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Art Through Time: A Global View

Dreams and Visions Art: The Four Sleepers

» Mokuan Reien (Japanese, d. 1345)

The Four Sleepers

The Four Sleepers
Artist / Origin: Mokuan Reien (Japanese, d. 1345)
Region: East Asia
Date: 14th century
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Ink on paper
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 27 ½ in. (70 cm.), W: 14 in. (36 cm.)

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.

Expert Perspective: 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.”

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.

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