Zen Art: Mu Qi’s Six Persimmons

This is Chinese Zen master Mu Qi’s famous 13th-century painting of six persimmons. Notice that there’s no table and no shadows. It’s groundless, like the mirror-mind or groundless condition of all things–what Zen Buddhists like to call groundlessness. The floating persimmons also feel timeless and unplaceable.

The persimmons on the edges are empty. Like thoughts arising out of and returning to the nature of mind, the persimmons appear to emerge out of and then return to the paper.

We might also notice that this drawing is about repetition and order, but it’s also about diversity and spontaneity. Not only are the persimmons all different, but their relationships are also different. The two on the left are just barely touching, such a delicate moment, but then we see a gap. The smallest persimmon is pushed forward, and the next persimmon, the darkest one, is pushed back a tiny bit and almost touches its dark gray neighbor, but not quite! See the sudden visual tension? Then the next two persimmons clearly overlap, which is a classic way to evoke the illusion of space in a drawing.

The variety of relationships is important, as is the verticle thrust of the stems to balance the overall horizontality of the composition. The stems point up like arrows, bringing more attention into that empty space. The darkest and largest persimmon if off-center but appears balanced because the smallest one is pushed forward. And notice the subtle illusion of rotation with the shapes of stems and leaves.

Art Historian James Cahill compares Mu Qi’s successful drawing of persimmons to others like it that just kind of miss the mark, others that are too uniform, too cluttered, too predictable.
Cahil also offers this photo of a possible set up, but I think it’s clear Mu Qi probably worked from his imagination.

Six Persimmons was pretty radical and funny when it came out. The idea of presenting a simple, childlike composition as an expression of the highest, most mature Zen painting was wild. This neotony or faux naivete was avant-guarde at the time, however, Cahil points out that Mu Qi’s exaggeration of value changes wasn’t anything new. Mu Qi was playing with a convention that had been around for a long time in Zen painting.

And this particular sequence, 1, 2, 3, 5, 4, 1, with the lightest values at the edges, is often used in Zen paintings of mountains, bamboo, pine trees, and flowers.

Cahill suggests Mu Qi is therefore telling us to read six persimmons as a kind of landscape, but one with no horizons and no ground.

Where else do we see Mu Qi’s composition? It’s similar to portraiture. Take off your glasses and the persimmons look like six heads, all lined up for a family picture. I also see actors lined up on stage for the curtain call, one stepping forward, taking a bow.

The repetition in Zen painting doesn't just suggest a misty atmosphere. It’s reminiscent of those action lines around the charging rhinoceros in Chauvet cave, or the extra heads or extra legs drawn on animals to make them appear to be in motion. The proto-cinema of our ancient cave drawings echoes into these Chinese drawings. What this means is that faded copies of a form in a drawing suggests movement, time, atmosphere, and transformation.

Why persimmons? They are tremendously popular in Asia and are a symbol for autumn, which is a time for reflection on transformation and death. Of course, we are always closer to our deaths than we've ever been, but in fall, all the tree’s colors change so rapidly, like a sunset, drawing attention to the end. Fruit ripens right before it rots, like the death of a star. “I open at the close.”

It’s like a still-life, natura morta , presenting the fruit as an emblem of life and death.

Zen paintings, like zen poems, are often parables compressed and coded through seasonal landscape symbols. They’re kind of like visual tropes that set the stage for another story, the real story. Artists often use what Panofsky called “disguised symbolism” or layered metaphors. Who knows? This zen painting of fruit may be a way to indirectly point to the Zen story the strawberry, which is all about a person’s death. “The lion and the strawberry.”

But it could be about something else. Persimmons are a really tough fruit, hard, and bitter, and they take a really long time to ripen. But when they finally do they get extremely soft, even mushy, and are so sweet, my god. The texture is divine!

Persimmons dying in a Japanese neighborhood.

In Japan, they’re also dried. For months everywhere you go you see orange persimmons hanging from places. It’s beautiful! When they’re done maturing, the once bitter fruit becomes candy. Literally, it’s eaten as candy and as a culinary delicacy.

People also tend to mature and find the sweetest moments of life at the very end, or when they have the end in mind. What a sweet and precious life! Which is the point of memento mori still life drawings or death reminders: to help us live better lives, more balanced lives; to help remind us to appreciate every moment.

Another drawing by Mu Qi of two birds in a landscape.

What I find interesting about Buddhist art in East Asia is that these kinds of ink drawings of birds and fruit are displayed in temples where a Buddha or a deity would normally be displayed. It’s a strange moment, approaching the Buddhist altar covered in flowers, candles, incense, and other offerings, and in place of a Buddha, you find a drawing of rotting fruit.

I guess in a way, from a Zen perspective this painting of persimmons is also a painting of God, of “ultimate truth.” Rotting fruit also appears in memento mori still life paintings in the West. European artists also draw flowers, bones, hourglasses, and even skulls and dead animals. But really, anything can be a memento mori. Anything can remind you that you are going to eat it, my friends.

Let’s zoom out a little bit before we go. Six Persimmons is an example of Zen art, and Zen is a specific sect of Buddhism, which is a major world religion. Zen, or Chan in Chinese, literally means “meditation,” and at the Chinese and Japanese Buddhist universities and monasteries, there are people who practice blending meditation and drawing into a kind of “brush yoga,” called “shodo” in Japanese.

And people train in drawing and calligraphy like it’s a martial art. At the beginning they bow to the paper, then they bow the ink, and then they bow to the mirror mind. In martial arts, you always bow to your partner. It turns out that Kung Fu and Zen Buddhism were started by the same guy, Bodhidharma, the first Zen patriarch.

This is important to know because Mu Qi’s Six Persimmons is a popular example of Chan painting, and it's therefore situated within the framework of Buddhist philosophy.

And one theme that often comes up in discourses about Zen Buddhist philosophy is the role that objects play in the transmission of insight. In fact, insight through objects is a kind of Buddhist knowledge transmission “outside the scriptures.”

This principle of object-transmission is most obviously demonstrated in The Flower Sermon, also known as The Wordless Sermon, which is a thousand-year-old Chinese sutra. In the story, thus have I heard, at some beautiful site up on a hill surrounded by trees, the Buddha said he’d give a sermon on the ultimate truth, but this time, for hours the buddha just sat there, not talking, just observing everyone, like a performance artist or like a weirdo. And then suddenly he produced of tiny pink flower and held it up for everyone to see. He smiled, and then they all continued to sit quietly together outside on a hill in the long now. The end.

Later we find out that nobody there really got the teaching except for one disciple, Mahā-kāśyapa, who was nobody special, but somehow in that moment, Mahā-kāśyapa and the Buddha became one mind.

Zen’s promotion of this sermon and this kind of art is sometimes why it’s considered an ‘anti-intellectual’ and ‘anti-establishment’ religion. It appears Zen Buddhists are more interested in our direct experience of the everyday world than they are with doctrine and philosophies, which is also why they draw and sing and dance and fight and practice archery.

But there are other important Zen principles that come into play with this famous drawing–principles like joy, freedom, playfulness, spontaneity, “brush energy,” and that childlike openness and curiosity referred to as the great “beginner's mind.”

Painter and Professor of Art