Thursday, September 9, 2010

Read "The Sound Of One Hand"

The Daruma that cannot be drawn. More drawings.

Our exhibition The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin doesn’t open until October, but if you’re raring for a sneak peek and eager for context of Hakuin's life and work, the best primer is the official catalogue, released this week by Shambhala Publications. Co-authored by Audrey Yoshiko Seo and Stephen Addiss the 287-page, fully illustrated, hardbound color beauty is a comprehensive and wonderfully readable overview of the world's most influential Zen master.

Writing alternating chapters, Seo and Addiss explore Hakuin’s impact as both an artist and Zen monk. As explained in the introduction, Hakuin was a vital figure in the development of Zen Buddhism. He was a reformer of the major school of Rinzai Zen, establishing it as an open and inclusive alternative to some of the stodgier forms that preceded it. Maintaining the rigors of practice, Hakuin emphasized the study of koans (instructive riddles), which he called "poison words," in addition to silent zazen meditations and post-enlightenment training (because after enlightenment there’s still more to learn!)

Though his subject matter varied, Hakuin’s art reflects his teachings and inspirations from the everyday life: from the theatrical, such as Korean acrobats, to the somber and personal, such as other monks of his lineage. Many paintings accompanied his prolific writing on Zen philosophy and literature. Others depict goblins and other folk beasties, as well as major Zen figures, such as the founder, Daruma.

The formidable Daruma is most often depicted as large, hairy and homely man, with piercing eyes, wearing plain red or white robes, and earrings. Hakuin’s representations of him, however, varied widely over his career, and, even though they ascribed to the accepted format, it seemed he was getting at something beyond physical representation. Indeed, as the inscription on one work he did at the age of 44 says: "I have painted several thousand Daruma, yet have never depicted his face. This is only natural, for the moment I spread the paper to draw it, the original form disappears. All of you, what is this Daruma that cannot be drawn?"

Hakuin attempts to invoke the spirit and teachings of Daruma, not just depict him physically. In the above inscription, he reminds his audience of the ineffability of Zen thought and practice, how it cannot be represented in pictures or words, only invoked or approached. Seo and Addiss constantly remind the reader that Hakuin intended many of his paintings to teach something. Though his paintings are a central part of his Zen legacy, Hakuin considered himself first and foremost a holy man, not an artist. In Hakuin's words, his art was "produced by something we cannot fully know, [it is] like the innate nature of the mind that operates in all out daily activities."       

The catalogue is the first comprehensive look at Hakuin’s art to be published in the U.S. Seo and Addiss, in their separate sections, passionately describe his work and teachings. It’s an eye-opening look at the diversity of the work Hakuin produced over his life, both stylistically and in terms of subject matter. What makes the catalogue an especially invaluable companion to the exhibition though, is the authors’ accessible and thought provoking discussion of Hakuin’s teachings and their importance to his art.

The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin is available at Shambahala, Amazon  and most major online retailers, or you can pick up a copy at Japan Society Gallery. The exhibition opens October 1st and kicks off several weeks of Zen-related events, including a performance, film, and related contemporary mini-exhibit; family activities; art, food, and psychology lectures; and painting, writing, and meditational breathing workshops.

Contributed by former intern Nick Ogonek, who returned this semester to continue Japanese literature and religion studies at Bard College.

Image Credit: Hakuin Ekaku, 1685-1768, Large Daruma (detail). Ink on paper, 49.6 x 21.7 in. Chikusei Collection.

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