A few doors from Shangri-la Hotel in Chiang Mai is a shop that sells clothing and bags that feature zen art.
Alex and I took a peek on our first night in Chiang Mai, the products were rather pricey but we went back two days later and shopped anyway. Why? Because we fell head over heels in love with the designs. Just to be clear, when I say “designs”, I mean the painting technique and the figures in the design.
At Zen Art in Chiang Mai, the technique is air brush painting. I’ve always preferred this technique over western styles (I am especially not a fan of abstract painting). I like the serenity of air brush pantings of mountains and lakes, boats and boatmen, bamboo and flowers… I like the sparsity of colors with monochromatic blacks and occasional bursts of red, blue and green.
The figures are mostly birds in flight, bamboo and the mandala circle which, according to the artist-owner, are replete with symbolism in Zen philosophy. The bird represents freedom. Bamboo illustrates strength, resilience and flexibility. The mandala is fullness, completion, wholeness and enlightenment, and the point where alpha and omega meet.
That bird represents freedom is rather self-explanatory. The mandala circle was new to me. My obsession with bamboo spans, well… almost my entire life. Have you heard bamboo leaves swishing in the breeze? It’s quite magical.
So, you know, what was being sold at Zen Art in Chiang Mai hit me on a very personal level. Gut level, in fact. The owner was so taken with my enthusiasm that she gifted me with a painting that I could have framed when I got home. I still haven’t. Shops offering such service closed soon after we got home in early February.
What is zen?
To understand zen, you need to know about Buddhism. No kidding. It’s really not my area of expertise although I finished my degree in Philosophy before I entered law school.
While I have to admit that the Philosophy curriculum leaned heavily toward Western thinkers, there were two courses that offered a small glimpse into Eastern philosophies. One was Chinese Philosophy; the other was Philosophy of Religion. Sadly, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on Buddhism. I read up on my own over the years mostly out of curiosity about beliefs like karma and reincarnation.
Buddhism is a dizzyingly vast subject, the history alone is stupefying, and how Buddhism branched out into different traditions disciplines is mind-blowing. Academics spend their lifetime studying and understanding it. I have no pretentions at comprehending even a fraction through casual reading.
What I do know is that Buddhism is older than Christianity. It originated in India; the founder is Gautama Buddha. After the death of the buddha, followers founded their own schools of throughts and doctrines, and Buddhism branched into countless disciplines including Mahayana and Theravada.
Buddhism reached China in the first century CE. The how is still the subject of debate. What isn’t debated is that the Indian texts from the Mahayana branch were translated into Chinese the following century, and Chan Buddhism, which integrated Taoist philosophy, was born. It was this form of Buddhism that later spread to Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
In Japan, zen is Zen Buddhism. It is based on dhyāna which is loosely translated to meditation. But that’s a very loose translation. An oversimplification, in fact. Shutting yourself in your room occasionally, closing your eyes (with or without chanting) hardly translates to being a zen practitioner.
Perhaps, the better way to understand zen is to remember that it is based on Chan Buddhism which is part Mahayana and part Taoism. You can look at this this way: meditation (dhyāna from Mahayana Buddhism) is the means to go inward into one’s self to achieve a state of “perfection” that puts one in harmony with all forces in the universe (called “the way” or tao in Taoism).
What is zen art?
As much as I loved the things sold at the Chiang Mai shop called Zen Art, the concept of zen art is much wider and deeper than the handpainted bamboo, birds and mandala circles on bags, blouses and t-shirts.
Zen art encompasses painting, calligraphy, floral arrangement, tea ceremony — in fact, any artistic expression that communicates zen as a way of life. Zen gardens are part of zen art. And you have to experience a real one to understand. You have to sit in one to know how it can affect your mind, your mood and even your body.