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Religion Library: Zen

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Written by: Julia Hardy

Zen shares the Buddhist pantheon with the rest of Mahayana Buddhism, and statues of Buddhist deities, Buddhas, and bodhisattvas such as Shakyamuni, Guanyin (Japanese, Kannon), Kshitigarbha (Japanese, Jizo), or Amitabha (Japanese, Amida) are present in Zen temples just as they are in temples of any Mahayana Buddhist sect.

A practice shared with other sects, but most often practiced by Chinese Chan, was the occasional preservation of mummified bodies of well-known masters. At first these were "natural mummies" that according to legend were found perfectly preserved. Later, in most cases, the body of a teacher who had died in the meditation posture would be wrapped in cloth soaked in lacquer and kept in an open crypt or stupa, or in a special "memorial hall" or "portrait hall." In either case, the bodies were said to have no odor of decomposition. This lack of odor was guaranteed in later years by elaborate preservation techniques, which did not always succeed. The practice began with early Chan in China, perhaps before Chan existed as an independent sect, and continues to this day—the most recent case being that of a Taiwanese master who died in 1955 and whose body was preserved several years later. Nanhua temple in Guangdong displays a preserved body that they say is that of Huineng, the sixth patriarch, but experts say that the body, while very old, is probably from a later era.

More common than these mummified masters are lifelike portraits and sculptures of revered teachers, inside of which may be placed the ashes from the cremated remains, or, in the unusual case of a portrait sculpture of the Japanese Zen master Ikkyu, implanted with his own hair. The creation of portraits of important teachers is a practice not limited to Chan or Zen but common to all Buddhist sects, but in the case of Zen, they are always made as lifelike as possible. Some of these portrait sculptures are remarkably realistic.

One may well ask how a tradition that places so much emphasis on impermanence and the unimportance of the self could become so obsessed with preserving the dead in this manner. The answer is that these preserved bodies and sculptures portray and perform the possibility of enlightenment just as the living persons had. They also remind devotees of the unbroken transmission of the Buddha's teaching that is the lineage of Zen Buddhist masters. Daruma (Bodhidharma), Huineng, and other patriarchs have also been popular subjects for Zen painters, sculptors, and other artists for the same reasons.

Among other frequent subjects of Zen art are legendary characters believed to have been born human but to have achieved immortality. This idea is almost certainly inspired by the Taoist immortals so popular in Chinese culture, themselves a popular subject for Zen paintings. Among the beloved "Zen immortals" are the legendary Chinese poets Hanshan and Shide, and their companion Fenggan, who is often portrayed with his pet tiger. (In Japanese these three are named Kanzan, Jittoku, and Bokan.)


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