Tsugaru and skeletons

Hey! I wrote another review for the Japan Times, this one of Dazai Osamu's Return to Tsugaru.

Completely unrelated, here's Beatrice Shoemaker's "Ōkyo's 'Skeleton,' Not Performing Zazen; Reflections on the Iconography of the Daijōji's kyakuden":

Ōkyo's "Skeleton" may have been the first anatomically accurate skeleton depicted in a lotus position, but skeletons had a long and bifurcated history in Japanese iconology. Ōkyo's innovative depiction rested on shasei, the realism he adopted from rangaku, Western studies [...]. Until the first officially authorised dissection of a human corpse, performed in Kyoto in 1754 by the physician Yamawaki Tōyō, published as the Zoshi [sic! should be Zōshi 蔵志] Anatomical Record in 1759, knowledge of human anatomy had rested exclusively on Chinese medical treatises. [...] The visual dissonance between the naturalistic skeleton and the traditional, Song inspired waves would have shocked the non-metropolitan viewer, who might not have easy access to Sugita Denpaku's Kaitai Shinsho [another rangaku anatomical work]. Ōkyo effectively uses the latest scientific findings to represent what is left once all that is transient, from human passions to the various processes of aging, disease and decay, have been stripped away.

This article makes a lot of connections that had never occurred to me before, but I wasn't convinced of its titular claim that the skeleton is "not performing zazen" in a non-tricksy sense (shall we say). It may well be "a body cleansed of all that is transient, perishable and corrupt [...] a being who has attained his Buddha nature," but that kind of rhetoric sounds exactly like Dōgen's famous words on zazen, attributed to Rújìng:

Dropping off body and mind is zazen.

Given that visibility of the subject is a basic requirement of portraiture, you couldn't drop off much more body than Ōkyo's skeleton has.

Popularity factor: 6


What are "the traditional, Song inspired waves"?


Well look at the waves behind the skeleton.

Now here's a paiting of waves by the Song-era artist Ma Yan (馬遠).

And here's a skeleton pupeteering an skeleton, by Song-era painter Li Song (李嵩、『骷髏幻戲図』).

The author's proposal is that the waves in Ōkyo's painting were drawn in pretty much the same technique as the waves in Song-era pantings (almost a thousand years earlier), but the skeleton was in a modern, strikingly naturalistic style.


Thanks, Leo! That's my understanding of what Shoemaker meant too, but I wasn't having much luck finding good examples.



Béatrice shoemaker:

The Shingon priest in charge of Daijōji was adamant that the Skeleton was NOT performing zazen... Which is what set me on the trail. However, this is the official title of the painting.
Zazen practice is meditation based on koan, paradoxes, and aims at sudden enlightenment, satori. Shingon meditation is based on mudras, mantras and visualisations, aimed at becoming a Buddha in this life; the Tendai version is similar, meditation on the sutras and recitations aimed at realising one's innate Buddha nature.
Thanks for your interest
Curieuse de savoir comment vous m'avez trouvée? La version (améliorée) publiée par Adon est disponible en .pdf sur PMJS (premodern japanese studies)


Hi Béatrice,
Thanks for your comment! I absolutely believe that the priest said that, and sincerely. I'm just dubious about making him the final authority on the matter (with all due respect, of course). As you know, there are many interpretations of what zazen is -- for example there are rhetorical traditions disclaiming that it should "aim" at anything, satori included, and that performing zazen is literally becoming (a) Buddha, which would certainly blur the lines a bit. I suppose ultimately I am more interested in what it means to assert that the picture does not depict zazen than the truth or falsehood of the assertion itself - which I express, perhaps regrettable impolitely, by arguing against that assertion.

Yes, I saw your paper on PMJS and since it was publicly available and very interesting decided to post about it!

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