Hotei, also known as the Laughing Buddha, carries his gifts in a cloth bag. Hakuin painted many scenes of Hotei fully engaged in the world. He shows Hotei laughing, playfully chewing down on his bag, floating on a kite, summoning up acrobats and other beings. On the left, Hotei watches mice in a sumo wrestling match, his cloth bag a window on the world. Hotei is the icon for equanimity as the belly-laughing Buddha but under that image is a subtle message about our life as it must be lived.
Hotei is you, me, every being, carrying around our treasures, our pain, our joy, our desires. It can be the vessel of engagement in our lives or it can become the obstacle to living fully. There are days when my cloth bag gets dragged around and unceremoniously tossed about. There are days when it’s a relief to snuggle up into it and be soothed.
What is in that bag? What is the Truth of that bag?
When asked about the Truth, Hotei simply put down his bag.
When asked why he was called Hotei, he also put down his bag.
When asked what, after the bag, was important, he picked up the bag and walked away.” ( The Sound of One Hand, pg. 205)
I think Hakuin wanted us to see that the bag is, for all its bulk, empty. And a final added bonus in Hakuin’s teachings: Hakuin’s own life is an exemplar of his teachings (well, one would hope it would). As much a Hotei embodies the need to return to the world after satori, Hakuin wrote extensively and taught diligently post-satori himself. In fact, his own cloth bag filled with toxic arrogance after his satori experience and it was only in confronting his “zen sickness” that he embodied the teachings of put down/pick up/walk away.
a Shinto god? A Buddha?
— just a cloth bag.
(The Sound of One Hand, pg. 221)
Keep your fingers crossed that we make it from the airport to the Hakuin Symposium tonight at the Japan Society in New York where “Katsuhiro Yoshizawa, Professor of Zen Studies, Hanazono University International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism, introduces a newly discovered Hakuin painting of Kannon. This painting displays several interesting and quite unusual features. It is, first of all, almost unique in depicting Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, sitting in a chair and occupying herself with desk work. The presence of the large landscape painting in the background is also significant. In his lecture Prof. Yoshizawa discusses the possible messages that Hakuin was attempting to convey by painting Kannon in this way, and Hakuin’s views on the meaning of landscape art.”
Kannon doing paperwork. This, truly, would require compassion!
Thank you for practising,