Zen Art

The Compassionate Mother Who Nurtures Children

Among the new scrolls in the gallery is a “Zen Madonna and Child” by Sengai, an appropriate scroll for Christmas. It is believed that Buddhist artists adopted this theme of mother and child not long after the Jesuits introduced the image to Japan in the 16th century. The infant in Sendai’s zenga is cuddled close to Kannon’s breast. That posture symbolizes both the physical and spiritual nourishment of a child. Another interesting aspect of the painting is the depiction of Kannon walking. She is usually shown sitting in the mediation posture or standing squarely on a lotus flower. However, in Sengai’s zenga there is a sense that Kannon is actually walking alongside us in this world.

In Christmas, the focus is on the incarnation of the divine in a particular child that will save the human race. Similarly, Kannon is believed to be able to incarnate herself into thirty-three appropriate forms that allow her to bring salvation to sentient beings. For Sengai, Kannon was the primary bodhisattva in the Buddhist pantheon. He brushed far more zenga of Kannon than of the Buddha or Daruma. Kannon is indeed our compassionate mother.

Sengai Kannon (reference # 4190)

Compassionate Mother by Kozuki Tesshu (1897–1937). The inscription on this zenga says, “The mother of great compassion that knows willows are green, flowers are red.” In other words, Kannon knows exactly how the world works so she can use the best skillful means to liberate us from suffering.

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