Zen Buddhist art in Japan and Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769)

Zen Buddhist art in Japan and Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769)

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) is a revered Zen Buddhist monk who guides today – just like during his lifetime. Unlike modern-day political elites, Hakuin understood the need to connect with ordinary people instead of marginalizing them.

Many Buddhist monks utilized art, calligraphy, poetry, and storytelling during trips outside their respective Buddhist compounds to encourage the faithful. This built important bridges with ordinary people and also attracted the unsure. Therefore, Hakuin, Sengai Gibon (1750-1837), and other holy Buddhist monks utilized cultural traits.

Also, Hakuin understood regional religious and philosophical differences. For example, the indigenous faith of Shintoism, various Buddhist sects, Confucianism, Taoism (Daoism), and regional differences shaped by folklore and mythology. Hence, flexible and open minds were essential to connect with the plethora of religious and philosophical ideas that impacted Japan during the lifetime of Hakuin.

In the art piece below, Hakuin delightfully wrote:

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.

The MIHO Museum says, “With a tireless desire to pursue learning, he studied the teachings of Confucius and Mencius, and the philosophy of Lao-tze and Chung-tze, not to mention other books of teachings from in and outside of Japan. In his mature years, his interest took him to the study of Shintoism as well. In all, his horizon of interests expanded beyond the local confines.”

The Los Angeles Country Museum of Art (LACMA) says, “Hakuin’s self-taught, spontaneous, yet masterly and inspired painting and calligraphy, just like his teachings and writings, expressed the mind and heart of Zen for monks and lay followers alike. With the aim of reaching out to people of all social and economic classes, rather than just the élite, he invented a new visual language for his religion, depicting everyday subjects and themes from other Buddhist sects, as well as Zen patriarchs and masters.”

The legacy of Hakuin is full of richness – during his lifetime and continues to inspire today.


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