Kyoto, along with its magnificent temples, was virtually burnt to the ground during the Onin wars in the late fifteenth century. Although the temples were restored – an inheritance which is appreciated throughout the world today – the Buddhist establishment was severely damaged. Zen schools, always less dependent on centralized institutions than other Buddhist schools, spread throughout the countryside, winning the hearts and minds of local lords and provincial nobility, though largely unnoticed by the great temples. The national peace imposed by the Tokugawa regime early in the seventeenth century involved state support and control of Buddhist institutions. This political dependency tended to encourage a general decline in serious spiritual striving, nurturing intellectual pursuits in place of meditation. Zen was more resilient than other Buddhist traditions, but it too suffered a loss of one-pointed purpose. However, as the Tokugawa government shifted the capital from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo), Rinzai Zen transformed its appeal from the old aristocracy to the broader populace. Bankei led the way in this direction, spreading Buddhist thought far and wide, though still failing to give Rinzai Zen a clear mission. By 1680 a monk could write that nineteen of the twenty-four schools of Zen had vanished from Japan. Hakuin, a Rinzai monk, decided to reverse the decline of Zen even whilst ministering to the lay populace.
Hakuin was born to a commoner family in the town of Hara, Suruga province, on December 25, 1685. Named Iwajiro by his parents, he accompanied them to the local temple, which belonged to the Nichiren school. His obvious intelligence was enhanced by a remarkable memory, and by the age of four he knew three hundred local songs by heart. Soon thereafter, he could give accurate accounts of the discourses he heard. While still very young, he was deeply shocked and disturbed by a sermon on the eight hot hells, and he stayed away from the temple. In time, however, his confusion turned into a deep desire to know the truth, and he eventually persuaded his parents to allow him to follow a religious way of life. At fourteen, he entered the Shoinji Temple of the Rinzai school, and was given the preliminary ordination on March 16, 1699. With a new name, Ekaku, he undertook disciplined studies, which included journeying from temple to temple to listen to well-known and honoured priests discourse on the Buddhist path to enlightenment. His travels were interrupted by the death of his mother in 1706, and he went through a period when he despaired of the efficacy of buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha. During that dark period he learnt a great deal about literary style from the renowned poet Ba-o and used what he had gained to good effect later in life.
In 1708 he went to study at a temple in Takata, Echigo province, and then moved on to Iiyama in Shinano province, where he met an elderly priest named Etan. Although Etan treated Hakuin roughly and with seeming indifference, Hakuin was drawn to Etan's character and to the subtle radiance about his whole being, and so remained at his temple. One day, after months of harsh treatment, Hakuin was making his rounds in Iiyama, when his mind was lit up by a wondrous sense of the Way. He became so absorbed in his luminous thought that he failed to notice that he had remained rooted to the spot before a doorway after he had been ordered by the master of the house to move on. Not hearing the exasperated pleas of the master, he stood still until the man threw a writing brush and knocked him over. Several passers-by helped him to his feet, but he only clapped his hands and laughed. When he recovered his senses, he returned to the temple. Etan saw him coming and called out, "What has happened to you?" Hakuin explained what had happened, and Etan was delighted. "Now", he warned, "you must take the vows and not be satisfied with your present attainment. Henceforth your studies will have to be deeper than ever, and your life will be more strenuous."
Hakuin, now known by this name, followed his teacher's advice, but he was soon called to aid his first teacher, whose health was failing. Returning to a temple near his home in Hara, he cared for his teacher and also undertook austerities while studying the Blue Cliff Record, consisting of koans and commentaries, and the Diamond Sutra. After a number of months his own health failed, and he had to struggle long and hard to restore it. He studied this illness – which he called the 'Zen sickness' – for a long time. Although its symptoms were those accompanying a general collapse and might even have been mistaken for a nervous break down, Hakuin recognized it as a reaction to serious and prolonged attempts to meditate. In the Yasan Kanna, Hakuin described how he went to an old monk who lived in a remote cave in the mountain fastnesses. Upon hearing his symptoms, the monk said, "Your meditation has been too unmeasured and your asceticism too strict." Advising that the three medical arts – acupuncture, moxacautery and medicines – could not effect a cure, he taught Hakuin how to care for his body. Drawing from the only books he had in his cave – the Chung-yung or Great Mean of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, and the Diamond Sutra – he showed how the body should be cared for reasonably and without fuss. When the body is balanced in nutriment and elimination, in waking activity and sound sleep, it will defend itself and not get in the way of one's meditation.
In addition to a sensible diet and rest, the old monk taught Hakuin how to make use of sleep. First of all, one should stretch out and relax, legs tight together, and allow one's energy to flow into the space below the navel. Imagining the body to be Amida, (Amitabha in Sanskrit), one's original home and paradise, one should ask what it can teach. Such reflection will fill one with refreshing energy, one's sleep will be sound and harmonized, and one's subsequent waking life can be vigorous and vigilant. In such practices, Hakuin later explained to his own disciples, one is engendering an elixir of life which is nothing external, but rather an internal process of directed energy and nurtured harmony. This elixir, the movement of the inner heart into the space below the navel, rejuvenates the body and clarifies the mind for the sake of meditation and spiritual growth. Unlike some other Zen teachers, Hakuin advocated seeking a long life, but solely for the sake of perfecting meditation and Bodhisattvic service. The real source of the Zen sickness is spiritual striving for oneself. When one lets go of this false notion, the natural rhythms of the body will maintain themselves and support one's meditation and other practices.
Once recovered, Hakuin resumed his studies and travels. By now he began to instruct others and gained a number of disciples. His inclination was to retire to the mountains, like the old monk who had taught him the secret of health, and he decided to become a hermit. Just before he left to take up the isolated life, he received an urgent appeal from his dying father. Returning to Hara, he cared for his father until he died. He then took up residence at the Shoinji Temple, where he first began to seek emancipation. The temple had fallen into extreme disrepair. Water rushed through its roofs whenever it rained and weeds grew in its gardens. Although he could have restored and expanded it into a great structure, since his fame now attracted many people of wealth and power, he made only necessary repairs and refused to do more. Rather, he cheerfully insisted on living in the poverty so well known to the temple's congregation.
Remaining in the poorest of circumstances for years, he pursued three distinct but intimately related lines of activity. First of all, he taught and ministered to the peasants of Hara and the surrounding regions. He did not give them strict instruction in meditation, preferring to emphasize the possibility of engaging in any activity – cooking, tilling the soil, washing, sweeping, sewing – from the standpoint of meditation. In addition to teaching meditation in action, he wrote out and told edifying stories of everyday morality, often drawing upon secular literature and styles. Secondly, he guided monks in a strictly disciplined course of study, basing meditation firmly in moral rectitude and devising a precise method of koan study, which he thought was essential. Neither laxity nor literary diversions were allowed to dilute the monks' efforts to effect a total turning about of consciousness. Thirdly, he maintained warm relations with monks, nuns and nobles all over the country. Frequently writing to them, he courageously spoke to people in high places about the decadence of the times and the need for self-discipline and meditation. Perhaps because he sought nothing from them in the way of material gain, they accepted his frank assessments without rancour. Indeed, they generously supported the publication of his poems, sermons, letters and stories, which have passed into the honoured literature of Japanese Buddhist thought. In addition, he nurtured a simple and moving form of calligraphy and painting which permanently reoriented Zen art, and many of his own brush works survive. For almost forty years he laboured on behalf of others at the Shoinji Temple, invariably surprising visitors with his energy and enthusiasm. He endeared himself to his parishioners and outpaced his monks. When he died on January 18, 1769, he left a legacy and lineage that made Rinzai the dominant force in Japan which it has remained until today.
Hakuin's spiritual quest was fuelled by a desire to learn the Truth. When he first heard of the terrible hot hells, his profound shock resulted in neither fear nor guilt, but in a sustained impulse to understand the whole Teaching. Not satisfied with simply accepting the views of others, he sought to assimilate them in mind and heart so that his consciousness and action would embody them at every point. When he erred through zeal, as when he came down with meditation sickness, he used what he had learnt to correct himself and guide others. Accepting the view that 'the original face', the primordial enlightenment, is present in potentia in every being, he asked how one could come to live consciously in that universal awareness at every moment. Because enlightenment is not something one gains or obtains, since it is always present, when it is realized the insight is sudden. But since much preparation is required to achieve that possibility of consciousness, the path is gradual and, if one pursues it with all one's energy, systematic. In Explication of the Four Knowledges of Buddhahood, Hakuin wrote:
Realization occurs, according to Hakuin, "when the discriminating mind is suddenly shattered" and enlightened consciousness appears. Since one then experiences the universe as boundless light, this awareness is called the perfect-mirror knowledge. It is the transmutation of alayavijnana, the universal storehouse of consciousness which is also the repository of all karmic action and potential, into active awareness. Simultaneous with its transmutation is the recognition that the six fields of sense, which include the activity of the discursive mind, are one's own enlightened nature, and this is the knowledge of equality. The discernment of things in the light of real knowledge is called subtle analytic knowledge, because it penetrates to the core of every truth. Seeing all activity, voluntary and reflexive, as harmonious with the nature of reality is called knowledge of accomplishment. Real insight is the realization of these four kinds of knowledge all at once. But, Hakuin warned, even their realization is not enough.
Without directly challenging the issue of enlightenment, which had become linked to the institutional system of conferring the inka or certificate of enlightenment, Hakuin resolved the long standing dispute between gradual and sudden enlightenment.
Satori, when authentic, is always genuine enlightenment. As such, it is total, covering the four forms of knowledge, and sudden, in that it is not the last in a series of steps (any more than infinity is the last term of the number series or omniscience is the last expansion of limited knowledge). Satori is enlightenment and is complete as to range. Nonetheless, it only reflects a degree of strength in respect to life in the world of illusion, and unless fortified by spiritual, moral and mental practice, it cannot be translated into a universally beneficent experience which assists all others towards the same goal. This is why Hakuin's own teachers urged him to strive harder after gaining insight, so that it might be deepened, strengthened and better translated into every thought, - feeling, word and deed. For Hakuin, real meditation begins after some degree of insight is achieved, and meditation depends upon deepening the moral foundation in one's life.
Hakuin taught that meditation can and should occur at all levels of spiritual wakefulness. It cannot merely be a matter of the meditation hall, prescribed times or special postures. Whilst there is an important place for formal meditation in the life of an aspirant, meditation must also pervade every aspect of one's life until it becomes a way of living. This can occur only in a life hospitable to it, and so it is necessary to heed the moral law as taught by Buddha. A natural correlate of this psycho-spiritual care of the soul is care of the body. Hakuin's Zen is as radical as any Zen teaching, seeking nothing less than a total break with the patterns of samsaric consciousness, but the life he advocated is pre-eminently an integrated one. His sermons, poems and discourses all reflect this threefold concern, but he varied his emphasis to suit his audience. When writing to nobles and rulers, he emphasized the need for a meditative state of mind at all times. When speaking to peasants and common folk, he underlined the importance of a life of principles as the basis for spiritual growth. And when encouraging monks, he frequently reminded them that a common-sense approach to physical health and well-being would aid meditation. His concern was that people seek neither enlightenment nor even worldly gain for themselves alone: true understanding includes the awareness that enlightenment is for all. The Bodhisattva ideal was so much a part of Hakuin's thinking that he did not feel required to mention it very often.
For example, when Hakuin wrote to Lord Nabeshima, the governor of Settsu province, in 1748, he began by affirming that the meditation sickness arose in monks as a result of their motives. True, they struggled mightily with koans and spent long hours in meditation. These practices, along with the austerities which accompany them, were rigorous, of course, but they were not the cause of the Zen ailment. Rather, it was due to seeking enlightenment for oneself – perhaps without knowing it – that they engendered intolerable mental tensions which were reflected in physical debilitation. He advocated the practice of naikan, meditation in daily life and contemplation of its therapeutic benefits. Such concentration, whether while contemplating a koan or hoeing a field, is not for the sake of an 'I' which has no real existence, but for the sake of freedom from the illusory claims that 'I' imposes on self and others. Insight includes the destruction of the distinction between 'I' and 'other' even whilst maintaining the necessary awareness of differentiation required to serve the varying needs of people everywhere. What he called the quietistic approach to meditation – sitting in seclusion apart from the activities of the world – runs a greater risk of being undermined by selfish motive than the active approach, in which meditation is the fundamental orientation of all one's activities.
Rather than succumbing to that state of consciousness which recognizes one as being active with meditation added in, or sitting with meditation included, one should be meditating, with sitting or activity being a reflection of it.
In guiding monks who had voluntarily consecrated themselves to the undivided quest for enlightenment, Hakuin made use of koans. Although books of koans existed, he made his own collection which suited his methods. For him, a koan served several functions. Besides offering the potential for insight, it trained the mind to free itself from conventional modes of thought, and it added to one's awareness of the vital linkage between enlightened consciousness and specific deeds – a kind of living example in consciousness of the spiritual message of the Diamond Sutra. To these ends, Hakuin appended brief comments to koans he used, not as solutions but as thoughts which could aid the disciple. One such koan runs:
Hakuin added: "The sun rises in the east and at night sets in the west."
Hakuin's triple concern with meditation, morality and well-being was reflected in an atypical tolerance towards other teachers and schools of thought. Although he was convinced that his form of Zen was essential, he did not reject other approaches. He did, however, insist that merely sitting in formal meditation or simply being involved in activity are in themselves insufficient to make the breakthrough to enlightenment. And he firmly believed that Pure Land chanting and belief were degradations of buddha dharma, the Teaching of Buddha. Neither belief nor longing can fundamentally alter the human condition, for the will should be turned, not to escape into some ideal spiritual realm, but to realization itself. Chanting, study, reflection, sacred rites and secular activities were all permissible in his view, because any of them can be a point d'appui for meditation which, when rooted in a spiritually rounded life, can lead to insight. Those who sought and received his advice and guidance came from diverse Buddhist traditions, and even those versed in Taoist and Confucian ideals benefitted from his Teaching. As he wrote in his poem on meditation, Zazen wasan,
Hakuin's heart lay with ordinary people rooted in the daily struggle for existence and burdened with the demands of soil and seasons. They possessed, he believed, an untainted receptivity and unrecognized capacity for aspiration. In working with them, he exemplified the life of service which he felt was the soul of the Buddha Way. In his Tsuji dangi (A Wayside Sermon), he voiced his great appeal: