Japan Zen Buddhist art and the Middle Kingdom (China)

Japan Zen Buddhist art and the Middle Kingdom (China)

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The legacy of the Middle Kingdom (China) is visible throughout Japan. Hence, the flow of architecture, Buddhism, Confucianism, literature, gardens, Taoism, tea ceremony, and countless other important areas persist in modern Japan.

Mokuan Reien, a famous Japanese Zen priest of many centuries ago, was so fascinated by the Middle Kingdom that he never returned home to his native country. Instead, his visit in the fourteenth century to China enabled Mokuan to grow culturally, ethically, and spiritually.

The Museum of Art (MOA) says, “Mokuan Reien was a Zen priest who went to China in the early 14th century and never returned home. In China, he visited Liutong Temple in the West Lake area where he was heralded as the incarnation of Mu Qi. Later he became a zōsu, or a monk in charge of supervising the repository for sutras under Priest Liaoan Qingyu at Benjue Temple from 1333 through 1343.” 

Mu Qi was an esteemed Buddhist monk of the thirteenth century. His art piece below highlights the utter beauty of the soul and connectivity of Mu Qi. Interestingly, Mu Qi’s art was more widely received and honored in Japan than in the Middle Kingdom during this period of history.

Mokuan was ordained to be a Zen Buddhist priest in Kamakura. Thus the lore of Zen Buddhism in China was great for Mokuan. Therefore, Mokuan stayed in several monasteries in the south of the country.

The Britannica says, “(He) did paintings of flowers, birds, and human figures in the manner of Mu-ch’i Fu-ch’ang, the great Ch’an (Zen) painter of 13th-century China.”

The spiritual development of Mokuan increased dramatically in China. However, the Buddhist angle – and cultural clock of China – was already a reality in Japan in this period of Japanese history. Therefore, Mokuan – and others who traveled in both directions – blessed the world of Zen Buddhism and cross-cultural knowledge.


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