Patriarchs of Zen Buddhism
This is a type of painting that depicts past Buddhist monks who were regarded as teachers and role models of Buddhist asceticism. This work originally adorned sliding doors at Daisen’in Temple in northern part of Kyoto City, but was reworked into hanging scrolls for conservation reasons. It was painted by the 16th-century painter Kano Motonobu, who paved the way for the Kano school of painting to become the greatest of its kind in the history of Japanese art between the 16th and 19th centuries.
In this work, the scenes are based on anecdotes concerning Zen monks who were active in 7th–10th-century China, during the Tang dynasty. The leftmost panel shows an anecdote known as “Lingyun Sees the Peach Tree,” in which the Zen monk Lingyun sees peach blossoms blooming and suddenly attains enlightenment. The panel beside it depicts “Weishan Kicks the Bottle,” in which the Zen monk Weishan, when asked by his master what to call a bottle without saying “bottle,” kicks the bottle and sends it flying. The painting continues rightward with a depiction of a waterside, followed by the final panel, “Shigong Draws his Bow, Sanping Bares his Chest.” In this panel, the Zen monk Shigong acts out drawing a bow at the Zen monk Sanping, who had come to him for ascetic training, and Sanping responds by baring his chest to Shigong. The skillful use of clouds successfully links the three anecdotes, which differ in time, place, and content, while emphasizing each motif. The staged arrangement of foreground, midground, and background also produces a sense of depth. Through his masterful placement of clouds, Motonobu succeeded in painting the separate anecdotes as a single sequence.