Zen Buddhism And Its Relationship
to Elements of Eastern And Western Arts

Fredric Lieberman



Basic Principles of Zen


Zen and the Arts


Zen and Contemporary Western Art



I. Basic Principles of Zen

ZEN IN CHINA shared much with the Taoism of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, so much that it is difficult to determine how much of Zen has Buddhist origins, how much Taoist. It is important to remember, in this connection, that we are speaking of the so-called "philosophical" Taoism and Zen, as opposed to the later "degenerate Taoism" and "institutionalized Zen" of more recent times.

The basic premise that the highest truth, or first principle, or Tao, is not expressible in words or conceivable through logical thought is common to both Taoism and Zen. Both hold, moreover, that an intuitive understanding of the first principle is possible, and this is called enlightenment. The enlightened Taoist sage is considered to have gained some special knowledge, coupled with arcane skills, and thus becomes somehow removed from the world, but the Zen Master gains nothing other than the realization that there is nothing to gain, and is thus more than ever in the world.

Whereas Lao-tzu poetically says "The Tao that can be named is not the real (eternal) Tao," the Zen Master takes this for granted; if questioned on the subject his answer will most likely be a non sequitur, or he might scream "kwatz!" or strike the disciple. This is not Taoistic quietism (wu-wei) but action where words will not do. The effect is to force the student back into his own mind, rather than to foster a dependence on teachers.

Enlightenment consists in realizing that Buddha-nature exists in everything and everyone. "See into your own mind" and you will find the Buddha-nature that has been there all along. The historical Buddha is no greater or less than the lowest sentient being--all share in Buddha-nature. Scriptures are useless, ritual leads nowhere. Enlightenment is possible for everyone: the illiterate can achieve the same experience as the learned scholar. Eternity is here and now. One need not seek to learn something new, just realize what is already present.

Buddha-nature is not metaphysical, not something apart from ourselves. There is nothing to gain from enlightenment. We realize that there is nothing to realize. Some Zen scholars have been more adamant on this point than others. Suzuki has said: "Before Zen men are men and mountains are mountains; during Zen study things become confused; after enlightenment men are men and mountains are mountains, only one's feet are a little off the ground." Other scholars hold that there is nothing at all: we have always been enlightened, and will forever be deluded; Zen enlightenment consists only in this realization. (Fung 1952:II, 400).

To pass from delusion to enlightenment means to leave one's mortal humanity behind and enter sagehood. The life of the sage, however, . . . is no different from that of ordinary men, for "the ordinary mind is the Tao," and the sage's mind is the ordinary mind. ( Fung 1952:II,402-403).

Buddha-nature lies in the fact of being, not outside it. As Blyth says (1960a:27): "the -ite is bliss. There is no bliss in anything infinite or finite. Iteness only is bliss." The universe is an indeterminate, constantly changing state of iteness. Being and non-being merge. Opposites share Buddha-nature, differ in their individual essences or spirits.

According to both Zen and Taoism, the attempted control of nature by man is at once absurd and useless. The history of Western society and its technology has been the story of man's long struggle to control nature. The Taoist would say: act like water, through yielding is strength. When dealing with men rather than nature, the Taoist would counsel that, after recognizing the inherent power of yielding, one may also use strength if the particular situation warrants it. The Zen master merely says: act and don't worry about it; what you do may be right or wrong, neither is bad. That is, from the universal point of view there is no right and wrong: these are values superimposed by society--the universe makes no distinctions or categories. This raises the delicate question or moral responsibility, but it should be noted that the Zen adept strives to fulfill the "Four Great Vows" in which it is stated: "I vow to save all sentient beings." Compassion is also part of Zen.

Of course there is more to Zen than this, but these few ideas should suffice as background for the following discussion of Zen and the Arts.

II. Zen and the Arts

Many scholars have ventured general comparisons of Eastern and Western Art. Suzuki (1957:30) suggests that Oriental art depicts spirit, while Western art depicts form. Watts (1957:174) holds that the West sees and depicts nature in terms of man-made symmetries and super imposed forms, squeezing nature to fit his own ideas, while the East accepts the object as is, and presents it for what it is, not what the artist thinks it means. Gulick puts it this way:

Oriental artists are not interested in a photographic representation of an object but in interpreting its spirits . . . . Occidental art . . . exalts personality, is anthropocentric . . . . Oriental art . . . has been cosmocentric. It sees man as an integral part of nature . . . . The affinity between man and nature was what impressed Oriental artists rather than their contrast, as in the West. To Occidentals, the physical world was an objective reality--to be analyzed, used, mastered. To Orientals, on the contrary, it was a realm of beauty to be admired, but also of mystery and illusion to be pictured by poets, explained by mythmakers, and mollified by priestly incantations. This contrast between East and West had incalculable influence on their respective arts, as well as on their philosophies and religions. (1963:253-255).

Art in the West has developed a complex linguistic symbolism through which the artist manipulates his material to communicate something to his audience. Art as communication is basic to Western aesthetics, as is the corollary interrelationship of form and content. Music is considered a language of feeling (Hanslick 1957) and consists of"sonorous moving forms." A landscape painting in the Western tradition is not merely an aesthetically pleasing reproduction; the artist uses his techniques of balance, perspective, and color, to express a personal reaction to the landscape--his painting is a frozen human mood. The aesthetic object is used as a link between the audience and the artist's feelings. And the artist's technique is used to create an illusion of the forms of reality.

The Zen artist, on the other hand, tries to suggest by the simplest possible means the inherent nature of the aesthetic object. Anything may be painted, or expressed in poetry, and any sounds may become music. The job of the artist is to suggest the essence, the eternal qualities of the object, which is in itself a work of natural art before the artist arrives on the scene. In order to achieve this, the artist must fully understand the inner nature of the aesthetic object, its Buddha nature. This is the hard part. Technique, though important, is useless without it; and the actual execution of the art work may be startlingly spontaneous, once the artist has comprehended the essence of his subject.

Belief in the superiority of spiritual mastery over technical mastery is evidenced by numerous stories of bushido matches (Japanese sword fighting) in which untrained monks defeated trained samurai because they naturally comprehended the basic nature of the bushido contest, and had no fear of death whatsoever.

A Chinese painter was once commissioned to paint the Emperor's favorite goat. The artist asked for the goat, that he might study it. After two years the Emperor, growing impatient, asked for the return of the goat; the artist obliged. Then the Emperor asked about the painting. The artist confessed that he had not yet made one, and taking an ink brush he drew eight nonchalant strokes, creating the most perfect goat in the annals of Chinese painting.

The style of painting favored by Zen artists makes use of a horsehair brush, black ink, and either paper or silk. It is known as sumi-e. The great economy of means is necessary to express the purity and simplicity of the eternal nature of the subject, and also because it is a generalizing factor. Zen art does not try to create the illusion of reality. It abandons true to life perspective, and works with artificial space relations which make one think beyond reality into the essence of reality. This concept of essence as opposed to illusion is basic to Zen art in all phases.

An interesting example of the varieties of approach to artistic representation is that of dance gesture in Asia.

Indian dance gestures, called mudra, have developed from a simple representative system to a highly abstract linguistic symbolism which can express non physical states of being; this development is remarkably similar to that which occurred in the history of Chinese writing: the slow development from pictographic to ideographic characters. The mudra are not immediately recognizable in most cases, and must be learned. A mudra might represent the beating of a drum with nearly imperceptible fingermotion, or perhaps a matching body motion. There is no drum, no physical activity of actual beating.

The contemporary opera of China (Peking Opera) is a relatively late development. Little is known of the earlier forms of Chinese opera in relation to their actual performance, though many texts are still extant. Dance gesture in Peking Opera is part of a bewildering gamut of highly stylized gestures, costumes, masks, and properties, all of which lead the initiated to immediate recognition of the characters and story being presented. Most dance gestures, though imaginative and graceful, are easily recognizable without instruction. When beating a drum, the hands and body move as if beating a drum: no drum is used, but even the uninitiated cannot mistake the meaning of the action. The gestures of Peking Opera are pictographic rather than ideographic, and are greatly stylized by convention.

In Japanese no drama, a Zen inspired form, the gestures have been abstracted by simplification, rather than imagination. As in sumi-e painting, the barest possible means are employed. But the aesthetics demands that we do not violate the basic nature of no: that it is a drama. It is not reality, nor does it attempt the illusion of reality: rather, it suggests reality in its essence. If completely imaginative gestures were used, one would be impressed with the skill of the performer in conjuring up before our eyes invisible drums or boats or swords. Our thoughts would be bound up in the intricacies of technique, rather than free to comprehend the underlying eternal truth. No, reality is not imitated in no drama: the essence of reality, that which is eternal, the Buddha nature in its general and particular forms is depicted.

Therefore, when a drum is to be beaten, an elaborate (but not too elaborate) toy drum is used as a prop, usually very small, and the performer beats upon it without sounding, and in a visual rhythm completely free of the accompanying music! We cannot possibly imagine that a real person is playing a real drum; we are forced beyond the surface of reality into the emptiness of essence, the just being so.

This forced abandonment of external reality is everywhere obvious in no. If a boat is called for in the story, an imaginary boat would let us imagine our own private imitation of reality: the no prop is a simple, open bamboo frame, wrapped in white paper: a public denial of external reality.

To complete the cycle, we must consider the proletarian theater of Japan, the kabuki. Here the aesthetic demands utmost imitation and dramatization of reality. Revolving stages and painted sets reproduce to the letter any city or country scene (and occasionally even ocean scenes). When a drum is to be beaten in kabuki, a real drum is really beaten. The overly dramatic quality of kabuki is most unZen, perhaps even antiZen. Today kabuki is vastly popular with all classes of people in Japan, but no remains an aristocratic, highly specialized art, inaccessible to most of the population.

It is strange that the peculiar nature of Zen aesthetics created a dramatic form, the no, which is so isolated from the main stream of social arts, while at the same time fostering a poetic form, the haiku, which has become immensely popular.

The haiku, as developed by Basho, and to a lesser extent by Issa, was couched in the popular idiom and avoided literary sounding phrases. It is poetry which celebrates the commonplace.


Gazing at the flowers
of the morning glory
I eat my breakfast. --Basho


Within the highly restrictive verseform of seventeen syllables, the haiku presents a precisely chosen objective slice of nature, and its earthiness is accessible to all who can read or hear it read; it carries out in poetry the ideals of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, who democratically held that every man has the same ability and opportunity to become enlightened regardless of education or status.

The aesthetic of haiku is not far removed from that of sumi e or no. The basic principle is still: the most of the essence with the least possible means. One must work within only a few syllables, and eschew the high-flown dramatic language typical of other genres.

Zen music is more difficult to discuss. A discussion of no music in detail would become overly technical, therefore this section shall be confined to a few general remarks of an introductory nature, to provide a basis for later discussion.

The Japanese have long been aware of the sounds of nature and have identified these with music. The Chinese have been a bit more hesitant to identify music as being those sounds produced by nature. In The Tale of Genji, music of nature plays at least an equal part with human music. Thus, in Zen-influenced music, one might expect to find an aesthetic situation similar to that in the other Zen arts: the essence of the sounds of nature suggested by the least possible means. Or, in further abstracted form: the essence of sound itself suggested by the least possible means. Both have a part in Zen music. It is first necessary to determine, then, the nature of sound as the Japanese heard it.

Sound exists in opposition to silence, and music must reflect this basic fact. Sounds take their being from silence and return to it. The inner nature of sound seems to be connected in some mysterious fashion to its transitory character. There is also in sound a sense of continual change, a "becoming," an inexorable leading from tone to tone and finally back into silence.

Western music aesthetics is based upon the concept of a discrete tone as a building block of larger forms, which are in turn combined at various architectonic levels to create a movement or complete piece (for instance, the notes C,E,G may sound simultaneously as a chord, or sequentially as part of a melodic phrase; the chord or phrase may be combined with other chords or phrases to produce harmonic or melodic sections, which are in turn combined to produce sub divisions of movements, et cetera).

However, Zen music refuses to establish fixed pitch levels as building blocks, rather connects sounds together which are continually becoming one another, coalescing. From these sounds, longer melody lines are developed, but there is never a sense of architectonic structure, always free movement from idea to idea.

In no music, which is primarily composed of utai or singing and hayashi or orchestra, the rhythmic element is the underlying key. And the rhythm of no music is constructed in a fashion similar to that just discussed in connection with pitch level organization. Rather than a series of rhythmic building blocks on a fixed time constant as in Western music, no music utilizes a continually varying time structure, which effectively suggests varying degrees of kinetic tension. Each sound has its own rhythmic point in space time, and is not thought of as part of a pattern based on fixed clock time; it is itself and not related to any imaginary superimposed pattern.

Another genre, the music of the shakuhachi fits this aesthetic perfectly. It is primarily a melodic instrument (an open, vertical flute) and is extremely difficult to play; the performer gently coaxes the tones out of the instrument, producing an incredible variety of timbre and pitch gradation. The Chinese predecessor of this instrument (hsiao) was considerably easier to play and could manage discrete tones without any trouble. The influence of Zen on the nature of this instrument began when it came to Japan.

III. Zen and Contemporary Western Art


Artists and philosophers have long been faced with the problem of what is expressed in a work of art (or, put in another way, what is created in a work of art). At the beginning of this century many Western artists found traditional answers to this problem unsatisfactory, being disturbed by the difficulty in pinpointing meaning as felt by different audiences. The same work of art, they found, was likely to instill quite different feelings in any two audiences, both of which may be opposite to the artist's intention; the question then arises: who is right? is anyone right? The plethora of aesthetic theories resulting from this soul searching resulted in general agreement on the side of formalism as opposed to referentialism. In music, formalism means that the music is thought of as not expressing or meaning anything outside of itself (except through specific learned habit responses); music cannot refer to a specific external happening or emotion; however there remains disagreement as to the exact nature of this internalized musical expression. Stravinsky holds that music cannot express anything but music: we follow the evolution of a musical idea with purely intellectual interest (Stravinsky 1956). Leonard Meyer posits a semiconscious level of emotional affect caused by basic psychological responses to musical sound terms (Meyer 1956). The differences between Meyer and Stravinsky are not so great, however, as those between the formalists in general and the recent group of musicians under the intellectual leadership of John Cage. Cage says:

. . . the support of the dance is not to be found in the music but in the dancer himself, on his own two legs, that is, and occasionally on a single one

Likewise the music consists of single sounds or groups of sounds which are not supported by harmonies but resound within a space of silence From this independence of music and dance a rhythm results which is not that of horses' hooves or other regular beats but which reminds us of a multiplicity of events in time and space--stars, for instance, in the sky, or activities on earth viewed from the air.

We are not, in these dances and music, saying something. We are simpleminded enough to think that if we were saying something we would use words. We are rather doing something. The meaning of what we do is determined by each one who sees and hears it. At a recent performance . . . a student turned to a teacher and said, "What does it mean?" The teacher's reply was, "Relax, there are no symbols here to confuse you. Enjoy yourself! I may add there are no stories and no psychological problems. There is simply an activity of movement, sound, and light ... (Cage 1961: 94 96).

I have quoted Cage at length, because of his nearness to Zen aesthetics, and the clarity with which it is expressed. Cage's conception of music differs from that of the formalists in that he does not feel the need for any musical idea as such. The sounds themselves are to be listened to aesthetically. The difference between noise and music is in the approach of the audience. Roughly stated, noise is heard, music is listened to; this is not a general definition, but the subjectivism should be clear.

"There are no symbols here to confuse you" Just the aesthetic object, to be contemplated for its own sake.

When we read Cage's manifesto on music, his connection with Zen becomes clear:

nothing is accomplished by writing a piece of music
nothing is accomplished by hearing a piece of music
nothing is accomplished by playing a piece of music (Cage 1961:xii)

This reads as if a quote from a Zen Master: "in the last resort nothing gained." (Fung, 1952: II, 401). Cage studied Zen with Daistez Suzuki when the master was lecturing at Columbia University in New York. Thus we see that Cage has consciously applied principles of Zen to solve his personal aesthetic problem. He does not try to superimpose his will in the form of structure or predetermination in any form.

Cage has, in fact, created a method of composition from Zen aesthetics. It was originally a synthetic method, deriving inspiration from elements of Zen art: the swift brush strokes of Sesshu and the sumi-e painters which leave happenstance ink blots and stray scratches in their wake, the unpredictable glaze patterns of the cha no yu potters, the eternal quality of the rock gardens, the great open spaces in the paintings of Wang Wei and Mu Ch'i. Then, isolating the element of chance as vital to artistic creation which is to remain in harmony with the universe, he selected the oracular I Ching (Classic of Changes, an ancient Chinese book) as a means of providing random information which he translated into musical notations. Later, he moved away from the I Ching to more abstract methods of indeterminate composition: scores based on star maps, and scores entirely silent, or with long spaces of silence, in which the only sounds are supplied by nature or by the uncomfortable audience. "Just let the sounds be themselves."

Many young composers and painters have followed in Cage's footsteps, and the school of chance art found the necessity of setting up categories to properly delimit the various types of chance composition. These categories are at present three in number and are described as follows.

1) Music indeterminate of composition. This category includes pieces created through the use of some random system which effectively isolates the composer's will from the final manuscript. The piece, as notated by the composer is then performed, as accurately as possible, by the

2) Music indeterminate of performance. This category includes pieces which make use of improvisation, and has taken much from Jazz. The performer is given freedom in interpreting the score.

3) Combinations, in varying degrees, of categories 1 and 2. The third category is the most recent, and the most populated. As might be expected, violent reactions have issued from conservative quarters, and Alan Watts was moved to protest (1959:11 14):

Today there are western artists avowedly using Zen to justify the indiscriminate framing of simply anything--blank canvases, totally silent music, torn up bits of paper dropped on a board and stuck where they fall, or dense masses of mangled wire. The work of the composer John Cage is rather typical of this tendency. In the name of Zen, he has forsaken his earlier and promising work with the "prepared piano," to confront audiences with Ampex taperecorders simultaneously bellowing forth random noises. There is, indeed, a considerable therapeutic value in allowing oneself to be deeply aware of any sight or sound that may arise. For one thing, it brings to mind the marvel of seeing and hearing as such. For another, the profound willingness to listen to or gaze upon anything at all frees the mind from fixed preconceptions of beauty, creating, as it were, a free space in which altogether new forms and relationships may emerge. But this is therapy; it is not yet art ....

Just as the skilled photographer often amazes us with his lighting and framing of the most unlikely subjects, so there are painters and writers in the West, as well as in modern Japan, who have mastered the authentically Zen art of controlling accidents . . . The real genius of Chinese and Japanese Zen artists in their use of controlled accidents goes beyond the discovery of fortuitous beauty. It lies in being able to express, at the level of artistry, the realization of that ultimate standpoint from which "anything goes" and at which "all things are on one suchness." The mere selection of any random shape to stick in a frame simply confuses the metaphysical and the artistic domains; it does not express the one in terms of the other.

"Methinks he doth protest too much." How does Watts know the extent to which accidents are "controlled" in Zen art? How is it possible to control an accident? Is the accident desired, or accidental? What quality is more admired, the "fortuitous beatuy" or the accidental ness? And how to relate the kunstgewerbe of the potters to the sumi-e. These and similar questions must remain unanswered for the present. Cage simply answered Watts's diatribe (1961:XI):

What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen (attendance at lectura by Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki, reading of the literature) I doubt whether I would have done what I have done. I am told that Alan Watts has questioned the relation between my work and Zen. I mention this in order to free Zen of any responsibility for my actions. I shall continue making them, however.

From recent statements, it is certain that Cage still considers his actions experimental; however, he stresses the need for subjective aesthetic appreciation of these actions. The haiku poet can imbue any landscape with poetic feeling, once that landscape has been appreciated aesthetically. The admission of aesthetic contemplation seems to be a mellowing in Cage's approach to music, but there certainly remains one element of traditional Zen arts missing in his work. And that is the concept of essence or eternal quality. Cage does not attempt to suggest, nor to restrict his means or materials. He has escaped so far from discipline that his chance elements more often than not operate in a completely free field, with no external restrictions whatsoever.

This is not Zen, because basic to Zen art is the restriction of means to an absolute minimum. Cage is admittedly eclectic; he feels no need to adopt an entire system of aesthetics for the sake of a few of its principles. He has thus taken the "anything goes" freedom of Zen and Zen arts and combined it with sensuous means surpassing the Wagnerial orchestra. The only self restriction is that of disallowing the composer's will to influence the choice of sounds. Thus, the all overimpression of Cage's aesthetics has the hydraulic flavor of classical Taoism rather than that of Zen.

The most important question at this point is: will Cage move in the direction of "musical patterns," or will he continue taking from Zen and find some way to "express the most with the least." It would seem that either direction is possible, but because of Cage's predilection against "patterns" (implying "meaning" and "symbol"), economy of means would be more probable. One can only wait and see.


Fredric Lieberman



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