Hakuin Forum in New York
Hakuin as a Zen Master and Hakuin as an Artist
Thomas Kirchner Associate Researcher in Zen Studies Hanazono University, IRIZ
Located in the northeast corner of America, New York is far from the nation’s center, yet it is in many ways the creative heart of the country. Los Angeles may be the home of the motion picture industry, but New York is the hub of activity and innovation in the arts, drama, and music. This openness to new ideas extends to religion. Some of the first Zen centers in America were in New York, and the area now has over eighty Buddhist temples and centers, making it the ideal place to present new points of view on Buddhist thought and practice.
One year and a half ago, on 13 March 2009, the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism (IRIZ) at Hanazono University held its first “Hakuin Forum in New York,” at the Asia Society on Park Avenue. Organized by Prof. Katsuhiro Yoshizawa, director of the IRIZ, the Forum introduced the religious art of Zen master Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1769) and discussed the various means by which Hakuin used artwork to convey his spiritual message. The positive response to the 2009 Forum led to an invitation to hold a similar Forum this year as a special event at the Japan Society, which is presently (1 October 2010 until 9 January 2011) hosting an exhibition of Hakuin’s paintings and calligraphy entitled “The Sound of One Hand.”
The Japan Society “Hakuin Forum in New York” was held on the evening of November 4, 2010, under the joint sponsorship of Hanazono University and Asano Laboratories Co. Prof. Yoshizawa was joined by Yuji Yamashita, Professor of Art History at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, in discussing the theme, “Hakuin as a Zen Master and Hakuin as an Artist.” The audience of about 130 to 150 persons was a varied group of art historians, Buddhist scholars, Zen practicers, aficionados of Japanese culture, and Japanese residents of New York.
Following opening comments by Mr. Joe Earle, director of the Japan Society, and a brief introduction to the life of Hakuin by the moderator, Thomas Kirchner, the proceedings began in earnest with a half-hour PowerPoint presentation in English by the keynote speaker, Prof. Yoshizawa. Prof. Yoshizawa’s talk centered on a recently discovered Hakuin painting of Kannon (Avalokitesvara), the bodhisattva of compassion. In a lively discussion that fully utilized the capabilities of the PowerPoint program, Prof. Yoshizawa explained how this painting, depicting the bodhisattva seated at a desk in front of a large landscape painting, comprised a type of “pictorial sermon” by Hakuin.
Focusing on the landscape painting first, Prof. Yoshizawa directed the audience’s attention to the painting’s inscription, “Sometimes Kannon appears in the form of a government official, sometimes Kannon appears in the form of a woman; so let me ask you: when Kannon doesn’t appear in any form, where on earth is her whole body hiding?” The characters in this inscription, which is inspired by a verse from the Lotus Sutra, are arranged in such a way as to suggest that the world of nature, as represented in the landscape, is itself the true body of Kannon and the manifestation of the Buddhadharma.
After explaining how other features in the painting, such as the presence of a fisherman, a cliff, and a pine tree, comprise symbols of the spiritual life and the eternal essence of the Dharma, Prof. Yoshizawa proceeded to discuss why sansui (mountains-and-water) landscape paintings are so central to Zen art. Nature is not only the natural dwelling place of the spiritual recluse, but also the manifestation of the transcendent presence of which the Zen master Yamada Mumon spoke when he wrote at the time of his enlightenment, “I know from the coolness of this morning’s breeze / that I am embraced by something great and vast.”
Prof. Yoshizawa then turned to the figure of Kannon sitting at a desk, and showed how this representation—almost unique among all of the existing paintings of the bodhisattva—bears a striking resemblance to traditional representations of King Enma, the ruler of hell and the judge of the dead. Noting how in the Buddhist teachings the bodhisattva Jizo is regarded as another aspect of King Enma, Prof. Yoshizawa suggested that in this picture Hakuin was expressing his belief that all beings, Kannon as well as Enma, are equally manifestations of the mind.
Prof. Yamashita then gave a talk, excellently rendered into English by interpreter Chisato Uno, showing that, despite the tendency among Japanese art historians to dismiss the influence of Hakuin on Edo-period art, the broad curving strokes and other features in the paintings of important artists like Ike no Taiga (1723–1776) and Nakagawa Rosetsu (1754–1799) suggest a knowledge and imitation of Hakuin’s distinctive style of brushwork. Moreover, an extant painting by Ike no Taiga with an inscription by Hakuin clearly demonstrates that the two were acquainted, suggesting that through Taiga, Hakuin may have influenced the broader circle of Kyoto sumi-e artists. If so, the implications for Japanese art history are intriguing, to say the least.
In the subsequent discussion Prof. Yoshizawa and Prof. Yamashita explored several other issues relating to Hakuin’s roles as a Zen master and an artist. When asked why it is that Hakuin has been remembered as “the second founder of Japanese Rinzai Zen,” Prof. Yoshizawa pointed out that it was not merely because Hakuin was the founder of the lineage to which all modern-day Rinzai masters belong. By the time of the Edo period (1600–1868) Japanese society had undergone social and cultural changes that rendered it significantly different from the Japan of the thirteenth century, when Zen was originally introduced from China. Hakuin developed a new approach to teaching Zen that took these changes into account. Hakuin was well versed not only in meditation but also in Buddhist and secular literature, and was interested, too, in the urban culture that had arisen during the Edo period. In one of his letters, for example, he mentions that during a trip to Edo he attended a kabuki performance (the most popular and influential form of popular entertainment at the time) by the kabuki playwright Ichikawa Danjuro II (1688–1758). This is rather like visiting New York and attending a Broadway show or jazz concert. This knowledge and experience is reflected in Hakuin’s use of paintings and other contemporary “media” to popularize his Zen message.
The audience’s interest in the Forum proceedings was indicated by the number of hands raised during question-and-answer period at the end of the Forum. Questions ranged from how new Hakuin works are discovered to how genuine Hakuin pieces are distinguished from the many imitations. The Forum ended on a humorous note (and a good laugh from the audience) when Prof. Yoshizawa returned to the PowerPoint to show a short clip of a Hakuin painting of King Enma singing, “It’s a Wonderful World.”
Comments by members of the audience after the Forum revealed an interest not only in the speakers’ arguments but also in the way they were presented. Skillful use of the PowerPoint program added an engaging visual element to the presentation that enhanced audience attention and helped clarify the points that the speakers were making (one member of the audience commented in his Internet blog that thanks to the PowerPoint the sleepiness that ordinarily overcomes him at symposiums was completely absent). One suspects that Hakuin would have pleased, as this was no doubt precisely what he himself hoped to accomplish when he expressed his own religious messages through his lively and humorous paintings.