hakuin exhibit – a study of transitions

After a disappointing flight delay that resulted in missing the symposium at the Japan Society in NYC, we made it to the Hakuin exhibit, The Sound of One Hand*.  The Japan Society which hosted the showing is a lovely venue and was an easy walk from the hotel.  Seventy-eight scrolls by Hakuin curated by Stephen Addiss & Audrey Seo were displayed in what seemed to be a never-ending series of rooms and set up so that each turn around a corner confronted you with another smack of Hakuin’s koan.

The first scroll is – predictably – The Sound of One Hand; Hotei sitting on his bag with hand raised.  It’s a delicate sound and one is easily distracted from it by the waterfall in the lobby below.  It’s a call to action despite Hotei’s insouciance.  He knows you know.  The problem is you don’t know that.  So the mind ricocheted from one concept to another.  It’s uncomfortable, confronted with the sound of one hand right there at the entrance yet so appropriate because how can you go further until you’ve actually heard it?

But I’m on a mission so the lack of revelation is not going to stop me.  Besides I once worked that koan to its ultimate not-knowing and the answers are lost in mists of my ignorance.  Occasionally, I feel the sound of the slap of one hand but walking through this exhibit I see that single hand sound on every scroll.

Hakuin was relentless in his devotion to spreading the dharma and the paintings chosen by Addiss & Seo demonstrate this.  As Zen Master, he painted words and pictures for everyone: students who achieved satori, wayfarers who needed encouragement, devotees who required something physical to sustain their practice.  His art stands as a paean to equanimity which I found fascinating given his rancorous tirades against the “do-nothing zennists!”  Yet his actions are so very consistent with the Buddha’s advice that we must meet the other where they are.  It didn’t matter to Hakuin if those who came to him were acolytes, guru worshipers, caught in the cult of personality, or simply seeking spiritual comfort; he met them all where they were.

Viewing the works themselves was a joy in terms of getting up close and personal.  Each scroll hung encased in glass so that you could actually press right up to about two inches from the works.  The size of the museum guards made me exercise a little more restraint but I did get as close as four inches to the art works.  And since we had the exhibit all to ourselves, I was able to do that annoying backward walk from the paintings to see that point where I lost detail and got caught in the overall form.  Having only ever seen Hakuin’s works in books, the close-ups gave me a deeper appreciation of the artistry.  I was amazed by the nuanced tones in each brush stroke and the interplay of dark and light.  For the first time, seeing the paintings in life-size, I noticed the interesting use of deep black ink as way of grounding the theme out of which the grey carries the actual story.

Knowing a bit about Hakuin himself helped to put the intensity of his work into perspective.  At the age of 11 years, he heard one of those hell fire and brimstone sermons by a priest and vowed to practice so that he could avoid the terrors of the Buddhist hell realms.  After some incidents showed him that the ritual of practice cannot save us from the pain of being human, he lost faith.  In the throes of his disillusion, he shifted his focus to art and calligraphy.  When he became discouraged with the quality of what he had produced, he shifted his focus yet again to the practice of Zen.  As he moved from what wasn’t working to what did, perhaps he saw that the transitions in themselves are the practice.  Adaptability and the willingness to let go fueled his devotion to cultivating right practice, the activity of living as meditation.  Hakuin’s diligence was both the ink and the canvas of his life.  Even – or maybe especially – after his satori experiences, he continued his art and teachings (sometimes the two are indistinguishable) to foster not only breakthrough via koan work but an integration of meditation into daily activities.  We see this in the Hotei paintings which show the irrepressible monk engaged in everything ordinary from taking a trip to view the moon on the lake to playing kickball.  And of course, that brings us back to the scroll that opens the exhibit: Hotei sitting on his bag with a raised hand.  The koan and the Every Person getting on with life.

For me, this is the ultimate model of practice.  Realization of the true nature of mind is only a moment in the unending bridges between life experiences.  We call it coming back into the marketplace, returning home, coming down from the mountain.  Transitions.  It is moving from one scroll to the next, weaving through each room, knowing that, ultimately, only in living this life just as it is, returning to it time after time, satori after satori, sets us free of our delusions.

Thank you for practising,


*A heartfelt thank you to Shannon Jowlett, Director of Communications for the Japan Society, who so kindly tolerated my incessant emails as I tried to get to this once-in-a-lifetime exhibit.

this very place

Hakuin’s Song of Meditation

transl. by Stephen Addiss, from Zen Sourcebook

All living beings are originally Buddhas, just like water and ice:
Without water there is no ice, and outside living beings there is no Buddha.
Not knowing how near it is, people seek it outside themselves – what a pity!
Like someone in the middle of water crying out in thirst,
Or the child of a rich man wandering around like a beggar,
We are bound to the six worlds because we are lost in the darkness of ignorance;
Following dark path after dark path, when shall we escape birth and death?

Boundless as the sky, radiant as the moon is the four-fold wisdom,
At this moment, what do you lack?  Nirvana is right in front of you,
This very place is the Lotus Land, this body is the body of Buddha.

And Hakuin’s final words on practice:

“Don’t just stand there watching; get going!”*

Thank you for practising,


*from Cleary, Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record, 27.  Quoted in The Sound of One Hand by Addiss & Seo