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Early Life

Hakuin : Early Life

Endowed with enormous personal energy, Hakuin was a rarity among Masters and a lion among men. He was an accomplished artist and calligrapher and a voluminous author—he left a written legacy that is arguably the most extensive of the Masters of the Ch'an, or Zen, traditions. His caustic tongue and pen were legendary, and his words still breathe fire today. Yet his compassion was equal to his fire, and he was beloved by the common folk of his time and remains a favorite among lay practitioners of Zen.

Hakuin was especially critical of the "silent illumination heretics" and "do-nothings" who filled the monasteries and temples. They were, to use Adi Da's terminology, the "talking school" of Zen, those who took such Enlightened confessions as "Nirvana and samsara are the same", or "Our own mind is Buddha" to mean that no practice was necessary. Let us listen to what Hakuin had to say about the practice he saw around him:

Recently, however, even within Zen, priests have appeared who do nothing but sit like lifeless wooden blocks, 'silently illuminating' themselves. And beyond that, what do you suppose they regard as their most urgent business? Well they prattle about 'doing nothing' being the 'man of true nobility' (quotations from Rinzai) and with that, they are content to feed themselves and pass day after day in a state of seated sleep.

I have made a verse to pour scorn on this odious race of pseudo-priests:

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.

Even as a child, Hakuin was passionately concerned with the great matter of birth and death. One day his mother took him to hear the sermons of a priest of the Nichiren sect. Hakuin vividly recalls the occasion:

We heard him describe in graphic detail, the torments of the eight burning hells. He had every knee in the audience quaking. Their livers froze in icy fear. I was only a small child, but I was surely no exception. My whole body shook with mortal terror.

When I went to bed that night, even in the security of my mother's bosom my mind was in a terrible turmoil. I lay awake sobbing miserably all night, my eyes choked with tears.

Hakuin fell asleep only when his mother promised to tell him the next day how to deal with this matter. Her recommendation was always to venerate the diety of the Kitano Shrine, a Shinto Temple in Kyoto. Hakuin applied himself assiduously to this practice. His faith in the Kitano diety was shaken, however, on an occasion when he had accidentally shot an arrow through a prized painting in his parents' household. All his prayers to Tenjin, the deity, failed to keep this misdeed from his mother's attention. Then Hakuin added prayers to Kannon (Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion) to his arsenal, as he had heard that this Bodhisattva was the most responsive to human prayers, and the most likely to intervene to save him from hell.

Eventually he realized the futility of these attempts to stave off the flames of hell. He described his situation as follows:

All this sutra-recitation doesn't seem to be doing me much good, despite all the time and effort I put into it. I'm even bothered by the heat of moxa-treatment.

Shortly after this time, a troupe of puppeteers arrived in the area. Hakuin saw a piece called "The Kettle Hat of Nisshin Shonin", in which the Shogun (the military ruler of Japan) puts a question to the priest Nisshin. He asks, "Do people who practice reciting the Lotus Sutra find burning fire hot?" The priest replied in the negative, at which point the Shogun put it to the test -- a ploughshare was heated in a fire and clamped around under Nisshin's arms, and a red-hot cauldron was put over his head. Nisshin remained unperturbed.

Hakuin was thoroughly impressed. He began to think that if one were such a priest, even the flames of hell could be escaped. He therefore resolved to become a priest, and left home at fourteen. He was ordained by Soduko Fueki, better known as Nyoka Roshi, and served him as an attendant between his fourteenth and eighteenth years.