Buddhism and Japanese Art: Hakuin Ekaku and Chinese Philosophy

Buddhism and Japanese art: Hakuin Ekaku and Chinese philosophy

Lee jay walker

Modern times of Tokyo

Revered Zen Buddhist Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) understood the importance of connecting with ordinary people. Thus, under his tutelage and wisdom, he helped restore the vitality of stagnant Rinzai Buddhism.

Hakuin was born in Hara in the province of Suruga (present-day Shizuoka prefecture). He – like his Buddhist colleague Rinzai Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) – would use art, calligraphy, and other skills to promote Buddhism.

Hakuin loved Chinese philosophy. Thus, he studied the words of Confucius, Lao-Tze, Mencius and others. Therefore, when Hakuin fell ill, he turned to the Taoist cave-dwelling hermit called Hakuyu for help and advice.

During his journey to more remote areas, Hakuin understood the importance of local Shintoism. Indeed, in his later years, Hakuin would study Shintoism with an invigorated passion. Now, rather than the negative tone Hakuin takes when condemning other Buddhist schools of thought, he refrains from speaking purely conservative when meeting ordinary people. After all, Hakuin understood the rich diversity of ideas – and mergers – that impacted Japan.

Hakuin said, “Not knowing how close the truth is, we seek it far away. ”

Another famous quote – and something the Taoist hermit Hakuyu would remind Hakuin of during his illness – is the importance of activity. Hakuin said, “Contemplation in activity is a million times better than contemplation in stillness.”

Overall, the words of Confucius, Lao-Tze, Mencius and others from China had a huge impact on Hakuin. Now, Hakuin has merged internal Zen Buddhism and the indigenous faith of Shintoism later in life with countless ideas emanating from China.

However, rather than succumbing to high culture and preaching in elite Buddhist monasteries, Hakuin always felt comfortable in the countryside to reach out to ordinary people. Therefore, the words and respect he displayed left a lasting legacy through his art, calligraphy, writings, teachings and the way he interacted throughout his life.


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