K005 Zen Skull by Yamaoka Tesshū, 山岡鉄舟

Who knows where a human face will end up?
This is an old friend lying beneath peach blossoms smiling at the spring wind.

Brushed by Tesshū Yamaoka Kōhō* at Zenshō-an**, a summer day in 1881.

幸己夏日て於全生庵鉄舟山岡高歩
舊笑春風
處去桃花依
人面不知何
Yamaoka Tesshū (山岡鉄舟, 1836-1888)
K005 hanging scroll, sumi on paper 125.5 cm × 62.6 cm.

*One of Tesshū’s pen names. **A temple founded by Tesshū in Tokyo. He is buried there.

In addition to symbolizing impermanence, a skull represents the “rightness” of death as a natural aspect of existence, and the Buddha-nature inherent in the inevitable dissolution of all things. Zen skulls often appear to be smiling as shown here indicating that life was great while it lasted! Tesshū’s personal motto was “Live completely, die completely.” This was painted when Tesshū was forty-five, about one year after his dramatic enlightenment experience. The brushwork here is amazingly spirited, almost explosive, and this huge scroll has a galvanizing effect on the viewer. This is an outstanding Zenga in terms of scale, technique, and energy.