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Zen Reflections in Tuscany

September 6, 2011

I was in Tuscany the last week of July. I spent much of my time gazing upon the glories of Italian renaissance art in Siena and Florence. There are many enthralling masterpieces to be sure, by such giants of Western art as Duccio, Giotto, Donatello, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo, but I must admit I grew a bit weary of all the color, flourish, fineness of detail, and extravagance of the art. The cathedrals, inside and out, were overwhelming in scale and jammed full of statues, paintings, mosaics, and carving in wood, stone, and tile. There were literally a million things to look at. It was refreshing to be back home among Zenga—art that is simple, unadorned, elemental, and understated. In a sense, however, the two art traditions—Italian Catholic renaissance and Japanese Zen Buddhist minimalism—are complementary. It is not a matter of one being “better” than the other, only a matter of how to look at and interpret the world, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to be able to contemplate both.

One thing, though, that has always disturbed me is that while Buddhist art abounds with images of smiling Buddhas and Bodhisattvas—and in Zen art patriarchs laughing uproariously—it was virtually impossible, no matter how hard I tried, to find an image of Jesus, Mary, or any other of the saints with even a hint of a smile. Most of the facial configurations are best described as “neutral,” I suppose a sign of equanimity, even when the person was being martyred by crucifixion, beheading, drowning, or being thrown to the lions. Certainly some expressions conveyed a sense of ecstasy but for the most part the countenances were noncommittal at best. The reality and inevitability of suffering is central to both the Buddhist and Christian traditions, but it seems to me that the Buddhists handle the problem a little better. On the other hand, the real meaning of the Christian message lies not in the Crucifixion but in the Resurrection. Nothing can be more joyful than that.

Smiling Buddha

There are plenty of differences between the Christian and Zen Buddhist traditions, but some things are the same. One similar element is the ideal of integrating natural and man-made beauty. While Zen does this best in creating a garden, the Tuscan landscape was the most pleasing harmony of nature—the verdant rolling hills with the carefully cultivated vineyards, olive groves, and sunflower fields. Even the placement of towns, castles, and monasteries, some of the structures’ ruins dating from the Roman period and the Middle Ages, appeared to have been painted into the landscape, as the buildings fit exactly. On a human level, my visit to the holy sites associated with St. Francis in Assisi and Umbria—the chapel where the crucifix spoke to him, the remote mountain cliff cave where he meditated, the grotto where he received the stigmata, the place where he died, and his crypt—touched me as deeply as my trips to the mountain hermitage of the Zen poet Ryokan. Despite the enormous edifices built over the centuries around these sites, each sacred space manifests the power, the simple majesty, and, yes, the joy of Saint Francis.

Zazen Saint Francis. A modern statue of Saint Francis placed near his cave hermitage, depicting him contemplating the glories of creation, as reflected in the Tuscan country side.

 

 


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