Foundations of Nature Art

Foundations of Nature Art

Through a thousand years of finely honed aesthetic sensibilities, Chinese scholars came to be looked upon as the pinnacle of Chinese culture. Lovers of nature, lovers of beauty and lovers of art, whether employed as teachers or government officials, secluded Buddhist monks or reclusive hermits, their ideal was to live a simple life with the hope of reaching a balance between the intellect and the senses. The concepts that shaped the scholars' enduring attitudes are rooted in the religious and philosophical systems they drew upon. Confucianism, Taoism and Chan Buddhism, all of which strive toward a state of harmony that finds solace in nature, guided their way. Devoting themselves to the arts, these religions affected every mode of the scholars' artistic expression. It was these values and standards that Influenced the creation of the Yixing teapot.

The philosophical systems of Confucianism, Taoism and Chan Buddhism all viewed nature as a great teacher and the objects of nature as touchstones of the cosmos. All three philosophies concur with the ideal that "to understand the meaning of the thing, one must become the thing, harmonize one's consciousness with it and reach a mental attitude which brings knowledge without intellectual deliberation." Added to these philosophies was an even earlier religion, a form of animism that believed in "nature spirits." Common among early agrarian peoples worldwide, nature worship was a way of appeasing the powers that controlled the rain and sun needed to grow the crops necessary for survival. They believed that man was endowed with the responsibility of listening to the messages communicated by a divine spirit, a concept that came to be at the heart of all Chinese thought.

Confucianism built upon values of the past with an emphasis on tradition and ceremony. It was an ethical system based on ancestor worship, devotion to family and friends and the maintenance of justice and peace. Its philosophy of romantic idealism, ethics, ritual, statesmanship and oneness with nature were the guiding doctrines. Confucius (551-479 BC) believed that only through rituals of the past and a balance between extremes could one cultivate the soul and achieve harmony as a virtuous individual. Combining social order in communion and collaboration with cosmic order, early Confucian writings taught that a wise man took delight in the mountains and rivers, Nature was moral and capable of giving instruction. The Confucian ideal, where the intent is not to move away from the past but to move forward by recapturing it, exemplifies their perception of the pattern of Chinese history.

Since Confucianism appealed to the higher classes of Chinese society, its political elitism spawned several reactionaries who turned away from politics and embraced the idea of returning to nature. The central theme of their teachings was the cultivation of the spirit and the ultimate achievement of harmony through the full embrace of nature. Embracing nature did not simply mean to respect it and express it through the arts. It meant behaving as nature intended, where the importance was on non-action or passive, non-goal-oriented behavior.

Taoism, from its advent in the sixth century BC, was a humanistic religion like Confucianism. Introduced by Lao Tzu (604?-531? BC), Tao ("The Way") approaches the power of the universe in a mystical way, teaching that the natural order of the cosmos permeates all things, stressing a life in tune with the workings of the universe. Taoism, with a longer history than Confucianism, is similar in that it too was largely interested in the power that holds society together. Instead of granting the Confucian contention that such power was generated by moral example, the Taoists maintained that it was basically psychic in nature. This philosophy taught the principles of the cosmos could be acquired through obedience to the requirements of man's nature and the simplification of social and political relations.

In complete contrast to Western attitudes of dominance over nature, Taoist philosophy treats man and nature as one and the same: the principles that regulate nature regulate the universe. To live well, man must be "in tune with the universe." Because of this man/nature unity, the scholars traditionally sought to coerce and befriend nature rather than to dominate it. The following excerpt from the Taoist text, Tao Te Ching, illustrates the point. 'Those who would take over the earth and shape it to their will, never, I notice, succeed. The earth is like a vessel, so sacred that at the mere approach of the profane it is marred. And when they reach up their fingers it is gone." In Chinese landscape painting, for example, artists did not seek to reproduce objective reality in their subject matter, but rather express the subject's inherent nature and cosmic vitality, Almost invariably mountains and water are incorporated into landscape and nature paintings. Indeed, the Chinese term for landscape is shanshui, meaning "mountain and waters."

Chan, the meditative sect of Buddhism, completes the triumvirate. Chan, more widely known by its Japanese derivation, Zen, favors an Intuitive "wordless" approach to enlightenment. Chan Buddhists not only saw the purity and humility of non-action as a path to "the way" but they believed the eventual union with "the way" would occur spontaneously, thus embodying the spontaneity of nature, Although Buddhism had reached China around the first century AD, the beginnings of Chan Buddhism trace back to the fourth century, assuming a prominent role in the latter half of the eighth century during the Tang dynasty. Once it became the dominant form of Chinese Buddhism, it was declared the orthodox school by the imperial commission.

Chan Buddhism, with its emphasis on spiritual enlightenment won pre-eminence among the scholars because it advocated many methods of waking up the mind and freeing it from restrictive prejudices. It emphasized quietude and self-cultivation, Traveling and communicating with nature were adopted with particular enthusiasm, The scholars felt that one could find in nature, especially in mountains, the serenity and peace needed to attain a more enlightened frame of mind. The unique feature of Chan, which sets It apart from traditional Buddhist doctrines, is its emphasis upon the immediate experience of ultimate reality, state of consciousness in which the duality of the world has ceased to exists The scholars believed that real knowledge could not be obtained through ritual and study, but solely in the realization of one's own nature. The avowed aim of the seventeenth century scholar, Shitoa, was "to understand the hidden forces of heaven and earth//11 Eventually Chan Buddhist thought became integrated with the earlier beliefs, adapting the terminology of Taoism and the theories of Yin and Yang. The terms Yin and Yang, the two fundamental concepts in Chinese philosophy, metaphysics and traditional medicine, have their origins in simple observation of the natural world. Yang is the male element; the southern bank of a mountain. Yin, the female element, is the northern bank or the shady slope.

By the Ming dynasty, neo-Confucianism, characterized by its philosophical eclecticism, made a happy synthesis of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist thought. Man could seek "oneness" both within himself and nature to promote health and growth leading to an ultimate unification of heaven, earth and man in a "universal mind." Simplicity became an aesthetic virtue. It was only by losing oneself in the vastness of nature that one was able to find oneself, to discover what Chan masters would call one's own Buddha-nature. The preeminent twentieth-century writer, lecturer and mystic, Alan Watts, described the effect of Chan Buddhism and the influence it had on Confucian and Taoist thinking and on the culture of China in the following:

After the persecution of Chinese Buddhism in 845 AD, Chan was for some time not only the dominant form of Buddhism but also the most powerful in the growth of Chinese culture. This influence was at its height during the Southern Song dynasty. And during this time the Chan monasteries became leading centers of Chinese scholarship. Lay scholars, Confucian and Taoist alike, visited them for periods of study and Chan monks in turn familiarized themselves with Chinese classical studies. Since writing and poetry were among the chief occupations of Chinese scholars and since the Chinese way of painting is closely akin to writing, the roles of the scholar, artist and poet are not widely separated. The Chinese scholar-gentleman was not a specialist and it was quite against the nature of the Chan monk to confine his interests and activities to purely "religious" affairs. The result was a tremendous cross fertilization of philosophical, scholarly, poetic and artistic pursuits in which the Chan and Taoist feeling of "naturalness" became the dominant note.

The scholars' art became the outward expression of Confucian, Taoist and Chan Buddhist philosophies. Nature became the subject Objects in nature were not thought of as isolated phenomena, but were symbolic of all reality, Through nature the scholars could gain insights that could not be solely obtained through intellectual study or formal training. They studied all forms of nature, animate and inanimate, seeking an awareness of their own nature, a concept central to their thinking. If they could understand what lay beneath the surface, not just what the senses perceived, they hoped to convey to others something of their very own nature. The results were intuitive, spontaneous expressions, reducing things to their essence. Their art was a "working of the mind" and the ^stirring of the human spirit." This intimate relationship between man and nature provided a feeling of unity with all aspects of their existence, producing what they hoped would be a more truthful art.