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Japan Travel Guide

The arts of Zen

Perhaps the greatest watershed in Japanese aesthetics occurs with the introduction of Zen Buddhism (Chinese in origin) early in the Kamakura Era (1185-1333). The contribution of Zen to Japanese culture is profound, and much of what the West admires in Japanese art today can be traced to Zen influences on Japanese architecture, poetry, ceramics, painting, calligraphy, gardening, the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and other crafts. Zen monasteries, for example, typically have a giant dragon painted on the ceiling of their assembly halls.
  • In calligraphy, the brush line becomes sweeping and fluid -- spontaneous rather than predictable, irregular rather than regular.

  • In landscape painting, emptiness becomes a crucial ingredient, and space itself is brought to life with a few strokes of the brush. Japanese poetry (haiku) turns to silence and simplicity to evoke mood and sensation.

  • In flower arrangement, unspeakable loveliness is achieved with a solitary spray of blossoms rather than a bunching together of colors as with Western bouquets.

  • In landscape gardening, the gardener cultivates as if not cultivating, as if the gardener were part of the garden, and gardens soon appear helped rather than governed by the gardener.

With Zen, art aspires to represent not only nature itself but to become a work of nature. To paraphrase Alan Watts, Zen art is the "art of artlessness, the art of controlled accident."

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