Zen instruction.

In China decay set in after the fifteenth century. The Zen monasteries
became almost indistinguishable from those of popular, idolatrous
Buddhism. In Japan, on the other hand, Zen has remained absolutely
distinct and is now the favourite creed of the educated classes. It
has not hitherto conducted any propaganda in Europe, whereas the Amida
Sect has sent out both missionaries and pamphlets. But I believe that
Zen would find many converts in England. Something rather near it we
already possess. Quakerism, like Zen, is a non-dogmatic religion,
laying stress on the doctrine of Immanence. But whereas the Quakers
seek communion with the Divine Spark in corporate meditation and
deliberately exploit the mysterious potencies of crowd-psychology--the
Zen adept probes in solitude (or at least without reference to his
neighbour) for the Buddha within him.

In cases where a Quaker meeting passes in silence, the members having
meditated quietly for a whole hour, a very near approach to a Zen
gathering has been made. But more often than not the Holy Spirit,
choosing his mouthpiece with an apparent lack of discrimination,
quickly descends upon some member of the meeting. The ineffable,
which Zen wisely refused to express, is then drowned in a torrent of
pedestrian oration.

Some, then, may turn to Zen as a purer Quakerism. Others will be
attracted to it by the resemblance of its doctrines to the hypotheses
of recent psychology. The Buddha consciousness of Zen exactly
corresponds to the Universal Consciousness which, according to certain
modern investigators, lies hid beneath the personal Consciousness.
Such converts will probably use a kind of applied Zen, much as the
Japanese have done; that is to say, they will not seek to spend their
days in complete Samādhi, but will dive occasionally, for rest or
encouragement, into the deeper recesses of the soul.

It is not likely that they will rest content with the traditional
Eastern methods of self-hypnosis. If certain states of consciousness
are indeed more valuable than those with which we are familiar in
ordinary life--then we must seek them unflinchingly by whatever means
we can devise. I can imagine a kind of dentist’s chair fitted with
revolving mirrors, flashing lights, sulphurous haloes expanding and
contracting--in short a mechanism that by the pressure of a single knob
should whirl a dustman into Nirvāna.

Whether such states of mind are actually more valuable than our
ordinary consciousness is difficult to determine. Certainly no one
has much right to an opinion who has not experienced them. But
something akin to Samādhi--a sudden feeling of contact with a unity
more real than the apparent complexity of things--is probably not an
uncommon experience. The athlete, the creative artist, the lover, the
philosopher--all, I fancy, get a share of it, not when seeking to
escape from the visible world; but rather just when that world was
seeming to them most sublimely real.

To seek by contemplation of the navel or of the tip of the nose a
repetition of spiritual experiences such as these seems to us inane;
and indeed the negative trance of Zen is very different from the
positive ecstasies to which I have just referred. I say that it is
different; but how do I know? “Zen,” said Bodhidharma, “cannot be
described in words nor chronicled in books”; and I have no other
experience of Zen. If I _knew_, I might transmit to you my knowledge,
but it would have to be by a direct spiritual communication, symbolised
only by a smile, a gesture, or the plucking of a flower.

I need not therefore apologise for having given a purely external and
historical account of Zen, a creed whose inner mysteries are admittedly
beyond the scope of words.


Reproductions of Zen Paintings in Japanese art publications. (The
_Kokka_ and the other publications here referred to may be seen at the
Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum; and at the Print Room of the
British Museum.)

    MOKKEI--_Kokka._ 37, 112, 122, 177, 185, 238, 242, 265, 268, 291,
    293, 314.

    RASŌ.--_Shimbi Taikwan_ XX.

    MOKUAN.--(Mokkei II).--_Kokka_ 295, _Shimbi Taikwan_ Vol. IX. (Nos.
    21 and 22 in the collection of Chinese Paintings at the British
    Museum are probably by Mokuan.)

    RYŌKAI.--_Kokka_ 40, 114, 145, 152, 220, 227, 229.

    RIKAKU.--_Kokka_ 269.

    MUJUN.--(An important thirteenth century Zen writer.) _Kokka_ 243.

    INDRA.--(A Hangchow priest, presumably an Indian; flourished c.
    1280.) _Kokka_ 35, 110, 223, 310. _Shimbi Taikwan_ IX.



The Nikkōshū[11], a diary by the priest Gidō, has the following entry
under the year 1378 (month and day uncertain):

    To-day Donfu[12] came, and we fell to talking of Mokuan. It seems
    that he was once known as Ze-itsu. But on becoming a pupil of the
    priest Kenzan[13], he changed his name to Mokuan. Afterwards he
    went to China and entered the Honkakuji[14], where he became the
    disciple of Ryō-an[15] and was made librarian. Here he published at
    his own expense (lit. “selling his shoes”) the _Second Collection
    of Sayings by Korin_.

    Subsequently he lived at the Shōtenji at Soochow, and was warden
    there under Nanso[16], dying soon afterwards.

    When he first came to China he spent some time at the Jōji
    Monastery at Hangchow and from there visited the Rokutsūji on
    the shores of the Western Lake. This monastery was inhabited by
    the followers of Mokkei. The abbot greeted Mokuan with a smile,
    saying to him: “Last night I dreamt that our founder Mokkei came
    back again. You must be his reincarnation”; and he gave to Mokuan
    Mokkei’s two seals, white and red. Henceforward he was known as
    Mokkei the Second.

[11] See my _Nō Plays of Japan_ (Allen & Unwin, 1921), p. 19. The
passage here translated is taken not from the current, two-chapter
abridgement of Gidō’s Diary, but from the _Kokuchoshū_, a miscellany by
the 15th century priest Zuikei, who quoted many passages from the lost
portion of the Diary. See Mr. Saga Tōshū, _Shina Gaku_, I., 1.

[12] 1314-1384.

[13] Died 1323. Both he and Donfu were Japanese priests who visited

[14] At Chia-hsing in Chehkiang.

[15] Entered this temple in 1334.

[16] Visited Japan; was at the Shōtenji from 1342-1345.


Reproductions of paintings illustrating Zen legend.


    (1) With tightly closed lips, as he appeared before the Emperor of
    China in 520. _Masterpieces of Sesshū_, Pl. 47.

    (2) Crossing the Yangtze on a reed. Perhaps the best example may be
    seen not in a reproduction, but in No. 22 of the original Chinese
    Paintings at the British Museum.

    (3) Sitting with his face to the wall. He sat thus in silence for
    nine years in the Shōrin Monastery on Mount Sung. _Kokka_ 333.


    Second Patriarch of the sect. Severed his own arm and presented
    it to Bodhidharma. In spite of his fanaticism (or because of it)
    the Founder did not at first regard him with complete confidence
    and recommended to him the study of the Langkāvatāra Sūtra,
    not considering him ripe for complete, non-dogmatic Zen. Eka
    waiting waist-deep in the snow for the Founder to instruct him.
    Masterpieces of Sesshū, Pl. 45.


    Sixth Patriarch. See above, p 15. _Kokka_, 289, 297.

TOKUSAN, died 865 A.D.

    _Shimbi Taikwan_, I, 13, shows him with his famous Zen stick. He
    is also sometimes depicted failing to answer an old market-woman’s
    riddle; and tearing up his commentary on the Diamond Sūtra.


    A painting by Indra (_Kokka_ 173) shows him burning the wooden
    statue of Buddha at the Erin Temple.



The only writer who has made extracts from the works of Bodhidharma is
Père Wieger, whose remarks (in his _Histoire des Croyances religieuses
en Chine_, pp. 517-528) show a robust and likeable bigotry.

Of Zen literature he says: “Nombre d’in-folio remplis de réponses
incohérentes, insensées.... Ce ne sont pas, comme on l’a supposé, des
allusions à des affaires intérieures, qu’il faudrait connaître pour
pouvoir comprendre. Ce sont des exclamations échappées à des abrutis,
momentanément tirés de leur coma.”

For the tea-ceremony in Japan see Okakura’s _Book of Tea_ (Foulis,
1919). The “military” Zen of Japan is well described by Nukariya Kaiten
in his _The Religion of the Samurai, 1913_.


Most of this paper is derived from the section on Zen (Series II, Vol.
15, seq.) in the “Supplement to the Collection of Buddhist Scriptures,”
_Dai Nihon Zoku Zō Kyō_.

Much of the information with regard to the Rokutsūji School is taken
from the article by Mr. Saga to which I have already referred. For the
Rokutsūji (“Temple of the Six Penetrations”) see _Hsien Shun Lin-an
Chih_ (“Topography of Hangchow, 1265-1275 A.D.”), ch. 78, f. 9

I have also used Yamada’s _Zenshū Jiten_ (Dictionary of Zen) and the
_Hekiganroku_, edited by Sōyen, 1920.


(Chinese pronunciations given in brackets.)

  Amida, 8.

  Baso (Ma Tsu), 20.

  Bodhidharma (Ta-mo), 8 _seq._, 29.

  Bodhisattvas, 8.

  Buddhapriya (Chio-ai), 11.

  _Dai Bonten Monbutsu-ketsugi Kyō_, 14.

  Daigu (Ta-yü), 20.

  Diamond Sūtra, 15.

  Dhyāna, see Zen. Also, 10.

  Eka (Hui-k’o), 29.

  Enkwan (Yen-kuan), 14.

  Enō (Hui-nēng), 15, 29.

  Fujaku (P’u-chi), 17.

  Haikyū (P’ei Hsiu), 18.

  _Hokkekyō_, see _Saddharma_, etc.

  Honkakuji (Pēn-chio-ssŭ), 28.

  Joji (Ching-tz’u), 28.

  Kern, 8.

  Kōnin (Hung-jēn), 15.

  Korin (Ku-lin), 28.

  Mahāyāna, 7.

  Mokkei (Mu-ch’i), 22, 27.

  Mujun (Wu-chun), 27.

  Nanso (Nan-ch’u), 28.

  Ōbaku (Huang Po), 18.

  Okakura, 30.

  Rasō (Lo-ch’uang), 23, 27.

  Rikaku (Li Ch’üeh), 27.

  Rinzai (Lin-chi), 20.

  Rokutsūji (Liu-t’ung-ssŭ), 22.

  Ryō-an (Liao-an), 28.

  Ryōkai (Liang K’ai), 23, 27.

  _Saddharma Pundarīka Sūtra_, 8.

  Saga T. 28, 30.

  Samādhi (San-mei), 12.

  Sanshō (San-shēng), 21.

  Shākyamuni, 7.

  _Shina Gaku_, 28, 30.

  Shinshū (Shēn-hsiu), 16.

  Shōtenji (Ch’ēng-t’ien-ssŭ), 28.

  Tanka (Tan-hsia), 23, 29.

  Tendai (T’ien-t’ai), 8.

  Tokusan (Tē-shan), 29.

  Wieger, 30.

  Wu Hou, 17.

  Zen (Ch’an), 7, etc.

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's Note

A duplicate title page has been removed from the text.

"Externise" on p. 23 is a variant form of "externalise", and has been
left as printed.

The diacritics in "Saddharma Pundarīka Sūtra" on p. 8
were marked in pen on the printed copy, and may not have been printed.

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