Yasenkanna an autobiographical narrative by Zen Master Hakuin

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.

The Preface
By a disciple, Cold Starveling, Master of Poverty Temple

In the year 1757, from a certain bookseller in the capital came to us a letter addressed to the personal attendants of Master Hakuin. After the usual greetings it said: ‘I have heard that among the Master’s papers there is a manuscript called Yasenkanna or some such title. In it is gathered together the lore of training Ki-energy, invigorating the spirit and fortifying the citadel, and in particular the alchemy of the Tan-elixir of the Sennin. To us dabblers in the world without, such news is a rainbow in a drought. We know that occasionally a copy is given privately to a student disciple, but they keep it as a secret treasure and never show it to others. So it is wasted, heavenly nectar locked away in the bookchest. What I now ask is new life to those bent with age, and relief to those that thirst. I have always heard that the Master makes it his delight to benefit the people, and this being of benefit to the people, why should the teacher begrudge it?’

The two tigers took this letter and presented it to the teacher, who smiled a little. But when we opened the bookchest some of the manuscript had been devoured by worms, only the middle part remaining. We completed it from our own private copies, the whole coming to some fifty pages. It has been bound and is ready to be sent to the capital. As senior by a day to the other disciples, the task of writing an introduction has fallen to me, and without more ado I begin it.

The teacher has been living at Shoinji Temple a good forty years. Since he set up there, disciples have been coming. When they had crossed the threshold, the teacher’s stinging words became sweet to them, and his blows were felt as kindness. They never thought of taking their leave; some for ten and some for twenty years, some dying – to become the dust under the branches of the temple pines – they never looked back. They were spiritual heroes and a glory to the world. For miles to the east and west, all the old houses and abandoned dwellings, ancient temples and ruined tombs, became lodging and abode for these pure ascetics.

Distress in the morning and hardship at even, starving by day and freezing at night, for food only raw vegetables and cornmeal; in their ears the master’s blistering shouts and abuse, piercing their bones his furious fist and stick; at what they saw their foreheads furrowed, at what they heard their skins asweat. Angels would have shed tears and demons joined their palms in supplication. At the beginning fair to look on as Sogyoku or Ka-an, skin radiant and glistening with health, soon their form emaciated and face drawn, like the poets Toho or Koto, or like Kutsugen when he faced catastrophe at the Takuhan river. How would any have been held a moment longer, except the most valiant in the quest, who begrudged neither health nor life itself? But often the training became too much and the austerities excessive, so that their lungs were benumbed and their humours dried, with persistent pains and swelling in the abdomen, and chronic illnesses appearing.

Seeing that such sufferings were beyond even heroic endurance, the teacher turned down from the heights and pressed out the milk of mercy by giving them the secret of Naikan or inner contemplation. He said; ‘When true students are pursuing the Way, the heart-fire may rush up to the head; body and mind become exhausted and the five organs lose their harmony. Against this condition not all the needles and cautery and drugs of the master doctors of China avail.  But with me is the secret of the circulation of the Tan-elixir of the Sennin, the immortal mountain sages.

Do you now make trial of it. You will feel the clouds and mists part and the sun appear in splendour.
‘To practise the secret, for a while lay down the meditation practice and drop your Koan. The first thing is, that you must experience deep sleep. And before you shut your eyes to enter that sleep, stretch both legs right out and press them strongly together. Bring your whole vital energy to fill the energy-sea at the navel, the Tanden elixir-field, and the hips and legs and so right down to the soles of the feet. Again and again you must make this imagination:

This the energy-sea, the Tanden, hips and legs down to the soles, all is full of my Original Face.

What nostril would there be on that Face?

This the energy-sea, the Tanden, is full of my true Home.

What letter [needed] from that Home?

This the energy-sea, the Tanden, is full of my Pure Land of consciousness-only.

What outer pomp for that Pure Land?

This the energy-sea, the Tanden, is full of the Amida Buddha of this heart and body.

What dharma would that Amida be preaching?

So repeating again and again, continuously make the mental pictures as described. As the practice begins to take effect, the hips and legs and right down to the soles will spontaneously become filled with Ki-energy. The abdomen below the navel will become rounded like a gourd or the smooth surface of a ball. If you again and again vividly make the visualization in this way, after five or seven or at most twenty-one days from the five organs and six auxiliaries the exhaustion and fatigue and illnesses will be altogether swept away, and health will be restored. And if it be not so, you may cut off his head.’

All the disciples joyfully made salutations and set to practising the method in their own quarters. Everyone remarked a marvellous effect. The result depended on how well they did the practice, but most of them recovered completely. All the time we were telling each other about the miraculous effect of the Naikan.
The teacher said: ‘O disciples, do not take it as enough just to recover from illness. The healthier you are, the more you must apply yourselves to spiritual practice; the more satori you get, the more you must press on. When I first entered on the path, I contracted a grave and refractory illness, whose agony was ten times what any of you have experienced. Desperate as I was, I came to feel that rather than live in such extreme misery it would be better to die quickly and throw off this sack of a body. But by great fortune I came to receive the secret of the Naikan, and recovered completely just as you have done.

‘The Perfect Man [Hakuyu] told me: “This is the divine art of prolonging life possessed by the immortal Sennin. The lesser result is a life of three centuries, and as to the greater, it cannot be calculated.” I myself rejoiced exceedingly when I heard it, and unflaggingly practised for some three years. I felt my mind and body steadily recover and my vitality steadily became vigorous. At this point I pondered again and again within myself: suppose by this practice I can keep alive even eight centuries as did the patriarch Ho, yet it is only a prolonged emptiness, a preserved corpse void of intelligence, like an old fox hibernating in some ancient lair, only to die in the end. For how is it that today, of the company of the immortals Kakko, Tekkai, Choka, Hicho, not one is ever seen? Better to take the four universal vows, to devote myself to the glorious Bodhisattva path and practise the great dharma; am I to lose the body of Truth, which never dies even as space itself, in order to attain the imperishable diamond body of the Sennin?
‘When I came here, I had by me one or two real inquirers, to whom I taught the Naikan and the Zen inquiry together. There was spiritual training and there was spiritual warfare, but in these thirty years new disciples have been coming in ones and twos each year, till today there are nearly two hundred of them. Some among them, exhausted and bowed with the training, had the heart-fire mounting to the head till they went almost mad with it, and I was moved to pass on to them privately the method of Naikan. They were cured then and there, and then with each enlightenment I urged them on more and more.
‘I myself am now past seventy but have no trace of illness. My teeth are all sound, and over the clearness of sight and hearing never more than the slightest passing cloud. At the end of the regular fortnightly preaching of the dharma in the temple I feel no fatigue. I am asked from outside to lecture to groups of three to five hundred, and to expound the Sutras for periods of seven to ten weeks; I speak forcibly and directly, and altogether have given fifty or sixty such courses. Never did I miss a single day. I am well in body and mind, and my energy has gradually come far to surpass what it was at the age of twenty or thirty. Such is my own experience of the Naikan.’

We disciples made reverence with tears in our eyes at the greatness of what we had received from the teacher. We asked for permission to make a permanent record in book form of a summary of the method, that future disciples might be preserved from physical collapse. The teacher nodded, and the draft was at once prepared.
Now what does the book teach? It is this: the essential thing in replenishing the vitality and lengthening life is to invigorate the frame; the essential thing in invigorating the frame is to concentrate the spirit-energy at the Tanden in the energy-sea just below the navel. When the spirit is concentrated, the Ki-energy accumulates; when the Ki accumulates, the true Tan-elixir forms. When the elixir forms, the frame becomes firm; when the frame becomes firm the spirit is whole; when the spirit is whole the life is prolonged. This is the secret of the nine elixir-cycles of the Sennin. It must be understood that the elixir is not something external – the Tan is simply a question of taking the heart-fire downward to fill the Tanden below the navel. If students apply themselves to this essential point without falling away, the Zen illness will be cured and the body will be free from fatigue. Moreover, you will attain your Zen aspiration, and in years to come, entering the Great Questioning, will in the end be clapping your hands and laughing for joy. How so? As the moon rises, the castle shadows disappear.


When as a beginner I entered on the Way, I vowed to practise with heroic faith and indomitable spirit. After a mere three years of strenuous effort, suddenly one night the moment came, when all my old doubts melted away down to their very roots. The age-old Karma-root of birth-and-death was erased utterly. I thought to myself: ‘The way is never distant. Strange that the ancients spoke of twenty or thirty years, whereas I …’ After some months lost in dancing joy, I looked at my life. The spheres of activity and stillness were not at all in harmony; I found I was not free to either take up a thing or leave it. I thought: ‘Let me boldly plunge again into spiritual practice and once more throw away my life in it.’ Teeth clenched and eyes aglare, I sought to free myself from food and sleep. Before a month had passed the heart-fire mounted to my head, my lungs were burning but my legs felt as if freezing in ice and snow. In my ears was a rushing sound as of a stream in a valley. My courage failed and I was in an attitude of constant fear. I felt spiritually exhausted, night and day seeing dreams, my armpits always wet with sweat and my eyes full of tears. I cast about in every direction, consulting famous teachers and doctors, but all their devices availed nothing at all.

Someone told me: ‘In the mountains of the place called White-River, beyond the capital, there is one who dwells in the heights, know to the people as Master Hakuyu. He is believed to be over two hundred years old, and he lives there several miles from human habitation. He does not like to see people, and if they go he will run away and conceal himself. Men do not know whether to think him a sage or a madman, but the villagers believe him to be a Sennin, one of the mountain immortals. They say he was once the teacher of Ishikawa Jozan, deeply versed in the science of the stars and the lore of medicine. Occasionally to a seeker who went in true reverence he has vouchsafed a word, which when pondered afterwards was of great benefit.’

So in the middle of January 1710, I quietly put together some travelling things, left Mino and crossed Black-Valley, finally coming to the village of White-River. Putting down my bundle in a teashop, I asked the whereabouts of the hermitage of Hakuyu. A villager directed me to a mountain stream in the far distance. I followed the rushing water, which took me to a remote mountain valley. Following straight up for a couple of miles, I found that it suddenly disappeared. There was no path and I was at a loss; unable to go on, I stood in dismay. Helplessly I sat down on a stone to one side, and with closed eyes and joined palms repeated a Sutra. As if by a miracle there came to my ears a distant sound of blows of an axe; pursuing the sound deeply into the trees, I came upon a woodcutter. The old man pointed towards the far-off mountain mists, and I made out a tiny patch of yellowish white, now concealed and now revealed by the movement of the haze – ‘that is the reed curtain which hangs before the mouth of the cave of Master Hakuyu.’ At once I tucked in my clothes and began to climb, now over steep rocks, now pushing through mountain grasses; my sandals soaked with snow and ice were freezing, and my clothes wet through with mist and dew. As I toiled on the sweat poured down, but gradually I came up to the place of the reed curtain. The exquisite purity of the landscape made me feel I had left the world of men. A dread shook my heart and soul, and I was shivering as if stripped naked.

I seated myself on a rock for a while an counted my breath up to some hundreds. Then I straightened and tidied my dress and went forward with reverent awe. Peering through the reed curtain, I dimly made out the form of Master Hakuyu, seated in meditation posture with his eyes closed. His hair streaked with white fell to his knees, his beautiful complexion was full and clear. A quilted cloth was thrown round him and his seat was a bed of tuft grass. The cave was small, barely six foot square. There were no provisions of any kind, but on a low table three books: the Doctrine of the Mean, the classic of Lao Tzu, and the Diamond Sutra.

After making many salutations, I quietly related the course of my illness and asked for help. In a little he opened his eyes and looked at me keenly. He said slowly: ‘I am just an ordinary man living out the rest of my life in the mountains. I gather chestnuts for food and sleep in company with the tame deer. What do I know about anything else? I am only sorry that the journey in expectation of a holy man should have been in vain…’ I again and again repeated my reverences and my request. Then he quietly took my hand, made a careful examination of my condition and inspected the bodily openings. His long-nailed fingers smoothed his forehead in a gesture of sympathy: ‘Your condition is pitiable. By contemplating on truth too strenuously, you have lost the rhythm of spiritual advance, and that has finally brought on a grievous malady. And it is something very hard to cure, this Zen illness of yours. Though the sages of medicine frown over your case and put forth all their skill with needle and cautery and drugs, yet would they be helpless. You have been broken by your contemplation on truth (Ri-kan), and unless you devote yourself to inner contemplation (Nai-kan) you can never recover. There is a saying that you rise by means of that same ground on which you fell, and the Naikan method is and example of that principle.’

I said: ‘Be gracious enough to tell me the secret of the Naikan, and I will practise in the temple.’
His face became solemn, his appearance changed and he began to speak slowly: ‘So. You are a real seeker. Shall I pass on to you a little of what I heard long ago? It is the secret of replenishing life, and those who know it are few. If you practise it without falling away, you will surely see a marvellous effect in yourself, and it may well be that you will never close your eyes in death.’

‘The great Way (Tao) dividing itself, there are the two principles Yin and Yang, by whose mingling in harmony are born men and things. In man the primal Ki-energy moves silently in the centre, and the five organs range themselves and the pulse moves. The supporting Ki-energy and the nourishing blood move in a circulation, rising and falling, about fifty cycles in the course of one day and night. The lungs, under the metal sign, are feminine and float above the diaphragm. The heart – fire – is the sun, the great Yang, with its place above, and the kidneys – water – are the great Yin, occupying the lower place. In the five organs are seven divinities, the spleen and the kidneys having each two.

The outbreath goes from the heart and lungs, the inbreath comes to the kidneys and liver. With each outbreath the pulse current advances three inches, and at each inbreath another three. In a day and night there are 13,500 breaths and the pulse makes the circuit of the body fifty times. Fire is light and buoyant, ever inclined to ascend; water is heavy and always tends downwards.
‘If you do not know these things, your efforts at contemplation lose the rhythm and the will becomes over-extended; then the heart-fire blazing up strikes the metal of the lungs which is scorched and impaired. As the metal mother (lungs) suffers, the water child (kidneys) decays and dies. Parent and child are injured, all five organs are afflicted and the six auxiliaries oppressed. The elements losing their harmony produce a hundred and one diseases. Against this condition all remedies lose their power, and though every art of medicine be enlisted, in the end they can claim no success.

‘Replenishing the life is in fact like looking after a kingdom. The bright lord, the sage ruler, always concentrates his heart on those below; the dull lord, the ordinary ruler, is always letting his heart go upward as it wills. And when it flies up at its own will, the great nobles become overbearing and the minor officials rely on special favours, and no one of them ever looks down at the misery of the masses. In the country the peasants are emaciated, the land starves, the people die. Wisdom and virtue hide themselves and the masses are full of resentment and hate. The nobles become independent and rebellious, and strife arises with barbarian enemies. The people are reduced to the last extremity; the life-pulse of the country becomes sluggish and finally extinct.

‘But when the ruler concentrates his heart downwards, the great nobles check their ostentation, the minor officials carry out their duties, and the labour of the people never goes unrewarded. The farmers have abundant crops and their women clothes; many wise men are attracted into service with the ruler, the retainers are respectful and obedient, the people prosperous and the country strong. None within conspires to defeat the law, and no enemy attacks the frontiers. The country does not hear the sound of war and the people need know nothing of weapons.
‘It is just so with the human body. The perfect man always keeps the lower regions filled with his heart-energy; when the heart energy is thus made full downwards, the seven ills find no place within and assaults from without find no weak point. The body is vigorous and robust and the heart-spirit sound. So the mouth never knows the taste of medicines, sweet or bitter, the body never has to undergo the pains of cautery and needle. But the ordinary man takes the heart-energy always freely upwards, and when it thus mounts as it likes, the (heart) fire on the left overcomes the (lung) metal on the right, the senses dwindle and fail and the six auxiliaries are oppressed and lose their harmony. So it is that Shitsuen says: “The true man breathes his breath from the heels, the ordinary man breathes his breath from the throat.”

Kyoshun says: “When the Ki is in the lower region, the breath is long; when it is in the upper region, the breath is contracted.” Joyoshi says: “In man the energy is verily one alone. When it goes down to the Tanden, the Yang reacts, and the beginning of the reaction in the form of Yang can be confirmed by a feeling of warmth.” The general rule for replenishing the life is that the upper regions should always be cool and the lower regions warm.

‘The pulses of the body are twelve-branched, corresponding to the twelve months of the year and the twelve periods of the day. So also the Book of Change has its six seasons, whose cycle of change makes up the year. In this system, when five Yins are above and one Yang is held below, the omen is Thunder in the earth returning. The reference is to the depth of winter, and this is what is meant by the true man’s breathing from the heels. When three Yangs are in the lower position and three Yins above, it is Earth and Heaven in harmony, the season of the new year when everything is imbued with life-bearing energy and plants receive the abundance for the spring blossoming. This represents the perfect man’s taking down his energy to fill the lower regions, and when a man attains it he is filled with heroic vigour. But when five Yins are below and one Yang remains above, it is Mountain and Earth stripped, the season of September. When it manifests in nature, forest and garden lose their colours and all the plants fade and fall. The ordinary man’s breathing from the throat is a symbol. In the human body it is a drying and stiffening of the frame, with the teeth becoming loose and falling. Of this condition the books on the prolonging life say that the six Yangs are all exhausted – in other words the man who is only Yin is near death. What has to be known is just this: the central principle is to take the life energy down to fill the lower regions.

‘In olden times Tokeisho purified himself before appearing in front of the teacher Sekidai to ask about the secret of distilling the Tan-elixir. The teacher said: “I have the secret of the great mystic elixir, but there is no transmission except to one of superior merit.” Again in antiquity, when Koseishi transmitted it to the Yellow Emperor, the Emperor had to perform purification for twenty-one days in order to be fit to receive it. Apart from the great Tao there is no elixir, and apart from the elixir no great Tao. Now there is a method of fivefold purification: when the six cravings are abandoned, and the five senses have forgotten their operation, you will dimly perceive filling you the life-energy, hard to distinguish. This is what the Taoist Taihaku meant when he said: “Through the divine energy in me to unite with the primal divine energy.”

‘Mencius speaks of the free energy in man. This is to be led to the Tanden in the energy-sea at the navelwheel and concentrated there; for months and years protect it and maintain the unity, nourish it and make it perfect. One morning that alchemist’s crucible will be transcended, and within and without and in the middle, in all directions and in everything, there will be the one great elixir circulating. Then at last you awaken and attain to the self, the true immortality of the great spiritual Sennin, which was not born even before heaven and earth were, which does not die even after space itself has ceased to exist. In the alchemy of the Tan-elixir this is the season of Fulfilment. Why do they cling to little psychic powers like riding on the wind and bestriding the mists, crushing the earth and walking on water, churning the ocean to produce the celestial So cream and transmuting clay into yellow gold? A sage has said: “The Tan-elixir is the Tanden, just below the navel. The secret alchemical liquid is that from the lungs, which is to be taken and returned to the Tanden.” So the teaching is, the metal liquid is the circulation of the Tan.’

I said: ‘With reverence I hear. I am to drop my Zen contemplation for a while, and cure myself by devoting my time to these new practices. I have one misgiving: may this not be what Rishisai condemns as falling into pure inertia? If the heart is held to one place, will not the Ki and the blood become stagnant?’
Hakuyu smiled a little and replied: ‘Not so. Does not Rishisai say that the nature of fire is to blaze up and therefore it should be taken down, whereas the nature of water is to sink and therefore it should be made to rise? Water ascending and fire descending, that is what he calls the mixing. When they are mixed the omen is Fulfilled; when they are unmixed the omen is Unfulfilled. The former is the sign of life, the latter the sign of death. The school of Rishisai condemns the so-called sinking into pure inertia in order to save students form falling into the error of Tankei (who cultivates only the Yin).

‘An ancient says: “The minister-fire tends to rise and oppress the body; remedy this with water which by nature controls fire.” The fire indeed is of dual nature, the prince-fire which is above and has charge of stillness, and the minister-fire which is below and has charge of activity. The prince-fire is the lord of the heart, the minister-fire is its servant. The minister-fire itself is dual, namely kidneys and liver. The liver is compared to thunder and the kidneys to dragons. So it is said, when the dragons are taken back to the bottom of the sea, thunder will not break forth, and when the thunder is taken into concealment in the depths of the lake, the dragons will not soar aloft. Sea and lake are both of watery nature; this is the secret of preventing the tendency of the minister-fire to mount. Again it is said: “When the heart is exhausted, in the vacuity fire blazes up; therefore at the time when there is vacuity, take the fiery energy downwards and mingle it with the kidneys – that is the remedy.” It is the way of Fulfilment.

‘From the mounting of the heart-fire your grievous illness has arisen. If you do not take it down you will never recover though you learn and practise all the healing remedies human and divine. Now it may be that as my outward appearance is that of a Taoist, you fancy that my teaching is far from Buddhism. But this is Zen. One day, when you break through, you will see how laughable were your former ideas.

‘This contemplation attains right contemplation by no-contemplation. Many-pointed contemplation is wrong contemplation. Hitherto your contemplation has been many-pointed and so you have contracted this grave malady. Is it not then proper to cure it by no-contemplation? If you now control the fire of heart and will and put it in the Tanden and right down to the soles of the feet, your breast will of itself become cool, without a thought of calculation, without a ripple of passion. This is true contemplation, pure contemplation. Do not call it dropping your Zen contemplation, for the Buddha himself says: “Hold your heart down in the soles of the feet and you heal a hundred and one ills.” Further the Agama scriptures speak of the use of the So cream in curing mental exhaustion. The Tendai meditation classic called “Stopping and Contemplating” deals in detail with illnesses and their causes, and describes the methods of treatment. It gives twelve different ways of breathing to cure various forms of illness, and it prescribes the method of visualizing a bean at the navel. The main point is that the heart-fire must be taken down and kept at the Tanden and down to the soles, and this not only cures illness but very much helps Zen contemplation.

‘In the Tendai system there are in fact two forms of Stopping: one is by controlling the associations, and the other is clearness of Truth. The latter is full contemplation of reality, whereas the former stresses first restraining the mind and vitality in the Tanden. If the student practises it, he will find it most useful. Long ago the Zen patriarch Dogen, founder of Eiheiji temple, crossed to China and made his reverence before the teacher Nyojo on Mount Tendo. One day he entered the master’s room and asked for instruction. The master said: “O Dogen, at the time of sitting in meditation, put your heart on your left palm.” This is fundamentally what the Tendai master means by his Stopping . The latter records in one of his works on the subject of how he taught the secret to a sick brother, whom it saved from death.

‘ Again, Abbott Haku-un says: “ I always direct my heart so that it fills my abdomen. Helping students or receiving  visitors or entertaining guests, however it may be, preaching and teaching and all else, I have never ceased to do it. Now in my old age that virtue of the practice is clearly apparent.” That is well said indeed. It is based on the phrase in the Somon classic of medicine:” When you are quiet and simple, and empty within, the true Ki energy conforms to that. If the spirit is kept within, how should sickness come? The point is to keep the fundamental Ki within, pervading and supporting the whole body so in the 360 joints and 84,000 pores there is not a hair’s breadth without it. Know this to be the secret of preserving life.

‘ Master Ho (who lived 800 years) speaks thus of a method of harmonising the spirit and directing the Ki: ”Shut yourself away in a quiet private room, and prepare a bed level and warm, with a pillow two-and-a-half inches high. Stretch yourself out on the back, close the eyes and confine the heart energy within the breast. Put a feather on the nose and make your breathing so slow that it is not moved. After three hundred breaths the ears hear nothing, the eyes see nothing; in this state heat and cold cannot assail, the bee’s sting cannot poison. Life will be prolonged to 360 years and you approach the state of the immortals.”

‘The great poet- mystic Sotoba says:”Do not eat until you are hungry, and stop before you satisfied. Go for a walk until the exertion makes the stomach empty, and when it is empty enter a quiet room. Sit silently in the meditation posture and count the outgoing and incoming breaths. Count from one to ten, from one to a hundred, from a hundred to a thousand, when the body will become immobile and the heart serene as the clear sky. If this practice is prolonged the breath will come to a stop of itself. When it neither comes in or goes out, a vaporous exhalation will come from the 84,000 pores, rising like a mist. You will find that all illnesses you ever had are removed, and every obstacle eliminated. Now, like a blind man whose eyes suddenly opened, you do not need to ask another the way.” The only thing needed is to cut short worldly talk and build up the fundamental Ki. So it is said: He who would nourish the power of the eyes always keeps them shut, he would nourish the power of the ears is never eager to hear, he who would nourish the heart energy is ever silent.’

I asked:’ May I hear of the use of the So cream?’ Hakuyu said:’ If the student finds in his meditation that the four great elements are out of harmony, and the body and mind are fatigued, he should rouse himself and make this meditation. Let him visualise placed on the crown of his head that celestial So onitment, about as much as a duck’s egg, pure in colour and fragrance. Let him feel its exquisite essence and flavour melting and filtering down through his head, its flow permeating downwards, slowly laving the shoulders and elbows, the sides of the breast and within the chest, the lungs, liver, stomach and internal organs, the back and spine and hip bones. All the old ailments and adhesions and pains in the five organs and six auxiliaries follow the mind downwards.There is a sound as of the trickling of water. Percolating through the whole body, the float goes gently down the legs, stopping at the soles of the feet.

‘ Then let him make this meditation: that the elixir having permeated and filtered down through him, its abundance fills up the lower half of his body. It becomes warm, and he is saturated in it. Just as a skilful physician collects herbs of rare fragrance and puts them in a pan to boil, so the student feels that from the navel down he is simmering in the So elixir. When this meditation is being done there will be psychological experiences of a sudden indescribable fragrance, at the nose tip, of a gentle and in exquisite sensation in the body. Mind and body become harmonised and far surpass their condition at the peak of youth. If the practice is carried on without relapse, what illness will not be healed, what power will not be acquired, what perfection will not be obtained, what Way will not be fulfilled? The arrival of the result depends only on how the student performs the practices.

‘ When I was a youth I was much more ill than you are now. The doctors gave up the case, I clutched one hundred expedients but could find no art that would help me. I prayed to the deities of heaven and earth, and invoked the aid of the divine Sennin. By their grace they came to me unexpectedly the secret of the So cream. My joy was indescribable, and I practised it continuously. Before a month had passed the greater part of the illnesses had been eliminated, and there after I have felt only lightness and peace in my body and mind. Unmoving, unminding, I do not reckon the months or keep track of the years; thoughts of the world have become few, old habits and desires seem forgotten.

I do not know how old I may be. For a time I came to wander in solitude in the mountains of Wakasu;  that was about thirty years. No one in the world knew me. When I look back it is just like the dream at Koryan (where a traveller dreamed the dream of the events of a lifetime in half an hour). Now, alone in these mountains, I have set free this body. There are only a couple of cloths for covering, yet in the hardest winter, when the cloth curls under the cold, my body suffers no chill. The grain comes to an end and often there is nothing to eat several months, yet I feel neither hunger nor cold. What is this but the power of the Naikan? The secret I have given you is something whose mysteries you will never exhaust. Besides this, what have I to tell you? He closed his eyes and sat in silence. My eyes were full of tears as I made my farewell salutations.

Slowly I descended from the cave mouth. The remaining sunbeams just touched the tips of the trees. I began to notice a sound of footsteps echoing in the mountain and valley. And awe and dread came over me, and fearfully I turned to look back. I saw in the distance that the Master Hakuyu had left the rock cave. As he came up he said: ‘In these trackless mountains you can easily be lost. I will guide your steps lest you get into difficulties.’ With his great wooden clogs and thin staff he trod the steep rocks and sheer cliffs lightly as level ground; talking and laughing as he showed me the way. Two or three miles down the mountain we came to the valley stream. He said:’ follow its course and will come safe to White-River valley,’ and abruptly left me. For some time I stood like a tree, watching the master returning, his stride like that of an ancient hero. So lightly he escaped the world, ascending the mountain as if on wings. A longing and awe were on me – to the end of my days I have regretted that I could not follow such a man

Slowly I went back . I absorbed myself continuously in the Naikan practices, and in barely three years all my maladies disappeared of themselves without drugs or other treatment. Not merely was the illness cured, but the Koan, hard to hold and hard to follow, hard to understand and hard to enter, on which before I could find no purchase for hand or foot, into which I could not bite, now I followed  to the root and penetrated to the bottom. Six or seven times I and the great bliss of that passing through, end times without counting the dancing joy of minor satori. I knew that the old master Daiye was really not deceiving us when he spoke of eighteen great satori realisations and countless lesser ones.

As for myself, in the old days the soles of my feet were always freezing as if in ice, even when I wore two or three pairs of socks, but now during the three months of this winter’s rigour I neither put on socks nor warm my feet at the fire. I have passed my seventieth year, yet there is no trace of illness to be found, and surely this is the effect all that divine secret.

Now let it not be said that the old dodderer of Shoinji has with his dying gasps chronicled a mass of drivel to bamboozle good men. For those who are already spiritual ashes, whose blow has struck through to satori, and those higher ones this was never meant; but dullards like myself, who have been ill like me, it will undoubtedly be of help to be studied. The only fear is that outsiders will clap their hands and laugh over it. When the horse is chewing up an old straw basket, one can’t get a nap in peace.

Translated by Trevor Leggett


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