Abstract or Summary of Project

Koans are stories, statements or questions that are used in Zen practice to test the student’s understanding and progress. Many of these koans often hide a deeper hidden meaning behind the stories that they present at face value. The koans are thus metaphors that serve to convey a message or lesson for the listener to understand and reflect on.
With this, the theme of this project evolved towards using these koans as a medium towards self-reflection and inner enlightenment. The aim now is to present several of these koans for an audience, in hopes of both exposing them to the concept of the koans, as well as letting them form their own interpretations of the tales.

Process and More Details


Water is the first mirror of mankind.
The project initially began with the idea of Water and reflection. Many cultures and religions have always viewed water as a source of cleansing and purity. Because of our reliance on water both physically and spiritually, water becomes a key substance to the self. Water reflection is thus seen as a window to the soul; gazing and looking within to understand more about ourselvesIt is the idea that water can reveal something about oneself besides appearance. In Zen Buddhism, one of the more interesting ways that the religion teaches its concepts is through the use of koans.
Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasises the value of meditation and intuition as opposed to ritual worship. In Zen, the idea of enlightenment is akin to the moon’s reflection in the water. The moon does not break the water, nor does the water disturb the sky. The entirety of the moon’s light is reflected even in a single drop of water; the moon does not get wet, nor does the water break.
The four koans that are to be presented are:
The Monkey catching the Moon’s Reflection
No Water, No Moon
A Finger to the Moon
The Moon cannot be stolen 
Each of the above four stories revolved around the moon and the attainment of wisdom/enlightenment in them.
The concept was to present the stories through scenes which would be looped together into a large circle. The audience is then required to walk around, viewing each scene and piecing together the story. Presenting the stories in a circle has a two-fold meaning: firstly, it is meant to represent the non-literal approach that each of the stories take to convey their messages. Secondly, the motion of walking in a circle borrows heavily on the idea of circumambulation; the act of walking and climbing around a temple, viewing the stories as worshippers make their towards the top. This motion of walking in a circle is thus synonymous with the journey towards enlightenment, a motion that is just as important as viewing the story itself.
Due to the metaphorical nature of the koans, realistically depicting each tale would present a different meaning that what is intended. Each of the tales are after all not truly about a monkey or a finger, but each element is a representation of something. Initial ideas include a full abstract representation of the elements, as the nature of the beings in the story is irrelevant to what they want to convey. However, sheer abstract visuals would confuse viewers and thus, a balance had to be achieved so as ensure that the drawings were not too literal, but also not too abstract.
The use of a brush stroked style was used to reference the Zen origins of the stories. A very minimalistic approach was also used to depict the stories, essentially to represent the characters in each stories in the most simplistic way possible.
The Monkey catching the Moon’s Reflection
One night a monkey chieftain saw the
bright reflection of the moon in the water.
Thinking that the moon had died and
fallen into the water, the monkey called
together his underlings and commanded
them to pull the moon out of the water.
However, their combined weight was too
great, the branch broke, and they fell into
the water and drowned.
The first story I started with, and thus the one I struggled with the most. It took a while to settle on a visual style that I would use throughout the rest of the works. Here, I decided to use simple circular and curved shapes for the bodies of the monkeys since it felt more organic and has a better ‘flow’ as opposed to rigid lines (the only rigid lines being the branches). This idea transferred on to the other ‘human’ characters of the other tales.
No Water, No Moon
This way and that I tried to keep the pail
together, hoping the weak bamboo would
never break.
Suddenly the bottom fell out.
No more moon in the water –
Emptiness in my hand.
From this story onwards, it became another challenge to translate the same ‘flow’ that the monkeys had on to the human characters. While the monkey figures had long arms to bring emphasis and to lead the eyes, the same can’t truly be said for the human characters (after all its kinda weird to have long armed humans). This was probably the part I started to murder some trees.
A Finger to the Moon
The great master Gutei would quietly raise
one finger into the air whenever he was
asked about Zen.
A boy in the village began to imitate him
out of mischief. When Gutei heard about t
he boy, he seized him and cut off his finger.
The boy cried and began to run off, but
Gutei called out to him. When the boy
turned to look, Gutei raised his finger. At
that moment the boy became enlightened.
The hardest part for this particular story was to depict the cutting of a finger (since my characters had no fingers to speak of). But I suppose my train of thought here was that whether a finger or not, the idea behind it was the ‘chopping’ of what the boy was using to ‘point’ to the moon. So, to mimic how graphic the original tale was. I ended up depicting the master chopping the whole arm off. And yes I’ll admit that depicting someone ‘karate-chopping’ an arm off was fun to depict.
The Moon cannot be stolen
The thief left it behind:
The Moon at my window.
The biggest trouble of this story was to depict objects. Since the ‘thief’ was depicted to ‘steal’ objects, but ultimately could not ‘steal’ the greatest treasure of all. With that in mind though, I chose to depict the ‘object’ that the thief would steal as a circle as well. It was the idea that even though he was trying to steal this ‘circle’, in the end he could not steal the greatest ‘circle’ that was in the sky.


The main draw of this project is of course the exhibition of the four stories. Due to the sometimes short nature of the stories, the exact number of scenes to split them into was considered. Too many scenes would lose the viewers attention. Furthermore, as a way to link the four stories together in addition to the same visual style, was the depiction of certain scenes. The first and last images of each story would always start and end with the moon, while the second last image would always depict the central character reaching towards the moon; a metaphor for reaching towards enlightenment. The last panel of the stories would always include the original koan; the short story/haiku/poem that inspired these tales. The placement of the story at the end was so that viewers could first encounter the stories and ponder over them, before the story is revealed. The lack of texts to accompany the separated images was again to ensure that no preconceived ideas are placed in the viewers minds. The viewers are encouraged entirely to form their own interpretations as to what the story tells.
The use of a white frame was used as opposed to black to steer away from the analogy of photo frames and the idea of a photo reel. The height of the frames were also something that evolved along the way. Intially, a square frame was used, but eventually, a vertical rectangular frame was settled upon so as to help better represent the verticality and the idea of ‘reaching’ towards something in the sky. Transparency was also used for the main images so that when the light shines through it, it would illuminate the images. The light can also be seen as a metaphor for the light of the moon and the idea of enlightenment.
Website and Invites

The website serves as a medium to promote the exhibition for people to attend. It serves to provide the general information people need such as venue, date and contacts.

Final Thoughts
I suppose by far the hardest part of the project is quite simply the depiction of the images. Minimalism is a realm that I haven’t had much experience with and as such, I found it hard to find that perfect balance. Even till the end there are only a select few images which I would consider as the ‘nice’ ones that came out as I had intended. It was extremely difficult to get the strokes I wanted too! I must have wasted a forest with the amount of paper I used up. Photoshop magic also only works so much. This project was one that I won’t deny as being confused about. Many times I seemed to also loose track of how the theme of ‘water’ developed to this. Looking back however, I will admit that the idea of the koans and their meanings was something that interested me (perhaps thats the reason I picked it). In the initial research phase where I was still picking out the stories, I came across many that were generally interesting. Each teaching the reader to look at things from different perspectives and to widen our minds. All in all, this project was one that I was very confused about, but still something I enjoyed just trying out and seeing what works. I don’t think I’ve become very enlightened though.


Posted on

March 27, 2015

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