Buddhist art and the Japanese priest Mokuan Reien: The Middle Kingdom and Mu Qi

Buddhist art and the Japanese priest Mokuan Reien: The Middle Kingdom and Mu Qi

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The Japanese Zen Buddhist priest Mokuan Reien was born in the thirteenth century in the land of the rising sun. Like many Japanese Buddhist holy men – artists and people of culture – the Middle Kingdom (China) was the center of gravity for countless centuries. Hence, the lore of different Buddhist ways in the Middle Kingdom, high culture, the richness of philosophy, and an array of other important factors, meant that different daimyo’s in Japan viewed China with great awe. Therefore, it was only natural that Mokuan Reien would visit the Middle Kingdom, irrespective of the complex factors behind this.

Mokuan Reien visited the Middle Kingdom in either the late 1320’s or early 1330’s and he would pass away in this land in the 1340’s. Like much of his art, the years of travel and when he passed away are vague. Despite this, it is known that he was widely received and his stays in several monasteries in Southern China further increased his prestige. Indeed, some claimed Mokuan Reien to be the incarnation of the highly esteemed Mu Qi (Muqi Fachang).

This esteemed individual was a Buddhist Monk and in time the thirteenth century Mu Qi (art below is Mu Qi) would inspire many Japanese Buddhist monk artists. Ironically, Mu Qi’s art was more widely received and honored in Japan than in the Middle Kingdom during this period of history.

In another article, I comment, “Mokuan Reien, just like other Zen holy men from Japan, equally highlights that culture went in both directions. In other words, the Middle Kingdom also gained richly from new ideas and different cultural perspectives that emanated from the land of the rising sun. Indeed, different Japanese Buddhist sects would fuse indigenous differences and philosophies with those flowing from China.”

The flows of Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Shintoism impacted on Mokuan Reien. Similarly, the richness of Buddhist monasteries in Japan and the Middle Kingdom impacted greatly on this esteemed individual. Hence, one can only imagine how his worldview changed after living in the Middle Kingdom in the last period of his life.

Irrespective of this, the Zen Buddhist soul of Mokuan Reien was enriched in this world by various faiths and philosophies – and fusions of both. Equally, he remains alive inside the world of high culture based on his rich legacy.

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