Not Clever

Ichidon Shōzui Japanese

Not on view

Two brusquely brushed large characters reading Fumyō 不妙, or “Not Clever”—extracted from the text below—are placed above a transcription of a missive in smaller but equally dynamic Chinese characters. The use of the phrase Fumyō (Chinese: Bumiao)—with its entirely negative connotations of “not clever,” “unremarkable,” or even “no good,”—strikes the viewer as odd at first glance, especially for a calligraphy brushed by an eminent Zen master. But upon reading the missive below, it becomes clear that it was written to pointedly criticize Monk Jūmyō Jisha 壽妙侍者 from Kenchōji Temple in Kamakura, whose name, rather grandiosely, includes the character 妙, which suggests something or someone clever, remarkable, mysterious, or sublime. In short, Ichidon is stating that Jūmyō is anything but clever or remarkable, and unworthy to use that character in his name. Ichidon cites various Buddhist sources to make the point about proper moral and spiritual behavior.

The monk-calligrapher Ichidon brushed certain characters that ended with a sweeping stroke to the left with special exuberance. Note especially how the final stroke of the character myō 妙 – meaning both “cleverness” or “mysterious” depending on the context was stretched out extra long, to give a visual rhythm and excitement. This work is an especially fine example of a bokuseki, a calligraphy by a Zen monk of the medieval period. The brusque, rule-breaking calligraphy style conveys a message of spiritual transcendence or enlightenment so central to the Zen experience, and the brush writing style is meant to convey that message on a visual level.

The monk Ichidon Shōzui trained in Rinzai Zen at Hōunji Temple in Hitachi, Ibaraki prefecture, under the prominent master Fukuan Sōki 復庵宗己 (1280–1358), who had trained in China and who had achieved a wide following in Japan. Shōzui achieved fame in his own right, and subsequently served as head abbot at prominent Rinzai sect temples such as Engakuji in Kamakura and at Nanzenji in Kyoto. He also used the name Kyūka Sanjin 九華山人, referred to in the signature here. Shōzui, who earned a reputation as a master of Chinese prose and poetry, also wrote an inscription on a precious painting of White-Robed Kannon by the Chinese artist Mokuan Reien.

Not Clever, Ichidon Shōzui (Japanese, 1394–1428), Hanging scroll; ink on paper, Japan

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