zen moment painting

More nonZENse

From Dao to Zen

Zen (禪) seems to be quite popular again, which is generally very gratifying. But if you check the search engines, you will be surprised by the many superficial articles about it and it is even worse if you search for Zen paintings, especially as far as recent examples are concerned.

As already mentioned, Zen has played an important role in me for over 50 years. And yet I would never claim to understand Zen. One cannot understand Zen with conventional thinking. Rather, it is a practice to advance spiritually, a mindset, a way of life, and more.

I occasionally mention it because I often try to express my level of knowledge in my painting. These attempts do not claim to be “correct”, a term that does not exist anyway. They are reflections but based on a solid foundation.

Traditional Chinese painting of the last millennium is predominantly of a Taoist nature. [1] At least in the area that we commonly refer to as freehand painting (t 寫意, s 写意) and which is assigned to the Southern School [2]. The Northern School, on the other hand, is largely influenced by Confucianism.
I don’t want to complicate things too much, I rather should write a separate post on this topic.

Example Zen

I personally see a painting like this example below as Zen-oriented. Among other things, it plays with the concept of emptiness, in which everything is contained. I painted it this summer.

zen moment painting

Example Dao

But how I get there has to do with Daoism (Taoism). And I would like to explain that in more detail.
In addition to understanding nature and its principles, Daoism is about relating so-called opposites such as light::dark, dynamic::statics, concrete::abstract, yin::yang, etc., or the representation of the true self of the represented object.

To illustrate this, I have chosen this recent study, which treats some of these opposites quite well in a Daoist sense.

dao art work with wood and water

Looking at the left part of the picture, you can see a forest. A forest is a place of peace and quiet.

details of a dao painting

The right part is the opposite: moving and loud. Whatever it is, a waterfall, an avalanche – it thunders down with a roar.

dao painting details

And that brings us to the next contrast: The top right corner points to the sky, far away. The bottom right corner points to depth. The center of the image appears very close, while the upper background takes us into the distance. Etc.

The forefather of Daoism in painting

This principle goes back to Xie He (謝赫, 6th century) [3], who became known for his 6 laws of painting [4]. The second and most important is qi yun sheng dong (气韵生动). [4] Unfortunately, it has become common practice to translate the term “spiritual resonance” or something similar. In ancient China, however, “qi” stood for yin and yang, i.e. opposites. And if you look at it this way, this law also makes sense: place yin and yang (i.e. the opposites) in a harmonious relationship and thereby create life.
When Chan Buddhism (which originated in China 5th century and is known today mainly in its Japanese variant as Zen) took on painting, Zen Buddhist considerations flowed in. There are no opposites in Zen philosophy. Above all: All thinking only takes place in our head and has no substance.

And yet I think that if you want to approach Zen art reliably, you first have to go through this Daoist concept or phase. At least that’s the case for me. A picture like the one shown above is the result of an intensive study of Daoism over decades.

Of course, there is endless much to say about Taoism in painting. In my postings, I repeatedly touch on sub-areas.


In my last post, there is a photo of a blind musician playing an erhu. I promised to present an example of this music. It’s a special treat and comes from the film Street Angel (馬路天使, 1937). The young, sweet Zhou Xuan (周璇,1920 – 1957) took the hearts of a large audience by storm and is still a music icon in China today. The blind musician also played this song which I hadn’t known until then.

the song starts at 1:30. the 2 guys at the beginning are her friends, the drunk one she is in love with. the erhu player is her uncle who runs the restaurant


[1] “In Daoism, everything is composed of the two opposing forces known as Yin and Yang. The two forces are in a constant struggle within everything. When they reach harmony, the energy of life is created. Someone who understands this point will not exploit nature, but will treat it well and learn from it”. source: https://chinadialogue.net/

[2,] The Southern School (Chinese: 南宗画; pinyin: nán zōng huà) of Chinese painting, often called “literati painting” (文人画; wén rén huà), is a term used to denote art and artists which stand in opposition to the formal Northern School (北宗画; běi zōng huà) of painting.

[3] Xie He was a painter and painting theorist during the Qi and Liang Dynasties of the Southern Dynasties (6th century). Good at genre painting and figure painting, he is the author of “Ancient Paintings”, the earliest painting treatise in China. He proposed the “six methods” of Chinese painting, which became the principles followed by later painters, critics, and connoisseurs.

[4] A good and long article on this: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26566382

[5] qiyun shengdong (气韵生动 “spirit resonance, life-motion”) https://www.britannica.com/art/qiyun-shengdong




28 responses to “More nonZENse”

  1. diespringerin avatar

    The paintings are wonderful. And thank you for that gem of music, it is so touching …

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! You are very kind! I’m glad you love this little piece of nostalgia.

  2. swabby429 avatar

    Zen is difficult to express in words, but art comes closest to manifesting its essence.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Yes, definitely! Still it is very difficult (for me). Expressing something on paper that cannot be expressed by words is a difficult task.

      1. klotylda avatar

        Trzeba urodzić się poetą.

      2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        Jesteś bardzo miły! Tradycyjne chińskie malarstwo i poezja są bardzo bliskie. Więc większość malarzy była dobrymi poetami.

  3. The Sicilian Storyteller avatar

    Powerful. This is definitely not nonZENsense!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! but since Zen is a very difficult world of ideas, one or the other will see it as nonsense.

  4. Ashley avatar

    Dear Friedrich, I have read many books about Buddhism and Zen but here, with your artist’s eye, you have clarified many things! Rediscovering “art” after I retired 7 years ago has challenged me, in that I carry so much baggage of this life, and I need to restart my thinking! I love this post, even the strangeness of the Chinese language in the video, and will check the links that you have added. Why am I only finding your posts now, whilst I’m on the slippery slope of an ageing life and in a world that seems to be teetering on the edge of calamity? Regards, Ashley 🙋‍♂️

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Dear Ashley, First of all, thank you very much for your kind reply! I’m already retired 🙂 At least on paper. Of course, most of us feel that there must be something higher than the materialistic thinking we face every day. For me personally, probably especially since I’m a painter, I find the “highest” philosophical explanations in Daoism and Zen. And the more I devote myself to the topic, the richer my life becomes – even if it may seem the opposite to some.

      I think you can start practicing mindfulness at any age and with any condition. Then the next steps will take care of themselves. I wish you all the best and good luck! friedrich

  5. luisa zambrotta avatar

    Such a fascinating post!
    The paintings are wonderful and the video is charming🙏

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much for your kind words! I’m so glad you liked it 🙂

      1. luisa zambrotta avatar

        It was wonderful
        … and you are highly welcome 🙏

  6. klotylda avatar

    Vor Jahren habe ich mich praktisch mit Feng-Shui beschäftigt. Das Gleichgewicht zwischen Yin und Yang ist im Prinzip die Grundlage für die Schaffung von Harmonie in jedem Bereich des Lebens eines Menschen und in jedem Raum, in dem er/sie wirkt.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Danke! Ja, genauso ist es. Das ist das Schöne daran, dass dieses Prinzip alle Bereiche betrifft, vom eigenen Körper bis hin zum Universum. So kann man auch gut erkennen, wie weit ein Maler mit seinem Denken ist.

  7. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

    Thanks for the introduction to Daoism/Taoism in painting. How fascinating! After several years of reflections on the Tao Te Ching, I have yet to grasp the depth of its teachings. Your recent study of the contrasting moods of forest and waterfall is beautiful and harmonious.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you for your kind words! I can imagine that it is hard to understand the Dao de Jing. I probably did not understand much when I read it first 50years ago. But by the time it became clearer and clearer. I personally think that it is easier to start with Zhuang Zi. In an case Daoist thoughts need time to become familiar with.

  8. Martha Kennedy avatar

    When I had been back from China only a few months, and was organizing a Festival of Asian Arts and Culture in Denver, I had to audition groups who wanted to participate. One group was a Chinese youth orchestra — some from the PRC, others from Taiwan. One of the girls played “Homesick” on the erhu. I didn’t know the name of the music, but I just sat there and cried. When I asked the conductor (an amazing woman who’d refused to the US in the early 50s) I was stunned. The song said everything that was inside my heart.

    I love also the Yang Chen which I first heard at a concert in China. That music brought a Li Bai poem that I already loved completely to life — I don’t know if there was a relationship between the two, I doubt it, just a thing in me. I can’t comment on Zen. It’s really over my head, but your paintings are beautiful and articulate illustrations of the principles you’ve explained so clearly. I received this book as a gift from a student, and it’s wonderful, whimsical, humorous and clear, Zhuangzi Speaks: The Music of Nature Paperback – July 13, 1992

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you, Martha! Yes, the erhu can trigger feelings 🙂 Yang Qin (the Yang stands for “coming from abroad”) is also very appealing, but for me it’s not so strongly associated with emotions.

      As for Zen, I think some people in the West think it’s something you can learn over a period of time, like learning a craft. For me it’s more like classical music: you start with scales and etudes and if you keep at it the beauty gradually opens up. Even if you don’t become Beethoven, it’s still an enrichment to develop further in this field.

      I do not know the book: Zhuangzi Speaks…but it sounds great. Zhuangzi is certainly one of the best ways to approach Daoism.

  9. Mich avatar

    These paintings are so vivid and intellectually powerful (jiézuò?) they enlighten me as I set out (as old as I am!) on the road to Zen. I am a stranger in these parts seeking sanity after one death too many.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      I am so sorry to hear of your sad experiences! We reached an age when we have to part with dear ones too often (including a dear “ME” we had to give up). Thank you for your kind words! The road to ZEN sure helps to have a brighter life. All the best!

  10. Mich avatar

    Thank you. I’m glad I found your site. You live in Vienna (?), I envy you — such a history of art, architecture and opera.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      I thank YOU! Yes, I live in Vienna and the older I get, the more I appreciate it, especially the quality of life. It might be a bit boring for younger people though.

  11. Mich avatar

    I have a bust of Mozart in my Upstate New York hovel to remind me that once there was culture in the world. My wife, who loved opera, would’ve had season’s tickets in Wien.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      When I was a student, I went to the opera (and the Musikvereinssaal) very often. As a student you got the tickets very cheap. I was able to experience all the big names – what luck.

      1. Mich avatar

        Lucky indeed! The performaces in the ‘music halls’ in the American cities I worked and lived were more along the lines of the burlesque and the bawdy — haha!

      2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        Yes, I was told so. We are more conservative here 🙂

  12. Roberto Alborghetti avatar

    All very engaging and emotionally relevant. Colors and shapes to tell stories and sensations.

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