Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

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.)

Another favorite immortal is Hotei, who would become one of the "seven lucky gods" now quite popular in Japan. Hotei is said to be an incarnation of the Buddha of the future, Maitreya. He is portrayed as a bedraggled character with a huge potbelly, carrying a bag nearly as big and round as he is. According to his legend, Hotei wanders, begging for alms and food, and whatever he receives he places in the bag. His bag contains the promise of religious "treasures," perhaps a manifestation of the merit gained by those who contributed its contents.

Because, according to Zen, divinity exists within nature, nature is another favorite subject of Zen art. There are Zen poems about nature, Zen gardens, and many Zen paintings of mountains, landscapes, plants, flowers, birds, animals, insects, etc.

While nature, immortals, Zen masters, and Buddhist deities are "special" in the sense that they have been singled out to be represented in Zen art or Zen ritual, it is also true that nothing is more special, or more divine that anything else, according to Zen teachings. Everything that exists has Buddha-nature. Thus ultimate reality, according to Zen, is this world and everything that exists within it.

Study Questions:
1.     Why were the bodies of well-known masters mummified?
2.     What is the relationship of nature to Zen? Why is this honored in art?
3.     Why is the preservation and honoring of specific Zen masters counterintuitive to the teachings of Zen?

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