Passage from the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment

Zekkai Chūshin 絶海中津 Japanese

Not on view

Two brusquely brushed columns of cursive Chinese characters by the celebrated monk-calligrapher Zekkai Chūshin comprise a famous passage about overcoming delusional thinking from the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, referred to as Engaku-kyō in Japanese, and Yuanyue jing in Chinese (fig. 1). The transcription reads:

住妄想境 不加了知
於無了知 不辯真實

Japanese pronunciation:
妄想の境に住して 了知を加えず
了知無きに於て 真実を弁ぜず

Mōsō no kyō ni jūshite, ryōchi o kuwaezu
ryōchi naki ni oite, shinjitsu oo benzezu

Dwelling in the realm of delusional thinking, one cannot attain a clear understanding of things. Without a clear understanding of things, one cannot discern actual reality.

(Translated by John T. Carpenter)

The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, though borrowing ideas and phrases from earlier sources, is believed to be an apocryphal text created in China in the late seventh or early eighth century that provided legitimacy for the localized practice of Buddhism, including the early Chan (Zen) movement. It advocates that all beings are inherently enlightened and gives guidance on how to free oneself from delusion and how to rediscover one’s original enlightened state. The practices of gradual versus sudden enlightenment described in this sutra later became the core of debate within Chan Buddhism in China, which led to the division into the Southern and Northern Schools (perpetuated in Japan as the distinction between the Sōtō and Rinzai Zen sects).

The sutra is structured into a prologue and twelve chapters, in each of which a Bodhisattva asks the Buddha questions about religious practice and enlightenment that are then answered by the Buddha. The phrase cited here is from the Chapter Five, where the Buddha is responding to the Bodhisattva Maitreya about increasing understanding as an approach to obliterating delusion, which prevents people from realizing their fundamentally enlightened natures.

Zekkai Chūshin, a Zen scholar-poet monk renowned for his literary achievements and calligraphy, was known to have lectured on the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment at various times in his career, first at Erinji in Kyoto and then later to the shogun Ashikaga Yoshiakira (r. 1358–67) and his wife Shibukawa Kōshi (1332–1392). In 1386, he was exiled for two years because of speaking against the will of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (r. 1368–94) but returned to Kyoto after receiving the shogun’s pardon. He subsequently enjoyed the direct patronage of the shogun and served as the abbot of Shōkokuji and later its sub-monastery, Rokuon’in, better known as Kinkakuji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. As the abbot of Rokuon’in, he also carried the duty of sōroku, managing all the monastic affairs of the Rinzai sect in Japan, including the five most prestigious monasteries in Kyoto known as Gozan (Five Great Zen Temples). In 1401, during Zekkai’s abbacy at Sōkokuji, the shogun promoted Sōkokuji from second place to the first within the Five Mountains temple hierarchy and made the monastery exclusive to the monks in the lineage of Musō Soseki, Zekkai's teacher, who was also renowned as a great calligrapher. It can be no coincidence that that Musō is known to have transcribed the same passage from the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, and Zekkai must have used it as a model for his own two-column transcription (fig. 2).

The rectangular seal reading “Zekkai” 絶海 impressed on the lower left corner is the same seal that appears on five other published works the monk-calligrapher, including a transcription of Yaoyueting, a poem by Northern Song literati-official Ma Cun 馬存 (d. 1096) (fig. 3, Idemitsu Museum of Arts), and an inscription on a landscape painting attributed to Chinese painter Zhang Yuan 張遠 (fig. 4a, b). Besides a few possible abrasions, the impression of the seal on this work concurs well with the impressions on the two pieces mentioned above.Seal: (lower left, rectangular intaglio seal) Zekkai 絶海.

Passage from the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, Zekkai Chūshin 絶海中津 (Japanese, 1336–1405), Hanging scroll; ink on paper, Japan

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