Zen has become a popular term in mainstream culture. The word Zen appears on hundreds of serious books, hundreds of less serious products, and even on TV comedy shows. But what is it?

True Zen does not lend itself to definitions. Although Zen teaches not to rely on words, a great many words have been written about Zen. What do they point toward? It is said that Zen is about everything and nothing, and about how to reach the fullness of our humanity. Historically, Zen is a branch of Buddhism which developed in India about 2500 years ago, then came to China about 2000 years ago. 1000 years ago, aspects of Buddhism merging with Taoism to form Chan Buddhism which later moved to Japan where it came to be called Zen.

Many forms of Buddhism stress divinities, but because Zen does not, Zen is often called a spiritual philosophy rather than a religion.

The focus is on self-realization by transforming the psychological structure of the mind. The techniques of Zen practice aim toward Enlightenment which is said to take place when our mind/heart moves past selfishness and excessive reasoning into a state of consciousness that is intuitive, spontaneous, fearless, and loving.

Talking about or reading about Enlightenment can be of some help, but usually there can be no awakening without long periods of meditation, often years.

The possibility of realizing our Buddha Nature, our Original Nature, our Unconditioned Consciousness, is available to all.

There are stages of Enlightenment, according to the teachings. At an early stage, called satori in Japanese, one is said to “enter the stream.”

At a higher stage, one is said to “become the water.” In other words, while one’s individuality remains intact, one is living fluidly, directly, without hesitations, and every thought, word, and deed is an act of love, an effortless act in selfless service to humanity.

Zen masters developed special forms of painting and calligraphy both as modes of meditation and as visual teachings.

Examples of this tradition are presented and described in the next gallery. While monks might spend years copying sacred books with ordinary calligraphy, working constantly to eliminate their egos, only egoless masters have made highly personalized paintings and calligraphies (painted language).

These dynamic forms had an important influence on modernism. Western artists became fascinated with the artistic potential of dynamic abstract brush strokes. Some moved beyond forms into Zen philosophy. Few if any Western artists achieved the spontaneity of Zen masters, but Enlightenment was an ideal that inspired many in their non-religious quest for the transcendent.

Along the way, they gained glimpses of Nothingness which can only be known intuitively. They also learned what it is to be totally spontaneous, if only for a moment.

Just how and when and where Zen influence took place is a new field of study for historians of Western art. This exhibition aims to provide a general overview of what has been learned so far.