The art of Zen education resource:
The spirit of Zen in Western art

In recent decades important elements of Western art (particularly of the Modernist period) have expressed Zen characteristics. These characteristics have ranged from direct and conscious references to Zen by artists who are themselves Zen students, to more general connections. An important element of the latter was a strong tendency in the first half of the twentieth century for Western art to abstract, simplify, prune and minimise. In the 1940's the powerful American art critic Clement Greenberg argued, for example, that for painting to remain truthful to itself it would have to get rid of all of the things that did not belong to it - like story telling or narrative, for example, which was the rightful property of language and literature. In general terms this led to art of a more abstract and minimal kind and thus to more direct aesthetic experiences. Some people argue, moreover, that aesthetic and spiritual experiences are one and the same.

In discussing the works of Mark Rothko, for example, commentators often use words like spiritual, silent and meditative. The initial aim of meditation is to quieten the mind of its incessant word and language related chatter (to move beyond words). In India this is referred to as the mad monkey mind. The initial process clears away preconceptions, dogmas and social conditioning, leading to an experience of stillness. When a state of stillness is achieved intellectual ideas and discriminations tend to evaporate, permitting a more direct path to higher spiritual states. A final stage involves total integration where boundaries and opposites dissolve into one. A similar awareness is often felt by viewers who give themselves time to experience Rothko's paintings and it is interesting to note that, because of their scale and direct simplicity, it is difficult to stand back and objectively examine such works as if they were completely separate from ourselves.

Other examples of the spirit of Zen in Western culture include a similar distinction between Art and Craft, to that outlined above; principles of simplicity and minimalism in modernist architecture, landscape gardening and interior design and concepts of Wabi in ceramics, textiles and theatre.