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.  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 . 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.
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.
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.
Looking at the left part of the picture, you can see a forest. A forest is a place of peace and quiet.
The right part is the opposite: moving and loud. Whatever it is, a waterfall, an avalanche – it thunders down with a roar.
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) , who became known for his 6 laws of painting . The second and most important is qi yun sheng dong (气韵生动).  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.
 “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.
 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.
 A good and long article on this: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26566382
 qiyun shengdong (气韵生动 “spirit resonance, life-motion”) https://www.britannica.com/art/qiyun-shengdong
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