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Monks life

Hakuin : Monks life

At the age of eighteen, Hakuin happened to read the biography of Zen Master Ganto Zenkatzu (Chinese, Yen-t'ou Ch'uan-huo, 828-887). Ganto lived during Emperor Wu's persecution of Buddhism in China, during which many monks and nuns were forcibly returned to lay status. Ganto continued his teaching as a layman, living as a ferryman at Lake Tung-ting in Hunan Province. He was murdered by bandits, and it was said that his death cries were so loud that they could be heard for miles around.

The story caused Hakuin great distress. After all, Ganto was the kind of priest so people said, who appeared only once in five hundred years. If such a one could meet such a fate while alive, how could he hope to avoid hellfire after death. Hakuin was thrown into a torment. He described it thus:

For a full three days I lay tossing restlessly on my bedding, tormented by these thoughts. I began to waste away, slowly starving there in the monks' quarters. Not so much as a rice-grain would pass my craving throat. It lasted five unbearable days, and through it all, I could not for the life of me drive those burning hell-fires from my mind.

Hakuin decided to abandon the Buddhist life, resigning himself to hell, and began to study literature and calligraphy. He continued in these endeavors for some years, when all at once, sitting alone by himself, it suddenly dawned on him that even should his works exceed those of the greatest poets, death still awaited him. He was once again plunged into profound despair.

He remained in this state for some time, until, one day, he suddenly noticed an old collection of books at the far end of a porch on which he was sitting. At the sight of the books he was inexplicably filled with great joy. He made a prayer to the Buddhas, imploring them to show him (by means of the books) the way out of his misery, if indeed there was such a way. He approached the bookshelf, closed his eyes and chose a book at random. The book he chose was the Zekan Sakushin ("Spurring Students to Break Through the Zen Barrier"), and he opened it to a passage which was to change his life, a description of the difficult sadhana of Zen Master Jimyo:

The freezing weather had frightened away all other practitioners. But Jimyo's aspiration was set firmly on the practice of the Way. He did zazen continuously. As he sat through the long nights, whenever he felt sleepy, he would jab himself in the thigh with a gimlet. Afterwards he succeeded Fun 'yo. His vigorous spirit enlivened the Zen world of his time. He became known as "the lion west of the river."