Hakuin (1686-1769)

Early Years

The Tokugawa Shogunate, also known as the Edo period, had started in 1616, when Nobunaga, along with two other warlords, had reunified the country. With the end of the warring states period, the samurai lost their primary function as warriors. The samurai class, however, remained the elite of Japanese society, with most men employed as bureaucrats. But, as was also the case in Europe at the time, the status of merchants and bankers was on the rise.

In “Wild Ivy,” ”Norman Waddell introduces Hakuin as follows: “Hakuin Ekaku is a towering figure in Japanese Zen. Widely respected during his lifetime for the extraordinary courage, determination, and uncompromising independence he displayed as he strove tirelessly to revive a Zen tradition in a stage of deep spiritual stagnation and decline … He excelled as a writer, painter, and calligrapher and used these talents fully over the final decades of his life as he tried to devise new ways of spreading the Zen teachings among people of all classes and walks of life.” Although Hakuin never actually received transmission from a master, the Rinzai school has acknowledged him as a disciple of Shoju Rojin, the teacher who most significantly shaped his teaching methods. Most contemporary Rinzai teachers trace their lineage back through Hakuin.

“Wild Ivy,” which Hakuin wrote at the age of eighty one, two years before his death, is “the longest and most comprehensive of the autobiographical narratives contained in his writings and the principal source for roughly the first three decades of his life – the period during which he was engaged in his struggle for enlightenment.” This means that for this part of his life, we only have Hakuin’s word for these narratives, and Waddell says that there could be “some degree of exaggeration and embellishment, an occasional stretching and bending of the facts.” In the introduction to his translation of the book, Waddell includes data collected from other sources, Hakuin’s “Goose Grass” and his disciple Torei Enji’s “Biography of Zen Priest Hakuin.”

Waddell writes: “Hakuin Ekaku – to give him his full religious name – was born Nagasawa Iwajiro” at the end of 1685 (Japanese calendar), or the beginning of 1686 (Western calendar) “in the small village of Hara, situated beneath the towering cone of Mount Fuji.” Hara was a farming and fishing community as well as a post station on the main Tokaido road, which linked the capital at Kyoto and the rapidly growing administrative center in Edo. Due to this very special location, Hara is the subject of one of Hiroshige’s paintings in the Tokaido series of all post stations. Not only was Hakuin born in this splendid landscape, but it is also in his native village that he, after a period of traveling came back to spend the most productive years of his life. He was also there when “the last eruption of Mount Fuji, in 1707, devastated Hakuin’s home province of Izu. Whole villages in the vicinity of Hara were swept away … Hakuin was home on a visit at the time. While everyone else, including the incumbent of the temple where he was staying, fled to safety, Hakuin remained meditating inside the main hall of the temple, as countless sharp tremors rocked the buildings to their foundations.”

Hara: Mount Fuji in the Morning, from the series Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road ca. 1833–34, by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) (Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City)

Hakuin’s father was born to a samurai family, but, at the time of his marriage he had assumed his wife’s surname – Nagasawa – and as head of the Nagasawa family, he had “inherited the post of chief of the Hara station, whose duties included providing horses and porters for the daimyo processions, officials, merchants and others who passed to and fro on the Great Eastern Road. Hara may have been one of the smaller post stations on the Tokaido, but is was no sleepy backwater … it was by all accounts the scene of intense activity.” It is mentioned in the accounts of several famous travelers including a Dutch physician.

A great uncle of Hakuin on the paternal side had been a Zen priest and had rebuilt the local Shoinji temple where, at the age of fifteen, Hakuin was ordained, and where “he returned in his early thirties to be installed as abbot. He would reside and teach at this tiny country temple for the next fifty years of his life, transforming it into a center of Buddhist practice known throughout the country.” Waddell notes that “Hakuin seems to have been especially close to his mother.” He always accompanied her to the Nichiren temple, and “many of the elements that distinguish his lifelong effort to reform Rinzai Zen – his extraordinary energy and single-minded determination, his vehement denunciations of those he deemed unorthodox – seem somehow to have more in common with the militancy of Nichiren’s evangelistic zeal that they do with the teaching traditionally associated with the Zen school and may well be traced at least in part for Hakuin’s childhood environment.”

Waddell adds, that “in all the accounts, [Hakuin] emphasizes the abnormal fear that gripped him at the age of eleven when he heard a famous Nichiren preacher describe in great detail the terrible punishments inflicted upon sinners who fell into one of the Eight Hot Hells.” This had led him to embark “on a regimen of spiritual exercises himself – rising at first cockcrow, reciting sutras, dousing himself with buckets of cold water, performing prostrations, praying to the gods for their help.”

Hakuin later said that the teacher who had ordained him at Shoinji was one of the teachers he later referred to as “purveyors of quietist do-nothing Zen,” which Hakuin vigorously criticised during his whole life. He quickly moved to a sister temple in the neighbouring town of Numazu, where he read the Lotus sutra, which had been the central scripture of his mother’s school. Though later in life he came to see the value of this sutra, in those early years, “he reported being deeply disappointed to find that it consisted of nothing more than simple tales about cause and effect.”

Four years later, Hakuin, now aged eighteen, moved to Zensoji, a training temple at a short distance from Hara. Once more he was disappointed, this time because monks there were not even sitting in zazen! Instead they were studying Chinese Zen poetry. It is at Zensoji that Hakuin heard of the great Chinese Zen master Yen-t’ou, who had been murdered by bandits who had cut his head. “This dashed all his hopes about Zen’s ability to save him from hell. Zen lost all interest for him.” And he too started to immerse himself in the study of literature, painting, and calligraphy for a year!

Zensoji was the last of the local temples where he lived before venturing further afield to meet the abbot of Zuiunji in Mino Province. He had heard that Bao Rojin, Old Man Bao, was reputed to be a “scholar of wide learning.” He turned out to be an “extremely rough customer, with a particularly nasty temper.” He was one of the fierce teachers with whom Hakuin resonated well, not unlike Shoju Rojin, whom Hakuin later recognised as his main teacher. Hakuin managed to develop “a cordial, even affectionate, relationship” with Old Man Bao.

Original Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Training

According to “Goose Grass,” another autobiographical text by Hakuin, he was still unsure as to which way to go, and he emulated the Chinese divination practice based on the Yijing: eyes closed, he picked up a book in the temple’s library, which he opened at a random page. The book he had picked up turned out to be a work titled Spurring Students through the Zen Barriers and the page he had opened it at contained a passage about the celebrated tenth-century Chinese priest Tz’u-ming. Waddell comments: “Tz’u-ming had jabbed himself in the thigh with a needle-sharp awl whenever he sensed the ‘sleep demon’ approaching. To Hakuin, Tz’u-ming serendipitous intervention at this juncture could have only one meaning: a person who commits himself to attaining religious awakening must push forward with unwavering determination, whatever difficulties he encounters, until the goal is reached … ”. “[Tz’’u-ming] is credited with having kept the line alive when, early in the Sung dynasty, it was on the verge of extinction. In light of Hakuin’s own self-imposed role as the reformer of a moribund Japanese Zen, Tz’u-ming’s appearance takes on an uncanny, almost oracular, significance.”

Hakuin only stayed at Zuiunji a few months before setting forth on a pilgrimage that lasted for several years, and took him as far west as the island of Shikoku. Compared with the seriousness of Tz’u-ming’s practice and his “unwavering determination,” what Hakuin witnessed during his travels gave him “a clear-eyed sense of what was wrong with contemporary Zen. Most of the teachers he encountered during this period – and they included noted masters of all the three main Zen traditions – are described as being advocates of the passive, quietist religious practices he would later, in his writings, violently denounce for sapping students of the very thing – ‘a great burning tenacity of purpose’ – he felt was absolutely essential to the religious quest.” “Unless students press forward with a spirit of fierce and dauntless inquiry,” he wrote, “they will never break free from Mara’s net of delusion. It will cling to their bones, stick to their hides, until the last breath they draw.”

As he reached his twenty third year, Hakuin journeyed to the Eiganji temple Echigo Province, where he met a teacher said to be truly exceptional as he had received transmission from all three Zen schools. Again, his meeting with the teacher left him unimpressed, but it is at the Eiganji that Hakuin had his first enlightenment experience. Waddell tells us that Hakuin “had been wrestling steadily for some time now with the Mu koan, and signs had appeared over the past year of an approaching breakthrough … As he was sitting there in the predawn hours on the final night [of a meeting] the sound of a distant bell reached his ears. As it did, he finally crossed the threshold into satori, or enlightenment. So intense was the experience, he was convinced that no one in the past three hundred years had penetrated to such a glorious attainment. He spent the next several weeks strutting around the temple, ‘puffed up with a soaring pride, bursting with arrogance’.”

Soon after this first enlightenment experience, Hakuin met Shoju Rojin, who is now regarded as the “true master” he had been seeking. Shoju was living in a small hermitage in an isolated part of the country. He only accepted totally dedicated students, and “to those students, Shoju was a fierce, uncompromising taskmaster whose methods were harsh in the extreme.”

Hakuin only stayed eight months with Shoju but, Waddell asserts, “it is clear in reading his accounts for the period that they were the most important of his life.” In his biography of Hakuin, “Torei portrays Hakuin as being in a state of near terror the whole time he was with Shoju – trembling in every joint, his flesh constantly puckered up on goosebumps. At one point, Shoju grabbed him and tossed him off the veranda onto the ground – ‘as if he was a little kitten’ … Shoju assigned him a series of “hard-to-pass” koans, and in boring his way into them, he was successful in “dropping his bones and sinews” on three different occasions.”

Hakuin’s enlightenment experience had marked the completion of his monastic training. Hakuin was therefore entering his post-satori practice, defined as “the practice of teaching others,” in other words that of “doing good by helping others and imparting the gift of the Dharma to them.”

Hakuin says that Shoju urged him to stay as his successor, but he refused, and returned to Shoinji at the end of 1708. Waddell says that, while professing “his undying gratitude toward him, Hakuin never once during the remaining thirteen year of Shoju’s life returned to the Shoju-an hermitage.” Years later, when he was in his fifties, Hakuin kept on “extolling Shoju as the only authentic Zen teacher of the age and acknowledging him unequivocally as his one and only master.”

More traveling followed his return to Shoinji during which “it became clear to Hakuin that his attainment was still incomplete … he was sure that his grasp of koans and Zen writings was sharp and clear, yet he found it impossible to sustain the tranquillity he experienced in the quietness of the Zen hall when he returned to the tumult of everyday life.” The eighty-one year old master Egoku Komyo, abbot of the Hounji, an Obaku in Kawachi Province, is one of the teachers he visited to ask for advice. Egoku suggested that he goes and lives in the mountains, adding, “Be prepared to remain there, withering away with the trees and plants, until you find your way through.”

It took Hakuin over a year to locate a remote spot in the mountains of Mino Province that would be suitable for a solitary retreat. “There, living by himself in a tiny hut completely isolated from the world, subsisting on a ration of half a handful of rice each day, he began to carry out the instructions Egoku had given him to ‘wither away with the trees and plants’.” By then, however, Hakuin had contracted an ailment he called “Zen sickness” or “meditation sickness” that “modern writers have diagnosed variously as tuberculosis, pleurisy, nervous collapse, or some combination of the three. Whatever it was, it finally became so serious that it prevented him from pursuing his Zen training.” He appeared to have been able to cure himself through techniques of meditation combined with traditional medical and folk therapies during his solitary retreat on Mount Iwataki.

He, however, had to interrupt the retreat when his father became gravely ill, and called for him to return. “He had planned to return to the solitary retreat but never did. His decision to return to Shoinji marked the end of his long years of Zen pilgrimage.” He remained at Shoinji for the remainder of his life, during which this tiny temple grew into one of Japan’s major Buddhist centres attracting thousands of monks as well as lay followers.

The Great Enlightenment

Self-portrait of Hakuin Ekaku

Thirteen months after his return, Hakuin was officially installed as head priest at Shoinji. The temple “was totally impoverished and in an almost indescribable state of disrepair.” Waddell writes: “Hakuin resided at this ramshackle old temple, amid great difficulty and privation, through his thirties and on into his early forties. An old family servant gathered wood for fuel, foraged for vegetables, and managed to produce the two daily meals. A monk who showed up helped supply the kitchen by making daily begging expeditions.”

Needless to say, for many years, Hakuin attracted little attention outside his home province! But he did continue to study Zen writings and devote himself to zazen. Then, one night in his forty first year, his religious quest abruptly came to an end with what is referred to as his “Great Enlightenment.” “He was in his chambers at Shoinji reading the Lotus Sutra, the very same chapter, the one on parables, he had dismissed years before as ‘a mere collection of simple tales about cause and effect’. In that chapter, the Buddha reveals to his disciple Shariputra the true nature of the Mahayana Bodhisattva, whose own enlightenment is but the first step in his career of assisting others to attain theirs. This is identical to the teaching Shoju had tried to drive home to Hakuin years before. Like Shariputra, Hakuin had erroneously regarded his original realization as full and perfect enlightenment, and he would have been unable to proceed beyond that realization without the timely assistance of a genuine teacher.”

“As Hakuin read, the sound of a cricket churring at the foundation stones of the temple reached his ears; at that instant, he crossed the threshold into great enlightenment. The accumulated doubts and uncertainties of forty years suddenly ceased to exist. The reason why the Lotus Sutra was regarded as supreme among all the Buddha’s preachings was revealed to him ‘with blinding clarity’. He found teardrops ‘cascading down his face like strings of beads … From that time forth, wrote Torei, ‘the master lived in a state of great emancipation. The enlightening activity of the Buddhas was now his, without any lack whatever, enabling him to speak with the same tongue, and from the same lips, as all the Buddhas before him.”

Over the remaining forty-two years of his life, Hakuin used his newly acquired ability to express his religious experience to teaching in various parts of the country. Waddell’s source for the second half of Hakuin’s life is Torei’s biography of Hakuin. As Hakuin’s disciple, Torei saw first hand the tireless energy he gave to the task of reinvigorating the Zen school. “He was constantly encouraging students to strive for the same profound penetration he had attained and devising new ways to reach out to the general populace and make them aware of the benefits of koan Zen.”

Monks started to come, and by 1732, more that twenty of them were residing and studying at Shoinji. In 1737, “Hakuin conducted his first lecture-meeting: a four-day session on the “Blue Cliff Record” at the nearby Rinzaiji, which was attended by two hundred people.” In 1741 a large-scale lecture on the “Record of Hsi-ken” was held at Shoinji with more than four hundred students. “Hakuin availed himself of the opportunity to deliver a full-blown treatise on Zen … From that time on,” said Torei, “the master was recognized as the foremost teacher in the land.”

As the Shoinji could not accommodate such large numbers, the monks had to find lodgings in the countryside around the temple. “A well-known passage from Idle Talk on a Night Boat gives some idea of the difficulties they faced: ‘Students gladly endured the poisonous slobber the master spewed at them. They welcomed the stinging blows from his stick. The thought of leaving never even entered their minds. Some stayed for ten, even twenty years, totally indifferent to the possibility they might have to lay down their lives at Shoinji and become dust under the temple pines … Hunger awaited them in the morning. Freezing cold lurked for them at night. They sustained themselves on greens and wheat chaff. Their ears were assaulted by the master’s deafening shouts and abuse. Their bones were hammered by furious blows from his fists and stick … Before long, they were as thin and haggard as a Tu Fu or Chia Tao, their pallid skin drawn taut over their bony cheeks.”

As “Idle Talk on a Night Boat” was authored by Hakuin himself, we could be forgiven to see in this passage the expression of Hakuin’s pride at the dedication and resilience shown by these students who were willing to endure such extreme hardship, even “to lay down their lives,” for the sake of the Dharma. He most probably was indeed proud, but this was not the reason behind the above description. Checking the text, which is included in the appendix section of “Wild Ivy,” I see that it goes on to say: “In their utter dedication to their training, these monks cast aside all restraint and pushed themselves past the limits of endurance. Some injured their lungs, causing them to be parched of their natural fluid; this led to painful ailments in the abdominal region, which became chronic and serious and difficult to cure. The master observed their suffering with deep concern and compassion. For days, he went around with a worried look on his face. Unable to suppress his feelings any longer, he finally “descended from the cloudy summit” and began to explain the essential secrets of Introspective Meditation to his students: he was like an elderly mother wringing the last drops of stinking milk from her paps to nourish a beloved son.”

So Hakuin is not questioning the need for a rigorous and demanding practice that includes the “deafening shouts and abuse of the master” and the “furious blows from his fists and stick.” Neither is he blaming the lack of proper food, shelter and sleep for the health issues faced by the students. His solution was to equip the students with the strength to survive the practice without compromising their health. He says that he has been “entrusted with a secret technique, perfected by the divine sages, for returning the elixir to the sea of vital energy below the navel,” and he gives the instructions for it in the text. This was the technique he used to cure himself of what he called his “Zen sickness.” He says that, at more than seventy years of age, he does not have the slightest trace of illness or infirmity, and his sight and hearing are growing more, rather than less, acute. So, this Introspective Meditation did work for him, and it also worked for the starving students. Ancient alchemical practitioners in China, Tibet, India and Near-East did use such practices. Hakuin survived to the age of eighty-three, even so, according to Torei,”he was inordinately fond of sweets, enjoyed drinking sake, and also had a pipe habit, dating back at least to his mid-twenties.”

Hakuin spent the last years of his life teaching to a growing number of monks and lay people. “Distinctions of rank, class, or gender were almost meaningless when set against the all-important matter of kensho – spiritual self-awakening achieved by seeing into the true nature … In his sixty-sixth year, during a three-month sojourn in Kyoto, Hakuin was invited to deliver lectures at the Myoshinji and at the equally large and important Tofukuji.” Hakuin was also a prolific writer and composed dozen of written works, both prose and verse, in a baffling variety of styles and genres. He used calligraphy and painting, and devised a number of new koans, including the famous “Hear the Sound of One Hand.”

The first signs of a general debility appeared in 1763, and in 1768, “he was forced to take to his sickbed with an ailment that his physician diagnosed as “too many sugared sweets” and that may have been an attack of diabetes … He died during the last month of that year, which corresponds to January 1769 in the western calendar.”

Norman Waddell – Wild Ivy – The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin

Hakuin Ekaku – Dream of the New Year ( Minneapolis Institute of Art)