Japanese Art Celebrating Zen Buddhism Arrives at the McClung Museum

As a college student, I had a chance to experience the Japanese tea ceremony, or chanoyu, during an autumn holiday, thanks to my friend K. Matsumoto. The formal yet joyous ritual seemed in tune with our mostly deserted campus, and I was fascinated by the precise way she ladled powdery green tea and whisked it with a bamboo implement resembling some sort of spiny but delicate sea creature. K. had clearly learned the steps of the process over time, and I was impressed by her intensity. However, I didn't quite grasp that her right-mind mode when enacting aspects of the ceremony (with ceramic pieces she herself had crafted, no less) was a meditative immersion in the very essence of Zen Buddhism.

The significance of Zen landscaping and the "way of tea" is acknowledged in Zen Buddhism and the Arts of Japan, a recently installed show at the University of Tennessee's Frank H. McClung Museum, curated by John Fong with the assistance of Megan Bryson of UT's religious studies department. On display through the end of the year, the exhibition is dominated by 40 exquisitely presented scrolls, but it also incorporates glass cases containing gilt bronze plaques, a 3-foot-tall wood figure, and paraphernalia required by the aforementioned tea ceremony: stoneware, an iron kettle, and a lacquered wood container, among other items. Two pilgrim's robes and a rock garden approximately 4 feet wide and 16 feet long add to the mix, with the garden linking various sections of the gallery. Bold black ink, often on silk, is especially striking in low but adequate light—all that's missing is the sound of trickling water.

The word "Zen," a phonetic translation into Japanese of chan, the Chinese character representing a meditative mind, denotes a version of Buddhism with roots extending back to Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian Buddha himself, who lived between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C.E. Migrating from India to China via the Silk Road, Buddhism did not become widespread in Japan until the 12th century, approximately 1,000 years after its appearance in China. That Chinese calligraphy has greatly influenced Zen art is no surprise, then, although Japanese monks found ways of even further refining the imagery accompanying graceful and apparently spontaneous strokes. Visitors to the McClung can trace that influence in pieces from Japan's Edo period (1600-1868) and later, into the contemporary world.

The exhibition's rock garden installation represents Zen karesansui—meaning "mountains and water," such gardens date back to the Muromachi period (1392-1573). With gravel raked into sinuous lines punctuated by a few thoughtfully chosen rocks (one possessing the lyrical leaning of a bonsai specimen), the displayed garden reflects the accompanying calligraphy, both arts paring form to its most basic elements. Karesansui, the beginnings of which correspond with the existence of gargoyles in Europe, has changed very little, due to its timeless simplicity.

According to Zen doctrine, we're all Buddha—like, already possessing Zen mind and spirit simply in need of awakening. But perhaps one requires the jarring guidance of a Zen master like Nakahara Nantenbo (1839-1925) to reach an enlightened state. The work of Nantenbo, whose name refers to the nandina tree staff with which he'd strike students in need of discipline, can be seen in numerous scrolls on view, one depicting a sketchy Mount Fuji. Most importantly, Nantenbo's work exemplifies a sort of bridge to the modern era.

Another Nantenbo image tells the story of Old Man Sai, whose neighbors proclaimed it bad luck when his horse ran away. Said Sai, "Maybe, maybe not." The horse came back with a magnificent stallion—good luck. Then Sai's son was thrown when riding the stallion and broke his leg. "Bad luck," the neighbors again proclaimed, and again Sai said, "Maybe, maybe not." When war broke out and Sai's son was exempt from service in a war costing many young men their lives, it was good luck once more.

The point Nantenbo was making is that if one treats fortune and misfortune equally, neither will register as being either good or bad. As for the nandina rod, a central image in Nantenbo's ink drawings, it is only one of many ways Zen teachers have encouraged students' quest to reach transcendence, or nirvana. Seemingly meaningless riddles known as koans have also been a means by which awakening could be spurred, and they appear alongside poetry in various exhibited scrolls at the McClung.

Regarding refinement, paintings of bamboo by the Chinese monk Du-peng Taiho (during the Obaku phase of Zen art) seem murky and crowded when compared to their Japanese counterparts. But the omnipresent enso, a circular image symbolizing complete enlightenment, draws pieces from different periods together into a satisfying whole that should satisfy any Knoxville gallery-goer. Or, as Nantenbo said, "The land is numinous and the people are outstanding in this divine place."