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Saturday, October 14, 2023 at 3:00 PM

Czech translation: Lenka Sovová

Frenk Meeuwsen is a Dutch painter and draughtsman who has long been interested in Far Eastern philosophy and martial arts—he has a black belt in karate. In the mid-1990s, he lived in the temple district of Kyoto, where many of the Japanese sketches in his first graphic novel Zen Without a Master are located. The book is a collage of various materials: Meeuwsen's childhood in the Netherlands, Japanese everyday life, the history of Buddhism, instructions for meditation and reflections on drawing.

How and whether a European can delve into the doctrine of Zen is the guiding principle. Overcoming internal violence can be a drive for this; Frenk Meeuwsen tells of a boyhood desire to take revenge on a classmate and how this student later actually dies without Frenk’s involvement—a situation which haunts his dreams for a long time. Banishing the randomness and cruelty of life through reduction and ritualisation is one of the temptations of Zen Buddhism. The search for a subjective way into meditation.

In all attempts at approximation, he comes to the conclusion for himself and the many other European enlightenment seekers in Japan: they remain exotic there and can only approach Japanese thinking in their own way. The book title “Zen Without a Master” alludes to this, Frenk Meeuwsen shows that you have to and can look for your subjective way into meditation. Despite his fascination, Frenk Meeuwsen also looks at the dark sides of the Zen tradition in Japan. Zen monks blessed the planes of the Kamikaze pilots in World War II, “enlightened” Zen masters expressly supported Japanese authoritarianism of that time. In modern Japan, he hardly finds any remains of an authentic Zen culture.

Frenk Meeuwsen draws all this in simple black and white, in reduced realistic pictures, in which he very skilfully incorporates the possibilities of the comic: different panel sizes and perspectives on the events, surreal dream worlds, massive font blocks that harass characters. Meeuwsen has arranged his material in very short chapters with a book that meanders through time. This creates attractive, directionless storytelling, similar to the form of teaching of Zen Buddhism; the reproduction of short, incoherent “Kōans” with statements by the Zen masters.