Hakuin Ekaku, The Sound of One Clear Mind

If contemporary art could speak, most of it would sound like chest-pounding cries for attention (think Dan Colen’s brick wall, motorcycle show at Gagosian this fall).

If contemporary art could speak, most of it would sound like chest-pounding cries for attention (think Dan Colen’s brick wall, motorcycle show at Gagosian this fall). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the robust, cacophonic contemporary art world, but at times this focus on the next “big thing”, shock value, and a hunger for the young and “fresh” gets really old…

How truly refreshing then to walk into the Japan Society and be floored by the works of an 80 year old Buddhist monk from the 18th C. “What is the Sound of One Hand” the paintings of Hakuin Ekaku, are nothing short of exhilarating, hilarious, enlightening and totally contemporary.

Hakuin, is the Zen Master, known for his phrase (koan) “What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?”

The lives of Japanese Zen masters ranged from mountain hermits, to temple monks who used painting and calligraphy as a means to express their understanding of the divine. The paintings were not merely expression of the the master but they were often used as directives — transmitting the “will” of the master or what the Buddhists refer to as the “Dharma”.

Zen Buddhism came to Japan by way of China in the 6th Century, when a wandering Indian mediator named Daruma (born in 532 the same year as the Prophet Mohammad, by the way) settled near the Shaolin Temple, in China. Instead of studying Buddhism in the temple Daurma climbed into a nearby cave and sat for nine years.

“Look into your own nature, become the Buddha!”

To stay awake during his many hours of zazen, the hagiography goes, Daruma cut his eyelids off. Hence the depiction of his large eye balls, a favorite subject of Hakuin, as well as many Zen painters after him.

There is so much Western artists can learn from the lean mean masters of Zenga. It’s laughable when Western scholars compare (and they often do) the paintings of the Zen masters with the heavy-handed, laborious gestural paintings of 1950’s Abstract Expressionists. There is nothing extraneous or indulgent on the Zen scroll. More is said in one deft, quick turn, and flick of Hakuin’s one hand, than the volumes of paint splatered on nine foot canvases.

He whose insight penetrates here
is a truly great man.

An interesting anecdote about Hakuin is that he was bi-polar. Noted Zen Scholar John Stevens writes about Hakuin’s illness in his book “Three Zen Masters”, describing Hakuin’s treatment of regular meditation, and special koan practice as well as specific physical exercises to alleviate his illness.

Another favorite subject, “Kwan Yin”, the Goddess of Compassion.

Hakuin was also known to have a low tolerance for bullshit, he was never impressed by the overly pious. In response to someone who was hoping to impress Hakuin by saying Buddha Nature radiated everywhere, the master exclaimed, “Yes! but does it shine up your asshole?”

Imagine what Hakuin would have to say to Eric Cantor and the right-wing cries over Christmas and Christ at the Smithsonian? For Hakuin there was no such thing as high art or low art, and no difference between the scared and the profane…

The old prostitute, Otafuku, making dango (dumplings).
“The dango skewers are ready.
At night I wait, but he doesn’t come –
Poor man, his throat is closed.”

“The Sound of One Hand” contains 69 original paintings by Hakuin and nine by his closest students culled from private collections in Japan. Hakuin will remain at the Japan Society until January 9th. The exhibit moves to New Orleans in February and Los Angeles in May of next year. This is his first retrospective of Hakuin’s work in the United States. 

If there was ever a time in American we could use the swift wack of the master’s brush upon our cluttered minds, its now.

Japan Society Gallery 333 East 47th Street, New York, NY 10017(on view until Jan 9th 2010)
New Orleans Museum of Art, February 12 th — April 17, 2011,
Los Angeles County Museum of Art May 22 nd — 17, 2011.