Zen Buddhism and Japanese Art: the Inspirational Life of Hakuin Ekaku

 

As you know, most of the posts at Art and Zen Today deal with contemporary art practices.  However, it is helpful to have some understanding of how the various arts have traditionally been connected with various meditative disciplines.  Below is an article that provides a nice look at that connection in Zen.  This article was called to my attention by Jake Roshi, an avid supporter of Art and Zen Today.  If you come across any articles that you think might make a good post on the site, please let me know. Also, we are always looking for “guest editors” so if you have some prose or art work that you think our readers would like, please let me know.
By the way, you may find two previously published articles on Sumi-e painting practice by Beth Moskal Milligan (Esho) to be of interest.  Click on the links below to read these articles.

Zen Buddhism and Japanese Art: the Inspirational Life of Hakuin Ekaku

 Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The holy Buddhist monk Hakuin Ekaku revived the school of Rinzai Buddhism based on taking Zen Buddhism far and wide. Indeed, his upbringing meant that he never lost touch with people at the bottom of the ladder, in terms of wealth. Also, despite Hakuin being outspoken towards other Buddhist sects, he never sought to alter the non-Zen Buddhist ways of people residing in the countryside. Hence, the roots of his early life meant that Hakuin could reach out both culturally and religiously to ordinary people in rural communities.

In other words, many lay people throughout the countryside fused the various aspects of rural Shintoism, Confucianism, and the ways of Buddhism. Hakuin fully understood the rich fusions of ideas that impacted on rural society and the religious – and philosophical dimensions – that remained like a rock during times of hardship.

True to nature, Hakuin declined to serve the most prestigious Buddhist monasteries in Kyoto that impacted greatly on high culture – just like other centers of power including Nara. Instead, Hakuin took the teachings of Rinzai Buddhism to the rural poor and extolled the virtues of Zen Buddhism based on lectures to other classes in society.

Hakuin said, “At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully.”

Another saying, close to the heart of Hakuin, was “Contemplation within activity is a million times better than contemplation within stillness.”

In the world of art, calligraphy, and literature related to Zen Buddhism, then Hakuin fused these elements in order to reach out to the masses in multiple ways. Indeed, he wrote with great passion and in haste during the late stages of his life. Similarly, despite Hakuin being deemed one of the greatest Zen Buddhist painters of Japan, he only focused seriously on this area of his life when he was nearing sixty years of age.

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THE ART-MEDITATION CONNECTION

Below I have reprinted an inspiring article sent to me by Jake Roshi.  The article very much supports what Jake has been saying for years; that a mindful commitment to any activity that requires practice can be a “teacher”.  This may include what we traditionally define as “art” but can include any activity (cooking, gardening, accounting etc.) that entails practice with the goal of doing it “artfully”.
Below are links to past articles published in Art and Zen Today that speak directly to this connection between artistic practice and “meditative” practice.  There are many more and I suggest you explore the Archives.
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http://artandzentoday.com/?p=3179   Myths about the nature of “Talent”

http://artandzentoday.com/?p=3121 Art and Mindfulness

http://artandzentoday.com/?p=3121  Improvization in music and Zen.

http://artandzentoday.com/?p=1830  Trumpet practice and Zen  practice  #2

http://artandzentoday.com/?p=1788  Trumpet practice and Zen Practice #1

http://artandzentoday.com/?p=1147 The Art of being present.

http://artandzentoday.com/?p=124  Art, Zen and Creativity

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And now to the article, which was originally printed in The Washington Post.

Why making art is the new meditation

By Maia Gambis August 25, 2015

Photo by iStock

Many of us have heard about the benefits of meditation, but sometimes find it hard to do.  Fewer of us know about the profound benefits of artistic expression. Creating art, however, is another way to access a meditative state of mind and the profound healing it brings. 

“Art is a guarantee to sanity,” said Louise Bourgeois, a French-American artist who died in 2010 at the age of 98. She even went on to add, “…This is the most important thing I have said.” For Bourgeois, art — making art — was a tool for coping with overwhelming emotion. She says she remembers making small sculptures out of bread crumbs at the dinner table when she was a little girl – as a way of dealing with her dominating father. Art was more than an escape – it kept her sane.

Art therapy has a healing effect for a variety of ailments, including depression, trauma and illness. and is effective across age, gender or ethnicity. In a recent study of cancer patients, an art therapy intervention — in conjunction with conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation — not only diminished symptoms typically associated with cancer such as pain, fatigue and anxiety, but also enhanced life expectancy. The study, its authors said, was based on the belief that “the creative process involved in the making of art is healing and life-enhancing. It is used to help patients, or their families, increase awareness of self, cope with symptoms, and adapt to stressful and traumatic experiences.” 

Art is not only healing for individuals suffering from severe illness. Here are four reasons why creative activity is such a potent recipe for psychological well-being:

1. Art is a vehicle for meditation and self-connection

Most of us can understand that art provides an escape to a sometimes harsh reality, but where does art’s healing potential come from? It impacts the state of our minds: Enjoying emotional stability is largely about taking responsibility for how we feel.

Research has shown the power of meditation and the science behind it. One of the reasons it is so powerful is that it fosters acceptance. Creating art is a type of meditation, an  active training of the mind that increase awareness and emphasizes acceptance of feelings and thoughts without judgment and relaxation of body and mind.

Art, like meditation, allows us to create space between our often negative, anxious thoughts and connect with our true selves – as opposed to with the fleeting or false sense of identity we sometimes have when we are caught up in our thoughts and emotions. Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher, writes: “Identification with thoughts and the emotions that go with those thoughts creates a false mind-made sense of self, conditioned by the past… This false self is never happy or fulfilled for long. Its normal state is one of unease, fear, insufficiency, and non-fulfillment.” Creating art is about reaching a state of consciousness and breaking free from the constant debilitating chatter of the mind.

Similarly to meditation, art can help us tap into a deeper and more quiet part of ourselves. We enter into a state of flow and present-moment awareness. “All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness,” Tolle writes. Artists experience that creative activity has the potential to tap into a space of true consciousness of being, void of interpretation. In this space, there can be a sense of having no physical parameters; no body, or form to separate one from the other. 

3. Art allows for true self-expression

The process of making art overrides the need for verbal communication. Creativity is its own language and enables humans to connect with one another — and themselves — on a non-verbal level. In therapy it can be an effective way of saying the unspeakable as is shown through the use of creative therapies with children. This also explains how we can be moved to the core when looking at a work of art, or even listening to music, without necessarily knowing the specifics about its origin. Art exists within its own non-verbal parameter and thus frees us up for unadulterated self-expression.

4. Art helps us become steady and centered

As a plus, it is interesting to note that Bourgeois, when asked to comment on her extensive body of work spanning her entire lifetime, says what impresses her most  “is how constant [I] have been.” Perhaps we need to redefine what we consider to be a storybook happy ending. Happiness may be less a matter of experiencing sharp highs (often followed by deep lows), and more a matter of nurturing a space that provides stability and a constant connection to our true selves.

 

PRESCRIPTION FOR DEPRESSION: SUN, DRUM, DANCE AND COMMUNITY.

There is reason to believe that many people are feeling depressed about the state of the nation and the state of the world.  If you relate to this, you might find the short statement below to be a useful reminder of some rather simple coping mechanisms.

Below is an excerpt from what a Rwandan told Western writer, Andrew Solomon about his experience with Western mental health and depression.  Thanks to Alessandra, a good friend and avid Art and Zen Today reader for calling my attention to this statement, as published on a Blog called “Under The Blue Door”. ( https://underthebluedoor.org/)  By the way, you can learn more about Alessandra by typing her name into the search box at the upper right- just doing that may help with your depression.

The Rwandan Prescription for Depression: Sun, Drum, Dance, Community.

~A Rwandan talking to a western writer, Andrew Solomon, about his experience with western mental health and depression.

“We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave. They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better, there was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again, there was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy, there was no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again. Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.”