buddha in a bag

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.

While sleeping

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,

Genju

the end of the bridge

Perhaps the most recognized of Hakuin’s paintings is of the blind men crossing a log bridge.  Symbolically, the shore to the right is the world we leave behind and the one to the left is the shore of enlightenment.  All paintings of the blind men tentatively feeling their way across are metaphors of our journey: gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bohdi svahagone, gone, gone beyond, gone to the other shore, yippee! In most of the paintings, Hakuin is kind enough to give us hope by connecting the end of the bridge to the far shore.  But in the classic Three Bind Men on a Bridge, he doesn’t.  The end of the log hangs in mid-air, tantalizing and foreboding. Hakuin wrote a poem on two of his paintings: Both the health of our bodies and the fleeting world outside us are like the blind men’s round log bridge – a mind/heart that can cross over is the best guide. It made me wonder.  Is our own mind/heart all we need?  Why does Hakuin put two or three of us on the bridge?  In my rendition above, I put the first blind man at the edge of the bridge where he has to consider his next option.  His staff is just past the log, likely telling him the end is at his feet.  His companion is coming along behind him – far enough away that if he makes it across and he has time to move on without having to know what happens to his companion. What bridge does his mind/heart need to cross? Thank you for practising, Genju Remember the Hakuin exhibition at the Japan Society in New York and other venues!