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Final Years

Hakuin : Final Years

Hakuin returned to the hermitage, full of joy. The Master was standing on the porch; he took one look at Hakuin and said, "I see that something good has happened to you. Try to tell me about it." Hakuin related the story to him, at which point the old Master took his fan, stroked Hakuin's back and said:

"I hope you live to be my age. Firmly resolve not to be satisfied with little, and devote your efforts now to after-satori practice. Those who content themsves with small attainment never advance beyond the stage of the shravakas. . . . If after your satori, your practice is devoted singlemindedly to the extracting and disposing of the poison teeth and talons of the Cave of Dharma . . . then you will be a true and legitimate descendant of the Buddha-patriarchs.''

Some time after this, Hakuin received news that Nyoka Roshi, the priest whom he had served as an attendant in his teenage years, was bedridden with a serious illness. So after only eight months, he took his leave of Shoju, and returned home to take care of his old teacher.

Hakuin was never to see Shoju again. He had visited teachers before, and would visit others later, but Shoju was the Master of his heart, and he would never cease to be grateful to him in later life. Consider Hakuin's poignant description of his departure from Shoju Fojin - no doubt is possible about Hakuin's heart-relationship with Shoju. He writes these words fifty years later, and yet the tears have scarcely dried on his cheeks:

They walked along with us for a couple of leagues, until we reached the foothills of the high mountains. At that point, the mountain path rose steep and rugged, making it impossible for the old roshi to continue any farther.

After words of encouragement had been exchanged, and we were about to part, the Master took my hand in his. He said to me, with fatherly familiarity, "If you continue your practice and go on to produce men like yourself, you will repay in full measure your profound debt to the Buddhas and Patriarchs. . . . Throw aside all connections with the world's dust, however slight. Vow never to give them the least concern. If you have a chance, come back and visit my small hermitage and bring your questions with you."

He had already finished speaking and was gone. But I was still bowed down in reverence, my forehead pressed to the earth. As I began to ascend the winding mountain path that took me farther and farther away from him, my eyes were filled with tears.

Two years after he left Shoju, Hakuin suffered from a serious "Zen sickness", a collapse brought on by his strenuous practice. He consulted physicians without avail, and finally visited the hermit Hakuyushi, who instructed him in Taoist conductivity practices which restored his health.

Because of this experience, Hakuin was particularly solicitous of the health of his monks and wrote extensively and explicitly about the importance of maintaining the vital center, as, for example, in the following passage:

The vital breath must always be made to fill the space between the navel and the loins .... This area should be pendulous and well rounded, somewhat like a new ball that has yet to be used. If a person is able to acquire this kind of breath concentration, he can sit in meditation all day long without it ever tiring him .... On the hottest day of summer, he will never perspire.... On the snowiest night of deepest winter he need not wear socks.

Hakuin ascribed his own enormous vitality to this practice, and frequently refers to Hakuyushi in his writings and lectures. He writes later in life:
Even though 1 am past seventy now, my vitality is ten times as great as when I was thirty or forty.... I find no difficulty in refraining from sleep for two, three, even seven days, without suffering any decline in my mental powers .... I am quite convinced that all this is due to the power gained from practicing this method of introspection.

Hakuin always made it clear that he was not advocating the practice of cultivating health for its own sake. He puts his case humorously, but also seriously, to a sick monk in his prescription of a "soft butter pill that removes all ills". The recipe is as follows:
One part of "the real aspect of things," one part each of "the self and all things" and "the realization that these are false," three parts of "the immediate realization of nirvana", two parts of "without desires," two or three parts of "the non-duality of activity and quietude," one and a half parts of sponge-gourd skin and one part of "the discarding of all delusion". Steep these ingredients in the juice of patience for one night, dry in the shade and then mash. Season with a dash of prajna-paramita, then shape everything into a ball the size of a duck's egg and set it securely on your head.

Hakuin was twenty-four years old when he visited Hakuyushi. He continued to travel to various teachers to test and refine his understanding before settling at Shoin-ji in his native Hara in 1718. From that point on his fame began to spread; he attracted monks and lay disciples from far and wide. He wrote and taught with ceaseless energy for the next fifty years.

Hakuin's teaching style was fierce and unpredictable. He says one thing here, and contradicts it there. He never ceased to rail against the half-hearted Buddhism of his day and to exhort his monks to greater and greater efforts. His most famous characterization of his own work appears as a colophon on several of his self-portraits:

In the realm of the thousand buddhas
He is hated by the thousand buddhas;
Among the crowd of demons
He is detested by the crowd of demons.
He crushes the silent-illumination heretics of today,
And massacres the heterodox blind monks of this generation.
This filthy blind old shavepate
Adds more foulness still to foulness.

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. A moribund tradition breathed life once again because of his ceaseless toil.

Hakuin urged all his students to find out the truth of Zen for themselves and not to rest content with the descriptions of others. In this ecstatic passage he speaks to a practitioner on the true meaning of the Lotus Sutra:

If you try to hold to the Lotus Sutra without seeing once the true Lotus, you will be like a man who holds a bowl of water in his hands and night and day tries to keep from spilling it or letting it move, but still expects to gain sustenance from it. The person who once sees the True Lotus is like the man who pours the bowl of water into all rivers and lakes. Spontaneously he leaps into the great sea of Nirvana of the various Buddhas, harmonizes deeply with the true Dharma Body and the precepts, meditation, and wisdom of the many Buddhas, at once shatters the dark cave of the alaya-consciousness, and releases the Illumination of the Great Perfect Mirror.... Rather than read all the works in the Tripitaka, 18 see the True Lotus once. Rather than make a million statues of the Buddha, see the True Lotus once. Rather than master the mysteries of the three worlds, see the True Lotus once.... Rather than recite the Lotus Sutra a billion times, see the True Lotus once with your own Dharma eye. This is truly a lofty statement of complete truth and indestructibility.


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