Asian art: later tradition

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ArtWhen a storyteller crafts a tale, his audience can hope for a balance: the best stories require balancing the words and craftsmanship of the narrative itself with expression of the story’s moral.  In much the same way, paintings – particularly those depicting legends or allegories – strive to show viewers both the event itself and the ideas and themes behind it.  However, achieving this balance can be extremely difficult, and this can be seen very clearly in paintings by different artists depicting the same theme.  The story of Huike Presenting His Severed Arm to Bodhidharma is a painting with a Zen theme. Its interpretations by Sesshu Toyo and his predecessor Dai Jin show how technique can tip the scales both ways: in Sesshu’s version, the narrative quality is more emphasized, while in Dai’s version the depiction of the painting’s themes – that in order to truly express devotion as a disciple, one must be willing to sacrifice anything, even one’s own body, without fear or hesitation – are stronger.

According to legend, Huike desired instruction in meditation and Zen from the first patriarch, Bodhidharma. Though Huike traveled a long way, Bodhidharma was meditating by facing a wall when Huike arrived.  Rather than interrupting the master’s meditation, which Huike so respected, he instead chose to wait in the snow and cold.  Bodhidharma himself was, according to legend, so dedicated to his meditations that he had taken his own eyelids off in anger when they involuntarily closed during a long session. When Bodhidharma emerged from the meditation, he began to lecture Huike on the dedication and sacrifice required to be a disciple.  As a gesture of his true willingness to sacrifice all, Huike cut his own arm off at the elbow and presented it to the master.  Huike would go on to become the second patriarch and a very important figure in Zen himself.

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Dai Jin’s painting interpreting these events is composed horizontally, and much of the painting’s space is taken by the cave and plants surrounding the legend’s characters. In this version, Bodhidharma and Huike are the focus of the painting, but exist in a larger world in which one’s eyes may be drawn to the plants or trees.  The central figure in Dai’s painting is Bodhidharma, who remains unemotional and calm even after Huike’s sacrifice. Huike stands as a secondary figure, illustrating more clearly the Zen themes of the teacher’s superiority and the subservient attitude of the student.  Alternately, the narrative is emphasized by Sesshu’s painting, in which the focus is on Huike’s sacrifice – the part of the story which gathers most attention.

Space is treated very differently in the two paintings, and with clearly distinct effects.  Dai Jin’s painting depicts both figures in the middle ground of the painting, while the foreground and background are devoted to details of the surroundings.  In this painting, the figures are only a part of a greater whole, another Zen theme.  The decision to place the characters surrounded by nature illustrates that this is a story of devotion to ideas, not of egos.  This is an important aspect of the theme: Huike does not remove his arm for egotistical reasons, but for ideological ones.  In Sesshu’s painting, Huike’s presence in the foreground while Bodhidharma remains in the middle ground does not serve this aspect of the theme particularly well – it focuses too heavily on Huike’s shock over the loss of his arm.  However, showing this feeling so close to the viewer does provoke more of a reaction to Huike’s character – something Dai’s painting does not elicit nearly so well.

Perhaps one of the most striking differences between the visions of Dai and Sesshu is their use of volume.  Dai’s complex shading, which gives the effect of three dimensionality, is in stark contrast to Sesshu’s more two dimensional depiction. The soft, curving three dimensionality of Dai’s painting reinforces a feeling of calm, even at a crucial time involving considerable physical discomfort.  Sesshu’s more severe two-dimensional volume forces the viewer into the emotional narrative of the subjects: the attention of the master still lingering on the wall, and the sadness and pain of the student at having just removed part of himself.  But this same emotional confrontation is in contrast to the Zen themes that the self should not be important, and losing a physical part of one’s being shouldn’t be cause for such upset thematically. One could, of course, argue that this depiction of pain is the more realistic, but again, that demonstrates a high level of exposition of the narrative, rather than the themes.

Organic lines dominate the Dai painting, and these organic lines contribute to the feeling of relative serenity in the painting as a whole.  Many people would consider the tranquil feelings suggested by the soft, flowing lines in much of the painting to be at odds with the narrative structure – and perhaps they are – but they are instead indicative of the theme, which emphasizes tranquility, meditation, and subjugation of the self, even at the expense of one’s own flesh and body.  Sesshu’s lines are thicker and bolder, and their shape is more rational than organic.  These bold lines show the boldness of the narrative and of Huike himself.  These bold lines cause the characters to “pop” more than in Dai’s rendition, and while this focus on the figures and therefore their egos perhaps diminishes the Zen themes of the painting somewhat, it also creates a more vivid portrait of the emotions involved.

While the two paintings diverge in many respects, in tone, the most interesting aspect is their similarity.  In each, the largest portion of white space is in the robes of Bodhidharma, making his robes stand out while Huike’s robes are patterned.  The plain white robes show that Bodhidharma has no regard for the egotistical concern of clothing or style, showing that he has gone further in his studies than Huike. Both paintings are alike enough in tone that neither can be said to truly dominate the other when it comes to narrative expression or the illumination of the legend’s Zen themes.

In texture, however, the paintings once again clash.  The textural difference can best be seen by viewing the rock walls of the cave in each painting.  In the Dai painting, in spite of the dramatic hardships Huike is enduring, the cave – and therefore meditation itself – still is inviting and attractive texturally.  Here the cave walls appear soft, washed to a polished grain.  But in Sesshu’s version, the walls are jagged, sharp.  It could be debated that either of these textures is symbolic thematically: Dai’s soft texture shows that the meditative life is still one of great good, while Sesshu’s harsher one promises hardships and trials to come.

From a narrative standpoint, Sesshu’s jagged rock is more emotionally gripping: the viewer worries for Huike and the adversity he will need to overcome.  But thematically, it could be considered a distraction: after all, in comparison to the sacrifice Huike has just made, a bit of jagged rock is unlikely to change his dedication. In Sesshu’s version, the meditative life looks cold and harsh, and has little advantage that one can see from the painting. Thematically, Dai’s version makes more sense, because the texture does not distract from the ultimate sacrifice at hand and the meditative life is simultaneously shown to be one of great hardship and great peace, worth any sacrifice Huike could make.

Because it is likely that Sesshu studied Dai’s version of the painting prior to creating his own rendition of the Zen legend, it is likely that he wanted to improve upon the latter’s representation.  In a narrative sense, it is clear that he succeeded: Sesshu’s painting is more emotional and tells the story with greater clarity and urgency (and, it could certainly be argued, emotional realism) than Dai’s calmer, more idealistic version.  Simultaneously, though, Sesshu’s version is thematically weaker and does not portray the lack of emotional attachment to the physical body that is so startling in the Dai painting.  Dai’s version more masterfully evokes the Zen theme that to become a disciple of a master is such a great honor that any sacrifice should be undertaken without complaint.  The balancing of the scales does not reflect negatively on the quality of either painting. Rather, the variations in technique in each painting suggest that they are not working toward the same purpose.  Sesshu is more concerned with telling the details of the story, and Dai concerns himself with conveying the ideological message – both approaches have merit, but neither balances the scales perfectly.

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Asian art: later tradition. (2016, Jul 30). Retrieved from

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