Japanese Buddhism and art: Hakuin Ekaku and Chinese philosophy

Japanese Buddhism and art: Hakuin Ekaku and Chinese philosophy

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The revered Zen Buddhist, Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769), understood the importance of connecting with ordinary people. Hence, under his tutelage and wisdom, he helped to restore the vitality of Rinzai Buddhism that was stagnating. 

Hakuin was born in Hara in the province of Suruga (modern-day Shizuoka Prefecture). He – like the fellow Rinzai Buddhist Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) – would utilize art, calligraphy, and other skills to promote Buddhism.

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

During his travel to more remote areas, Hakuin understood the importance of local Shintoism. Indeed, in his later years, Hakuin would study Shintoism with an invigorated passion. Henceforth, rather than the negative tone that Hakuin took when condemning other Buddhist schools of thought, he refrained from lecturing a purely conservative view when meeting ordinary people. After all, Hakuin understood the rich diversity of ideas – and fusions – that impacted Japan. 

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

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

Overall, the words of Confucius, Lao-Tze, Mencius, and others emanating from China impacted greatly on Hakuin. Henceforth, Hakuin fused internal Zen Buddhism and the indigenous faith of Shintoism in later life with countless ideas emanating from China. 

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

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