Forsaking anecdotal details or a frame around the principal image, the artist Hakuin has achieved a pure expression of meditation: that undertaken by the first Zen patriarch Daruma (Bodhidarma) who sat facing a rock for nine years. The abstraction of the silhouette, sketched with a swift, confident brushstroke in the manner of an ideogram, conveys a savage energy that seems to emanate from the patriarch’s body and the painter’s hand alike. An inscription echoes this symbolic image of spiritual quest: “Looking inside himself, man becomes Buddha”. Hakuin’s intuitive, calligraphic art reflected the essential teaching of the Rinzai sect -which rejects rationalism and all systematization of thought- asserting itself as the key to untrammelled spiritual freedom.
Such intuition was apparently the principal avenue of exploration in monochrome Zen painting, the aim of which was to achieve intense expressiveness, explaining why these artists tended to disregard academic rules.
Hakuin, famous in his lifetime as a reformer of Zen thought -or more precisely the thought associated with the Rinzai sect- also emerged as the founder of a profoundly new esthetic that marked the development of Zen art beyond the Edo period. His originality is displayed not in his choice of subjects but in his free treatment of the latter in tight compositions with simplified contours. This portrait of Daruma facing the wall is a recurrent theme in his work and attests to the artist’s maturity with his spontaneous style and the impact of the commentaries found in his compositions.