The Paradox of Zen Drawing

I want to continue a couple of threads I left hanging in my last post,  Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing. (Anything in blockquotes is from that post.) 

Franck anticipated that “Fundamentalist Zenists may… question [Zen Drawing’s] validity as Zen practice.” (p. 25) I glossed over this because Franck doesn’t address this question directly. He only continues to describe what Zen Drawing is to himself, so that readers could do the same for themselves.

From what I can understand, the aim of practicing Zen is to become one with everything. When practicing Zen drawing, your goal is the same but you focus on what you are drawing, which is particular. The focus being so narrow may be why some critics say Zen Drawing is not a valid way of practicing Zen. Zen is supposed to be unknowable, because seeing it is paradoxical. When everything is as one, you can not distinguish any one part from everything else.

You could say I liked his artistic style, but Franck… focuses not on the final product, that which one can see as a particular “style,” but on the work itself… In short, Zen is about seeing and not producing. It is not a means to another end but an end in itself, and this suggests that an art student, who wants to be more skilled in one’s ability to put down on paper the idea of something one sees, is missing the point of practicing Zen drawing.

I can see how this describes Zen Drawing as meditative. You are practicing the art of seeing something that is outside of yourself, and maybe this can be a gateway to practicing true Zen; however, it also keeps you focusing on something particular, so the act itself keeps you from practicing true Zen.

On the flip side:

What if I am thinking like an art student and not as somebody who practices Zen? I would say “Zen drawing” is indeed recognizable and because of its approach.

Dress scan resize 10

There are a few drawings in my sketchbook which look a lot like “Zen drawings,” even though I had no clear notion of what Zen is when drawing them and had no intention of achieving Zen via drawing. I simply had the idea to follow the lines of an object, much like contour drawing.

I deliberately chose objects that had a lot of lines.

Bag scan resize 10 Cherry Pits scan resize 10


I was very fascinated with lines, much like the Italian Renaissance painters were fascinated with drapery.

There was something very calming about letting the lines of a reflective surface or the folds of a paper bag lead/guide me, because I was immersed in an idea that was very beautiful to me, but it was the product — the work of the lines — and not the work of being one with the object that was my primary focus.

I may have been thinking of a particular style I’d seen in various comics and/or graphic novels, but I was conscious of similarities only in hindsight. What is interesting is that my “Zen drawings” can be distinguished from those of Franck’s.

Franck, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing

Franck’s 1993 book is above, and another drawing of my own is below.



Cup 1 crop resize 25Cup 2 crop resize 25

Even if we put aside the intent or lack of intent to practice Zen, the difference in the “look” of the drawings can be tied directly to the artist’s approach and way of seeing. I was focused on the flow of lines, while Franck allowed his pen/pencil to leave the page more readily, which gave way to shorter lines and less “flow.”

Maybe I saw the essence of a thing in the flow of its lines, but I still wasn’t focused on the thing as a whole. On the other hand, it was how the flow of lines could manifest into the depiction of a recognizable object — as well as its “airiness,” my term for the style of these drawings — which made the lines more meaningful, or in artistic terms, more “beautiful.”

This draws up one final question. Is the beauty of a drawing the same as its essence?

Edit: I added the below text December 22, 2017 

Some may say “yes,” but I have to say “no,” simply because not every drawing has an essence which is “beautiful.” Some may argue that everything is or can be beautiful, but that would dilute its meaning until, possibly, it doesn’t mean anything at all.

[Drum roll, please… ]

But doesn’t this sound a lot like Zen? If everything is one and any part of Everything (yes, with a capital “E”) is beautiful, then Everything is beautiful… Or is it? Some can call it an ugly mess, but maybe the focus should be bigger than the ugliness or the beauty. Maybe there should be no focus at all, only being one with Everything.

Or is it the other way around? Some may say that if you see Beauty (yes, with a capital “B”) in the particular, then you see Beauty in the abstract, as an ideal; like how you know what the perfect circle would look like by seeing an imperfect circle.

Either way, if you can see Beauty as an abstract idea/ideal, you can see Everything, as long as you can see everything as beautiful.

Problems with this argument:

1 You have to see everything as beautiful.

2 When you “see” anything, you see it as something apart from everything else. So it is not seeing but being [one with Everything] which allows you to achieve Zen.

a Doesn’t that happen naturally, without any “work” at all? Physically, yes, but psychologically, no. There is an unstated premise that you can keep yourself apart from all else, on a level you might describe as psychological… I think. I actually haven’t studied Zen, but I’ve been around the idea of Zen or I’ve been around one or more people who have been interested in it; much like how I’ve been around Christian ideas and Buddhist ideas in general.

3 If Beauty is Everything, then Beauty does not exist at all. Beauty exists only as a particular quality of an object distinguishable from other particular qualities, those which are not beautiful.

a So Zen believes there is no Beauty?

Hmm… If you can simply say there is no Beauty, you can say there is nothing that is ugly. If you say, “It’s a choice of saying there is Beauty, but there really isn’t any Beauty,” then you can also say, “If you can see Beauty, then there is Beauty ” — If you can make the definition, there exists the defined, as an idea.

Jury is definitely out… so stepping away from the proverbial tree, let me consider a bigger question…

Ideas are human constructs, but where do we get our ideas, from within oneself or from beyond oneself; and if from within oneself, is it arbitrary?

3 thoughts on “The Paradox of Zen Drawing

  1. Pingback: Gaa Wai

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