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Zen sickness

Like many Zen masters (recall Dogen and Bankei) Hakuin was plagued from an early age with deep questions about the meaning of life and death and the ephemeral nature of existence. (It is said even changing clouds troubled him.) Unable to find any teachings that answered his profound doubt, he set out as an itinerant seeker drifting from temple to temple, only to meet disappointment after disappointment.

Desperate, he decided to put his future in the hands of chance. As the abbot of a temple was airing its library outside, Hakuin decided to select a book at random and let it decide his fate. The book he picked was a volume of biographies of Chinese Chan worthies, and the stories of the ancient Zen masters inspired him. In his biography Hakuin tells of reading of the eleventh-century Linji master who kept awake in meditation by boring into his own thigh with a wood drill. Galvanized by stories like this. Hakuin vowed to pursue Zen training until enlightenment was his.

Hakuin pursued enlightenment with the headlong zeal and abandon that he was to become renowned for. In a letter Hakuin, age twenty-four, described his first really moving  "satori"  experience. Meditating on the  "Mu" koan  (Q:"Does a dog have Buddha-nature? A: "Mu' (nothing)),  and concentrating so intensely that he even forgot sleeping and eating, one day:

Suddenly a great doubt manifested itself before me. It was as though I were frozen solid in the midst of an ice sheet extending tens of thousands of miles. A purity filled my breast and I could neither go forward nor retreat. To all intents  and purposes I was out of my mind and the Mu alone remained. . . . At times it felt as though I were floating thorough the air. This state lasted for several days. Then I chanced to hear the sound of the temple bell and I was suddenly transformed - a jade tower had fallen with a crash.


Elated with his transformation, he immediately trekked back to an earlier master and presented a verse for approval. The master, however, was not impressed. This precipitated a series of ecstatic experiences, each followed by a master's refusal to verify is realization. One of these fruitless exchanges even left him lying in a mud puddle.

One evening the Master sat cooling himself on the veranda. Again I brought him a verse I had written.

"Delusions and fancies," the Master said.

I shouted his words back at him in a loud voice, whereupon the Master seized me and rained twenty or thirty blows with his fists on me, and then pushed me off the veranda.

This was on the fourth day of the fifth month after a long spell of rain. I lay stretched out in the mud as though dead, scarcely breathing and almost unconscious. I could not move; meanwhile the Master sat on the veranda roaring with laughter.

One of Hakuin's greatest obstacles was his arrogance. Even upon his experience of "It was as if a sheet of ice had been smashed" Hakuin recognized his challenge: "My pride soared up like a majestic mountain, my arrogance surged forward like the tide. Smugly I thought to myself: 'In the past two or three hundred years no one could have accomplished such a marvelous breakthrough as this.'" So when Hakuin went to his master "shouldering my glorious enlightenment" the master ruthlessly taught him humility.

I related my understanding to the Master one day during dokusan. He said to me, "Commitment 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 again took to the road, everywhere experiencing increasingly deep satori. The strain of his intensive asceticism, however, led to a mental and physical collapse ("Zen sickness"). Returning to the temple where he had started and with no idea of what to do, a revelation appeared:

One night in a dream my mother came and presented me with a purple robe made of silk. When I lifted it, both sleeves seemed very heavy, and on examining them I found an old mirror, five or six inches in diameter, in each sleeve. . . . The reflection from the mirror in the right sleeve penetrated to my ' heart and vital organs. My own mind, mountains and rivers, the great earth seemed serene and bottomless.... After this, when I looked at all thugs, it was as though I were seeing my own face. For the fist time I understood the meaning of the saying "The [enlightened spirit] sees the Buddha-nature within his eye.''

With this dream he finally achieved full satori and, age 32, he returned home to the old ramshackle temple where he would stay, his own master at last.

And sure enough, Hakuin never moved again. Instead, the people of Japan—high and low—came to see him. His simple country temple became a magnet for monks and laymen seeking real Zen. By force of his own character, and most certainly without his conscious intention, he gradually became the leading religious figure in Japan. By the end of his life he had brought the koan practice beck to a central place in Zen and had effectively created modem Rinzai.