fig. 2 
Kim Hoa Tram

Zen, usually translated as ‘meditation’, is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character chan, which had in turn entered the Chinese vocabulary as an abbreviated form of the Indian Sanskrit word dhyana.1 See H. Brinker & H. Kanazawa, Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings, trans. A. Leisunger, Zurich, 1996, p. 12. In the sixth century AD Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk from India, arrived in China and introduced Zen Buddhism. From China Zen reached Japan in the seventh century but was not firmly established until the twelfth century and has continued to flourish to the present.2 See A. Bancroft, Zen: Direct Pointing to Reality, Great Britain, 1979, pp. 5–31; S. Addiss, The Art of Zen, Paintings and Calligraphyby Japanese Monks, 1600–1915, New York, 1989, pp. 6–15. In the 1920s D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966), a Japanese Buddhist scholar, introduced this school of Buddhism to the West, and hence it is now commonly known as Zen Buddhism.3 See D. T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Sydney, 1969.

Zen is one of the numerous movements and schools of Mahayana Buddhism which was introduced to China from India via Central Asia in the first century AD. Zen, or chan, which flourished as a dynamic intellectual force in China, was basically a Chinese transformation of Indian Buddhism. It approached Buddhism in the most direct, simple and practical Chineseway. It grasped that enlightenment, or awakening (wu in Chinese, mu or satori in Japanese), was the most fundamental aspect of Buddhism and did away with sacred scriptures, rituals and objects of worship that were aspects of Mahayana Buddhism.4 See Brinker, p. 12; Addiss, p. 6; J. Fontein & M. L. Hickman, Zen: Painting and Calligraphy, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1970, p. xiv.

Zen on Life

Zen went back to the original teachings of the historical Buddha who was born at the border of present-day India and Nepal in the sixth century BC. He was born Prince Siddharhta Gautama and led a privileged, sheltered life in the palace. On excursions outside the palace he encountered an old man, a sick man and a corpse. For the first time he confronted the inevitable sufferings or impermanence of life. One night he secretly left the palace and went on a spiritual quest by practising asceticism in the forest. But after seven years of self-mortification and deprivation, he abandoned this extreme path and decided on the middle path. He meditated under a tree in Bodh Gaya and overnight attained spiritual enlightenment. He became known as the Buddha, the Awakened One (one who is fully awake), or Shakyamuni, the Sage of the Shakyas. The Buddha’s essential message is that the world is an illusion, life is suffering and that suffering is caused by desire. We suffer because we are attached to the illusory world of impermanence. We also suffer from the delusion of mistaking the illusory world for reality.5 See A. Shearer, Buddha: The Intelligent Heart, London, 1992, pp. 5–31.

To the followers of Zen Buddhism it was significant that the historical Buddha attained enlightenment by his own effort as a human being. In other words, he was a role model for others to follow. The originator of the ‘wordless transmission’ of Zen teaching is believed to have been the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. In one of his sermons the Buddha sat in front of his audience in silence. He then quietly raised a lotus blossom to his chest and turned it between his fingers. At that instant Kasyapa, one of his followers, smiled and understood. The message, or truth, was thus transmitted from mind to mind. Kasyapa became the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism, and the Bodhidharma who transmitted Zen to China was the twenty-eighth patriarch.6 See Brinker. p. 25; Bancroft, p. 7.

The basic tenet of Zen is that truth cannot be passed down from teacher to student as some form of knowledge. Zen cannot be defined or described. It is beyond logical thinking and is something that needs to be experienced by the student. One of the teaching methods is the use of koans, a form of question and answer. Koans (gong’an in Chinese), or Zen riddles, are usually enigmatic, paradoxical and even nonsensical: ‘to hear the sound of one hand clapping’. The student is shocked or jolted into a new way of seeing. At the instant of awakening (or sudden illumination, like a flash of light), the mind returns to its original, (inherent) nature of clarity, purity and emptiness, before it was defiled by ‘dusty’, worldly thoughts and desires. By emptying one’s mind, one is liberated and breaks out of the boundaries and conventions of logical thinking, duality, distinction and definition that cloud the mind. As one becomes at one with the universe, inner peace is attained.7 See Brinker, p. 14; Fontein, pp. xxi-xxiii; Bancroft, pp. 9–12.

One famous koan is about a meeting between the Bodhidharma and the Chinese Buddhist monk Shenguang, who became known as Huike, and later became Bodhidharma’s successor as the second patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China. Seeking enlightenment, Huike went to see the Bodhidharma who had anticipated his visit while meditating facing a wall in a cave for nine years. Huike was standing outside in the snow for more than two days before the Bodhidharma came out to ask what he wanted. With snow rising to his knees and on the verge of starvation and death, Huike answered that he was seeking enlightenment. The Bodhidharma appeared unimpressed. To test Huike’s sincerity he provoked him by saying something like, ‘Do you think that by just standing in the snow for a few days you can find enlightenment? It is not so easy’ At that moment Huike took a sword and cut off his left arm to demonstrate his sincerity and serious determination. The Bodhidharma was moved and then asked him what was it that he wanted to know. Huike answered that his mind was restless (not at ease) and asked the master to pacify it for him. Bodhidharma then said, ‘Bring it over and I will pacify it for you’. Huike replied, ‘But master, I have looked for it and cannot find it’. ‘There!’ snapped Bodhidharma, ‘I have pacified your mind!’ At that very moment Huike attained enlightenment. He was awakened to the realisation that the restlessness in his mind was but an illusion as he was experiencing the peace and calm of his original (inherent) mind. The illusory fears had suddenly disappeared and dissolved – his mind was at ease.8 See A. W. Watts, The Way of Zen, New York, 1957, p. 107. Although Zen advocates the wordless transmission of the ultimate truth, it still relies on words to transmit what cannot be explained by words.

Zen masters also use gestures, shouts or even beating with a stick to trigger the sudden awakening of their students. They also rely on Zen poetry, painting and calligraphy as vehicles to enlightenment or as ‘fingers pointing to the moon’ (spiritual enlightenment). The Bodhidharma is reported to have said: ‘To point directly at the mind and to know its true nature is to achieve Buddhahood’. He also said, ‘There is a transmission apart from the teachings; there is no need for writings [words]’.9 Y. Awakawa, Zen Painting, Japan, 1970, p. 16. This doctrine, which is attributed to the Indian patriarch Bodhidharma, is thought by scholars to have been written by the Tang master Nanquan Puyuan, (see Brinker, p. 13). To illustrate the idea of seeing the original or real nature of one’s mind or being (before one was born). The sixth Chinese Zen patriarch, Huineng (637–714), went as far as saying the following koan to his students: ‘What did your original face look like before your father and mother were born?’ (see Bancroft, p. 14).

Spirituality in the art of Kim Hoa Tram

Kim Hoa Tram (Shen Jinhe in Chinese) was born in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1959 to a family originally from Fujian province in China. For more than ten years Kim has immersed himself in Zen Buddhism. In his art he draws inspiration from his spirituality and from his roots in Chinese traditions, its art and culture and especially Chinese ink painting.

Kim’s method of working is derived from his immersion in Zen. Before taking up the brush, he meditates to clear his mind. This involves the elimination of erroneous thought in order to attain the state of ‘correct thought’ (zheng nian). He then attains the second stage of ‘no thought’ (wu nian) when his mind is emptied of thought. The final stage is ‘no mind’ (wu xin) when his mind and body become one and he is totally at ease.

The artist speaks of his creative process in the following words: ‘In the awakened state of stillness, the mind and body become one. At that moment, the mind is boundless and beyond imagination. Images emerge naturally in spontaneous brushwork.’

When Kim paints, his hand and brush move in quick rhythms. His brush dances on the paper. The images are imbued with vital energies (qi) which appear animated and emerging from his pictures. An attuned viewer will naturally reverberate with the ‘spirit resonance’ (qiyun) of his pictures, just as a musical instrument resonates in harmony with an equally tuned instrument. The Zen view on life – spiritual awakening to the illusory world of delusions – is expressed in the work by Kim Hoa Tram acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in 2002.10 These works were exhibited in an exhibition of Kim Hoa Tram’s paintings held at the Buddhist Fo Guang Yuan Art Gallery, Melbourne, in August 2002 (see M. A. Pang, ‘Exhibition review, pure and austere, paintings by Kim Hoa Tram’, TAASA Review, vol. 11, no. 4, December 2002, p. 20). It consists of two sections, Delusion (fig. 1) and Awakening (fig. 2). Both sections comprise four panels that are read from right to left as a sequence of events. The bird is the recurring motif that is repeated in each panel to tell a story. The artist’s signature, Jinhe, and his seal are at the top of each panel.

In Delusion a carefree bird seems happily chasing falling leaves which, to the artist, represent desire and impermanence in life. The bird is playful and animated, flying rhythmically in and out of the picture. In the third panel the bird seems to pause momentarily in the midst of leaves tinkling like temple bells. As if intoxicated by the world, the drunken bird falls flat on its face in the last panel. We are given a glimpse of the artist’s wry sense of (dark) humour. The fallen bird also foreshadows the next section, Awakening.

 

This is a powerful work. It deals with the Buddhist concept of spiritual awakening to the impermanence of life, to death itself. It is more sombre and intense than its companion piece, Delusion. A living bird and a dead bird are repeated in a sequence as the narrative unfolds. It progresses upward in crescendo from a baby bird crying helplessly beside a dead bird; a young bird shouting or screaming in shock; an older bird staring at the dead bird, as if coming to some kind of realisation. Finally, in the last panel, a wise old bird is perched on a branch near the top of the painting, with an enigmatic expression of acceptance. Almost as an afterthought, one comes to the sudden realisation that the living bird is transforming or growing older as he moves from one panel or stage of the drama to the next. In the fourth panel the empty space or void between the dead bird and the bird perched high up in the painting conveys a silence that is just as explosive as the scream of the bird in the second panel. Using silence or void to express great emotions is also very Zen.11 The void or silence actually intensifies the sound of the screaming bird. In Kim’s paintings, ’empty space’ (void) is just as meaningful as ‘images’ (form); in the spiritual state of oneness ‘void is form and form is void’. According to the artist, the upward movement of the bird signifies the rise in the higher levels of spiritual attainment.

The paintings show the clarity, simplicity and directness (straight to the pointedness) of Zen. The birds are painted in spontaneous, calligraphic brushstrokes in ink on paper, showing the artist’s mastery of the Chinese brush. As in Zen painting, black ink is preferred over colour, which is considered distracting; the subtle tonalities of ink are evocative of the colours of the universe. With suggestive brushstrokes Kim Hoa Tram captures the essence of his images; the essentials are achieved with a great economy of means. In Delusion there is humour, as is often found in Zen koans. The paintings also reflect the artist’s inner world, his thoughts and emotions. He shows great empathy with his subject matter (the living bird); it is as if he has become one with it. The images, including the empty space or void, express what is beyond words. They are compelling and moving. As in the Zen saying ‘borrowing the finger to point at the moon’, these images are the ‘finger’ pointing at the moon (spiritual enlightenment). The artist speaks through his images which emerge from within. He also expresses himself through his creative and spiritual energies. His paintings are like Zen koans that require insight to experience the depth and levels of understanding. It is like peeling away the many layers of an onion to reach the inner core of spirituality (empty yet full).12 The core of the onion is used as a metaphor to express a pure state of mind that is empty and yet full. It is empty (of illusions) and yet full (of creativity), infinite and boundless (without boundaries). It also depends on the spiritual state of the viewer. For an attuned viewer it is not so much to rise to a higher realm of spirituality as to go within, to purify one’s mind by stripping away the layers of worldly thoughts and desires. One then responds to the paintings with a clear, empty mind (wu kin).

Drawing from his own spirituality, Kim Hoa Tram has shown great originality and creativity in these works. He has injected new life and energy into traditional Chinese painting with contemporary ideas that are not obvious at first glance. In Delusion the bird is captured suspended in mid-flight, as if caught in a snapshot. An important innovation of the artist is to use the traditional format of the four seasons in Chinese painting to represent the different stages in the passage of life. Instead of spring, summer, autumn and winter, he portrays childhood, youth, middle age and old age. By connecting the four panels he has created a sequence of events, as if in an animated film. The individual panels help to focus the event, like a still in a film. In Awakening the bird is used as a vehicle to express intense human emotions in the confrontation of death, a device that seems to be an innovation in traditional Chinese painting. As a matter of fact, death as subject matter has never or only rarely been explored in Chinese art.

In this set of paintings in the NGV collection, Kim Hoa Tram has explored the themes of delusion and awakening, an insight gained by the historical Buddha from his spiritual enlightenment. The subject matter is explored with the simplicity, directness and clarity, as well as humour, of the Zen approach to enlightenment. The artist draws his inspiration from his own spirituality and immersion in Zen and through his art and creativity he expresses his inner spiritual experience. In a state of creative stillness, compelling images emerge from his mind in spontaneous brushwork.

Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator of Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).

Acknowledgement

I would like to thank Kim Hoa Tram for discussions that lead to understanding Zen on a deeper level. I would also like to thank Nazareth Alfred, Assistant Curator of Indigenous Art at the NGV for stimulating discussions on the spirituality in Kim Hoa Tram’s paintings and for drawing parallels to Aboriginal art.

Notes

1     See H. Brinker & H. Kanazawa, Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings, trans. A. Leisunger, Zurich, 1996, p. 12.

2     See A. Bancroft, Zen: Direct Pointing to Reality,  Great Britain, 1979, pp. 5–31; S. Addiss, The Art of Zen, Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Monks, 1600–1915, New York, 1989, pp. 6–15.

3     See D. T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Sydney, 1969.

4     See Brinker, p. 12; Addiss, p. 6; J. Fontein & M. L. Hickman, Zen: Painting and Calligraphy, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1970, p. xiv.

5     See A. Shearer, Buddha: The Intelligent Heart, London, 1992, pp. 5–31.

6     See Brinker. p. 25; Bancroft, p. 7.

7     See Brinker, p. 14; Fontein, pp. xxi-xxiii; Bancroft, pp. 9–12.

8     See A. W. Watts, The Way of Zen, New York, 1957, p. 107.

9     Y. Awakawa, Zen Painting, Japan, 1970, p. 16. This doctrine, which is attributed to the Indian patriarch Bodhidharma, is thought by scholars to have been written by the Tang master Nanquan Puyuan, (see Brinker, p. 13). To illustrate the idea of seeing the original or real nature of one’s mind or being (before one was born). The sixth Chinese Zen patriarch, Huineng (637–714), went as far as saying the following koan to his students: ‘What did your original face look like before your father and mother were born?’ (see Bancroft, p. 14).

10     These works were exhibited in an exhibition of Kim Hoa Tram’s paintings held at the Buddhist Fo Guang Yuan Art Gallery, Melbourne, in August 2002 (see M. A. Pang, ‘Exhibition review, pure and austere, paintings by Kim Hoa Tram’, TAASA Review, vol. 11, no. 4, December 2002, p. 20).

11     The void or silence actually intensifies the sound of the screaming bird. In Kim’s paintings, ’empty space’ (void) is just as meaningful as ‘images’ (form); in the spiritual state of oneness ‘void is form and form is void’.

12     The core of the onion is used as a metaphor to express a pure state of mind that is empty and yet full. It is empty (of illusions) and yet full (of creativity), infinite and boundless (without boundaries).