Many of the Zen arts trace their origins to China but receive their fullest expression in Japan. These art forms include painting, calligraphy, poetry, photography, archery, swordsmanship, tea ceremony, flower arranging, and garden design. Typically, Zen art eschews narrative for an aesthetic sensibility that simultaneously conveys openness and compactness. The aim of the art is to inspire insight rather than devotion. In this way Zen art is similar to a koan.
Zen painting takes as its subject landscapes, depictions of famous Zen stories, koans, and Zen masters. For example, landscape paintings seek to depict the enormity of the universe and the smallness of humanity in the context of nature.
There is a tradition of art practice within Zen. Art arises spontaneously and manifests the buddha-nature within you. Art practice is mindfulness training. The art relies on a foundation of technical training that is then expressed in spontaneous practice. Zen art tends to be simple, sometimes stark, and always lovely.
The ten ox-herding pictures are attributed to Kakuan Shion, twelfthcentury Zen master from China. Early ox-herding pictures have existed, but Kakuan Shion is known to have created the entire sequence of ten that has survived to this day.
Japanese calligraphy is an art form spiritually expressed through Zen. The artist must be in touch with buddha-nature in order to create an expression of enlightenment. The brush stroke must come from a union with the world; no separation must exist — no I and pen, just the act itself.
Japanese calligraphy dates back to the seventh century, where it was part of art practice and meditation in monasteries. Often, the subject of a Japanese calligraphy and painting would be a koan. One of the most common examples of zenga is the open circle, called enso. The simplicity of the enso was particularly popular during the Edo period of Japan in the eighteenth century. Enso symbolized enlightenment, emptiness, and life itself. In the series of ox-herding pictures previously mentioned, the eighth step in the sequence (both ox and self vanish) is represented by enso.
During the execution of the calligraphy, the slightest hesitation on the part of the artist will cause the ink to blot on the thin rice paper, and the calligraphy will be ruined. Technique is learned and perfected over many years before such spontaneity is possible. Once the boundary between art supplies, art, and self are gone, the art can be executed.
Japanese flower arranging is called ikebana. Ikebana evolved in Japan over the course of many centuries. The written history of ikebana can be traced back to the fifteenth century, to the first ikebana school. Many years of training are required before someone achieves the technique necessary to perform ikebana well. Many different ways of fastening the flowers into an arrangement are possible, using various techniques. The essence of ikebana is simplicity, and in contrast to Western flower arrangement, very few flowers, leaves, and stems are used to achieve the desired effect. Ikebana uses the flowers, the container, and the space around the flower arrangement as part of the artistic impression.
There are different styles of ikebana. Some styles use low containers and the flowers are piled on top. Other styles use tall, narrow vases and the flowers have a tossed-about look to them. Ikebana strives to use seasonal flowers and foliage in a naturalistic presentation. Traditional forms of ikebana used three points to represent the realms of heaven, human, and earth.
The essence of Buddhist art is the Buddhist practice of the artist. The art itself is an expression of enlightenment and the creation of the art an act of enlightenment. Years of technical study can go into a single moment of expression. From the centuries' old stupas to the Zen gardens of today, Buddhist art is integral for awakening. Art can depict the cosmos in a painting or a single moment in a photo. Art can last for centuries, such as the Borobudur Temple of Java, or it can last hours, like a Tibetan sand painting. No matter the outcome of the durability of the art, the essence is in the creation itself.
The ability to become one with the act of creation is at the heart of Buddhist art forms. Art in Buddhism is an act of the deepest love and connection with the world.