Nakahara Nantenbo’s The stick of Nantenbo (Nanten staff)

Nakahara Nantenbo (Toju Zenchu) (1839–1925), a Japanese monk of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, was born into the Shioda samurai clan of Saga Prefecture in 1839. He lost his mother at the age of seven and was sent to Yukoji (ji means monastery or temple in Japanese) Monastery as a novice when he was eleven. There he received instruction in Chinese classics in addition to Zen texts. Between the ages of eighteen and thirty Nantenbo trained at various centres, ultimately obtaining an inka (certification of enlightenment). Nantenbo made a pilgrimage and visited the leading twenty-four Zen masters of the day. After this pilgrimage he was installed as abbot of Daijoji temple in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

A few years later, in 1873, he cut from a nanten tree a staff and used it to discipline students. He became known as Nantenbo (Nanten staff) (bo means staff or stick). When a student approached Nantenbo, who was always armed with a stick and presented them with a koan, a Zen riddle, he or she had better have a good answer ready – Nantenbo’s trademark warning was: ‘Whether you speak or not, thirty blows from my staff!’ Silence would also earn one a sharp crack on the head. Zen masters must be very severe with their students for Zen training is indeed a matter of life or death.

A disciplined Zen teacher and prolific Zen painter, Nantenbo learned to use painting and calligraphy as a means of expressing the Zen spirit that lies beyond words. He created most of his paintings and calligraphy when he was in his late seventies and early eighties. The most intriguing subject of all for Nantenbo is the nanten staff.

In the painting The stick of Nantenbo, 1901, the stick is depicted by one powerful calligraphic brushstroke that moves from the top to the bottom of the hanging scroll. The artist begins at the top with a single energetic brushstroke from which the ink flies off in all directions, evocative of a dragon, the mouth and horns and its dynamic movements restrained by the tassels at its waist.

The calligraphic inscription on either side translates as:

If you speak – [blows of] Nantenbo.

If you don’t speak – [blows of] Nantenbo.

Signed: Sixty-three-year-old man Nantenbo. Sealed Nantenbo.

 According to tradition, Zen (Chan in Chinese) Buddhism was introduced to China by the Indian monk Bodhidharma in the sixth century AD and then from China to Japan in the twelfth century. Zen is a meditative sect of Buddhism that does away with scripture, ritual and statues. Its spiritual truth is transmitted not by words but by spiritual enlightenment from the mind of the teacher to that of the student. Spiritual enlightenment or awakening is achieved by means of koans that awaken or shock the student out of the conventional way of logical thinking that involves distinctions and duality. The student at the moment of awakening sees his own pure, original nature (Buddha nature) that is free of worldly illusions and delusions. Zen teaching is often summarised as: enlightenment is not found in books or in the performance of empty rites; Zen is none other than your own mind so look within and wake up!

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