Friday, January 8, 2021

Animated Zen Koans

I've had a lot of time off since Christmas but my miniature painting mojo has vanished. I think it's a combination of Covid fatigue, winter blahs and insurrection-induced anxiety. I might also be tired after finishing a series of painting projects (like the 40K mercs). But I still needed an outlet for my creative urges, so I turned to a enterprise I've been flirting with for a long time: taking some of the ancient stories about Zen Buddhism and animating them into one-minute movies using cartoon bunnies and computer-generated voices.

I guess there's a time in every man's life when he says to himself, "I want to take some of the ancient stories about Zen Buddhism and animate them into one-minute movies using cartoon bunnies and computer-generated voices." And for me, that time is now.

The source material comes from The Blue Cliff Record, which is a 1000-year-old collection of dialogues spoken by Zen Masters from Tang Dynasty China. These dialogues are often called cases or koans. A "koan" is a Japanese transliteration of the Chinese word gōngàn, which meant "a decision of a judge." In each of these stories, a Zen Master pronounces a judgment about the nature of enlightenment. But in trying to describe the highest truths of Zen, these monks often relied on non-sequiturs, one-liners and radical understatement.

In order to animate this deadpan absurdity, I needed equally deadpan characters -- hence the robotic voices and big-headed puppies. Above is my rendition of the first case from The Blue Cliff Record, where the mythic founder of Zen has an awkward conversation with the Emperor. The next one I did was the 28th Case, where two Zen Masters talk about the importance of not talking about anything important:

Finally, I illustrated one of my favourite stories, the 74th Case, where a series of Zen Masters give unhelpful advice about gratitude, happiness and generosity.

I don't know if anyone will enjoy watching the movies half as much as I enjoyed making them. But I wanted to share them in case they might be some help in dispelling your own winter blahs.

Take care, everyone!


  1. Great animations Matthew, which is no small feet

  2. Wow, this is such a new world to me. Both the source material and the animation itself. Thanks for sharing this, you made me curious about... well, everything! Now I need to know more!

    1. I'm happy to hear it piqued your curiosity, Suber! I remember the first time I found the Blue Cliff Record, and I was SO CURIOUS too.