A Zen Buddhist and a Catholic Walk Into a Composition

Jose Alain Austria's Mystical Well of Santo Cristo
Jose Alain Austria's Mystical Well of Santo Cristo

MANILA, Philippines — The words “Catholic” and “Zen” rarely appear in the same sentence together, but there’s a potent history of mixing of these traditions. Benedictine monk Thomas Merton famously studied Zen and Taoist classics as part of his meditative practice, and Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh has written often of Christian-Buddhist dialogue.

Artist Jose Alain Austria brings this dialogue into art, a mixture of Eastern and Western artistic and philosophical traditions. I first saw his work at a collector’s house. “Mystical Well of Santa Cristo” is a mandala, a form of meditative painting derived from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. But the imagery is distinctly Christian, with a few symbols like a yin yang that reveal a Zen influence.

“I’m influenced by eastern art. But I can’t do it exclusively the Chinese way,” Austria explained as we sat down for tea at Mabuhay Temple, a Zen temple in the middle of this majority-Catholic city. He’s busy preparing for Haloed Heroes, an exhibition of his works at the De La Salle Museum to coincide with their 2012 Arts Congress.

Pinteng, a depiction of a mythical slain warrior with a fiery head.
Pinteng, a depiction of a mythical slain warrior with a fiery head.

“Pinteng,” a black ink drawing backgrounded with stark white, initially appears to be a traditional Japanese print. The imagery, however, depicts a pinteng, or a mythical slain warrior from the northern Luzon area who hass grown a head of fire. These guides visit men struggling with bangugot, a form of sleep paralysis common to men in Southeast Asia, and wakes them from their freeze.

Even for those familiar with eastern art traditions, Austria’s work can be hard to place. The red block he uses to sign his paintings is clearly Chinese in influence, but the script appears in alibata, the area’s pre-Hispanic writing script. Works like “Masao Hero with Tara Consort” depict the yab-yum, an erotic embrace common in Himalayan art, but the figures reflect Filipino cultural artifacts and practices.

Jose Alain Austria's "The Red Boxer" (2011) (via

But rather than appear like cultural mix-and-match, the synergy of aesthetic and cultural traditions gives the work its unique impact.  Indeed, his drawings reflect the cultural melting pot of the Philippines, an archipelago nation influenced by multiple cultures in its long history. Ultimately, however, his work draws deeply from Jungian psychotherapy techniques, which can rely on art and visualization as a means of understanding the psyche.

“Art for me is really more of soul work,” he told me. “It’s an exploration of the inner self.”

Jose Alain Austria’s Haloed Heroes opens January 2012 at the De La Salle Museum in Manila, Philippines. You can view more of his work on his web site, Murtidharma.

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