Dao, Zen and Buddha – and Daoist extra!
Today I want to share a painting that I think is a special treat. It is by Liang Kai (梁楷; c. 1140 – c. 1210), best known in the West for his painting of Li Bai. Only a few know his “The story of eight eminent monks” – scroll though. And that’s very surprising because I personally think it’s a very important picture. Not only my heart as a sinologist and art historian but also that of the painter laughs at this picture. Why do I think it is so important?
I have stated in a previous post that the boundaries between Daoism, Zen, and Buddhism have never been strict in China. In the west, even in a single religion (Catholics – Protestants), we often divide too clearly and have done a lot of mischief with it over time. . China, on the other hand, has always absorbed new ideas and assimilated them with what already existed. 
Daoism has been around as a philosophical concept for over 2000 years. When Bodhidharma brought Buddhism to China at the end of the 5th century, it quickly became a form that was absorbed into existing Chinese – basically Daoist – thought and then occupied a vast space until the middle of the last century. The situation was similar to Zen Buddhism, which had its heyday in the 11th-12th centuries and then declined in importance when it split into a Northern and Southern school – just as was the case with painting. As we know, Bodhidharma is also considered the founder of Zen Buddhism.
When we look at this section of Liang Kai’s scroll, the first thing that strikes us is its Buddhist content: Bodhidharma during his famous 9-year meditation in front of a rock.
At the same time, we also notice the brush technique that we know from Zen painting. And of course, we see the spirit of Zen in every face. The monk sweeping with a broom is of course reminiscent of Han Shan and Shi De (broom). The spiritual superstructure, so to speak, is Daoism. The end of the scroll shows a typical Daoist motif in the painting: a scholar in a fishing boat. In a certain way, this motif has become the epitome of the Daoist state of mind: unintentionally doing nothing (wu wei 無為) , surrounded by pure nature, the Daoist is at peace and harmony with himself and his environment.
The fact that these 3 formative streams of thought of that time were presented in such a skillful way in one painting now explains my enthusiasm better. Every time I come to Shanghai, I visit the museum to admire it.
Extra: Daoist Prank
There is a wonderful story I want to tell. When I was at the Academy in Beijing for the second time in 1982, I primarily tried to collect material for my dissertation. In my unbelievable naivety, I had planned to ask recognized painters about their understanding of Dao. Naivety because the time of the Cultural Revolution was only a few years over and everyone who had not swung to Mao’s course was often exposed to the worst persecution and punishment, above all the Daoists and Confucianists.
A dear friend, Zhang Zhizhong 张志忠, also a painter himself, managed to organize some talks. And so we both found ourselves at Lin Kai 林锴 one Sunday morning. I liked him right from the start, he showed me some of his work, and we had some nice small talk. Then my question: “What is Dao for you?” [The term DAO (道) originally meant (and still today in combination with another character) way, road.]
He thought for a while and then said, “If I go to the market from here to buy vegetables, that is Dao.” Pause, then: “When I return from the market, that is Dao”.
??? There wasn’t much more to it than that. That was the essence of the answer to my question. I’m always up for a good joke and that was it for me – if I remember correctly.
My friend brought an album and I asked beforehand if he could draw a picture for me in the album. Weeks later I got the album back and was delighted with the picture. (The album went from painter to painter and so I was able to collect some nice pictures from that time.)
The tip of the joke
Of course, I watched the album a few more times later but basically forgot about it. 3 years ago I gave a lecture on Daoism in Chinese painting and I remembered this book again. Only now did I consciously read what Lin Kai actually wrote:
面壁10年图破壁: “10 years looking at the wall to break through the wall”.
What a sentence, what an ingenious rascal!! Only now did it strike me: Bodhidharma sat meditating in front of the wall for 9 years. What should the number 10 mean? Well, the Cultural Revolution lasted 10 years, so the good man “stared at the wall for 10 years.” BTW: By writing the colophon in seal script, an antiquated style that very few can read today, the statement remained readable only to the initiated.
 Even today: just think of the Northern Ireland conflict, which still has the potential to flare up again.
 Even socialism, adopted from European into Russia and then tailored to its needs by China, has lost much of the basic idea. It would not have been possible for the Chinese to understand dialectical materialism because of their Confucian attitude. Antithesis in an empire that follows the strictest hierarchies?