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Compare Dai Jin’s and Sesshu’s Huike Presenting His Severed Arm to Bodhidharma

Compare Dai Jin’s and Sesshu’s Huike Presenting His Severed Arm to Bodhidharma

Many Asian artists tried to interpret the life story of Bodhidharma with certain esthetical methods and symbols. Each of them created a unique style of representation in order to convey the sense of the story. In this case, the story of Huike, who presented his severed arm to Bodhidharma, is also a very important part of an aesthetic discourse. Dai Jin and Sesshu created two different versions of this story, forming two different interpretations as well. Therefore, the main theme of the work is the human sacrifice for being accepted into the ranks of Bodhidharma’s disciples. In other words, the bodily sacrifice is made for the sake of spiritual freedom. Dai Jin does not give much attention to human sacrifice, inscribing it in the context of nature and harmony, while Sesshu focuses on the individual psychological aspect, isolating the valuable human sacrifice for the sake of spiritual purification.


These works illustrate stories and parables, which are used in Zen Buddhism, especially in the context of the Way of Zen, the path to enlightenment. Biographies of legendary monks and collections of koans were the source of subjects for these paintings. Both works represent one episode from the life of Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism. The monk Huike (486-593) came one day to Bodhidharma. He begged him to reveal the truth of Zen. However, the teacher did not pay attention to him. The whole evening the monk stood at the entrance to the cave, where Bodhidharma meditated, and finally, the patriarch asked him how he could help. Huike replied that he came for asking his wise advice. The response was that the truth of Buddhism can be understood only after years of strict discipline. To prove his sincerity and devotion, Huike cut off his left arm, and handed it to the teacher. Bodhidharma rejected the sacrifice, saying that no one can help to find the truth. Then Huike asked Bodhidharma for inspiration. The patriarch said: “Give me your mind here, and I will comfort it”. Huike said that he could not find his mind, and Bodhidharma replied: “Well, I calmed your mind!” Thereby, the monk found enlightenment for his mind, but he lost his hand. After Bodhidharma, he became the second patriarch of Zen. Since then, when greeting each other, Zen monks put to the breast only one vertical palm instead of two as other Buddhists do. According to Adamek, “it is the most dramatical example of physical sacrifice in Chan lore” (Adamek 146). Moreover, offering his arm was “one of the practices attributed to those in the hagiographic category of ‘self-immolators’” (Adamek 146).


In Dai Jin’s version of this story, the composition has a horizontal form, and the characters themselves are inscribed in nature. He has not adhered to symmetry, showing a dominant role of nature, not of a man. Accordingly, Bodhidharma is on the right side and he is concentrated on his prayer. Huike, who came to Bodhidharma for advice, is in the center of the painting. Nevertheless, human figures are almost lost and dissolved in the picture. It reflects the essence of Buddhism – to dissolve in pure matter and get rid of own feelings (Shambaugh and Shambaugh 46). It is not accidentally that Bodhidharma recommended the monk to apply to himself. Dai Jin emphasizes this motif when Bodhidharma sits back, ignoring monk’s presence. As for Huike, which is the epicenter of both composition and history, it is difficult to guess about his injury, because the monk is represented schematically.

The composition in Sesshu’s Huike Presenting His Severed Arm to Bodhidharma differs from the Chinese version. The whole composition is based not on the narrative, but on thin and unexpected associations, changing the rhythm and asymmetry, and therefore, creating a complex balance. First, he focuses only on two figures, without using unnecessary space. Second, the Japanese master did his version in the concise composition; thus, it seems more abstract than realistic. In this version, Bodhidharma is in the center of the composition; thus he shifts the meaning of the theme. While Dai Jin tells the story of the monk and his intention to learn, Sesshu focuses more on special spiritual experience that Bodhidharma represents (Munsterberg 2014). Moreover, the artist places Bodhidharma considerably above the monk, and it seems that he is flying in the air. The physical laws do not work for him at all. This position suggests that the author wanted to prove a higher spiritual state of Buddha and his unique metaphysical power. As for Huike, he is located at the bottom in dirty clothes and has a very sad face. Consequently, he cannot find a path to enlightenment, and even cutting of his hand does not help him.


Dai Jinclearly separates space into three main plans, creating a kind of a staging history. The foreground represents nature. Dai Jin depicts a branch of pine on the left edge, which visually seems closer than figures. Accordingly, the nature always takes the first place, although it is difficult to guess how locally a cave is surrounded by trees. The monk is in the middleground. This plan also includes a path to the cave, which is shown diagonally. Dai Jin creates the ideal depth of space and its realistic nature as well. Dai Jin paints a conditional term, and in this manner he creates a feeling of depth in space. Thus, it also symbolizes Bodhidharma’s meditation and reflection, and the ability to engage into it (Shambaugh and Shambaugh 47). For him, the physical laws are important; thus he follows the geometric principles. The cave and Buddha are in the background. Moreover, there is water, some flora, and stones. This represents the inner world of Bodhidharma, which is pure.

However Sesshu represents different grounds of space. While Dai Jin uses nature in the foreground, Sesshu places it in the background. It is the outside world, and therefore, it is not significant for meditation (Munsterberg 2014).Huike is painted in the foreground, and Bodhidharma takes place in the middle. In this manner Sesshu tries to show that everything revolves around Bodhidharma; thus he is a spiritual foundation (Munsterberg 2014). A man seeking for physical or material things will never achieve enlightenment.


Many generations of artists developed techniques of building space, and the use of washes and shades give the ability to convey the nature of soul, show the variability and its greatness. While Dai Jin tries to create a three-dimensional picture, Sesshu tends to a two-dimensional way of covering the theme. Dai Jin’s technical methods are required for representation the realistic, even historical nature of the event (Shambaugh and Shambaugh 46). For example, the circle of water outlines the figure of Bodhidharma, and the folds of his robes indicate the three-dimensional space. In addition, Dai Jin extensively uses flexible contours and lines in order to outline the prominence of the world. For him, therefore, it is important to convey the reality of the history; thus he carefully shows details of particular objects in a cave to show the epic status of this event in the history of Buddhism (Munsterberg 2014). Accordingly, Sesshu’s version is different, because it is a schematic two-dimensional representation of the story. It seems that the figures do not belong to the visual space, because there are no shadows. It is also difficult to understand their size and proximity to the viewer. He tries to add a three-dimensional cave, but he fails in this technique. These figures are more fantastic, than real. Perhaps, it was more important for him to convey a symbolic meaning, and three-dimensional shapes are only a convention, not a necessary method.


Dai Jin uses plane and neat lines that organically outline the stage. In this manner, he carefully puts details on a canvas, creating a realistic image. There are virtually no straight lines, so the whole story gives the impression of calm and peace. The artist tries to convey a special mood of this episode; thus for him the most important aesthetical goal was to portray a peace and quiet of meditation, and also a balance of the body and nature (Shambaugh and Shambaugh 47). This is why there are many light smooth shapes in Bodhidharma’s clothes, cave’s form, and even in the monk’s portrait white lines are balanced with dark contours. With its flowing lines, Dai Jin enters a cave in the natural landscape, so it is hard to highlight where the cave begins. It seems that an undulating path is the beginning of the cave. Moreover, the path fades into the inner space of the cave, where wavy lines are dominated.

On the contrast, Sesshu’s version is more dramatic, because he focuses on human history. The smooth and wavy lines are present only in the image of Bodhidharma, and they are not used in other images. He also uses dark short strokes when he depicts the cave, creating the atmosphere of tension and alienation. The monk is also portrayed by sharp and straight lines. Thus, the Japanese master hints at the severed arm. On the other hand, it symbolizes Huike’s determination and dedication. Poetics of monochrome painting is based on the selection of colors, shades of black mascara, and white sheet of paper or silk (Munsterberg 2014). All of them personify emptiness, which, according to Buddhist ideas, potentially contain the substantive form. In its origin, monochrome painting is close to calligraphy, and the basis of its language is a flourish line, the dynamics and nature of which depends on the master’s brush pressure. The artist sought to convey invisible natural forms, revealing their inner meaning.

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In Dai Jin’s version there are many sliver white tones. For example, Bodhidharma is depicted entirely in white tones, because the artist focuses on its purity and enlightenment. It is important that the cave is depicted in black and white balance. Overall, Dai Jin skillfully uses the contrasts, insisting on the importance of harmony. Sesshu makes the same; he also copies Dai Jin’s method when depicting Bodhidharmain in white tones. Huike’s image is filled with dark colors, not like Bodhidharma. Overall, the entire area around Buddha is painted in dark tones. Hence, Sesshu isolates Bodhidharma from the outside world, pointing to his exceptional status with white and brown tones.


Dai Jin’s version has a rough and soft texture. Through white lines and bright colors the artist achieves smooth and flexible texture. It creates the impression that some areas are depicted on the water. However, Sesshu’s work is very difficult, as it seems that it was carved on a solid surface. Each of the artists highlights his vision of story with texture: Dai Jin believes in harmony of mind and body, as well as dialogue with nature; however Sesshu depicts a human drama, that is expressed in the search for enlightenment.

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Therefore, two artists reflect two versions of Huike Presenting His Severed Arm to Bodhidharma. The artists coped with their task differently. The influence of Dai Jin is extremely noticeable in Sesshu’s work. The Japanese master borrowed many formal elements, but his message differs from Dai Jin’s interpretation. Sesshu is more successful in reflecting the theme, because it focused on the psychological and philosophical terms. He wanted to show the monk’s dramatic choice, thus he used laconic formal techniques. He insists on the internal state of a man and an intention to apply all efforts for enlightenment. In addition, it was important to convey the theme in certain conceptual way, so he ignored some formal elements such as perspective, details, or lightning. Accordingly, he used sharp strokes and deep dark colors to express Huike’s inner anxiety. Sesshu with minimal methods creates the conflict between soul and body, heaven and earth, divine and human. In contrast, Bodhidharma was depicted in bright clothes. However, Dai Jin is more successful with the narrative, perfectly constructing the scene. Due to the complex composition, perspective, plans, light, and soft tones, Dai Jin tries to write the story in two contexts: naturalistic and harmonious. For him, it is not important to show the tragedy of the monk, but his path to harmony. In addition, he tried to prescribe the story in details, balancing light and dark colors. For example, a dark pine branch contrasts with a light background of the cave. All formal elements are intended to show the reality of narrative, because his story is almost three-dimensional and can be comprehended by the viewer. As a result, each of the artists skillfully uses formal methods for the expression of a key story of the development of Buddhism.

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Examples of Artworks

Appendix 1. Dai Jin. “Huike Presenting His Severed Arm to Bodhidharma”
Dai Jin. “Huike Presenting His Severed Arm to Bodhidharma”
Appendix 2. Sesshu.“Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma”
hanging scroll, ink and light color on paper
199.9 x 113.6 cm
Sesshu.“Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma”