Spiritual Stars of the Golden Age

Hakuin Zenji also known as Hakuin Ekaku (1686 1769)
Reformer of Zen Buddhism
What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Image of Hakuin asking What is the sound of one hand clapping?

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

So asked Hakuin, the author of this well known Zen koan. Hakuin was one of the most important Japanese Zen masters of the Rinzai school. He is often referred to as the father of modern Rinzai Zen, since he gave new impetus to the Rinzai school which had been gradually deteriorating since the 14th century and reformed it. He systematized koan training and emphasized once again the importance of zazen (sitting in absorption) the practice of which had been more and more eclipsed by intellectual preoccupation with Zen writings.

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. 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.

In his famous praise of zazen ("Hakuin Zenji zazen-wasan" frequently chanted in Zen Monasteries of Japan), he extols the importance of "sitting in meditation" for the actualization of enlightenment, which is the goal of the way of Zen

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 open:
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)

Zen is an abbreviation of the word zenna, the Japanese way of reading Ch'an-na (ch'an). This, in turn, is the Chinese version of the sanskrit word dhyana, the discipline, the process by which the mind is trained to acquire concentration. Concentration is the meditative absorption in which all dualistic distincitons like I/you, subject/object, true/false are eliminated. Zen is sometimes regarded as a school of Mahayana Buddhism.

At the age of seven or eight Hakuin visited a Buddhist temple with his mother. He heard a discourse by the temple priest in which the torments of hell beings as described in a sutra were so graphically presented that young Hakuin could not shake off the horrifying vision of hell. He resolved to become a monk and to come to the state of a man whom "fire could not burn and water could not drown."

His parents opposed his aspiration to become a monk, but at fifteen he left home and entered a monastery. There, day and night he recited sutras and venerated the buddhas. At nineteen he read the story of the great Chinese Ch'an (Zen) master Yen-t'ou Ch'iian-huo (Jap., Ganto Zenkatsu). The thought that even so great a master of the buddha-dharma could not escape a painful death caused him for a time to lose all faith in the truth of Buddhism. He absorbed himself in the study of literature in order to cover over his torturesome doubt. After his first experience of enlightenment (often called satori) at the age of twenty-two, which came as he heard a sentence from a Buddhist scripture, his desire to attain peace of mind only became deeper, and he dedicated himself with complete devotion to practice with the koan "mu".

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 me.

Hakuin had further enlightenment experiences but was not confirmed by Master Dokyo, who obviously saw the great potential of the young monk and wanted to drive him on to a more profound experience of Zen. Even though, as it seems, Hakuin never received inka-shomei [the legitimate seal of clearly furnished proof] from Dokyo and truly understood his dharma teaching as he himself said only years after Dokyo's death, today Hakuin is considered to have been Dokyo's dharma successor.

Hakuin's style of Zen training, which was further developed in certain details by his student and dharma successor Torei Enji (1721- 92), and by successive dharma heirs, thus setting the standard up to the present time for the Rinzai school of Zen. According to Hakuin, there are three essentials of the practice of zazen: great faith (dai-shinkon), great doubt (dai- gidait), and great resolve (dai-junshi). He stressed the importance of koan practice and arranged the traditional koans into a system in which the practioner has to resolve koans in a particular order according to their level of difficulty. The koan mu and then later his sekishu he regarded as the best hosshin-koan (introductory koan).

Hakuin's Classsroom:

Hakuin suggests that because it is harder to meditate while being engaged in daily activities, that the individual who is able to do so is better or has attained a greater awareness or awakening than the monk or hermit who goes off by themselves (removes themselves from society) to meditate.

Monk vs. Layman - Some questions from Hakuin :

While it seems clear that meditation would be more difficult while engaged in daily life (of society), does it necessarily follow that it will be a more significant accomplishment than any other form of meditation? Will the "awakening" achieved be any less significant? Once awakened, won't both individuals be aware of reality the same, whether engaged in the world or not?

Hakuin says:

"Even if you are a monk, if your practice of the Way is not intense, if your aspiration is not pure, how are you any different from a layman? Again, even if you are a layman, if your aspiration is intense and your conduct wise, why is this any different from being a monk?"

What is it that makes enlightenment so difficult?

According to Hakuin, it is the same for both monk and layman:

"If you examine it closely you will find that what it comes down to is one concept: that the self is real. Because of this view that the self exists, we have birth and death, Nirvana, the passions, enlightenment."

How do we let go of the self in order to find our "buddha nature" (realizing that this is just a symbolic expression)?

For Hakuin, it is like hanging over an abyss -

we have no where to go (really) but down - eventually we must all let go and jump - it is supposedly that act which propels us to the next level - to enlightenment. What would bring us to the this point - where we are willing to give up the self? Does the fall into the abyss always result in enlightenment? How would we know? What do we have to give up or suspend to make such a leap?

After the successful conclusion of koan training, marked by the conferral of a seal of confirmation, there should follow, as the masters of the Rinzai Zen in the tradition of Hakuin emphasize, a several-year period of solitary life, which serves for the deepening and clarification of the experience of the confirmed one before he makes his appearance as a master. Hakuin also stressed the importance of a strictly regulated monastic life and in the tradition of Pai-chang Huai-hai (daily physical work). He regarded this work as part of meditation practice, which should continue during the everyday activity of the monastery and outside the monastery. In his Orategama he writes on the importance of "practice in action".

Hakuin was especially critical of the "silent illumination heretics" and "do-nothings" who filled the monasteries and temples. They were the "talking school" of Zen, those who took such Enlightened confessions as "Nirvana and samsara are the ame", or "Our own mind is Buddha" to mean that no practice was necessary. Listen to what Hakuin had to say about the practice He saw around him:

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.

What I am saying does not mean that you should do away with your sitting in stillness and place priority on finding an occupation in which you can continue your practice. What is worthy of the highest respect is pure koan practice, which neither knows nor is affected by either stillness or activity. Thus it is said that the monk who is practicing properly walks but does not know that he is walking, sits but does not know that he is sitting. In order to penetrate to the depths of one's own nature and realize a true living quality that is preserved under all circumstances, there is nothing better than still absorption in the midst of activity.

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.

Hakuin's sekishu, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" is the best-known koan stemming from a Japanese master.

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This page last updated 20 September 2008