Portrait of a Zen Master

Period: Muromachi period (1392–1573)

Date: 15th century

Culture: Japan

Medium: Lacquer on wood with inlaid crystal eyes

Dimensions: Overall (figure): H. 37 3/8 (94.9 cm); W. 22 3/8 in. (56.8 cm); D. 18 1/4 in. (46.4 cm)

Classification: Sculpture

Credit Line: Purchase, John D. Rockefeller 3rd Gift, 1963

Accession Number: 63.65


The intense presence of a Zen master is achieved here by a focus on realism in the face, while the body, with its heavy robes flowing over the chair, is more conventionalized. Sculpted portraits were frequently venerated in the living quarters of Zen temples. There, they provided a physical reminder of the deceased founder, who, in an unbroken chain of transmission from master to disciple, represented the crucial link between his disciples and the lineage that descended from the historical Buddha. This notion of teaching "from heart to heart" without the aid of sutras is central to Zen and made such portraits more important than icons of Buddhist deities.