Japan Society Gallery
333 East 47th St. at First Ave.
Through January 9, $10-$12, free Friday from 6:00 to 9:00
One of the current New York City exhibitions most deserving of applause is also one of the most contemplative ones, sparking a quiet awe and fascinaton from those who experience its subtle wonder. “The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin,” at Japan Society thorugh January 9, features sixty-nine scroll paintings by artist and teacher Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), made primarily for his students, lay followers, and other monks as teaching tools, never for sale. Able to create marvelous scenes with an intuitive economy of line, Hakuin displays a sly sense of humor and a deep understanding of human behavior in his works. The centerpiece is “Hotei’s Sound of One Hand,” a depiction of Hakuin’s favorite subject, the wandering monk Hotei, sitting in a meditative position, one hand raised, asking what has since become one of the great existential questions, the famous koan, “What is the sound of one hand [clapping]?” Hotei, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, is surrounded by such sayings as “Young shop-clerks, no matter what you say / if you don’t hear the sound of one hand, it’s all rubbish!” Hakuin also shows Hotei playing kickball, juggling while spinning a plate from his chin, watching sumo mice, and transformed into a kite. “Hakuin’s Hotei paintings demonstrate that Zen is not an unfathomable discipline restricted to a few determined monastics, but a lively force available to everyone in every daily activity,” writes cocurator Stephen Addiss in his essay “Hotei as Everyman” in the gorgeous exhibition catalog (Shambhala, $65), which also features such chapters as “Life in Art, Art in Life,” “Buddhist, Shinto, and Folk Deities,” and “Confucian Themes and Painting-Calligraphy Interactions.” Hakuin’s immense skill and humble nature are also evident in such works as “Monkey and Cuckoo,” “Sixth Patriarch’s Rice Mill,” “Ant on a Grindstone,” “Two Blind Men on a Bridge,” and “Daruma’s Shoe,” ink-on-paper scroll paintings imbued with both mystery and meaning but never overladen with heavy messages. As you make your way through “The Sound of One Hand,” you’ll continually want to stop and applaud — and break out into laughter — but instead, slowly breathe in its quiet splendor and unending charm in silence, evoking the sound of one hand. (On December 12 and January 8 at 11:00 am, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara of Village Zendo will lead a discussion about Hakuin, followed by a meditation; tickets are $25 and include admission to the gallery. While at Japan Society, also be sure to go downstairs to see the free exhibition “oxherding,” an extraordinary collaboration between painter Max Gimblett and writer and translator Lewis Hyde.)