This week Tesshin Roshi began a discussion on Hakuin Roshi who is one of the great Rinzai masters in the Zen tradition. Roshi reminded us that the main thread of our practice is Soto Zen, but we are still heavily influenced by Rinzai as well. Hakuin was alive between 1686 and 1769. From the Buddhist perspective that would make him a “modern” teacher!
For this week Roshi provided a basic outline of Hakuin’s life. Next week, we will explore some of his famous teachings. Hakuin was born in a religious family in the city of Hara right at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan. His mother followed Nichiren Buddhism. It is said that as a child, Hakuin attended a lecture on the Buddhist Hells which had a deep effect on him. He developed a deep fear of hell and dedicated his life to escaping that fate after he died.
At the age of 13 he asked his parents to become a monk. His parents thought he was too young and hesitated, however after two years of persistence, Hakuin became a monk at age 15. While at Daisho-ji temple he read and studied the Lotus Sutra which is considered the primary scripture of his family’s Nichiren sect. Roshi mentioned that the Lotus Sutra is difficult for a novice to follow and understand, and it comes as no surprise that Hakuin became completely frustrated with it.
Three years later he was studying the koan “My Last Words” by Gānto Zenkatsu and was struck that even a famous master having reached enlightenment could not avoid being killed by random raiding bandits. If a great master could not avoid a bloody death in this life how would a deluded beginner monk like himself avoid the hell realms. This became a great crisis for Hakuin. At this point, he left his current temple and wandered the country studying poetry.
Eventually Hakuin arrived at the Zuiun-ji temple run by Bao Rojin. There is a legend that while at Juiun-ji, Hakuin came across a pile of books from every school of Buddhism. The legend states that Hakuin randomly picked a book and the sect responsible for the work would become his path as well. It turns out that the book he chose was a collection of Zen stories from the Ming Dynasty in China.
The next story Roshi told was about Hakuin’s first awakening experience. Two years after choosing the Zen path, he was at Eigen-ji temple in intensive practice. He locked himself away in the temple shrine for seven days and suddenly had an awakening experience when he heard the temple bell ring. He runs to the master and exclaims that he now “gets all of Zen.” The master asks Hakuin to demonstrate this enlightenment. After he demonstrates, the master replies with a “meh” and recommends he keeps working on it. I think this exchange is heartening to all Zen students! If a great master like Hakuin had his demonstrations rejected, then we, as beginning students, should not feel so bad when our attempts are similarly passed over with little comment from the master. With this rejection, Hakuin became frustrated again and he traveled to a different temple.
The next master Hakuin encountered was Shoju Rojin. This teacher had a reputation of being extremely stern which was perfect for Hakuin’s personality. Shoju’s teaching theory was that harshness would free the student from their ego and self-centeredness. Shoju would assign the hardest koans and would hurl insults no matter what answer a student would provide.
Roshi commented that Hakuin had been studying with all of these past teachers, but he still had not gained a formal recognition of his awakening from any of them. This got Hakuin thinking…
1) All of these teachers are illegitimate
2) Hakuin, himself, is so deluded that practice is hopeless
Hakuin asked himself whether he is blocking his own enlightenment? Was his own deluded mind going to consign him to the hell realm? His answer was to practice even harder and in a more ascetic manner. His practice got so intense that it began to affect his health in significant negative ways. Roshi mentioned that in today’s language, we would say that he had a complete nervous breakdown. Eventually Hakuin realized the error of his ways and called this period in his life a “Zen Sickness.” Roshi paused here to reinforce the point and have us reflect on Hakuin’s error. There is a point of diminishing returns when we practice too intensely. This is yet another form a self-delusion. Roshi reminded us that Zen practice is for both the body and mind. If we only train the mind at the expense of the body, we will never reach true understanding. Mind and body are one and we cannot reach realization with only part of our being. This is why the breath is so important in our practice.
Roshi continued by noting that Hakuin reached his deepest insight at 41. Again, this should give us encouragement that great masters did not gain insight quickly or necessarily when they were young. It is also a great irony that this great insight happened when he was reading the Lotus Sutra – the very sutra he struggled with so much as a young monk. It was only after he matured in his practice that the words of the sutra opened up for him. For the rest of his life, Hakuin continued to study and practice. He became famous in his later life for poetry and brush work.
Roshi wrapped up by telling one more famous story about Hakuin. This story opens with a farmer’s daughter announcing she was pregnant. The farmer wanted to know who the father was. The daughter pointed to Hakuin in order to protect the real father. The farmer brings the baby the Hakuin and demands that he raise it. Haukin simply takes the child and raises it as his own with no complaint or argument. Years later, the daughter admits that Hakuin was not the real father and identifies the correct person. When the family came to Hakuin to collect the child, he gave it up with no fight or argument. “Is that so?” he would simply ask? Roshi mentioned though intense practice, he generated great calm.