Ebusshi was a monk and specialist who was mainly engaged in the production of Buddhist paintings and coloring of statues.
After the Northern Sung period (China) or Kamakura period (Japan), although there were exceptions, a Zen monk who mainly produced ink-wash paintings was called gaso (an artist monk) and was sometimes distinguished from other ebusshi; however, occasionally both terms were used together, and a clear distinction was not always made.
Development of ebusshi in Japan
In Japan, along with the introduction of Chinese culture including Buddhism, the organization of edakumi (painter) and eshi (often master painter) who specialized in the production of painting was also introduced. In the period of Prince Shotoku, a system for eshi was set up, and under the Ritsuryo system, Edakumi no Tsukasa (Bureau of Painting) was established. Eshi and edakumi at that time did not always specialize in Buddhist subjects, and there were eshi who worked for Zojishi (Officials in Charge of Building Temples) such as Todai-ji Temple. In 808, Edakumi no Tsukasa was integrated into the Naishoryo (Bureau of Skilled Artisans) and eshi then belonged to the bureau.
About that time, Esoteric Buddhism was introduced to Japan and rapidly spread among the upper classes. The practice of Esoteric Buddhism required many Buddhist paintings, such as mandalas, and these paintings along with ascetic practices and ritual were inseparable; this naturally created a demand for highly skilled artists capable of producing this style of work. Furthermore, after the mid Heian period, it became common practice that artisans specialized in Buddhist subjects were ordained as monks and entered on the register of a Buddhist sect; they were thus distinguished from general artisans or those working for the Imperial court. For this reason, eshi and edakumi who specialized in Buddhist paintings came to wear priestly attire, but monks with artistic talent, of course, also produced Buddhist paintings; it is thought that in this way ebusshi originated.
However, at that time it appears that monks who produced such Buddhist paintings were included in busshi (a sculptor of Buddhist statues); therefore, 定豊, 平慶, and 玄朝, who played an active part in the creation of Buddhist paintings in the 10th century, were all called 'busshi.'
At the beginning of the 11th century, in relation to the general busshi who carved Buddhist statues and were actually called kibusshi (a sculptor of wooden Buddha statues), the concept of ebusshi who produced Buddhist painting first appeared, but there is a theory that it was actually in the latter half of the Kamakura period that the term 'ebusshi' came into wide use.
In 1068, Kyozen was made Hokkyo (the third highest rank of Buddhist priests) as a reward for painting the Buddha of the Hojo-ji Temple, and since then, from the late Heian period through to the early Kamakura period many ebusshi, such as Chijun and Jonin, were magnificently prolific. Against this background, over time the status of ebusshi came to be passed on to their children or disciples through a vocational system, and as seen in the Takuma school founded by Tameto TAKUMA, schools specializing in training of ebusshi came to be formed.
World of gaso (artist monk)
At the same time, monks who made ink-wash paintings emerged; they were mainly from the Zen sect, and while still maintaining their relationship with Buddhism, they freely depicted their own inner world using their own style of artistic interpretation. They are known as gaso.
In the Northern Sung period literati painting became popular and bokugi (ink-play), a kind of early ink-wash painting, experienced a sudden rise in popularity. Through the social interactions between monks, especially Zen monks, and literati, monks who made bokugi appeared (a well known example of an artist monk who was not of the Zen sect was Jakufun Gyokukan of the Tendaishu sect). They created works of art related to Buddhism, such as paintings of Hakui Kannon (Buddhist deity of mercy, wearing white robes), Zenshu Soshi (Zen sect founder, including Daruma (Bodhidharma) and Zenki-zu (Zen acts) of Sansei (Budai Heshang), as well as literati paintings (monks often specialized in either category). The following can be listed as representative gaso of the Sung and Yuan Dynasties: Kako Chunin, Mokkei Hojo, and Sesson Fumei, while Sekito and Hachidai Sanjin are representative of the later Ming and Qing Dynasties.
In Japan as well, from the Kamakura period, gaso started appearing along with the spread of the Zen sect. It is known that the term 'gaso' was used for the first time in Japan in "Kuge nichiyo kufuryakushu" (essays on Buddhism by Gido Shushin). During the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (Japan), the following monks are known as gaso: Hakuun Egyo, Kao Sonen, Gyokuen Bonbo, Mokuan Reien, and Choun Reiho. In the Muromachi period, following after the three well known gaso, Kichizan Mincho, Taiko Josetsu, and Tensho Shubun, Sesshu Toyo and Sesson Shukei created many great works. In the Edo period, despite the spectacular flowering of Hakuin Ekaku and Sengai Gibon, popularity of gaso gradually declined.