Inscription: Kamakura no gosho no omae de 鎌倉の御所のおまえで (in front of the palace in Kamakura); seal before inscription: Kokan’i 顧鑑咦; seals after inscription: Hakuin 白隠 and Ekaku no in 恵隺之印 (seal of Ekaku)
Hakuin Ekaku, the most influential of all leaders of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, painted the jolly wandering Chinese monk Hotei (literally, “Cloth Bag”) on numerous occasions and in many different guises. Better-known to Western audiences as one of the Shichifukujin (Seven Gods of Good Fortune), in Hakuin’s art Hotei stands in part perhaps for Hakuin himself and in part for Everyman, with all his foibles and virtues. Hakuin often painted Hotei in the guise of a street performer named Mamezō (“Beany”) who wandered the streets of Osaka amusing passersby with bodily contortions, humorous banter, and feats of magic or juggling.
Mamezō was especially famous for his prowess at saramawashi, holding one end of a long pole in his teeth and spinning a plate or bowl balanced on the other end, sometimes (as here) juggling balls at the same time (in other versions, Hotei spins his hat). Hakuin makes Hotei’s performance all the more miraculous by having him carry it out while balanced on a large ball, representing the cloth bag from which Hotei took his name. He wears a happy, carefree expression in all Hakuin’s depictions of this subject, suggesting that the intense concentration required for attaining Buddhist enlightenment (or spinning a plate on a long pole) need not preclude an optimistic view of the human condition. Hakuin brushed a number of different inscriptions on his paintings of Mamezō, some of them based on popular folk songs. Here he gives the first half of a ditty that begins Kamakura no gosho no omae de, “In front of the palace in Kamakura”; the meaning is completed by the second half (seen on other versions): Nanatsu shōjorō ga shaku o toru, “A seven-year-old girl serves sake.” The version closest in all other respects to the present scroll (in the Gitter-Yelen collection, see the work by Yoshizawa cited below, no. 332) has a completely different poem.
The late Stephen Addiss, a renowned Hakuin scholar, remarked on the artist’s skillful balance of vertical and circular forms in this subject, along with the “dark ink of Hotei’s robe” that “creates a contrasting accent to strengthen the total composition of the work.”