By KEN JOHNSON
Published: December 23, 2010
Every so often we are shocked — shocked! — to learn that a great artist was not such a great human being. In these disillusioned modern times, we have learned to separate artistic and literary achievement from the artist’s moral character. We may admire the works of Tolstoy, Céline, Picasso and Pollock and overlook their failings as people. Still, the fantasy that spiritual and artistic evolution should go hand in hand is hard to give up.
So it is refreshing to encounter an artist who was, by all accounts, a man of transcendent character who made commensurately wonderful art. Such a rare case is that of Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), the Japanese calligrapher and draftsman, who is regarded by those in the know as the most important Zen master of the last 500 years. It was Hakuin who came up with the koan “What is the sound of one hand?” to which popular imagination has added “clapping.”
Organized by the Zen scholars Audrey Yoshiko Seo and Stephen L. Addiss, “The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin” at Japan Society presents 69 of his works. The first retrospective of his art to be seen in the United States, it is an enchanting show.
Hakuin was first and foremost a spiritual seeker and teacher. He began his formal training in Zen Buddhism at 14 and, after much restless travel and numerous experiences of enlightenment, returned at 31 to Hara, the rural village of where he was born, and he became the abbot of Shoin-ji, the local temple. From there his fame as a teacher, lecturer and writer spread throughout Japan. Monks and laymen came from all over to learn his spiritual practices based on meditation and study of koans, those seemingly nonsensical problems intended to open minds to the true nature of reality, unfiltered by habits of dualistic, abstract thinking.
Hakuin had no formal training in art, and he was 60 before he began to focus on painting. He was no dabbler, though. Art for him was another way to convey his teachings, and by the time he died at 84, he had produced more than a thousand works on paper.
His calligraphy evolved formally from relatively traditional blocks of text to characters made with three- or four-inch brushes that have the immediacy of modernist abstraction. His mostly brush-drawn imagery depicts older masters, landscapes, scenes of daily life and mythological visions with a relaxed yet exacting line and wonderful sensitivity of touch.
There is a gently humorous mood throughout that is reflected in, for example, a picture of sumo wrestling mice observed by a fat monk hiding in a big cloth bag. Portraits caricature revered teachers with gnarly, fiercely expressive faces rendered in crisp linear detail. There is little feeling of technical effort in Hakuin’s art. Delightfully free of academic conventions and sentimental piety, its aesthetic freshness matches its vitality of soul.
Some are complicated and extensively worked in accordance with complex symbolism. In one of the exhibition’s most beautiful paintings the serene, long-haired bodhisattva Manjusri, a spiritual benefactor drawn in flowing lines, sits in meditation next to a comically ferocious, recumbent lion. Wisdom keeps power in check.
Passages of verse enhance the poetry of many images. In “Vulture Peak,” sketchy boats bob on water, and a mountain just beyond has the profile of a giant vulture roughly brushed on it. Characters in the sky read: “If you look up, Mount Washizu” — Vulture Mountain. “If you look down, fishing boats along the Shigeshishi shore.”
“As if to say,” notes Mr. Addiss in the exhibition catalog, “ ‘It’s all in how you look and what you see, right here and right now.’ ”
On the other hand, you have to see beyond the surfaces of things. An old blind man with a cane who calls to mind Mr. Magoo confronts a one-eyed goblin and exclaims paradoxically, “I’m not afraid of you —/Since I have no eyes at all/You should be scared of me!” Spiritual insight trumps mere sensory perception.
Hakuin was a master satirist too. A monkey is caught in the act of writing on a wall, “What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before the ink stone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.” The charming text quotes from an essay by Yoshida Kenko, a 14th-century priest whose popular, worldly writings Hakuin considered unenlightened.
Deeper meanings underlie the most humble pictures. An image that Hakuin drew multiple times shows an ant on a grindstone. A haiku on the page reads, “Circling the grindstone, an ant — this world’s whisper,” hinting at a great truth in the inaudible sound of an ant walking. In a separate poem Hakuin elaborated:
An ant goes round and round without rest
Like all beings in the six realms of existence,
Born here and dying there without release,
Now becoming a hungry ghost, then an animal.
If you are searching for freedom from this suffering
You must hear the sound of one hand.
These are still resonant words. Take a break from the clamorous rat race of modern life. Just listen.