Nantenboo 南天棒 "Nandina Stick"

Nakahara Nantenbo (1839-1925)
Nantenbō and Daruma

First a quote by Mark Stevens about Zenga

is a Taoist idea that became essential part of Buddhism. It delivers an important warning to slick artists who rely too much upon their fluency: Important art must be truthful, not just talented. And that means understanding the place of the knotty, awkward and simple.

Read his article here:


Tōjū Zenchū (Toojuu Zenchuu)

(I quote the parts related to our Daruma san.)

"IF I CANNOT BECOME A PRIEST of extraordinary accomplishment, I will not walk upon the earth," vowed eighteen-year-old Nantenbō (Tōjū Zenchū) to his Zen Master.' The impassioned spirit of this precocious young man was to burn brightly throughout his eighty-seven years. Not only did he rise through ecclesiastical ranks to an exalted position at one of the most prestigious Rinzai Zen monasteries in Japan, he was "a Zen priest of the people."'

In his determination to restore Zen to its former purity and brilliance, he emulated the severe methods of legendary Zen masters from the distant past. The thick staff of nandina (nanten) he used to "encourage" disciples and frighten "false priests" resulted in a great deal of notoriety, giving him the nickname Nantenbō (nandina staff).

He also published ten volumes of Zen commentaries, headed numerous Zen study groups and, by his own estimate, brushed over one hundred thousand calligraphies and paintings, which he freely gave away to anyone brave enough to ask. Certainly his efforts helped maintain Zen during Japan's tumultuous modernization. By wielding the brush with unmitigated vigor, he also may have unwittingly exerted tremendous influence on twentieth-century "action" artists and avant-garde calligraphers."

In 1857, Nantenbō penetrated Mu. Over the next eight years, he devoted himself to koan practice, doggedly seeking out noted Masters upon whom he tested his understanding.

It was during his travels in Kyushu in 1873 that Nantenbō discovered a large nandina bush growing beside a cow shed. From the owner, he learned that it was an ancient growth. While his companions waited by the roadside, Nantenbō pleaded with the farmer:

I have searched here and there, and this is a perfect dragon-quelling training stick. I f this tree goes on this way, how long will it live? Someday it will wither and die.... In my hands, however, it will become an instrument o f the dharma.
This nandina will resound for countless generations.
What do you say? Will you let me have it?

The farmer gave in to the earnest monk's request. Nantenbō cut a thick trunk, addressing the remaining stump: "I cannot live unless I make the most of your great death, you who have lived for two hundred years."

When Nantenbō finally joined his waiting companions with stick in hand, they chided the zealous priest, playfully dubbing him "Nantenbō" (nandina staff). The appellation stuck, and the priest henceforth was known by this sobriquet.

Inspired by his prized stick, Nantenbō embarked on a grand pilgrimage, visiting temples throughout Japan. According to Nantenbō's later accounts, he challenged resident priests to dharma battles, beating them with his stick and chasing them from their temples if they lacked true understanding.

Nantenbō's most prestigious appointment, in 1891 to the sprawling Zen complex of Zuigan-ji in Matsushima near Sendai, then he secluded himself in the nearby dilapidated temple of Daibai-ji. He wrote the following verse:

Great plum trees take twenty years to bear fruit.
In this place Nantenbō, too, ripens.

Nantenbō first began to produce painting and calligraphy in his early fifties during his brief period at Zuigan-ji. This late date is not unusual, given the traditional Zen rejection of artistic cultivation among its clerics. In the past, harsh judgments were levied against monks who strayed from their prescribed routines.

Nevertheless, there is also a seemingly contradictory tradition in Japan of collecting and admiring the calligraphy of high-ranking Rinzai Zen priests. Termed bokuseki, or "traces of ink," such works were thought to resonate not only with the spirituality of the priest who wrote them, but with that of his teacher and his teacher's teacher, all the way back to Daruma himself.

Writing in one breath
The reason for not speaking while writing a large character is that the character will "die" unless it is written in one breath. One should magnify one's spirit and write without letting this magnified spirit escape. The character will die unless it is written using the hara [literally, gut, here suggesting the center of one's spirit].

Imaginary portraits of the First Zen Patriarch, Bodhidharma, called Daruma in Japanese, are the most frequently encountered of all Zen-related subjects. All Zen Buddhists trace the existence of their doctrine to this Indian sage who, according to legend, left his homeland in the late fifth or early sixth century in order to propagate his brand of Buddhism in China. Daruma stressed meditation above all other methods of achieving enlightenment. In fact, it is said that he accomplished the astonishing feat of sitting in meditation ceaselessly for nine years while facing a wall at Shaolin temple on Mount Sung.

Nantenbō began to produce bust-portraits of Daruma in his early seventies. Many of these are boldly rendered, large-scale images. An unusual example, however, was painted in glaze when he was seventy-five on a small teabowl. Rendered in iron-oxide on cream-colored clay, the composition was completed in just a few strokes. The furrowed brow of the First Patriarch is suggested by two parallel lines. The eyebrows, beard, and hair are indicated by a series of rapidly applied dabs. The mouth is a single downward arch, and the eyes are nearly round circles with black dots for pupils. A single stroke indicates Daruma's robe as it falls from his left shoulder across his chest, covering his hands. The overall effect is charmingly simple and humorous.

One flower blooms into five leaves;
All things are accomplished naturally.

With an extreme economy of means and deliberate naivete, Nantenbō effectively conveyed the two characteristics most associated with the First Patriarch: his devotion to meditation, suggested by his wide-eyed stare, and his fierce determination, conveyed by his firmly set mouth. Daruma's portrait on a teabowl also recalls some of the more fantastic legends associated with the revered sage's life.

One-stroke Daruma (1961)

Unable to keep his eyes open during his protracted meditation at Shaolin temple, lie is said to have ripped off his eyelids in frustration; tea plants sprang spontaneously from the ground where the eyelids fell, thus beginning the custom in monasteries of drinking tea to prevent drowsiness. Such stories make Nantenbō's use of a teabowl for a portrait of Daruma altogether fitting.

Nantenbō inscribed the teabowl with a short, four-character quote attributed to Daruma himself. According to tradition, this was Daruma's pointed response when Emperor Wu (502-550) of the Liang dynasty asked him to recite the sacred truth's first principle:

Vast emptiness; nothing sacred

In addition to frontal portraits, Nantenbō also painted a number of images showing Daruma seated in meditation as seen from behind the sage. Long favored as a painting theme by Zen priests, these images are identified as "menpeki Daruma" or "wall-facing Daruma," referring to the ancient sage's nine years of meditation while facing a wall. As early as the fourteenth century in Japan, Zen artists playfully depicted the sage's silhouette by means of a single, meandering outline in a technique known as ippitsuga (one-stroke painting).


Nantenbō's conception of the menpeki theme is even more abbreviated than those of his predecessors. By eliminating the distinction between the head and shoulders, Nantenbō further distilled the silhouette of the First Patriarch. A simple, inverted U-shape is used to connote Daruma's body, and a horizontal ellipse is meant to imply his knees beneath monkish robes. Nantenbō's method of rendering these elements, however, is so geometric as to be unreadable as a cloaked figure.

In a final denial of pictorial volume, Nantenbō impressed his seals within the outline, thus assertively calling attention to the surface of the paper. The abstract nature of the figure, however, only accentuates the quality of the ink, applied in a single sweeping stroke of great energy.

Was Nantenbō simply inept at pictorial representation, or was he a visionary who pushed Zen painting further into a realm of dynamic epigraphs and emblems? The inscription on his menpeki painting offers a playful acknowledgment of the image's ambiguous nature:

The shape of Daruma facing the wall--
is it like a melon or an eggplant
from the fields of Hachiman in Yamashiro?

It is likely, in fact, that Nantenbō intentionally challenges people's rigid preconceptions about the nature of Daruma. In his autobiography he notes that while he receives many requests for paintings of Daruma, his images are often criticized for looking like owls or octopi. "Very interesting," the old priest observes. "People talk as if they have seen Daruma, but who has seen the original Daruma?"

If you have faith, then Nantenbō is also Buddha
Namu Nantenbō, namu Nantenbō, namu Nantenbō...

Read the full article here and look at the pictures.

- Safekeep copy

Nanten, the Plant, with its red berries in winter


Since the above article covers all the aspects of Nantenbo, I will now show you some of his Daruma paintings.

Snowman Daruma - 1921

A Daruma made of piled-up snow.
As the days pass by,
Where has he gone? -
No traces of him remain.

source : www.bachmanneckenstein.com


Further LINKS to Nantenbo

Orientations September 2002Volume 33 Number 7
Meaning and Multiplicity: The Daruma Images of Nantenbo by Paul Berry

enlightening strokes

Toju Zenchu (1839-1925),
known as Nantenbo, who painted an enso -- a Zen circle that symbolizes life in a perfected state. The haiku inscribed within the circle of this one reads,

"Born within the circle of life (enso)
the human heart must also become
round and complete (enso)."

Article about Zenga by Fred Stern at artnet

Nantembo had tremendous energy and brushed Zen art daily as an integral part of his practice. He was strong and active to the day he died at age eighty-seven.

Look at many more pictures by Nantenbo.

Nakahara Nantembo at the Shambhala Gallery
Ever Onward Calligraphy
Distant Mountains

Sleeping Oxen, Painting
中原 南天棒(なかはら なんてんぼう)天保10年~大正14年(1839~1935)

Enso and Ippitsu Daruma by Gabi Greve

Nanten, Nadina as a KIGO




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