The Dragon of Myoshinji Temple

All Japanese know of the great painter Kano Tanyu, whose work exists even today at the Myoshinji temple. This is the story of the time when he painted the great dragon on the ceiling of the main hall of the temple. It was his masterpiece and is one of the art treasures of the world. At that time the master at Myoshinji was the celebrated Zen master Gudo, famous as the teacher of the emperor. He had heard that the dragons painted by Tanyu were so realistic that when a ceiling on which one had been painted fell down by chance, some said it had been caused by the movement of the dragon’s tail. When the painting of the dragon at Myoshinji was mooted, Gudo went to the painter’s house and told him:

“For this special occasion I particularly want to have the painting of the dragon done from life.”

Naturally the painter was taken aback, and saying: “This is most unexpected. As a matter of fact, l am ashamed to say that I have never seen a living dragon,” would have refused the commission. The Zen teacher, however, agreed that it would be unreasonable to expect a painting of a living dragon from an artist who had never seen one, but told him to try to have a look at one as soon as he could. The painter asked wonderingly:

“Where can one see a living dragon? Where do they dwell?”

“Oh, that’s nothing. At my place there are any number. Come and see them and paint one.”

Tanyu joyfully went with the teacher and when they arrived, at once asked:

“Well, here I am to see the dragons. Where are they?”

The teacher, letting his gaze go round the room, replied:

“Plenty of them here; can’t you see them? What a pity!”

The painter felt overcome with regret, and in the event spent the next two years with Gudo, practising Zen assiduously.

One day something happened, and he rushed excitedly to the teacher, saying:

“By your grace I have today seen the form of a live dragon!”

“Oh, have you? Good. But tell me, what did his roar sound like?”

At this query the painter was again at a loss, and for one further year laboured on at his spiritual practices. What he painted at the end of the year was the dragon of Myoshinji, a supreme masterpiece in the history of art, remarkable for its technique but far more for the life which the artist has infused into it. It seems as if it contains the great Life which embraces heaven and earth, the universe and man also. It was to pierce through to this reality that the master painter Tanyu poured out his heart’s blood for three years.

But when the one experience of reality was attained, there was no need to seek any further.

To hear a story like this is indeed wonderful, but attainment is no easy thing, and we must not allow ourselves to be discouraged. The experience of reality transcends time.

The sutra says: “Heroes become Buddhas with one thought, but the lazy people are given the three collections of scriptures to traverse.”

Extract from ‘A First Zen Reader’ by Trevor Leggett