What Is Zen Painting?

by Stanley Goff
Zen painting is a genre of Buddhist monks.

Zen painting is a genre of Buddhist monks.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images News/Getty Images

"Dhyana" is the Sanskrit word for deep meditation. From that word, came the Chinese variant, "ch'an," and the Japanese variant, "zen." Zen Buddhism is a practice that seeks enlightenment through meditation. The spiritual practice also evolved an art form that attempts to mirror the meditative principles of clearing the mind of concepts and thoughts to be fully in the moment.

Spirit Over Form

Zen painting was first practiced by Zen Buddhist monks and nuns. Comprised of simple lines and often of a single color painted with a single brush, Zen painting has exerted a tremendous influence on all Japanese and Chinese art. Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, the Japanese Buddhism scholar who popularized Zen Buddhism in the West, once compared East Asian art to Western art by saying that Western art emphasizes form, whereas Eastern art reflects spirit. Zen art is minimalist in that images or impressions are evoked with the fewest possible strokes, leaving the observer to fill in the blanks with her spiritual response. Chinese or Japanese calligraphic characters --- made with brief, bold strokes --- are often incorporated into the art, sometimes individually and sometimes as poetry.


Zen paintings do not necessarily ignore form or representation, though many Zen paintings are simply free-flowing designs that create spiritual resonance. Oftentimes, Zen painting will represent real things with very few strokes to emphasize essence over form. The gradual thinning and eventual disappearance of the paint as the brushstroke advances become part of the meditation; the intent of the painter and the unexpected designs that come out of the brush show a release of control and provide an element of surprise.

No Agonies

Just as meditation is meant to achieve a carefree state, the Zen painting is supposed to be effortless. The study and attention to detail, the reworking and the agonizing over "getting it right" that sometimes characterize other kinds of painting are anathema to the Zen painter. It is not unusual to see Zen paintings where the artist has added an impulsive and humorous flourish to a painting that seems as unexpected to the viewer as the artist. That does not mean the artist is not focused. On the contrary, the Zen painter sometimes concentrates very hard on being in the moment and capturing a certain essence, which he receives almost as a revelation. "Getting it right" is often a function of calculation and revision, trying to think one's way through a painting; Zen artists concentrate very hard on neither thinking nor worrying.

Sudden Dynamism

Zen painting's simplicity gives it dynamism. The absence of distracting detail can draw the eye to the flow of the strokes, creating the sensation of motion. Zen painters will meditate upon an object for a very long time and then paint it in a few minutes. One story tells of a Zen painter who was commissioned to paint the Emperor's goat. After two years with the goat, the Emperor came to the monk and asked where his painting was. The monk then took out a brush and did the painting in a few quick strokes and completed a masterpiece.

About the Author

Stanley Goff began writing in 1995. He has published four books: "Hideous Dream," "Full Spectrum Disorder," "Sex & War" and "Energy War," as well as articles, commentary and monographs online. Goff has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of the State of New York.

Photo Credits

  • Paula Bronstein/Getty Images News/Getty Images