Most people know the famous riddle, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Many are also aware that it is connected with Zen Buddhism, and some will even know that it is a famous koan by the 18th-century monk Hakuin.
A koan, of course, is a paradoxical parable or query used in Zen Buddhism to elicit enlightenment. One of the interesting aspects of this famous koan is that it raises the question of what the other hand — presumably that of Hakuin himself — is doing, which is appropriate, because Hakuin more than perhaps any other famous Zen master had a dual approach to Buddhism.
On the one hand there was his meditation and thought, expressed in his koans and other writings, while on the other there was his art, now the subject of “Hakuin: The Hidden Messages of Zen Art” at Bunkamura, The Museum, in Tokyo.
The exhibition brings together more than 100 works, mainly ink paintings, created by the monk throughout his life — he died on Jan. 18, 1768, aged 81. For this reason, it is possible to read the exhibition as the story of his spiritual development from a cocky young monk, rather self-consciously proud of his earliest experiences of satori (spiritual awakening), to the rather self-deprecating, comical and much-loved figure depicted in the self-portrait “Busy Busy Beggar.” This lacks a precise date, like most of the works in the exhibition, but is obviously from later in his life.
It is also possible to view the exhibition in a nonlinear, nonchronological way. One of the aims of Zen Buddhism is the attainment of a state of consciousness outside the temporal and causal flow. There is plenty of scope for this in Hakuin’s art because his pictorial subjects cover a wide range of subjects, each one of which can be taken as symbolic of timeless aspects of creation and existence.
His subjects include Buddha; Kannon the Goddess of Mercy; various Buddhist saints, especially Bodhidharma, the reputed founder of Zen Buddhism; figures from Japanese folk beliefs such as Ofuku-san, the bringer of happiness, and the Seven Gods of Good Fortune; as well as anthropomorphic images of animals.
This variety contrasts with Enku, another Buddhist monk and artist, who is the subject of another exhibition across town at the Tokyo National Museum. Limiting himself mainly to sitting statues of Buddha, Enku is much more repetitive in his art. This reflects one of the strands of Buddhist practice, namely ritualistic repetition, something that is also expressed in the prolonged spinning of prayer wheels and the chanting of mantras.
Although he also prayed and meditated, Hakuin’s approach to Buddhism was less about losing oneself in ritualistic repetition and more about achieving unique moments of inspiration and enlightenment. This makes for much more varied and interesting art. The search for such searing moments of insight, however, led Hakuin along occasionally difficult paths — both literally, as he wandered around Japan, and metaphorically as he pushed himself to the limit.
An early experience of asceticism led to a long period of illness. This is reflected in a couple of works on the theme of “Shakyamuni Leaving the Mountain,” in which Buddha is shown after a period of severe ascetic practices with protruding ribs and an emaciated look, testifying to the rigors of the spiritual quest.
This contrasts with the almost insouciant serenity of Hakuin’s “Lotus Kannon.” The Goddess of Mercy is in relaxed mode, contemplating a pond bedecked with lotus flowers. In a world that has always had so much suffering, we cannot help feeling that she is being perhaps a little remiss in her duties.
This work seems formulaic, as if the artist were painting something he didn’t quite understand. His artistic forte, and thus the thing that he seems to have understood best, was the figure of the eccentric and charismatic Zen master, like Bodhidharma, known in Japan as Daruma and the inspiration for the dolls of that name. There are many excellent examples at this exhibition, ranging from the cursory “One-Eyed Daruma” to a large, finely delineated scroll painting from Yomeiji Temple. This shows the sage during a legendary nine-year period of meditation spent facing a cave wall, a fact that may explain why his eyeballs are so firmly lodged in the right-hand corner of his eyes.
Other powerful works center on Daito, a monk who completed his Zen training and then proceeded to spend the next 20 years under the Gojo Bridge in Kyoto with the gang of beggars who lived there. The ragged, hairy figure in his straw hat and cloak, holding a begging bowl in one hand while making a gesture to expel negativity with his other hand, is a potent invocation of the quintessential monk, a person who is half-in and half-out of the world that the rest of us live in — a world, if you like, of one hand clapping.
“Hakuin: The Hidden Messages of Zen Art” at Bunkamura, The Museum, runs till Feb. 24; open daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m. ¥1,400. www.bunkamura.co.jp/english/museum/index.html.