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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

Additional Resources

Addiss, Stephen. Art of Zen. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

Addiss, Stephen, Stanley Lombardo, and Judith Roitman. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2008.

Levine, Gregory, and Yukio Lippit. Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan. New York: Japan Society, 2007.

Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.

Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art, rev. and expanded ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

The Four Sleepers

» Mokuan Reien (Japanese, d. 1345)

The Chinese school of Buddhism known as Chan first trickled into Japan (where it was called Zen) in the twelfth century, but it did not achieve great cultural influence there until the fourteenth century.

At this time, a number of Japanese monk-painters traveled to China. Among these was Mokuan Reien, who spent the later years of his life, from approximately 1329 to 1345, studying at a Chan monastery.

Mokuan’s painting, The Four Sleepers, employs a monochromatic ink-wash technique that developed during China’s Southern Song Dynasty and was closely associated with the Chan school of Buddhism. “Apparition painting” or “shadow painting” (wangliang hua in Chinese or moryo-ga in Japanese) as it was called, was characterized by faint, wet ink, sketchy lines, minute details, and a lack of fully realized forms.

The Four Sleepers also incorporates the Chan tradition of representing figures from popular religious culture accompanied by inscriptions written by monks or abbots. The central ideas in Chan, or Zen, Buddhism have to do with the relationship between reality and illusion, the ability of each individual to achieve Enlightenment, and the importance of meditation in facilitating that awakening. Together, images and text may have served to transmit such concepts from masters to their disciples.

In The Four Sleepers, Mokuan depicts legendary figures of Chan lore—the Tang dynasty monk Fengken, known for his eccentric habit of riding a tiger, with his companions, the monk Shide and the poet Hanshan. The three men and Fengken’s tiger are shown sleeping soundly. Rather than granting access to the realm of dreams, the painting hints at a dream world that cannot be represented on paper. At the same time, the tranquility of the sleepers may suggest the peacefulness of Enlightenment that cannot be attained in the waking world.

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