Zen has no form but we need form to reveal Zen.
The term Zenga is composed of the characters Zen 禅 and Ga 画. Zen is the enlightenment of Buddha. Zen is not a belief system; it breaks down ideology. Zen is knowing and seeing, not believing. Zen is rooted in the current moment, constantly shifting, settling nowhere; Zen cannot be pinned down. Zen is; Zen is not. Zen is liberation from limiting thoughts and confining viewpoints. Within our world of constant flux, Zen is the continual process of self-realization.
Zenga means, ‘Seeing Zen through the vehicle of painting.’ Zenga bear witness to Zen ideals and challenge the viewer to look deeply into the meaning of the painting – and by extension look deeply into oneself. A Zenga is a teaching aid, a vehicle for awakening, a means to elevate consciousness, a prod to behave better, an image to foster compassion, and a statement on social responsibility. Zen art is meant to inspire, instruct, and generate insight.
Zenga was first created in China, and reached full flower during the Edo period in Japan. The themes range from the standard Buddhist pantheon of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Grand Patriarchs, to the most mundane acts of everyday life. Name the subject and there is likely a Zenga of the theme – including cartoons of Buddha and gods farting, Zen masters answering the calls of nature and people making love.
In many ways, Zenga is anti-art. It is never meant to be merely decorative or aim to be a thing of beauty. Mistakes, omissions are never corrected – it is not uncomm to see the phrase ’Oops! I left out a character’ added to a Zenga. If a piece has drips, splashes, or cat paw prints so much the better. Sengai wrote: My play with brush and ink is not calligraphy or painting; Ordinary painting has a method; Sengai’s painting has no method. As Buddha says, ‘The True Law is no Law’.
The highest wisdom in Zen is not to take anything too seriously – especially oneself. In Zenga, just about everything – including Buddha and the artist himself – is made fun of, lampooned or satirised. In the Zenga featured in this xhibition the humor runs the gamut from subtle to laughout-loud funny.
The impact of a good Zenga is immediate; it can have a far more powerful and long lasting effect than anything that is recorded and read in a book. Due to the compact medium, masters must express their essential teaching in a single space, instead of rambling on and on in writing. Zenga are brush talk: ‘I express my teaching using a brush and ink instead of my tongue; you seize the meaning of the words with your eyes.’ The freshness and vitality of Zenga transcend time or place – they are never dated. The appreciation of Zenga continues, now on a much wider stage, with exhibitions such as this one in many different countries, and devotees worldwide.
Seeing Zen presents 60 Zenga masterpiece from the Kaeru-An collection of Felix Hess. Kaeru-An, perhaps the largest collection of Zenga in the West, presently consists of 560 pieces. Zenga on display range from the fourteenth to twentieth century. Works by the greatest of Zenga masters – such as Fügai, Hakuin, Sengai, Göchö, Tesshü and Nantenbö – are prominently featured.