NEW YORK — The publication of J.D. Salinger’s “Nine Stories” introduced a new generation of Americans to a Zen Buddhist koan roughly translated as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
This koan, which is an aid to meditation that cannot be solved by logical thinking, can be traced back to the 18th century Zen master Hakuin Ekaku.
Hakuin, who was also a brilliant and prolific painter, is virtually unknown to American audiences. Now, in the hopes of remedying that situation, the Japan Society in New York is staging the first retrospective of Hakuin’s work in the United States.
The exhibition, which opened Friday and comprises 78 scroll paintings, all but nine of them by Hakuin, is a stunning collection of ink on paper drawings, most in black and white.
Each painting integrates Hakuin’s fluid line drawings and delicate washes with spidery Japanese calligraphy that usually relates a Zen precept or parable. Often the text involves puns or other humor. The subjects of the drawings run the gamut from mundane scenes of daily life to delicately drawn animals and supernatural beings to great religious figures.
The poster for the exhibition shows a scowling “daruma,” a Zen patriarch, rendered in thick, bold, inky brush strokes. Above his head is calligraphic writing that suggests his teachings are always with us.
In another religiously themed image, the goddess Otafuku kneels before a fire cooking skewers of dumplings. To the left of the painting, an inscription tells us she is waiting for a man who doesn’t come because “his throat is closed.” That closed-throat man is understood to be a narrow-minded person not yet open to the Buddhist teachings that can nourish him.
In “Two Blind Men on a Bridge,” Hakuin uses tiny brush strokes to depict two blind men gingerly crossing a dangerous log bridge, a metaphor for the Zen journey to enlightenment.
One of Hakuin’s favorite subjects is a happy-go-lucky wandering monk named Hotei, who is seen in one painting asking, “What is the sound of one hand?” (The actual phrase coined by Hakuin never included the word for “clapping.”)
We see Hotei standing on his large cloth bag, his toes curled to grip the surface. His left hand holds a fan, and his right hand is held up, palm facing out, in a reference to the “one hand” koan inscribed above him. Hakuin sought to convey his Zen teachings in ways that ordinary people could understand, which is why he emphasized folk themes and colloquial language. His paintings are remarkably spontaneous and lively, often exhibiting a playful spirit.
A self-taught artist who lived most of his life in a small, rural temple, Hakuin didn’t produce his art for rich patrons or an art market. Most of his paintings were given as tokens of encouragement to his followers or as certificates of spiritual progress. They weren’t even collected by art connoisseurs until the 20th century. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Japan Society has organized a full slate of related programs, including painting and writing workshops and a guided meditation.