Zen Without a Master
Visual philosophy in a surprisingly layered comic
For Frenk Meeuwsen, a drawing is like
a Zen garden: wavy lines on snow-white
paper. In those lines, he searches for
the essence of Japan, for truth, and for
himself. His book Zen Without a Master
is visual philosophy.
Meeuwsen worked for three years on the
graphic novel Zen Without a Master, in
which he puts his search for spirituality
down on paper in 55 brief chapters. Many
of the experiences take place in Japan,
where he draws sad girls’ eyes for an
animation studio. He also regularly revisits
his youth in the Netherlands, with his
father as his first guru.
As the result of an eye defect, Meeuwsen
has no depth perception and, as a storyteller,
he makes repeated use of this irony
to point out pitfalls in the way to the truth.
What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Meeuwsen solves this famous puzzle of Zen
philosophy quite simply: it “sounds” the
way applause is depicted in sign language
for the deaf. And, of course, he provides an
illustration too, and this solution is also
characteristic of his approach to spirituality,
in which laughter is encouraged.
Applying Dutch common sense, he takes
on Japanese Buddhism, making some
surprising discoveries along the way.
Zen Without a Master is drawn in crisp
black and white, in the style of the French
artist David B., who is one of Meeuwsen’s
great role models. In Asian calligraphy, the
black brushstroke on snow-white paper is
an exercise in both concentration and
gracefulness: the artist has to focus while
letting go. In the Japanese Zen garden,
the dark grooves in the white gravel create
patterns for meditating monks to follow, in
order to forget themselves. Meeuwsen also
has a fine tale to tell about the black belt
that he received as a karateka: if you often
fight, the black wears off, until a white belt
remains. The art of the paradox.