"The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin"

At the Japan Society in New YorkAnne Doran

Hotei 1 handIn the history of Buddhism in Japan, Zen master Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) is doubly famous. Celebrated for reinvigorating the stagnant Rinzai Zen tradition, he is equally well known for his painting and calligraphy. This exhilarating show—the first retrospective of Hakuin’s work in the United States—makes it clear that the teacher was inseparable from the artist.

Hakuin advocated a return to Rinzai Zen’s first principles: meditation on  koans—paradoxical questions designed to shatter conventional modes of thought—and unremitting training, even post enlightenment. The show is titled after his most famous koan, “What is the sound of one hand?” and opens with an image of Hotei, the potbellied god of good luck, raising his hand with an inquiring smile. The painting is a knockout: Hotei, balanced on his traditional cloth bag, is limned in with a few fine strokes, while his robe, which seems to be slipping off his shoulders, is suggested by a cluster of fat, deep black squiggles, and his bag by swipes of pale gray ink.

For most of his life, Hakuin was the abbot at Shoin-ji, a small temple in the village of Hara. Despite his relative isolation, his reputation as a teacher grew over the years, and so did the number of people wishing to become his students. Hakuin took up painting seriously in his sixties as a tool for transmitting Zen philosophy to an increasingly varied audience, which in addition to his monastic disciples now included farmers, fisherman, prostitutes, soldiers, and feudal lords.

Suiting his language to his listeners, Hakuin expanded the vocabulary of traditional brush painting to include images, themes, and even graphic styles taken from pop culture, traditional folklore, and everyday life. Folk deities were a favorite subject: Ebisu, the protector of fishermen, is depicted here holding a red orange carp, while Shoki, the Demon Queller, appears twice: in one work using a glaring captive demon as a pillow; in another slinking about in natty leopard-fur boots. There is an entire room full of Hoteis, playing ball, juggling plates, and generally enjoying life. In one particularly charming painting, a crowd of these deities, attended by mice in monks’ robes, throws a raucous party in celebration of the New Year.

In Hakuin’s scrolls, even Zen masters and Buddhist deities seem remarkably approachable. Shakyamuni, fresh from six years of fasting and meditation and still unenlightened, seems chastened and thoughtful. Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, appears dumpy and down-to-earth. Rinzai Gigen is fierce looking but also deeply human, as signaled by his sunken chest and stubbly chin. Savagely critical of poseurs, slackers, and syncretists within his own tradition, Hakuin was nevertheless tolerant of other spiritual paths; the show includes several calligraphies of Shinto and Pure Land mantras, as well as a painting entitled The Three Tasters, depicting the sages of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism happily gathered around a wine pot.

At times Hakuin’s references are obscure, as in a wonderful but mysterious painting of trick horseback riders who seem to be materializing out of a large gourd. The majority of his works, however, remain accessible even to contemporary viewers. An ant’s struggle to progress around the rim of a turning millstone conjures the endless cycle of samsaric existence. The homely courtesan Otafuku lays a meal of dumplings, but laments that her client’s throat is closed—a reference to one not yet receptive to the Buddha’s teachings.

Hakuin’s brushwork became increasingly powerful and assured as he entered old age. The spectacular horizontal calligraphy Chi Fuku Zen (Place of Good Zen), for example, seems to have been executed in one flowing motion. There is little variation in the thickness of the brushstrokes—the work’s visual interest lies solely in the tonal modulations within each character. Like many of Hakuin’s late paintings, it was executed on nonabsorbent paper, the varying density of ink faithfully recording every unhesitating movement of his brush.

“What is true meditation?” Hakuin wrote at one point, “It is to make everything: coughing, swallowing, waving the arms, motion, stillness, words, action, the evil and good, prosperity and shame, gain and loss, right and wrong, into one single koan.” He might have added painting zenga to his list. By the end of his life Hakuin’s art had become a direct expression of his remarkable personality. Even now these works seem newly made, as if Hakuin—like Shoki in his soft boots—had only just tiptoed from the room.


“The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin” was on view at the Japan Society through January 9, 2011. The show will be at the New Orleans Museum of Art from February 12 through April 17, 2011, and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, from May 22 through August 17, 2011.

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