Spirituality and Arts: Meet the Chinese Artist Who Paints With ‘Zen’

Zen has been used by artists for acting as an inspiration for their work. (Image:  pixabay /  CC0 1.0)
Zen has been used by artists for acting as an inspiration for their work. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Kim Hoa Tram was born in the city of Saigon, Vietnam, in 1959. Currently living in Australia, much of his art is inspired by Zen Buddhist practices and experiences. He is also known by his Chinese name Shen Jinhe.

Zen paintings

“Zen is the original state of mind attained by spiritual awakening; it is empty, pure, and still… This is the state of mind that I would like to express in my works. Empty space plays an important role in my works. It is ‘invisible painting’ that you can’t see but you can hear and feel,” Tram said in a statement (Eventfinda).

According to Tram, before taking up a brush, he first meditates in order to clear his mind of impure and erroneous thoughts. After obtaining the right frame of mind, he strives to achieve a state of no thought, and finally unifies his mind and body to be at ease. At this moment, the mind becomes boundless and images start automatically emerging from the tip of Tram’s brush. He moves the brush quickly and imbues the painting with the vital Qi energy. Someone who is attuned to such energies will instantly reverberate with the spiritual resonance of Tram’s paintings.

Among the paintings that express Tram’s style gracefully is an artwork that consists of two sections titled Delusion and Awakening. Both sections depict artwork across four panels and are read from right to left. In every panel, the image of a bird is a recurring object. In Delusion, a cheerful bird is portrayed as chasing after falling leaves, indicating the desire inherent in all human beings. The bird pauses in the third panel and falls flat on its face in the last one.

Tram’s ‘Delusion’ and ‘Awakening’ feature birds as the main characters. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

The next section, Awakening, is the more intense part of the painting. Over four panels, a baby bird is shown crying beside a dead bird, a young bird screams in shock, an old bird stares at the dead bird, and an even older wiser bird is depicted perched on a branch with an expression of acceptance. The painting basically shows the bird’s rise to spiritual awakening.

Zen influence in Japanese art

Though Zen started in China as a mix between Buddhism and Taoism, it is in Japan that the spiritual tradition took root. It attained tremendous popularity among the samurais in the 13th century and exerted huge influence in Japanese arts. Nothing exemplifies this more than the Japanese tea ceremony, also known as the “Way of Tea.”

Called sado or chanoyu in the local language, it involves ceremonial preparation of powdered green tea. The act of grinding the tea leaves, adding water, and mixing them both with a bamboo whisk was seen as the perfect example of using an everyday task for meditative purposes. In fact, the basic elements of the procedure were developed by the founder of Zen Buddhism in Japan, Myoan Eisai.

The Japanese tea ceremony incorporates Zen principles. (Image: wikimedia / GNU FDL)

In the field of painting, the style most influenced by Zen Buddhism is Sumi-e, which basically refers to an ink painting style. The painting was seen as the result of meditating on the essence of a subject. As such, painters who follow this style are not too concerned with creating an illusion of reality in their works. Another field that Zen influenced is stone gardening. Since the monks considered everyday tasks a type of meditation, tending to a stone garden was highly valued, as it necessitated constant maintenance.

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