Published  09/12/2010

Picturing Paradox. The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin

Picturing Paradox

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

Japan Society, New York: 1 October 2010–16 January 2011
New Orleans Museum of Art: 12 February–17 April 2011
Los Angeles County Museum of Art: 22 May–17 August 2011


Zen is an exacting practice, typically requiring years spent seeking a state that, ultimately, is realised in an instant. To reach this state, known as enlightenment, the aspirant must circumvent fixed habits, assumptions and conjectures, the all-consuming words and thoughts we call real life. Even then, the nature of enlightenment is such that one can never rest upon one’s spiritual laurels.

Eighteenth-century Rinzai Zen master Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) understood well the slippery slopes of the spiritual path, so it is no wonder that modern Rinzai owes a great debt to him. In fact, for contemporary Zen scholars and students, Rinzai has become known as “Hakuin Zen”. Hakuin restored an eviscerated, bastardised system through practices that have become synonymous with Zen in the Eastern and Western worlds: meditation on koans (ie paradoxical philosophical puzzles); “post-enlightenment” training (something like post-graduate work); and return to active duty in the world as teachers and bodhisattvas. Although many readers will not have heard of Hakuin by name, his most enduring koan, “What is the sound of one hand?” (with the addition of the word clapping to end the phrase) first penetrated popular culture in the west with JD Salinger’s mention of it in his Nine Stories (1953).

With a recently opened travelling exhibit of Hakuin’s paintings and calligraphy, the first Hakuin retrospective in the US, audiences will not only encounter the mighty personality behind the koan but view 69 of his scroll paintings and nine works created by his most accomplished students. Stylistically, Hakuin’s undated scrolls chart the master's spiritual and artistic development and reveal his sympathy for human frailty and hearty sense of humour. Exhibit organisers, independent consultant Audrey Yoshiko Seo and scholar-artist Stephen L Addiss, finesse a copious amount of material into logical order, an impressive achievement as paradox, not logic, lies at the heart of Zen and Hakuin’s art. Students of Zen are taught not to trust in words, sermons and teachings. Hakuin counselled against “poison words”, yet he left thousands of artworks and volumes of commentaries and sermons. With so much of his own art and writings available, considering the paradoxes presented therein offers a golden opportunity to appreciate his legacy.

At the first venue on the tour, the Japan Society Gallery in New York, subtle lighting establishes intimacy for viewing the scrolls; ample space between works and partial room dividers allow time for contemplation before encountering another painting. The emphasis here is on Hakuin's art, while the 288-page catalogue, written by Seo and Addiss and published by Shambala Publications (US$65/UK£60), fills in background and context, pivoting between Zen precepts and parables, Hakuin’s novel approaches to them, and the many instances in which he diverged from or subverted traditional narratives. Designed by Lora Zorian, the layout mirrors the exhibit, with sections on Hakuin’s spiritual journey, beginning at age 15 when he became a Rinzai priest; the Buddhist deities and Zen masters who influenced his course and frequently appear in his art; his progression from priest to abbot and teacher; his use of popular characters, images and folktales to reach lay people; and themes that became personal favorites, for example monkeys; blind men; Hotei, the Chinese god of contentment; and Shoki, a deity of esoteric Zen sects. A concluding section features works by Hakuin’s talented and influential students.

Highly refined catalogue production values highlight stylistic changes in Hakuin’s art, as well as his dynamic use of contrasting areas of grey wash, sharply outlined areas in dark ink and tonal gradations. A tightly packed composition of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune enhanced with coloured inks and a delicate painting of Kannon meditating, amplified with inscriptions in small, spidery calligraphy, exemplify his early style. These lack the simplicity and clarity of works created toward the end of Hakuin’s life, when he had taken on numerous lay students. The chapter on Hotei effectively displays Hakuin’s ability to engage, entertain and educate mass audiences. Hotei’s name means “bag”, which can symbolise enso, or emptiness, a Zen concept that also describes Japanese aesthetics. The editors and designer have placed Hakuin’s paintings of Hotei to echo the circular shape of Hotei’s bag. These images include Hotei’s body encased in the bag (“Hotei Watching Mice Sumo”); a round-belly, rounded-shouldered Hotei meditating on the bag; Hotei leaning forward from his bag while looking at the moon (“Hotei on a Boat”); Hotei running with a mallet toward calligraphy with circular characters; Hotei as a kite, his bag contrasting with the angularity of miniature mice pulling the kite string; Hotei juggling circular balls; and bag only, standing along with Hotei’s staff, fan and edge of his robe as emblems of this Everyman figure. To elucidate the latter picture, Hakuin wrote a haiku inside the bag:

While sleeping
a Shinto god? A Buddha?
– just a cloth bag

When teaching lay people, Hakuin took an ecumenical approach, drawing on Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, Taoist, Pure Land, folk themes and scenarios from daily life for his paintings and sermons. He also associated with members of these belief systems and created art for them. Seo and Addis point out that, determined to regenerate and preserve Rinzai tradition, Hakuin purified Rinzai of outside influences. He would not tolerate monks who subscribed to a “menu religion” of picking and choosing among spiritual choices, and he critisised the Pure Land Buddhists’ reliance on seated meditation. How can modern viewers make sense of such paradox? By looking at one of his earliest works, a combination of two common Buddhist themes from the Muromachi Period (1392–1568): the “Three Tasters” and the “Unity of Creeds”. In this modulated work, Hakuin used coloured inks, a characteristic of his earlier, detailed scrolls, to depict a middle-aged scholar-poet on the right (Confucius), an elderly Taoist (Lao-tzu) on the left and a large, sculpted figure of a Buddhist (Shakyamuni) at centre, who surround a pot of wine. The asymmetical calligraphy at the upper right adds movement to the otherwise static composition and reflects Hakuin’s ability to resolve, through picture and inscription, visual and philosophical paradox. For this work, Hakuin wrote:

Three creeds, one creed –
One creed, three creeds –
After all, what do they come to?
Attaining supreme virtue.

It is important to remember that Hakuin created his art as a teaching tool. Seo says, “His art was not meant exclusively for those practitioners who were already committed and devoted, but was created to intrigue and attract new followers as well”.1 He began to teach lay students in his 30s and 40s, the numbers increasing until, in his 50s, Hakuin devoted much of his time to them. Earlier, Hakuin had struggled against doubt, confusion and spiritual sickness from a too-intense practice of sitting meditation. Years later, he insisted that the monks under his care practice meditation in action, returning to the world after their initial enlightenment. Like the Sound of One Hand koan, this teaching has endured and proven to be important in contemporary Zen, particularly in the West.

Scholars estimate that Hakuin’s art and writings numbered nearly 10,000. That so many of his scrolls remain to be exhibited testifies to Hakuin’s success as a teacher. Japan Society Gallery Director Joe Earle commented that “Hakuin used cheap ink and cheap paper. Despite his great artistic skills, he regarded his paintings and calligraphy as aids to spiritual development more than works of art. Most of his work was done for lay pupils and they naturally treasured everything he did, no matter how quickly it was produced; the specific, occasional character of many of his paintings and especially his calligraphy made them all the more precious. Hakuin's works were distributed to a wide range of followers and they continue to emerge onto the market today”.2 At a symposium held at Japan Society early in November, participants learned of a recently discovered Hakuin painting of the bodhisattva Kannon.

With deepened spiritual insight, Hakuin’s work became bolder and more direct. In some cases, he made figures incorporating Chinese and Japanese characters or entirely composed of them. In “Nin”, Hakuin built the figure of Daruma, first patriarch of Zen, from the Chinese character meaning “patience” or “perseverance”. In this and other “nin” images, visitors will see Hakuin at his best. Seo describes his take on the tradition of creating simple portraits with calligraphy (moji-e) as “very ambitious”.3

Some of Hakuin’s most arresting works are large, boldly inscribed Chinese characters; for instance, mu (emptiness), chu (middle, or amid), kotobuki (longevity) and toku (virtue). Along with such characters, Hakuin’s paintings of tetsubo (war clubs known to Zen practitioners as the Devil’s Rod) and inka staffs given to lay practitioners as certificates of enlightenment must have been extremely effective teaching tools. Clear and simple, dramatic and compelling, transparent and sophisticated; they represent the many sides of the master.

Undoubtedly, Hakuin’s sly sense of humour attracted lay students. As Zen master and artist, Hakuin’s greatest strength may be his ability to poke fun at human foibles while making the pitfall-strewn spiritual path desirable. Occasionally, he painted characters in the popular toba-e style of comic paintings. In “Pilgrims”, for instance, he portrayed two monkeys, one standing on the back of another as he writes an answer to a temple warning: “No Graffiti in This Hall!" The pilgrim’s rejoinder, “I beg your pardon”, serves both as a declaration of the pilgrims’ presence at the temple and an apology for commemorating their journey in this way. Hakuin’s students would understand that many so-called pilgrims undertook their journey in order to see the country at a time when the government prohibited travelling apart from pilgrimages to shrines and temples.

One of the most memorable images in the exhibit, created near the end of Hakuin’s life, comments on a fundamental human paradox. In Oni Miso, Shoki the demon-queller attempts to grind with a pestle two pesky troublemakers (oni) who cower in a mortar. An ominous urgency permeates the painting; in his inscription, Hakuin wrote:

Under the corridors of the Imperial Palace,
he conceals his sword.
Silently, secretly,
thinking about grinding oni miso?
but it would be too cruel.

If we are not to crush our demons and not be crushed by them, is Hakuin suggesting that we learn to accept them? This is a very modern concept, indeed. Contrast this painting with one of spiritual watchdog Shoki sleeping against a captive oni. Is the oni a captive if his captor slumbers, or is it a captive of its own illusions? It all comes back to Hakuin's koan on the sound of one hand. By solving the puzzle, practitioners might, without further struggle, easily part ways with their oni . But like Shoki, Hakuin exhorted aspirants, enlightened beings cannot rest on their past successes – or, apparently, on their oni.

After viewing The Sound of One Hand, visitors should view a smaller exhibit, an abstract take on the 10-picture Oxherding series from Song-dynasty China (960–1279). This collaboration between Australian artist Max Gimblett, now a resident of New York City, and American poet/translator Lewis Hyde consists of six artist books, 10 sumi (brush, or wash) ink paintings, 10 poems in Chinese and three English-language translations commenting on the spiritual path. By making Oxherding accessible to a broad audience, Gimblett and Hyde honour Hakuin, who created a visual language for the Rinzai path. In his scrolls, Hakuin imparted much wisdom. Pondering them, visitors might just hear echoes of the sound of one hand.


1. The Sound of One Hand: Paintings & Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin. Shambala Publications, 2010: 135.
2. Earle’s comments were conveyed to the author via email.
3. The Sound of One Hand, p191

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