Zen Aphorism

Artist: Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1685-1768)
Historical period(s)
Edo period, ca. 1760
Hanging scroll; ink on paper
H x W (image): 100.5 x 27.8 cm (39 9/16 x 10 15/16 in)
Credit Line
Gift of Kurt A. Gitter, M.D. and Alice Yelen
Freer Gallery of Art Collection
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view

Hanging scroll

Buddhism, Edo period (1615 - 1868), Japan, Zen Buddhism

To 1998
Dr. Kurt A. Gitter and Alice Yelen, New Orleans, LA, to 1998

From 1998
Freer Gallery of Art, given by Kurt A. Gitter and Alice Yelen in 1998

Previous Owner(s) and Custodian(s)

Alice Yelen and Dr. Kurt Gitter


Hakuin Ekaku was one of the great charismatic figures in the history of Japanese Buddhism. In the last several decades of his long life, Ekaku created a vast number of paintings and calligraphed text renderings, most often in ink monochrome, as a means of expressing the ineffable truths of Zen. Ekaku's intention was to create bold, honest and often humorous forms that inspired and informed those at all levels of society who searched for enlightenment.  At least one thousand of Hakui's works are still extant.

The work seen here seems stylistically and thematically consistent with works produced by Hakuin in the latter half of his eighth decade. It proclaims:

Through the piercing discipline
the ancients grew illustrious

Hakuin quotes from a response attributed to the Chinese master Tzu-ming (J. Jimyo) who was queried about his practice of piercing his thigh with a gimlet to stave off drowsiness and sleep during meditation. This was one of several occasions when Hakuin produced calligraphy with this text. The matter-of-fact reference to severe physical discipline in the pursuit of enlightenment is thoroughly consistent with Hakuin's pragmatic approach and, in a larger sense, an operative principle of Rinzai sect Zen.

Hakuin is regarded as the major Buddhist reformer of the Edo period (1615-1868). Buddhism of the period was co-opted by the Tokugawa shogunate and adeptly employed as a  mechanism to promote centralized government contol. Hakuin was born in the Shizuoka area of south-central Honshu and with the exception a tenure as administrator at the major Kyoto Rinzai temple of his home province. His pragmatism, humor and drive embraced all other Buddhist sects as well as Shinto, the indigenous religious practice.  Hakuin sought to present Zen practice as efficacious within the realities of everyday life experienced by all social classes. While uncompromising in presenting the fundamental requirements of Zen, Hakuin freed Rinzai Zen from the image of a cloistered or solely clerical practice.

Published References
  • Thomas Lawton, Thomas W. Lentz. Beyond the Legacy: Anniversary Acquisitions for the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. vol. 1 Washington, 1998. pp. 316-17.
Collection Area(s)
Japanese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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