Hakuin was the greatest light of Rinzai Zen in Japan

HAKUIN (1685-1768) was the greatest light of Rinzai Zen in Japan. He universalized it and brought its flavour into the lives of ordinary people, and all the present lines of transmission run through him. The pattern of his spiritual life is thus of great importance in understanding Rinzai Zen. Yasenkanna (which can mean literally ‘idle talk in a boat at night’) is an account of a spiritual crisis and its solution, and a most illuminating Zen text. This and several other important works of Hakuin are in Japanese, accessible to the general public, whereas most Zen works of the time are in Chinese.

Hakuin left his home when he was fifteen in order to take up a religious life. At the time he had a great fear of the Buddhist hells. He studied the Lotus Sutra, the most important one for Japanese Buddhism, and his doubts crystallized round the Sutra, and also round the tragic death of a Chinese Zen master named Ganto. This master remained in his temple when others had fled before a gang of brigands; one of them ran a spear through him. Ganto’s expression did not change, but he gave a great cry as he died, which was heard for miles. Hakuin was thrown into depression by meditating on the event; if even Ganto, the spiritual genius of his age, could not save himself from death at the hands of the brigand, how could an ordinary seeker like Hakuin hope to escape from hell? (The Dentoroku Zen history says that the teacher Ganto had always told his disciples: ‘When I go, I shall go with a great shout’ – a fact which may or may not have been noticed by Hakuin.)

He considered giving up Zen and devoting himself to poetry. It chanced one day that he saw the books of a temple library being brought out into the sun for the annual airing, which is the custom in Japan. He closed his eyes and walked towards the piled-up books, extending two fingers so that he should pick up just one. When he examined it he found he was holding a Zen book, and opening it at random he came on a passage relating how Abbot Jimyo, sitting long hours in meditation when the rest were all asleep, was invaded by the demon of sleep. The Abbot drove a gimlet into his thigh in order to keep awake.

Hakuin found new inspiration in this revelation, and practised meditation-sitting assiduously. After a very hard life for some four years he was at the Eiganji temple, meditating at night on the Koan ‘Mu’ and in the day listening to the teacher’s sermons on human and divine vision. When the course of lectures ended, Hakuin went quite alone to meditate day and night. After some days he passed into a state beyond thought and concept. Hakuin’s writings repeatedly refer to this kind of experience; he compares it to being inside a diamond or a jar of lapis-lazuli, or sitting frozen to death in a field of ice. On the evening of the tenth day, the distant sound of a temple bell seemed to reverberate in his ears like the rushing of a flood, and the trance was broken. He had a flash of realization, and found that he himself was Ganto, with not a hair-tip harmed passing through the three worlds. He shouted: ‘Why, the world is not something to be avoided, nor is Nirvana something to be sought after!’

This realization he presented to the Abbot and some fellow disciples but they did not give unqualified assent to it. He however burned with absolute conviction, and thought to himself that surely for centuries no one had known such a joy as was his. He was then twenty-four. In his autobiographical writings, Hakuin warns Zen students with peculiar earnestness against this pride of assurance.

A disciple of the teacher Shoju recommended him to seek in that quarter, and he came under the hammer of a master who utterly smashed his self-satisfaction. After three years of harsh treatment, trying to grasp the ‘Mu’ and later another Koan, he one day passed into a state of meditation while standing in the street. An old woman struck him on the head with a broom, and as his trance broke he again had the great joy. His Koan was clear to him. Rushing home, he was received by the teacher with the words: ‘You are through.’ He had a dream in which his mother, to whom he had been devoted, told him that as a result of his spiritual merits she had attained a Buddhist paradise.

Hakuin classes this as a great satori. Soon afterwards he left to attend on a  former teacher who had fallen ill. Shoju (who died afterwards and whom he never saw again) warned him not to be satisfied with a small thing but to perform the ‘practice after Satori.’ He also told him to try to make one or two good Zen students, and not to hope for more.
Though the realization is accounted a great satori, and approved by the teacher, Hakuin later found that he still had some doubts about the Lotus Sutra, and that he could not disentangle the ‘Five Ranks’ (Koans) of Tozan. Tozan was one of the founders of the Soto sect in China; the Five Ranks are not so much favoured in the Japanese Soto sect because Dogen believed that they tend to lead to mere dialectics, but the Rinzai take them as the basis for high Koans. Hakuin studied them under a senior disciple of Shoju.

There followed another great crisis, which is the subject-matter of Yasenkanna.
When that was over, Hakuin for several years practised meditation in isolation, under conditions of extreme austerity, as his practice after satori. He was now full of extraordinary energy of body and mind. He was studying the Sutras, and the phrase is quoted: ‘the ancient teachings illumine the heart, and the heart illumines the ancient teachings.’ Hakuin records that several times he heard a music in the sky which continued until he recognized it as in his own mind, when it abruptly ceased. Another time he found himself overwhelmed by fear, which he finally managed to dissipate through the meditation: ‘By what is this fear experienced?’

He became a teacher at the tumbledown temple of Shoinji, with only a single disciple. Slowly others were attracted to him. In his forty-first year he was undertaking a meditation retreat in a private room behind the temple, reading the Lotus scripture by day and contemplating all night. He had another dream about his mother. This time he dreamt that she had given him a magnificent purple robe. The sleeves were heavy, and in them he found two mirrors, the right-hand one flawless and brilliant, but the other, in the left sleeve, dull like the bottom of a saucepan. As he took this second one in  his hand, it suddenly blazed with light, outshining the first a million times. ‘After this,’ relates Hakuin, ‘looking at the things of the world was like looking at my own face, and for the first time I understood how it is the Buddha-eye that sees the Buddha-nature.’

The next year he was sitting at night reading the Lotus Sutra when there came the sound of a cricket chirping. Suddenly he found he had penetrated into the uttermost depths of the Sutra. The meaning of the ordinary daily life of his teacher Shoju was revealed, and he saw he had been mistaken over his great satori realizations. This time there was no great reaction in the body-mind instrument.

In the biographical writings summarized above, we see that Hakuin passed through several spiritual crises, some of them Koan riddles given formally by a teacher and others personal to him. More than once he had an apparently conclusive satori but found himself mistaken. The final problem turned on doubts about the Lotus scripture, and also perhaps about the daily life of his old teacher Shoju.

Hakuin’s disciple Torei, in his biography of the teacher, divides the life so far into three sections: first, up to the great satori which centred on Master Ganto, and which took place when Hakuin was twenty-four; second, from twenty-four to twenty-eight, the training under Shoju which ended in a satori resolving the great Koan given by Shoju; third, from twenty-eight to forty-two. The third period begins with the events narrated in Yasenkanna, and includes several great satoris, at least one of them connected with the ‘Five Ranks.’ It ends with satori-realization of the profoundest meaning of the Lotus scripture. Everything up to this point is classified by Torei as activity of the nature of Cause; only after this begins the activity of the nature of Effect, continuing till the death of the master at the age of eighty-four.

Yasenkanna is the history of a Zen crisis written from within, so to say. The Zen illness there described arises from excitement and pride in a satori which is in fact only partial, coupled with the struggle involved in breaking down the conceit of self. The cure consists of psycho-physical exercises called collectively Nai-kan (inner contemplation, literally inward-looking), which Hakuin recommends to his pupils along with their Zen-kan (Zen contemplation) or Ri-kan (truth-contemplation), as two wheels of a chariot or two wings of a bird. In a number of his works he emphasizes the Naikan practices and they are an important element in his thought.

There are problems connected with the chronology of Yasenkanna which need not distract the reader primarily interested in Zen. The existence of Master Hakuyu is established, and specimens of his calligraphy exist. His method of Naikan is mentioned by the famous Soto Zen monk Ryokan (1756-1831), a great poet and calligrapher, who for a long time lived as a penniless vagrant. He writes that since practising the method of Master Hakuyu he no longer feels the winter’s cold.

The atmosphere, and to some extent the ideal, of the main Yasenkanna text is Taoist. The Sennin is a mountain hermit living in retirement and knowing the secrets of immortality and of many psychic powers. In the preface, which is an important part of the document, the emphasis is shifted; it is ostensibly by a disciple of Hakuin, but strongly resembles the accounts of Naikan given in other works of Hakuin himself, and must in fact be by him.

There are numerous references to Chinese classics, whose immense prestige was almost always invoked when presenting ideas in Japan. The allusions to the ancient Book of Change require a note. The book is based on sixty-four hexagrams, in which an unbroken line stands for Yang, the positive light principle, and a broken line for Yin, the negative and dark. The hexagrams themselves are made up of two trigrams, each with its own meaning. For instance hexagram No. 24 consists of  2 or Earth, with a line below it  which stands for Thunder. The whole hexagram thus is interpreted as thunder in the earth, and in divination is an omen of return. The related season is winter, when below the earth the new life is latent. The hexagram is alluded to in our text as ‘five Yins [i.e. broken lines] and one Yang below [whole line] below.’ Similarly No.11 has Earth 2 above and Heaven 6 below, that is: a mingling which is interpreted as harmony. The hexagram is described in the words ‘three Yins above and three Yangs below’. This explanation should resolve for the reader the apparent confusion in the number of Yins and Yangs. Some other allusions to Chinese authorities will mean little to a Western reader; in certain cases I have compressed several names into some phrase like ‘sages of medicine’.

In Chinese alchemy, the elixir of immortality is Tan. The word was used also in a psycho-physical sense and in a mystical sense. The field of the elixir is the Tanden, one inch below the navel. In this region also is the energy-sea, variously held either to be near or to include the Tanden. Concentration on the Tanden is a widespread doctrine in Far Eastern Buddhism and in disciplines influenced by it.

Another important technical term is Ki, which originally meant air; in this text it has its secondary meaning, something akin to vital energy. When the notion comes to move the hand, that is a function of Shin or heart; when the movement is initiated, that is a function of Ki. When Ki is sluggish or out of harmony, the movements are clumsy and hesitant. Cultivation of Ki, and especially unification of Ki and Shin with a view to producing spontaneity of movement, was much studied by fencers and others in Japan.
Phrases like ‘metal of the lungs’ refer to the distribution of the classical five Elements (fire, water, wood, metal and earth) among the five organs (heart, liver, etc.). The implications of the system are not important in following the text.
The So cream mentioned in the text was the purest of aliment; it was the food of the Sennin.
In some editions of Yasenkanna there is a second part, which is a letter developing the analogy between bodily health and the well-being of a country. It contains little of interest regarding Hakuin’s spiritual development and is not translated here.

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