Poster of The Art of ZEN From Mind to Form

Zen is one of the words most commonly associated with Japan, but in reality it is a tradition that originated in India with the First Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma, thought to have lived in the late 400s and early 500s. From there Zen was transmitted to China, where it was called Chan, later arriving in Japan during the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Originally Zen priests in Japan were patronized by members of the elite, including feudal lords and warriors, the aristocracy, and even the imperial family. Eventually this type of Buddhism spread to all levels of society. Throughout this time, it wielded considerable influence over Japanese culture. Since the twentieth century, the popularity of Zen has spread to North America, Europe, and beyond.

Two branches of Zen in Japan, Rinzai and Ōbaku, trace their lineages back to the Chinese Chan priest Linji Yixuan (J: Rinzai Gigen, died 866). The year 2016 marks the 1150th anniversary of Linji’s death; it is also a year of grand rituals honoring the 250th memorial of the death of Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768), the Japanese Rinzai Zen priest who revived the sect in the mid-Edo period. This exhibition The Art of Zen: From Mind to Form, commemorates these two milestones.

Zen places special emphasis on the transmission of Buddhist wisdom through experience and intuition, on understanding gained outside of words and text—transmission from heart to heart, teacher to disciple. One of the most cogent lines in the fundamental Buddhist scripture the Heart Sutra is the phrase “form is nothing but emptiness, emptiness is nothing but form.” What kind of artistic forms could possibly express the emptiness grasped by an enlightened mind? This exhibition examines the profound meanings of artworks produced in association with this sect over the centuries. It touches upon Chan’s rise in China, investigates how it was transmitted to Japan, and attempts to give a comprehensive understanding of Zen’s development and influence within this country.

There are fifteen major Rinzai and Ōbaku Zen temples in Japan today, all of whom have thrown their full support behind this project. For this reason, the exhibition will feature a selection unprecedented in quantity and quality of portraits, calligraphy, sculpture, paintings, and decorative or ritual objects, including many of the greatest masterpieces associated with Zen. There will be several rotations of the galleries in order to show a total of nearly 220 works over the course of the exhibition. Over half of these are registered National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties—a never before assemblage of Japan’s rarest and most significant Zen-related artworks.

The exhibition is divided into five sections, “The Formation of Zen,” “The Introduction and Development of Rinzai Zen Buddhism,” “Generals in the Warring States Period and Zen Priests in the Early Modern Era,” “The Deities of Zen Buddhism,” and “The Spread of Zen Culture.” Together, they provide an extraordinary opportunity to experience in person the visual forms representing the spirit of Zen.

About the exhibition

Date: April 12 – May 22, 2016

Venue: Heisei Chishinkan Wing

Organized by: Kyoto National Museum, Joint Council for Rinzai and Obaku Zen, Nikkei Inc., Television Osaka Inc., The Kyoto Shimbun Co.,Ltd.

Sponsored by: Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance Inc., TORAY INDUSTRIES, INC., TOYOTA MOTOR CORPORATION., Nissha Printing Co., Ltd., Mizuho Bank, Ltd.

Courtesy of Kyoto National Museum, for further information please visit

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