Sesshu Toyo and historical art in Japan (1420-1506)
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Sesshu Toyo during his lifetime was highly revered in Japan and China because of his artistic talent related to the visual arts. He was educated with the intent of being a Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest and the importance of interaction between China and Japan was the norm in this period for the elites within society.
Chinese Song Dynasty landscape art was very important to Sesshu Toyo unlike Ming Dynasty art which didn’t have the same creativity according to him. However, other aspects of the Ming Dynasty appealed to Sesshu Toyo and this notably applies to temples built in this period.
His art work titled “Sansui Chokan” (Long Landscape Scroll) highlights the richness of Sesshu Toyo. However, with the psyche of culture being very different from Western norms whereby individual artists desire to highlight themselves, this logic did not enter the mindset of many Japanese artists because of cultural differences in this period.
Therefore, many art pieces may state Sesshu Toyo by bearing his signature or seal but many of these paintings were done by his pupils or were copies of his work. This complicates things for art lovers who are lay people but the discerning eye of experts have distinguished his artwork based on several factors.
Xia Gui and other Chinese artists influenced Sesshu Toyo but he had a distinctive style despite this. This applies to a more pronounced variance related to light and shadow and his lines were heavier. Other areas were notably different and this applies to the depiction of space and dimensional attributes.
My personal favorite piece is the “Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma” because you have a clear spiritual dimension. This stunning artwork was done in 1496 and is based on the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, and below him is Huike who became the second patriarch.
Despite Huike cutting off his arm after being rejected many times by Bodhidharma you don’t feel any warmth or reverence. Instead a battle of minds is at play and the aloofness provides a mystical aspect because while Bodhidharma is depicted with a different aura and power, this does not deter or infringe on the thinking of Huike. Therefore, does the real power belong to Bodhidharma or Huike?
Many interpretations can be given but in the painting it appears that Huike desires knowledge and he will do anything to obtain this. However, does he desire the knowledge in order to reach another dimension?
If Huike revered Bodhidharma then why doesn’t he offer the arm with respect or at least seek eye contact and to express his piety by kneeling? It seems that the arm which was offered and the knowledge that Huike desires from Bodhidharma, is a means to an end and that he seeks to reach deeper into the spiritual world but seeks to surpass his master.
Of course, you will have many different interpretations and different cultural and religious thinking alongside individualism and other areas. However, the painting does not show “love,” “piety” or “trust” but instead it shows realism and coldness.
Could it be that the depiction is a duplicate and in truth the meaning is far from what it is perceived to be? In other words, Bodhidharma is Zen Buddhism and Huike is Sesshu Toyo and the arm depicts his love of art.
This may appear far-fetched to many individuals but this artwork was done near the end of his life. Also, it is reported that he was punished for loving art more than studying Zen Buddhism when he was much younger. Therefore, while Zen Buddhism was a powerful reality within his mindset the pull of art was also deeply embedded within his soul and psyche.
Irrespective of personal views about this remarkable piece of art it is clear that Sesshu Toyo enriched this world.