Ep. 014: The Deep Wisdom of Hakuin Zenji

Restorer of Japan's Rinzai Zen

I was approaching the 13th station (from Tokyo) of the 53 Stations of the Old Tokaido, a 40-day walk down a 400 year old highway organized for carrying messages between the Shogun in Edo (Tokyo) and the largely-figurehead Emperor in Kyoto. Each Station once had lodgings and supplies for people traveling the Highway, as well as relief runners for the swift transmission of messages.

With twelve days and a quarter of the Stations behind me, one might expect that I had become a bit blase about yet another arrival. However, although it has been subsumed into the city of Numazu, Hara has remained special--to me, at least.

Because it was in Hara that Hakuin Ekaku, called Zenji--"Great Zen Master"--was born (in 1686); became a monk at Shoin-ji, and after being away for three or four years, returned and taught for forty years, drawing hundreds of monks to the area; and at last died (in 1769). He is buried in Shoin-ji's graveyard.

Hakuin, a self portrait (WikiArt.org)

Hakuin Zenji

You may never have heard of Hakuin, but even people who know nothing of Zen have heard the cliched question, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" That's Hakuin! Although it's not exactly how he stated the koan (an "unsolvable" riddle posed by a Zen master, designed to cause the student to break past the logical strictures of thinking). What he actually said has been translated,

Two hands clap and there is a sound.

What is the sound of one hand?


You see, to add the word "clapping" is to beg the question. It may also skew the results, as the koan may be about the subject-object distinction, which dissolves when one transcends categories.

This Zendo (meditation hall) is surely not the one Hakuin used, but its descendant


Zen through the centuries has splintered into numerous schools. Starting in China, allegedly with Bodhidharma, an immigrant from India, it remained unified until the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng. Starting with the seventh, the tradition diversified until at last it settled into the "Five Houses of Chan," which are the Guiyang, Linji, Caodong, Yunmen, and Fayan schools. Two of these, the Linji and Caodong, became the Rinzai and Soto, the two most popular schools of Zen in Japan.

The pagoda of Linji Yixuan, founder of Linji Chan (Rinzai Zen); in Zhengding, Hebei, China

The Master after whom Linji Chan (Rinzai Zen) was named, Linji Yixuan, died in 866, over eight centuries before Hakuin was born. (Read more about Linji in Episode 053.) By the 17th century, the tradition (not imported to Japan until the 12th) had started to lose its luster. It was Hakuin who revived it through teaching a more rigorous style of zazen, or sitting meditation, along with a greater emphasis on the use of koans. (Though both meditation and koans are used in Soto as well, the emphasis is more on sitting than riddles.)

Perhaps the best way to understand Hakuin's character is through this widely-told story about him (whether it's apocryphal or not, I don't know).

The unassuming front yard before Shoin-ji's meditation hall is pretty, but nothing special

A couple owned a food store in Hakuin's neighborhood. One day, they learned that their beautiful young daughter was pregnant, and angrily questioned her about the father. Reticent at first, she at last named Hakuin.

Livid, the parents informed him that his sin had been revealed, and that they knew he was the baby's father, to which Hakuin replied only, "Is that so?"

After the baby was born, the parents thrust it into his hands. He nurtured it lovingly, begging for milk from his neighbors, despite the blow to his reputation.

A year later, observing all this from afar, the girl at last broke down and told her parents the truth: she had lain with a young man who worked in the fish market. Chagrined, the couple begged the monk's forgiveness and retrieved their grandchild, telling him who the real father was.

To which the monk said in reply, "Is that so?"

(This story is told in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps.)

The simplicity of Shoin-ji's gate obscures the importance of the place


Hakuin's seat, Shoin-ji, today is a modest suburban temple with an unassuming gate and front yard, located smack dab on the Old Tokaido Highway (well, just down an alley from it). Nothing that meets the eye--not its minimal gardens, its new-looking buildings, nor its almost somnolent atmosphere--bespeaks its past importance.

But then, behind the buildings, comes the graveyard (which in fact backs on the Japan Railways Tokaido Main Line, paralleling here the old highway). In a small, railed-off enclosure of its own stands a lotus pedestal not unlike a birdbath, and atop it a little house-like structure just a couple of feet high. This is the tomb of Hakuin Zenji.

Hakuin's tomb behind the temple

On this journey, I had carried with me the prayer requests of friends and acquaintances, vowing to recite them as part of a daily service somewhere along the way. This day, I said them before Hakuin. He was not, I expect, a man of "prayer"per se, but rather one of meditation. Nevertheless, I'm sure he didn't mind eavesdropping on a list of modern concerns: For health, career, exams, happiness, guidance; for an expected baby, and all babies; for older family members; for love (these from young women); for better English (my dear students!); for bliss, and for enlightenment (this latter from a monk that made a cash contribution to my journey); and, marvelously, "for affluence to help others." (There were many more, many unspecified, and many simply my expression of gratitude toward people who had helped me along the way: "tomato lady"; "man at Saidaiji"; "girl at Sanjo Bridge"; and many more.)

But as the lively spirit seen in the story of the girl and the baby shows us, Hakuin was no stick-in-the-mud. He said, "In singing and dancing is the voice of the Dharma [the Buddha's teaching]," and, elsewhere he said, "Meditation in the midst of activity is a thousand times superior to meditation in stillness."

The Song of Zazen

No, Hakuin's way was the way of Zen--Jiriki or self-power; not Tariki, the asking of help from others. He advocated pursuing the goal of meditation with the greatest diligence: "Devote yourselves to penetrating and clarifying the self, as earnestly as you would put out a fire on the top of your head."

In one of his many powerful writings, the Song of Zazen, he wrote that we are all Buddhas waiting to happen. No need to look for it "far away," the truth is very near: inside us.

One of Hakuin's many extant enso, a free-hand circle which exhibits the artist's hand working without interference from the mind (WikiArt.org)


Let me end by sharing with you the first stanza of the three in the Song of Zazen. It's not too long, but deeper than it is long, and worth going over a few times. (The full text is found near the end of this page.)

Sentient beings are originally all Buddhas.

It is like ice and water:

Apart from water no ice can exist;

Apart from sentient beings, where would we find Buddhas?

Not knowing how near the Truth is,

People seek it far away--what a pity!

They are like one who, in the midst of water,

Cries in thirst so imploringly;

They are like the child of a rich man

Who has wandered away among the poor.

We transmigrate through the six worlds of being

Because we are lost in the darkness of ignorance.

Going astray further and further in the darkness,

When will we be able to get away from birth-and-death?

Hakuin goes on to praise the benefits of sitting meditation and the realization of emptiness (a BIG topic for another time), which leads to this insight in the last three lines:

Nirvana is right here, before our eyes.

This very place is the Pure Land.

This body is the Buddha.

Phew! With that, let me wish that you and your loved ones and all sentient beings may be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: You've certainly heard of Egyptian mummies, and you might even know of the mummies found in China's western deserts. But did you know there are mummies of monks enshrined in Buddhist temples? Come with me to Jiuhua Mountain in Anhui Province and meet some of them!