The essential element of Zen Buddhism is found in its name, for Zen means “meditation.” Zen teaches that enlightenment is achieved through the profound realization that one is already an enlightened being. This awakening can happen gradually or in a flash of insight (as emphasized by the Soto and Rinzai schools, respectively). But in either case, it is the result of one’s own efforts. Deities and scriptures can offer only limited assistance.
Zen traces its origins to India, but it was formalized in China. Chan, as it is known in China, was transmitted to Japan and took root there in the thirteenth century. Chan was enthusiastically received in Japan, especially by the samurai class that wielded political power at this time, and it became the most prominent form of Buddhism between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. The immigrant Chinese prelates were educated men, who introduced not only religious practices but also Chinese literature, calligraphy, philosophy, and ink painting to their Japanese disciples, who often in turn traveled to China for further study.
Today, ink monochrome painting is the art form most closely associated with Zen Buddhism. In general, the first Japanese artists to work in this medium were Zen monks who painted in a quick and evocative manner to express their religious views and personal convictions. Their preferred subjects were Zen patriarchs, teachers, and enlightened individuals. In time, however, artists moved on to secular themes such as bamboo, flowering plums, orchids, and birds, which in China were endowed with scholarly symbolism. The range of subject matter eventually broadened to include literary figures and landscapes, and the painting styles often became more important than personal expression.
Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on simplicity and the importance of the natural world generated a distinctive aesthetic, which is expressed by the terms wabi and sabi. These two amorphous concepts are used to express a sense of rusticity, melancholy, loneliness, naturalness, and age, so that a misshapen, worn peasant’s jar is considered more beautiful than a pristine, carefully crafted dish. While the latter pleases the senses, the former stimulates the mind and emotions to contemplate the essence of reality. This artistic sensibility has had an enormous impact on Japanese culture up to modern times.