Published Aug 29 2016, by

Part 3 | Contemporary Chan Buddhism: Master Shen-Long’s Divine Environmental Scrolls

Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment Dragon (Detail), 2016, ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment Dragon (Detail), 2016, ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

After looking over the works in the warehouse for a few minutes with Jacqueline Chao, the new Curator of Asian Art at the Crow Collection of Asian Art, Master Shen-Long entered the room. Walking along each artwork and stopping at various sections where he wanted to point out a detail or that I had a question about, Master Shen-Long and I discussed his philosophy and process.

Invoking Chan/Zen artistic doctrine, he created each of the scrolls in one spontaneous sequence using a variety of traditional and modern painting techniques with both Eastern and Western painting tools. Essentially, Chan/Zen art seeks to express the True or Formless Self, a form of being that is prior to and free from any physical form.[7] In order to channel one’s True Self, the creative act must be conducted in a pure state of whole mind with no thought. In other words, the pinnacle of artistic achievement results from an act of creation made with no inhibitions or restraint in a flow of consciousness.[8]

Master Shen-Long described it as accessing “Buddha” (self-nature) or “Dragon” (enlightenment) energy, a relentless vigor that comes from deep inside each individual inherently. Enlightenment Dragon (2016) exemplifies this idea in relation to “Shen Long”, the divine dragon (meaning one with omniscient and omnipresent ability), who like the Buddha is a source of infinite power.

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Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment Dragon (Detail), 2016, ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet.

Master Shen-Long described it as accessing “Buddha” (self-nature) or “Dragon” (enlightenment) energy, a relentless vigor that comes from deep inside each individual inherently. Enlightenment Dragon (2016) exemplifies this idea in relation to “Shen Long”, the divine dragon (meaning one with omniscient and omnipresent ability), who like the Buddha is a source of infinite power.

One can make out the sublime creature amongst the void of the abstraction from head to tail along the entire scroll. The face of Buddha can also be faintly seen near the left of a dragon’s head, barely discernable as if only existing as a glimmer of form that at any moment could be swept back into the infinite abyss of abstraction. Similarly, in Enlightenment World one sees multiple depictions of the energy of the Buddha. This includes a more figural and clearly defined face along the area of the scroll lying on the floor along with a more abstract depiction of the deity in the part hanging vertically.

Indeed, the idea of modes of divine transmission, or rather the channeling of authenticity from former masters and great figures through some kind of reference to them was vital to the legitimacy of traditional works in terms of their sublime power. Most vital of all was obtaining the transmission of the universal power of the Buddha through the use of imagery and calligraphic phrases associated with the entity.[9] The variety of imagery scattered amongst the abstraction of Enlightenment World and Enlightenment Dragon, along with calligraphic phrases on each of the scrolls’ borders that reference the Buddha (self-nature) and Dragon (enlightenment) both fulfill this vital function.

According to Master Shen-Long, “all kinds of beings are God (meaning the source of all creative power), everything has its own creative and enlightenment power, so I try to show [that anyone is capable of channeling the wisdom and enlightenment energy of existence].” In recovering the connection with your True Self, one gains contact with “enlightenment power” and can become an instrument of it. In harmony with the energy that flows through all reality, “you can create all kinds of things.”

Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment Dragon (Detail), 2016, ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment Dragon (Detail), 2016, ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Central to this line of thinking comes from the legacy of how Chinese civilization has perceived existence until the modern era. As opposed to post-enlightenment[1o] Western thought that generally likes to distinguish and categorize things as independent, separate phenomenon based purely on observations of physical reality, while Chinese philosophical traditions tended to discuss how reality exists in confluence.[11]

In other words, the prevalent view in pre-modern China was the idea that heaven, sky, and earth were all connected or rather that material and immaterial reality were one and the same. For this reason we often see an emphasis on verticality in the Chinese landscape tradition.[12] Indeed, in traditional Chinese painting “painters created visions of landscape that depicted the vastness and multiplicity of creation itself.”[13] The material and immaterial are linked; reality and all living things are permeable. To put it another way, our being in relation to other entities is fluid and not rigidly distinct. The nearly ubiquitous feature in traditional Chinese and Japanese landscape painting of dense, misty atmosphere can be seen as serving this concept.[14]

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Master Shen-Long, Sprouting from Zen’s Joy (Detail), 2007, ink on polyester sheet, 4.99 x 4.49 ft

Certainly, part of what makes Master Shen-Long’s work so exceptional is how he simultaneously captures these ancient concepts in both traditional and contemporary terms. He told me himself Enlightenment World is indeed a landscape. Looking closer at the work, this idea becomes clear, as the waves of paint are not merely pure abstraction since human features such as faces, eyes, and hands can be seen visibly. In this, the massive void composed of hues of white, black, and blue represents the confluent nature of reality along with the view that sublimity and physical reality are intertwined. The human features in the cliff sides and rocks of my favorite of Master Shen-Long’s smaller works on display, the previously mentioned Sprouting from Zen’s Joy, demonstrates the idea that all things have souls, from rocks to animals to humans.

In conclusion, Master Shen-Long’s environmental scrolls were some of the most poignantly effective works I have ever seen in their sense of presence and aesthetic brilliance. His adherence to the parameters of traditional Chinese painting in his contemporary work makes the otherworldly nature of the scrolls seem even more cosmic. Moreover, such technique really distinguishes Master Shen-Long’s work from similar all-over abstraction created in spontaneous conditions reminiscent of the Zen/Chan-state expressed by artists such as Jackson Pollock or Kazuo Shiraga.[15] Master Shen-Long really is a must-see artist, so if you ever get the chance to look upon the secluded master’s work, do not pass up on the rare chance!

About the Author: Devon Hersch is currently the McDermott Curatorial Intern of Asian Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. He received his Bachelor of the Arts Degree last year from New York University, graduating summa cum laude with high honors in Art History. His honors thesis on Postmodern Japanese Art won multiple awards, such as the Douglas F. Maxwell award for excellence in the study of Art History. The award included a generous stipend for travel abroad to view culture and art which Devon used to travel to East Asia.

[7] Ibid, 46-48.
[8] Ibid, 16-19.
[9] Kosen, Nishiyama and John Stevens. A Complete English Translation of Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo (The Eye and Treasury of the True Law. Tokyo, 1975-1983, Vol. 2, 178-186
[10] The Enlightenment was the prevailing philosophical cultural movement to emerge in 18th century Europe. It promoted the idea that reason was the source of all good and should be the primary source in regarding reality. This fell in line with the rise of empiricism and the formation of the scientific method at the time. The shift in emphasis to the importance of material reality in describing phenomenon over the immaterial, along with the perceived societal injustices of religious organizations led to an increasing call for the secularization of societal institutions. Especially after the reactionary movement to the enlightenment, romanticism, declined with the onset of modernity due in part to the seemingly ever-increasing power of scientific innovation, the mentality of the enlightenment dominated Western thought largely to the present day often regarded to with the term analytical philosophy. It is only very recently that alternate perspectives gained wide scale acceptance in academia with the embrace of literary and cultural theory (also referred to as continental philosophy) during the emergence of post-structuralism in the late 20th century.
[11] Pan, An-yi. “Nature Observed and Imagined,” in Nature Observed and Imagined: Five Hundred Years of Chinese Painting. Ithaca, New York: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 2010, 9-15.
[12] Huang, Susan (Shih-Shan). Picturing The True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China. Harvard University Press (Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London), 2012, 99-102. It is also the reason for the inclusion and functional purpose of pagodas in Buddhist religious sites. Their immense height and vertical emphasis serves the idea that the area is connected to heaven.
[13] Fong, Wen. Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, Eighth–Fourteenth Century. Yale University Press; 1st edition (October 1992), 82.
[14] Kanazawa, Hiroshi and Helmut Brinker. Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings. Translated by Andreas Leisinger. Zurich: Artibus Asiae Publishers, Supplementum 40 (1996), 142-148.
[15] Delbanco, Dawn. “Chinese Calligraphy.”