Buddhist ink paintings and calligraphies convey the irreverent and the profound with wry humor


Yamaoka Tesshu (1836–1888), “Talismanic Dragon,” 19th century, hanging scroll, ink on paper. One of the works on display at “None Whatsoever,” the new exhibition of Japanese art at the New York-based Japan Society. (Courtesy of the Gitter-Yelen Collection: Kurt A. Gitter, M.D. and Alice Yelen Gitter)

Two bulging eyes are casting a piercing look at an inscription at the top of an ink painting depicting Bodhidharma, a sixth-century monk known in Japan as Daruma and credited with founding the Zen branch of Mahayana Buddhism.

The message conveyed by the artist, the Zen monk Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), is serious, but difficult to translate. A loose translation would be: “Look inside yourself to become a Buddha.” Tiffany Lambert, curator of a new exhibition of Japanese art at the New York-based Japan Society, prefers: “Direct pointing to the human heart, see your nature — and become Buddha.”

Hakuin’s painting embodies this concept: His Daruma has a comical face with an oblong head, thick, bushy eyebrows and an excessively elongated nose. But the dark brushstrokes of his robe form a stylized version of the Japanese character kokoro (heart). Done in quick, sketchy brushstrokes, “Giant Daruma” — one of Hakuin’s most famous works — is a prime example of how he and other Zen monks used simple yet striking visuals to teach profound lessons.

Ink paintings and calligraphies in the tradition of Hakuin, which are known collectively as zenga, are showcased in an exhibition at the Japan Society Gallery in New York from March 8 to June 16. “None Whatsoever: Zen Paintings from the Gitter-Yelen Collection” features masterworks spanning more than 400 years drawn from the collection of Kurt Gitter and Alice Yelen Gitter.

Zenga was born during the Edo period (1603-1867) when Japan saw a flourishing of cultural activity, including in the form of paintings and calligraphies created by monk-artists. Generally self-taught, these artists were highly skilled, creating detailed and realistic images as well as the simple and often amateurish-looking paintings for which they are best known.


Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768), “Giant Daruma,” detail, 18th century, hanging scroll, ink on paper. (Courtesy of the Gitter-Yelen Collection: Kurt A. Gitter, M.D. and Alice Yelen Gitter)

Since their purpose was to spread the teachings of Zen Buddhism, the monk-artists eschewed the rigid and serious style of traditional religious paintings, which catered to an elite audience, in favor of playful, bold and relatively simple designs that would appeal to commoners. As such, zenga contrasts sharply with more traditional Buddhist art in Japan, which often features highly intricate designs and bright colors.

Zenga can be irreverent and whimsical, but through the use of allegory, folk sayings and popular references, there is always a profound message in the art.

The Gitter-Yelen collection, one of the world’s most important collections of Zen Buddhist art, was built by Kurt Gitter, a doctor who spent two years in Japan in the 1960s as a flight surgeon with the U.S. Air Force, and his wife. After returning to the U.S., Gitter visited Japan frequently and met and befriended many gallerists who taught him about Zen art.

The exhibition at the Japan Society centers on Hakuin, who is “the most important figure within the development of the tradition of zenga,” says Lambert. Hakuin was not only a much sought-after artist but one of the most influential Zen monks in Japan, whose reforms to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism are the basis of modern-day Zen practice. He is the originator of the most famous Zen koan — an unsolvable riddle — “the sound of one hand clapping.”

Zenga NY

Works on display at “None Whatsoever.” (Photo by Naho Kubota)

Detail of Hakuin’s “Two Blind Men Crossing a Log Bridge,” 18th century, hanging scroll, ink on paper. (Courtesy of the Gitter-Yelen Collection: Kurt A. Gitter, M.D. and Alice Yelen Gitter)

Twenty of Hakuin’s works are on display, as well as works by artists who continued his legacy, including Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) and Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800), who was a Zen devotee but is better known for his exquisitely detailed and colorful paintings.

The cryptic title of the exhibition, “None Whatsoever,” alludes to a well-known episode from Zen lore in which a Chinese emperor who has dedicated wealth and power to supporting Zen Buddhism asks Bodhidharma how much his deeds have earned him in the eyes of the Buddha. He is told: “None whatsoever.”

The story teaches that enlightenment is achieved by finding Buddha’s nature within oneself, rather than through building temples and funding sacred texts. This emphasizes the Zen concept of emptiness, according to an introduction to the Gitter-Yelen collection on the website of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which has acquired much of the collection.

One of the Hakuin paintings on display, “Running Hotei,” is another good example of how he used bold design, striking imagery and a humorous touch to convey a serious message. The ink painting depicts Hotei, the god of contentment and happiness, with a mischievous smile on his face carrying a large and heavy mallet. His path is apparently obstructed by an inscription, which says, “What a heavy mallet — it will be the death of me.”

Detail of Hakuin’s “Running Hotei,” 18th century, hanging scroll, ink on paper.

Ito Jakuchu (1716–1800), “Kanzan and Jittoku,” detail, 18th century, two hanging scrolls, ink on paper. (Courtesy of the Gitter-Yelen Collection: Kurt A. Gitter, M.D. and Alice Yelen Gitter)

Yukio Lippit, a professor of art history and architecture at Harvard University, who is one of the organizers of the exhibition, explains: “Because a mallet is used to pound rice, a symbol of wealth, the inscription appears to be commenting upon the uncertain spiritual results of blindly racing to accumulate wealth. Hotei has been cast as a stand-in for an urban commoner consumed with secular concerns, a kind of Everyman pursuing worldly goals.”

Sengai, who started painting in earnest in his 40s, at a time when the lavish, decorative style of the Kano School dominated Japan’s art world, served as abbot of Shofukuji Monastery in Fukuoka on the southwestern Japanese island of Kyushu. Sengai has left intricately detailed paintings from his early years as an artist, which reflect his mastery of the paintbrush and the influence of the Kano School, yet he is best known for his abbreviated, humorous paintings, which were in great demand among his contemporaries.

The Gitter-Yelen collection is one of the world’s most important collections of Zen Buddhist art. (Photo by Naho Kubota)

These playful paintings were born of Sengai’s decision in his later years to abandon all artistic rules and traditions and adopt a “no method” approach to painting. The decision to free himself from artistic conventions and skills, mastered after much disciplined practice, can be compared to the achievement of satori (the Japanese Buddhist concept of spiritual awakening), which is arrived at only after dedicated practice and preparation, note the writers of “Sengai Best 100 ARTBOX,” published by the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, which holds one of the world’s largest collections of zenga.

Zenga’s legacy has been carried into the 20th century by artists such as Nakahara Nantenbo (1839-1925), who is represented by several works in the exhibition, and Munakata Shiko, who is more often associated with the mingei (folk art) movement of the early 20th century.


Sengai Gibon (1750–1837), “Hotei Waking from a Nap,” detail, late 18th or early 19th century, hanging scroll, ink on paper.

Left : Nakahara Nantenbo (1839–1925), “Staff,” undated hanging scroll, ink on paper. Right : Nakahara Nantenbo, “Daruma,” undated, hanging scroll, ink on paper. (Courtesy of the Gitter-Yelen Collection: Kurt A. Gitter, M.D. and Alice Yelen Gitter)

But zenga’s influence has also spread well beyond Japan’s borders. American abstract expressionists, such as Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, were highly influenced by Zen philosophy and produced works characterized by energetic brushwork and simple yet bold forms, which echo the style of Zen art.

While enthusiastically collecting zenga, Gitter was also drawn to the abstract expressionists who were active in New York in the 1950s and 1960s and became friends with many of its proponents. “The visual dynamism and immediacy of Zen painting struck me much like the bold abstract expressionist action paintings then flourishing in New York City,” Gitter wrote.

More recently, Zen philosophy has had a profound influence on the ideas of the Fluxus movement, which promotes an interactive and immersive artistic experience, and whose key artists include Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono.

“The ideas that Fluxus helped to release into the air are still thriving today,” notes Lambert. “Its open-ended philosophy resonates with this moment’s fluidity in artistic practice — and culture at large — that pushes at the borders of art and daily life, and reconsiders what constitutes art and who makes it.”

Zenga was born many centuries ago as a way to spread the teachings of Zen. But it is still as relevant in today’s complex and divided world, as D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), perhaps the best-known exponent of Zen in the West, wrote decades ago: “We have lost our spiritual balance and feel shaky about our destiny as human beings. We are negating everything that has held us somehow together not only socially or communally but essentially as individuals.”