A Short Biography of Hakuin


 

A Short Biography of Hakuin

by

Don Webley

(Incorporating extracts from Hakuin's autobiography, Wild Ivy)
 

Sugiyama Iwajiro, known to posterity as the Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku, was born on January 19, 1686, in Hara, a small coastal village situated at the foot of Mt. Fuji on the Tokkaido Road between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. Hakuin was born into a time and place where the established religion had lost its life. The Zen of Bodhidharma, of the Sixth Patriarch, and of Rinzai had become the court religion of the samurai. But Hakuin was to fan the dying fire of the true Zen so effectively during the eighty-three years of his life that the Rinzai sect remains a living Dharma to this day, and all modern Masters of the school trace their lineage directly to him.

Endowed with enormous personal energy, Hakuin was a rarity among Masters and a lion among men. He was an accomplished artist and calligrapher and a voluminous author—he left a written legacy that is arguably the most extensive of the Masters of the Ch'an, or Zen, traditions. His caustic tongue and pen were legendary, and his words still breathe fire today. Yet his compassion was equal to his fire, and he was beloved by the common folk of his time and remains a favorite among lay practitioners of Zen.

Hakuin was especially critical of the "silent illumination heretics" and "do-nothings" who filled the monasteries and temples. They were, to use Adi Da's terminology, the "talking school" of Zen, those who took such Enlightened confessions as "Nirvana and samsara are the same", or "Our own mind is Buddha" to mean that no practice was necessary. Let us listen to what Hakuin had to say about the practice he saw around him:

Recently, however, even within Zen, priests have appeared who do nothing but sit like lifeless wooden blocks, 'silently illuminating' themselves. And beyond that, what do you suppose they regard as their most urgent business? Well they prattle about 'doing nothing' being the 'man of true nobility' (quotations from Rinzai) and with that, they are content to feed themselves and pass day after day in a state of seated sleep. 

I have made a verse to pour scorn on this odious race of pseudo-priests:

What's earth's foulest thing, from which all men recoil?
Charcoal that crumbles? Firewood that's wet? Watered lamp oil?
A cartman? A boatman? A second wife? Skunks?
Mosquitoes? Lice? Blue flies? Rats? Thieving monks!
Ahh! Monks! Priests! You are thieving brigands, every one of you. When I say brigand priest, I mean the 'silent illumination Zennists' who now infest the land.

Even as a child, Hakuin was passionately concerned with the great matter of birth and death. One day his mother took him to hear the sermons of a priest of the Nichiren sect. Hakuin vividly recalls the occasion:

We heard him describe in graphic detail, the torments of the eight burning hells. He had every knee in the audience quaking. Their livers froze in icy fear. I was only a small child, but I was surely no exception. My whole body shook with mortal terror.

When I went to bed that night, even in the security of my mother's bosom my mind was in a terrible turmoil. I lay awake sobbing miserably all night, my eyes choked with tears.

Hakuin fell asleep only when his mother promised to tell him the next day how to deal with this matter. Her recommendation was always to venerate the diety of the Kitano Shrine, a Shinto Temple in Kyoto. Hakuin applied himself assiduously to this practice. His faith in the Kitano diety was shaken, however, on an occasion when he had accidentally shot an arrow through a prized painting in his parents' household. All his prayers to Tenjin, the deity, failed to keep this misdeed from his mother's attention. Then Hakuin added prayers to Kannon (Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion) to his arsenal, as he had heard that this Bodhisattva was the most responsive to human prayers, and the most likely to intervene to save him from hell.

Eventually he realized the futility of these attempts to stave off the flames of hell. He described his situation as follows:

All this sutra-recitation doesn't seem to be doing me much good, despite all the time and effort I put into it. I'm even bothered by the heat of moxa-treatment.

Shortly after this time, a troupe of puppeteers arrived in the area. Hakuin saw a piece called "The Kettle Hat of Nisshin Shonin", in which the Shogun (the military ruler of Japan) puts a question to the priest Nisshin. He asks, "Do people who practice reciting the Lotus Sutra find burning fire hot?" The priest replied in the negative, at which point the Shogun put it to the test -- a ploughshare was heated in a fire and clamped around under Nisshin's arms, and a red-hot cauldron was put over his head. Nisshin remained unperturbed.

Hakuin was thoroughly impressed. He began to think that if one were such a priest, even the flames of hell could be escaped. He therefore resolved to become a priest, and left home at fourteen. He was ordained by Soduko Fueki, better known as Nyoka Roshi, and served him as an attendant between his fourteenth and eighteenth years.

At the age of eighteen, Hakuin happened to read the biography of Zen Master Ganto Zenkatzu (Chinese, Yen-t'ou Ch'uan-huo, 828-887). Ganto lived during Emperor Wu's persecution of Buddhism in China, during which many monks and nuns were forcibly returned to lay status. Ganto continued his teaching as a layman, living as a ferryman at Lake Tung-ting in Hunan Province. He was murdered by bandits, and it was said that his death cries were so loud that they could be heard for miles around.

The story caused Hakuin great distress. After all, Ganto was the kind of priest so people said, who appeared only once in five hundred years.  If such a one could meet such a fate while alive, how could he hope to avoid hellfire after death. Hakuin was thrown into a torment. He described it thus:

For a full three days I lay tossing restlessly on my bedding, tormented by these thoughts. I began to waste away, slowly starving there in the monks' quarters. Not so much as a rice-grain would pass my craving throat. It lasted five unbearable days, and through it all, I could not for the life of me drive those burning hell-fires from my mind.

Hakuin decided to abandon the Buddhist life, resigning himself to hell, and began to study literature and calligraphy. He continued in these endeavors for some years, when all at once, sitting alone by himself, it suddenly dawned on him that even should his works exceed those of the greatest poets, death still awaited him. He was once again plunged into profound despair.

He remained in this state for some time, until, one day, he suddenly noticed an old collection of books at the far end of a porch on which he was sitting. At the sight of the books he was inexplicably filled with great joy. He made a prayer to the Buddhas, imploring them to show him (by means of the books) the way out of his misery, if indeed there was such a way. He approached the bookshelf, closed his eyes and chose a book at random. The book he chose was the Zekan Sakushin ("Spurring Students to Break Through the Zen Barrier"), and he opened it to a passage which was to change his life, a description of the difficult sadhana of Zen Master Jimyo:

The freezing weather had frightened away all other practitioners. But Jimyo's aspiration was set firmly on the practice of the Way. He did zazen continuously. As he sat through the long nights, whenever he felt sleepy, he would jab himself in the thigh with a gimlet. Afterwards he succeeded Fun 'yo. His vigorous spirit enlivened the Zen world of his time. He became known as "the lion west of the river."

Now Hakuin resolved to resume the Buddhist life and to practice with the same profound intention as Master Jimyo.

During the next few years, however, Hakuin remained preoccupied with the issue of the murdered priest Ganto's vulnerability. He went searching for a Teacher. At a certain point, disappointed after a long trek with yet another teacher who proved not to be a true Master, he locked himself in a small shrine-room, vowing to fast for a week and resolve the matter for himself. Then, suddenly, at midnight, a distant bell chimed, and, as Hakuin put it, "my mind and body dropped completely away. I transcended even the finest dust." Hakuin saw that he himself was Ganto, untouched by any conditional transformation, and cried out, "Old Ganto is alive and well!"

This realization filled Hakuin with great pride—such an insight, he thought, had been had by none for perhaps hundreds of years. To his mind, "All the people I saw seemed like so much dirt." He traveled from teacher to teacher, hoping for instant certification as a Zen Master. The teachers, however, unanimously told him that he was far from fully realized. Somewhat humbled, he came to Dokyo Etan, or Shoju Rojin, the "old man of Shaju". Shoju was a harsh Master and gave no quarter in his treatment of Hakuin. Hakuin describes a typical sanzen (formal interview) with the Master:

I related my understanding to the Master one day during dokusan [another name for sanzen]. He said to me, "Commitnent to the study of Zen has to be a true commitment. What about the dog and the Buddha-nature [a famous Zen koan]?"

"There's no way at all for hand or foot to touch it," I replied.

He suddenly reached out, grabbed my nose in his hand, and gave it a sharp push. "How's that for a firm touch!" he declared. I was incapable of moving forward. I couldn't retreat. I couldn't spit out a single syllable.

After that, I was totally disheartened and frustrated. I sat red-eyed and miserable. My cheeks burned from the constant tears.

Hakuin had been brought up against his superficial approach to truth. Hakuin continues: 

 I resumed my practice. I didn't stop for sleep. The Master came and shouted abuse at me. I was doing "Zen-down-a-hole," he said. Then he told me, 'You could go out and scour the whole world for a teacher who could raise up the fortunes of 'closed-door' Zen [i.e. Shoju's peerless Zen, open only to serious aspirants], but you'll never find one. You'd as soon see the morning star at noon."

Continually confronted and abused, Hakuin began to doubt his Teacher.

I reasoned, "There are great monasteries all over the place. Celebrated Masters reside in them - they're numerous as sesame or flax. That old man in his wretched ramshackle old poorhouse of a temple - and that preposterous pride of his! I'd be better off leaving here for some other temple."

Still deeply dejected, I took up my begging bowl early the next morning and went into the village below Iayama Castle. My mind was hard at work on my koans. It never left them. I stood before the gate of a house, my bowl in hand, lost in a kind of trance.

A voice within yelled, "Go on! Go somewhere else!" But I was so preoccupied I didn't even notice it. This must have angered the resident of the house, because she suddenly appeared, flourishing a broom upside down in her hand. She flew at me flailing out wildly, whacking away at my head as if she was bent on dashing my brains out. My sedge hat lay in tatters. I was knocked down and ended heels up on the ground. I lost consciousness and lay there like a dead man.

As I regained consciousness, my eyes opened, and as they did, I found that the unsolvable and impenetrable koans I had been working on —all those pointed cat's paws—were completely penetrated. Right to the root. They had suddenly ceased to exist. I clapped my hands and laughed great shouts of laughter, frightening the people who had gathered around me.

"He's lost his mind." "A crazy monk," they shouted, and shrank back from me. They turned and and ran off without looking back.

Hakuin returned to the hermitage, full of joy. The Master was standing on the porch; he took one look at Hakuin and said, "I see that something good has happened to you. Try to tell me about it."  Hakuin related the story to him, at which point the old Master took his fan, stroked Hakuin's back and said:

"I hope you live to be my age. Firmly resolve not to be satisfied with little, and devote your efforts now to after-satori practice. Those who content themsves with small attainment never advance beyond the stage of the shravakas. . . . If after your satori, your practice is devoted singlemindedly to the extracting and disposing of the poison teeth and talons of the Cave of Dharma . . . then you will be a true and legitimate descendant of the Buddha-patriarchs.''

Some time after this, Hakuin received news that Nyoka Roshi, the priest whom he had served as an attendant in his teenage years, was bedridden with a serious illness. So after only eight months, he took his leave of Shoju, and returned home to take care of his old teacher.

Hakuin was never to see Shoju again. He had visited teachers before, and would visit others later, but Shoju was the Master of his heart, and he would never cease to be grateful to him in later life. Consider Hakuin's poignant description of his departure from Shoju Fojin - no doubt is possible about Hakuin's heart-relationship with Shoju. He writes these words fifty years later, and yet the tears have scarcely dried on his cheeks:

They walked along with us for a couple of leagues, until we reached the foothills of the high mountains. At that point, the mountain path rose steep and rugged, making it impossible for the old roshi to continue any farther.

After words of encouragement had been exchanged, and we were about to part, the Master took my hand in his. He said to me, with fatherly familiarity, "If you continue your practice and go on to produce men like yourself, you will repay in full measure your profound debt to the Buddhas and Patriarchs. . . . Throw aside all connections with the world's dust, however slight. Vow never to give them the least concern. If you have a chance, come back and visit my small hermitage and bring your questions with you."

He had already finished speaking and was gone. But I was still bowed down in reverence, my forehead pressed to the earth.  As I began to ascend the winding mountain path that took me farther and farther away from him, my eyes were filled with tears.

Two years after he left Shoju, Hakuin suffered from a serious "Zen sickness", a collapse brought on by his strenuous practice. He consulted physicians without avail, and finally visited the hermit Hakuyushi, who instructed him in Taoist conductivity practices which restored his health.

Because of this experience, Hakuin was particularly solicitous of the health of his monks and wrote extensively and explicitly about the importance of maintaining the vital center, as, for example, in the following passage:

The vital breath must always be made to fill the space between the navel and the loins .... This area should be pendulous and well rounded, somewhat like a new ball that has yet to be used. If a person is able to acquire this kind of breath concentration, he can sit in meditation all day long without it ever tiring him .... On the hottest day of summer, he will never perspire.... On the snowiest night of deepest winter he need not wear socks.

Hakuin ascribed his own enormous vitality to this practice, and frequently refers to Hakuyushi in his writings and lectures. He writes later in life:

Even though 1 am past seventy now, my vitality is ten times as great as when I was thirty or forty.... I find no difficulty in refraining from sleep for two, three, even seven days, without suffering any decline in my mental powers .... I am quite convinced that all this is due to the power gained from practicing this method of introspection.

Hakuin always made it clear that he was not advocating the practice of cultivating health for its own sake. He puts his case humorously, but also seriously, to a sick monk in his prescription of a "soft butter pill that removes all ills". The recipe is as follows:

One part of "the real aspect of things," one part each of "the self and all things" and "the realization that these are false," three parts of "the immediate realization of nirvana", two parts of "without desires," two or three parts of "the non-duality of activity and quietude," one and a half parts of sponge-gourd skin and one part of "the discarding of all delusion".  Steep these ingredients in the juice of patience for one night, dry in the shade and then mash. Season with a dash of prajna-paramita, then shape everything into a ball the size of a duck's egg and set it securely on your head.

Hakuin was twenty-four years old when he visited Hakuyushi. He continued to travel to various teachers to test and refine his understanding before settling at Shoin-ji in his native Hara in 1718. From that point on his fame began to spread; he attracted monks and lay disciples from far and wide. He wrote and taught with ceaseless energy for the next fifty years.

Hakuin's teaching style was fierce and unpredictable. He says one thing here, and contradicts it there. He never ceased to rail against the half-hearted Buddhism of his day and to exhort his monks to greater and greater efforts. His most famous characterization of his own work appears as a colophon on several of his self-portraits:

In the realm of the thousand buddhas
He is hated by the thousand buddhas;
Among the crowd of demons
He is detested by the crowd of demons.
He crushes the silent-illumination heretics of today,
And massacres the heterodox blind monks of this generation.
This filthy blind old shavepate
Adds more foulness still to foulness.

Hakuin demanded three things from his monks: great faith in the Teaching, a great "ball of doubt", that is, energetic application to the koan, and finally, great tenacity of purpose. As he said, "a man who lacks any of these is like a three-legged kettle with a broken leg. Of tenacity he has this to say:

At any rate, there is no worse thing than for the practitioner to treasure his body, give it value and pay it favor.... Even if surrounded by snakes and water spirits, a man, once he has determined to do something, must resolve to leave unfinished what he has started. No matter how cold or hungry he may be, he must bear it; no matter how much wind or rain may come, he must withstand it. Even if he must enter into the heart of fire or plunge to the bottom of icy water, he must open the eye that the Buddhas and Patriarchs have achieved, penetrate the essential meaning of the teaching and see through to the ultimate principle.

On January 18, 1769, Ekaku Hakuin Zenji went to sleep and abandoned the body at the age of eighty-three. He is said to have left over ninety enlightened heirs. A moribund tradition breathed life once again because of his ceaseless toil.

Hakuin urged all his students to find out the truth of Zen for themselves and not to rest content with the descriptions of others. In this ecstatic passage he speaks to a practitioner on the true meaning of the Lotus Sutra:

If you try to hold to the Lotus Sutra without seeing once the true Lotus, you will be like a man who holds a bowl of water in his hands and night and day tries to keep from spilling it or letting it move, but still expects to gain sustenance from it. The person who once sees the True Lotus is like the man who pours the bowl of water into all rivers and lakes. Spontaneously he leaps into the great sea of Nirvana of the various Buddhas, harmonizes deeply with the true Dharma Body and the precepts, meditation, and wisdom of the many Buddhas, at once shatters the dark cave of the alaya-consciousness, and releases the Illumination of the Great Perfect Mirror.... Rather than read all the works in the Tripitaka, 18 see the True Lotus once. Rather than make a million statues of the Buddha, see the True Lotus once. Rather than master the mysteries of the three worlds, see the True Lotus once.... Rather than recite the Lotus Sutra a billion times, see the True Lotus once with your own Dharma eye. This is truly a lofty statement of complete truth and indestructibility.

 


 

Some More Extracts from Hakuin's Autobiography, Wild Ivy.

On the evils of Modern "do-nothing" Zen .........

Alone in the hut, I thrust my spine up stiff and straight and sat right through until dawn. All through the night, the room was haunted by a terrifying demonic presence. Since I dislike having to swell the narrative with such details, however, I won't describe it here.

In the morning, I opened the rice pail, reached inside with my left hand, and grasped a fistful of the grains. I boiled these up into a bowl of gruel, which I ate in place of the two regular meals. I repeated the same routine each day. I wonder, was my regimen less demanding than National Master Muso's, with his half persimmon?
After a month of this life, I still hadn't experienced a single pang of hunger. On the contrary, my body and mind were both fired with a great surge of spirit and resolve. My nights were zazen. My days were sutra-recitation. I never let up. During this period, I experienced small satories and large satories in numbers beyond count. How many times did I jump up and jubilantly dance around, oblivious of all else! I no longer had any doubts at all about Ta-hui's talk of eighteen great satoris and countless small ones. How grievously sad that people today have discarded this way of kensho as if it were dirt!

As for sitting, sitting is something that should include fits of ecstatic laughter - brayings that make you slump to the ground clutching your belly. And when you struggle to your feet after the first spasm passes, it should send you kneeling to the earth in yet further contortions of joy.

But for the past hundred years, ever since the passing of National Master Gudo, advocates of the blind, withered-up, silent illumination Zen have appeared winthin the Rinzai, Soto, and Obaku schools. In spots all over the country, they band together, flicking their fingers comtemptuously, pishing and pughing: "Great satori eighteen times! Small satoris beyond count! Pah! It's ridiculous. If you're enlightened, you're enlightened. If you're not, you're not. For a human being, the severing of the life-root that frees you from the clutches of birth-and-death is the single great matter. How can you count the number of times it happens- as if it were a case of diarrhea!

"Ta-hui made statements like that because he was ignorant of the supreme, sublime Zen that is to be found at the highest reaches of attainment. Supreme Zen, at the highest reaches, does not belong to a dimension that human understanding of any kind can grasp or perceive. It is a matter of simply being Buddhas the way we are right now - 'covered bowls of plain unvarnished wood.' It is the state of great happiness and peace, the great liberation. Put a stop to all the chasing and hankering in your mind. Do not interfere or poke around after anytihng whatever. That mind-free state detatched from all thought is the complete and ultimate attainment."

These people, true to their words, do not do a single thing. They engage in no act of religious practice; they don't develop a shred of wisdom. They just waste their lives dozing idly away like comatose badgers, useless to their contemporaries while they live, completely forgottent after they die. They aren't capable of leaving behind even a syllable of their own to repay the profound debt they owe to the Buddha patriarchs.
 

***
 
 
Hakuin describes the doubts he had towards his teacher.......  

I reasoned, "there are great monasteries all over the place. Celebrated Masters reside in them - they're numerous as sesame or flax. That old man in his wretched ramshackle old poorhouse of a temple - and that preposterous pride of his! I'd be better off leaving here for some other temple."

Still deeply dejected, I took up my begging bowl early the next morning and went into the village below Iayama Castle. My mind was hard at work on my koans. It never left them. I stood before the gate of a house, my bowl in hand, lost in a kind of trance.

A voice within yelled, "Go on! Go somewhere else!" But I was so preoccupied I didn't even notice it. This must have angered the resident of the house, because she suddenly appeared, flourishing a broom upside down in her hand. She flew at me flailing out wildly, whacking away at my head as if she was bent on dashing my brains out. My sedge hat lay in tatters. I was knocked down and ended heels up on the ground. I lost consciousness and lay there like a dead man.

As I regained consciousness, my eyes opened, and as they did, I found that the unsolvable and impenetrable koans I had been working on --all those pointed cat's paws--were completely penetrated. Right to the root. They had suddenly ceased to exist. I clapped my hands and laughed great shouts of laughter, frightening the people who had gathered around me.

***

On letting go of the self to find one's buddha-nature....... 

We have nowhere to go but down - eventually we must all let go and jump - it is supposedly that act which propels us to the next level - to enlightenment. What would bring us to the this point - where we are willing to give up the self? Does the fall into the abyss always result in enlightenment? How would we know? What do we have to give up or suspend to make such a leap?

 

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