Friday, January 14, 2011

One Hand

Last week I visited an exhibition at the Japan Society, "The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin." Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) was a Rinzai Zen Master who is attributed with renewing the Rinzai (or Lin-zi) tradition, which is Thích Nhất Hạnh's root tradition. Hakuin promoted koan practice and was the creator of the koan, "You know the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand?" I was interested in the show because of this, but also because he was such an accomplished artist and calligrapher, in the true Zen way.

It was a wonderful show, well-lit and spaciously laid out, with helpful but not overwhelming commentary beside each piece. I only wished that there were benches in front of a particular few of the works, because for those I wanted to linger long, really absorb them.

One such work was the calligraphy titled "Middle." This is a big work, fifty-three inches tall, and as with all calligraphy, each line is made with one stroke. Thus that long stroke down (the final stroke when making this character) would have involved not just the hand or arm, but the whole body. Hakuin was elderly at this point; such a stroke required, and conveys, deep conviction.

Hakuin middle

The commentary pointed out that here, "middle" is used in the sense of "in the middle of," "amid." The smaller calligraphy reads,
Contemplation amid activity is a hundred million times better than contemplation in stillness.*
This saying became Hakuin's motto, but he borrowed it from an 11th- and 12th-century Ch'an ancestor, Ta-hui Tsung-kao. I think it was Hakuin's way, in part, of validating his criticism of what he saw as the quietism of Soto Zen practice, of "just sitting." What is interesting to me is how the saying echoes Thầy's view of right engagement. Or, better, how Thầy's view echoes this saying.
Meditation is not to escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help.
Below is another painting that I wished I could have spent more time sitting with. Called "Large Daruma," it is one of many paintings of Daruma, or Bodhidharma, Hakuin made over his lifetime. As I looked at it, I felt I could tell the order in which he laid down his strokes: first the large eye (a mini enso), then the nose, then the other eye, then the wonderful pate (with fresh ink) and face, and then the short strokes of the beard and eyebrows. I'm guessing, largely, of course, but I know from experience that in Chinese brush painting (i.e. sumi-e in Japan), the ink itself leaves clues: first strokes always remain "on top of" later strokes.

Very striking are the touches of dark ink added to the face, the folded robe about the neck, and the bottom swoosh. From an artistic point of view, these varieties of tone, this use of white space, and use of wet and dry brush are all masterful.

hakuin daruma

The calligraphy was probably added last. It reads, quoting from Daruma himself,
See your own nature and become Buddha.
I like the way Daruma seems to be regarding his own words with approbation, as if he is thinking, "These words have nothing to do with it." And in fact that is the gist of the saying in its entirety:
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
It lets one see into [one's own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.

*  *  *

* Another translation I found of this teaching is, "Zen practice in the midst of activity is superior to that pursued within tranquility." This sounds much more solemn and officious than "a hundred million times better." I also found, "Meditation in the midst of activity is a thousand times superior to meditation in stillness." I wonder which is closest to the original Chinese?

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