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By Kaz Tanahashi By Zen Masters Tibetan Thangkas
Ox-Herding Pictures

Zen Arts

The teachings of Zen always point directly to the inherent perfection of each one of us and the Zen arts are a form of that direct pointing.

During its early history, Zen was influenced by the refined practices of Chinese poetry, painting, and calligraphy. Taoist teachers often communicated their spiritual understanding with painting and verse and the Zen monks who followed Bodhidharma took up this tradition. By the Sung dynasty in China (960 - 1279 C.E.), the Zen arts of painting and poetry reached their highest stage of development, with the emergence of a novel phenomenon: painter-priests and poet-priests who produced art that broke with all forms of religious and secular art. The only purpose of this art was to point to the nature of reality. When Chinese Zen first traveled to Japan in the thirteenth century the arts followed and became quickly integrated into the culture. Art practice was intimately woven into the fabric of Zen training. Zen arts, creativity, and realized spirituality were seen as inseparable and a Zen aesthetic developed which expressed eternal truths about the nature of reality and our place in the universe.

As a teaching vehicle for the Zen masters in Japan, these arts--tea ceremony, bamboo flute, landscape gardening, Noh drama, ceramic arts, and archery--became known as the "artless arts of Zen." They transcended technique and were primarily used as tools for communicating spiritual insight. Paintings and calligraphy functioned as visual discourses. Poetry was used to create "live words" to communicate the essential wordlessness of Zen.

In chado, the way of tea; shodo, the way of the brush; kado, the way of the flower, and kyudo, the way of the bow, the suffix "do" means "way." These arts were called ways because they were disciplines or paths of polishing the artist's understanding of him or herself and the nature of reality.