Hakuin: Nirvana Is Openly Shown to Our Eyes, by Donald Webley

    From the beginning, all beings are Buddha;

    Like water and ice, without water no ice,

    Outside us, no Buddhas.

    How near the Truth, yet how far we seek!

    Like one in water crying, “I thirst”,

    Like the son of a rich man

    Wandering poor on this earth,

    We endlessly circle the Six Worlds.

    From dark path to dark path

    We’ve wandered in darkness.

    How can we be free from the wheel of Samsara?

    The Perfection of freedom is Zazen-Samadhi,

    Beyond exaltation, beyond all our praises,

    The pure Mahayana.

    Observing the precepts, repentance and giving,

    The countless good deeds, and the Way of Right Living,

    All flow from this Zen.

    Even one meditation extinguishes evil;

    It purifies karma, dissolving obstruction.

    Then where are the dark paths to lead us astray?

    The Pure Lotus Land is not far away.

    Hearing this Truth, heart humble and grateful,

    To praise and embrace it, to practice its wisdom,

    Brings unending blessings, brings mountains of merit.

    But if we turn directly, and prove our True Nature,

    That true Self is no-self,

    Our own Self is no-self,

    We stand beyond ego and past clever words.

    Then the gate to the oneness of cause-and-effect is thrown

    Not two, and not three,

    Straight ahead runs the Way.

    Now our form is no-form,

    So in coming and going we never leave home.

    Now our thought is no-thought,

    So our dancing and songs are the voice of the Dharma.

    How bright and transparent the moonlight of Wisdom!

    What is there outside us, what is there we lack?

    Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes.

    This earth where we stand is the Pure Lotus Land,

    And this very body, the body of Buddha!

    —Zazen Wasan (Song of Zazen) by Hakuin

    Translation © The Zen Center, Rochester

    Originally reprinted by permission

Nirvana Is Openly Shown to Our Eyes

The Life of the Zen Master Hakuin



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 the Lotus
find burning fire hot?” The priest replied in the affirmative, 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

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

    “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

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 impossiblefor 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 reilization 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

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.


1. Itsumadegusa [ Wild Ivy ] ,The Spiritual Autobiography
of Hokuin Ekaku,

translated by Norman Waddell, Kyoto, Japan: Pub. in

The Eastern Buddhist (Jounal of the Eastern Buddhist
Society), vol. XV, no. 2 (Autumn 1982).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid. (Moxa-treatment is an oriental healing practice
in which a special herb is burned over acupressure points in the body.)

4. Adherents of the Nichiren sect practice recitation
of the Lotus Sutra, one of the principal Mahayana sutras.

5.The Eastern Buddhist, XV, 2.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. A “shravaka” is a spiritual practice or one who is
satisfied with less than full Realization

11. The Eastern Buddhist, XV, 2.

12. Ibid.

13. The
Zen Master Hakuin, Selected Writings
, Philip B. Yampolsky,

(New York, Columbia University Press,1971), p.30.

14. Ibid., p. 32.

15. Prajna-paramita, or “The Perfection of Wisdom”, is
the name of a group of Mahayana Buddhist writings.

16. The Zen Master Hakuin, pp. 84-85.

17. Ibid., p. 82.

18. The “triple basket”, or complete Buddhist canon.

19. Ibid., pp. 93-94.

from Crazy Wisdom,

Vol. 7, No. 4 & 5 (double issue),

July-October 1988



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