The Meditative Aspects of Art – Part 1

Amidst the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, people continue to serve their needs and find solace in various forms of activity from their homes, often in solitude, as we socially distance. Many have turned to art and cultural experiences to seek peace, inspiration, and ways of working through their emotions and larger philosophical questions. The next theme I will explore in the CRAG blog is the meditative aspects of art. I will investigate historical and contemporary examples of art made or experienced as forms of meditation from both spiritual and secular perspectives. By exploring a range of geographical locations and time periods I hope to draw upon a wider cultural perspective of mindful looking and art experience that may inspire you to go on a journey of your own into the realm of awe, meditation, and introspection.  

Zen Buddhism was the most widely known form of Buddhism in Japan between the 14th and 16th centuries (1). It originated in India, was formalized in China – where it is known as Chan Buddhism – and from there it was transmitted to Japan (2). Immigrant Chinese prelates introduced not only the religion, but also Chinese literature, ink painting, calligraphy, and philosophy to their disciples (3). This resulted in Japanese Buddhists travelling to China for further training, thus entwining spiritual and artistic practices (4).

Monochrome painting is the practice most closely associated with Zen Buddhism and was originally practiced by monks. Paintings were the result of long periods of contemplation and meditation followed by quick action that would result in an expressive work of art evocative of the maker’s spiritual state and beliefs. 

Hakuin Ekaku, enso, 33 x 54.9 cm, Private Collection.

The enso (circle) is a sacred symbol in Zen Buddhism, and one of the most common yet difficult to master subjects of Japanese calligraphy. The enso can mean many things: the beginning and end of all things; the circle of life and the connectedness of existence; emptiness or fullness, presence or absence (5). When one looks upon an enso it becomes apparent that form and void are interdependent upon one another: “Void is form and form is void”(6). The philosophical tradition of western existentialism defines nothingness as an emptiness, where nothingness is placed in opposition to being. In eastern philosophies, such as Buddhism and Sufism,“no thing” represents positive aspects such as infinite possibility and necessary balance (7).

The enso can be closed or open. When it is closed all things may be contained within or excluded from its boundaries; it can symbolize infinity, the no-thing, the perfect meditative state, or enlightenment. When open, the enso represents the acceptance of imperfection as perfect; a connectedness to things that are greater than it; it can be the open circle in which the self flows in and out while remaining centered. There are so many ways to interpret the symbol and it becomes the viewer’s responsibility to make their own meaning and reflect upon their own self throughout the process of mean-making.  

Consider spending a few minutes of focused reflection, breathing and looking upon the enso. Notice your thoughts as they pass by, as if you are a passenger on a train platform watching the cars pass by and disappear into the distance. What surfaces? Take note and let it go. Close your eyes for a minute, reopen them and continue looking at the shape. Focus on the sound of your own breath.

Gibbons Reaching for the Moon, Ito Jakuchu, 1770, Kimbell Art Museum. Lucy Dayman, “What is Zen Art: An Introduction to 10 Japanese Masterpieces.” December 14, 2018.

Zen Buddhist paintings can be highly symbolic in nature and poignantly express Zen Koans and parables. Zen Koans are philosophical riddles that can be pondered upon for years; parables are moralizing stories that teach a valuable lesson. The Gibbons Reaching for the Moon by Ito Jakuchu represents one such parable. The monkeys link together and strive to reach the reflection of the moon in a pond below. Their reaching is the futile struggle for unattainable happiness. Both unable to relinquish the imagined safety of the bough and unable to reach the moon, they are suspended indefinitely: “So we too find it hard to stop seeking the pleasure we mistake for happiness” (8). This work of art is both a creation stemming from meditative practice and reflection, and an image to be reflected upon. Imagine how quickly or slowly the painting may have been created by studying the movement of the brushstrokes. Consider the economy of form and abundance of meaning created through the few but very expressive marks that make up this painting.

The many meanings and lessons that can be taken from these painted works rests with the viewer as they meditate upon its relevance to their own life and philosophy. The works are imbibed with the learning and spirit of their masters and carries that aura from the experience of the creator to that of the viewer. The powerful simplicity of enso and Zen parable paintings has endured over long periods of time and continues to offer sources of inspiration and insight. 

Now we move to the Han Dynasty (2nd Century BCE) in China to discuss Chinese incense burners as essential aesthetic and ritual elements in the Chinese scholar’s study. 

Bronze incense burner inlaid with gold, from the tomb of Liu Sheng, King of Zhongshan at Hebei Mancheng. Western Han period, 2nd century BC. Height 26 cm. Rawson Jessica. “The Chinese Hill Censer, boshan lu : A Note on Origins, Influences and Meanings.” In: Arts asiatiques, tome 61, 2006. pp. 75-86.

The King of Zongshan brazier is considered one of the finest specimens of Han period incense burners ever excavated. The look and function of the censor played an essential role in the accoutrements of the scholar’s study as they sat considering the cosmos in a deep state of meditation. This particular type of incense burner is referred to as a boshanlu (po-shan-lu), which means magic mountains (9). They are aptly named for the shape of their lid, a mountainous peak jutting out of waves, alluding to an island mountain in the sea. The torrid mountains and waves represent the dwelling place of the gods, specifically the Three Isles of the Blessed where the legendary Chinese immortals, hermits of perennial youth, lived (10). Both the elusive mountain islands and the immortals dissolved into mist when approached by humans. When the incense was lit, smoke would waft and curl out from the craggy rock shapes, obscuring mystical animals nestled in its perforations, thus creating a transportative experience.   

The Daoist utopia as presented in these objects was not a gentle idyllic landscape, but one with formidably undulating slopes where an incongruous assortment of tigers, hydras, mountain goats, deer, birds, monkeys, and men are engaged in a never-ending chase or hunting scene. It has been suggested that this relentless zoomorphic pursuit was intended to be a visual metaphor for the perpetual force which motivates the cosmos. Sea monsters represented the ocean; tigers, the mountain.  Climbing men who may be Immortals or virile elders appear occasionally (11).

The contemplative aspects of the boshanlu come from the shape that mirrors a mystical realm in Daoist philosophy, as well as the effects created when the brazier is functioning. The curling smoke emulates from the mystic islands in the sea, obscuring and revealing the topography of the objects and the animal and human elements nestled within its fissures. This essential object would have facilitated meditative experiences for scholars as they ruminate upon the vastness of the cosmos. 


1. Zen Buddhism. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The MET. Accessed April 25, 2020.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Enso.
6. Heart Sutra. Buddha Dharma Education Association and BuddhaNet. April 26, 2020.  
7. “Nothingness,” Encyclopaedia Britannica. April 26, 2020.  
8. MZCZ, “About a Poem: The Monkey is Reaching,” Mountain Cloud Zen Centre. June 22, 2015.
9. Susan N. Erickson, “Boshanlu: Mountain Censers of the Western Han Period: A Typological and Iconological Analysis,” Archives of Asian Art. Vol. 45: 1992, pp. 6-28.
10. Robert J. Baran. Boshanlu.
11. Ibid.