The Buddhist Art of Iwasaki Tsuneo
By Paula Arai
Reviewed by Chikan Bacon
Painting Enlightenment is a book of intricate Buddhist art and a visionary journey through the Heart of The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. The book itself is worthy of its content, exquisitely bound and jacketed with a heft that feels steady in the hand. Artist Iwasaki Tsuneo’s images are clear and expansive with enhanced details, while the scholar Paula Arai guides us along with descriptions and bits of poetry, weaving through each section while allowing Iwasaki’s paintings to speak for themselves.
Paula Arai was on a Fulbright scholarship into healing rituals in Nagoya, Japan when she met Iwasaki at an exhibition of his work. It was an auspicious day for them both, and over the next few years they sealed a friendship and spiritual bond that would last through the end of his life.
Arai offers stories and reflections on over fifty of Iwasaki’s paintings. Divided into eight themes, her presentation loosely threads different aspects of Iwasaki’s healing vision of the Heart Sutra: Interbeing, Flowing, Nurturing, Forgiving, Offering, Awakening, Playing, and Flourishing. Arai’s choice of themes to introduce the various paintings highlights Iwasaki’s deep devotional intentions, while Iwasaki paints with a scientist’s precision reflecting the analytical spirit that Buddhism and science share.
Iwasaki Tsuneo (1917-2002) was a devout Buddhist, school teacher, research biologist, and a Japanese World War II veteran. At age fifty-five he began eight years of formal calligraphy training to develop the skills to practice the art of Buddhist “sutra copying.” He then began to copy the Heart Sutra more than two thousand times, all the while polishing the technique of “saimitsu” or tiny character writing.
At age seventy Iwasaki began to shape the tiny characters of the verses into pictures that expressed his growing vision and understanding of the sutra and its healing properties. These complex brushed characters measure about 4-5mm or 1/8 of an inch and thread their way through and become part of the image itself. The text goes into some detail about the materials and techniques of Iwasaki’s painting and calligraphy. As a lay person, I felt this gave me a better understanding of what I was looking at and a deep appreciation of the artist’s sublime mastery.
Some of these paintings are enormous. The largest, Big Bang: E = mc2 is 6 feet by 17 feet wide. These tiny, often golden characters of the Heart Sutra cast themselves into images such as a moment of cloud-to-ground lightening, drifting incense, colonies of marching ants, a glittering sparkler, or a hydrogen atom enclosed by rings upon rings of the scripture. The paintings are hypnotic and Iwasaki’s subjects brilliantly random.
One large work, Mandala of Evolution (6ftX6ft) is presented with cut-away close ups that remind me of ancient illuminated manuscripts. Iwasaki spent two years painting the details to include everything you could imagine from the beginning of life. Celestial bodies, atomic particles, dinosaurs, starfish, amoebas, amphibians, solar systems, cherry blossoms and on and on. I imagine one should see this work in person to fully appreciate its teachings.
Iwasaki was not well known in his lifetime. He created over three hundred paintings, gifted numerous works to benefactors including family, friends and a few institutions which now hold many. Immersion in this book brought to mind the oft written counsel from The Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines: “One should listen to this perfection of wisdom, take it up, bear it in mind, recite it, study it, spread it among others, train in it, and exert oneself in it.” Paula Arai and Iwasaki have together presented this healing vision of the Heart Sutra and hopefully will introduce many to this luminous body of work.