Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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2 / Dreams and Visions

The Four Sleepers
The Four Sleepers
Artist / Origin Mokuan Reien (Japanese, d. 1345)
Region: East Asia
Date 14th century
Material Ink on paper
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 27 ½ in. (70 cm.), W: 14 in. (36 cm.)

expert perspective

Yukio LippitAssociate Professor of Art History, Harvard University

The Four Sleepers

» Mokuan Reien (Japanese, d. 1345)

expert perspective

Yukio Lippit Yukio Lippit Associate Professor of Art History, Harvard University

Dreams and visions in general are somehow reflective of the special concerns of different cultures at different moments in their history. What one can say about the status of dreams in the non-West, especially, again, before the Enlightenment, and especially before Freud, is that dreams were understood to represent truth. But this truth wasn’t a psychic truth that was located within an individual psyche, that didn’t somehow emanate from oneself, one’s interiority, but that it was a general truth about the world. It was an ontological truth that people could somehow access on special occasions. And a dream was something like a journey to that space where one could experience the essence of the world as it was. And one would bring back from that special insights, special experiences, special images.

In Buddhist art you also see this aspect of the status of truths manifest in paintings and sculpture and other art forms. The Four Sleepers is a wonderful example of Buddhist dream art in Japan that doesn’t depict dreams per se, but only people sleeping, and therefore indirectly addressing their dreams. What you see in the painting are four Zen Buddhists. These are colorful historical figures—two vagabonds, a famous Zen monk, and his tiger. They’re all lumped together, sleeping, blissfully sleeping. And it is somehow through them that one is meant to experience dreams, and by extension, Buddhist truth, their spiritually-enlightened status.” 

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