The meditative branch of Buddhism known as Chan in China and Zen in Japan fit well into the Chinese contemplative tradition with its emphasis on insight, self-discipline, and intuitive comprehension. The Chan schools utilized painted portraits such as this to demonstrate the importance of the lineage of their masters. The rough, spontaneous, abbreviated brushwork of the i-pin
or "untrammeled manner" was adopted to Chan themes. These enigmatic images including brief but inspiring works of calligraphy were developed to challenge and provoke adherents to greater awareness and creative thinking.
The subject of this work is Hsien-tzu, a disciple of Tung-shan Liang-chieh (807-860), one of the founders of the Ts'ao-tung sect of Chan Buddhism. Hsien-tzu was attached to no monastery. Lacking fixed residence, he wandered along rivers and lakes using a net to catch the clams and shrimps that constituted the main part of his diet. Hsien-tzu is shown here grasping a shrimp in apparent conflict with the Buddhist proscription against the killing of any sentient creature.
Paradoxically, an enlightened being such as Hsien-tzu, emancipated from all attachments, was also freed from such artificial disciplines as a vegetarian diet. Provocative images like this were designed to stretch the mind and imagination of the viewer leading them to greater understanding and ultimate discernment.
The inscription reads:
Traveling along the seashore he spoke for the benefit of mankind,
Saying I have nothing better by which to complete the eight stages (of Buddhism).
Three hundred years of age he lived together with the Deva (gods),
His head transformed with knowledge, he entered the inner sanctum of the Teacher (Buddha).
Once the lamp was established, the mandate has never been severed,
And those who follow his teachings still portray this singular man.