Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku was born at two in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month, the second year of the Jokyo era (1685). His childhood name was Iwajiro, which was often shortened to Iwa. A liking for Buddhist temples appeared at the age of seven or eight when his elders took him to sermons delivered by priests in neighboring villages. On returning home, he would repeat the sermons word for word for family members, whose eyes would glisten in thankful response.

Once, after listening to the Nichiren priest Nichigon Shonin deliver a rousing sermon that described in vivid detail the terrors and torments awaiting sinners who fell into hell, Iwajiro was trembling with fear. The sermon made Iwajiro remember how he fought with neighborhood boys, told fibs, filched occasional coins from the family cupboard, and took the lives of fish and snakes and frogs, convincing him that he was a prime candidate for hell. “What would I do? How terrible it would be to fall into the hellfires!” he lamented, his young mind unable to come to grips with a matter of such gravity.

When his mother took him into the bathroom for his bath that night, the deep groans from the wood-burning stove that heated the water and the red sparks from the fire stoking the tub reminded him of the terrors of hell. Grabbing his mother tightly, he suddenly broke into wailing sobs. He sobbed out, “Mother, I’m terrified of hell! I’m afraid even when I’m here together with you. What will it be like when I fall into hell all alone!” Unsure what to tell him, she decided to answer as follows: “You, young man, were born on the day sacred to the deity of the Tenjin Shrine. You should place your trust in Tenjin. He will surely help you achieve your wishes.”

Now began the young boy’s first steps on his religious quest. With devotion earnest in the extreme, he made visits to worship at the local Tenjin Shrine. He faithfully engaged in recitations of the Kannon Sutra as well.

The next year, at the age of twelve, Iwajiro saw a puppet play entitled Nisshin’s Kettle Hat (Nabekaburi Nisshin), based on the popular tale of Nisshin Shonin. Nisshin was a Nichiren priest who was tortured for defying the government ban against spreading the teachings of the Lotus, or Nichiren, school in the capital. When asked by his tormentors, “Is it true as the sutra says that a person who practices the Lotus teachings can enter a blazing fire without being burned and plunge into the water without being drowned?” Nisshin replied, “It is true.” They proceeded to clamp a red-hot iron kettle over his head, but Nisshin just sat there performing gassho and quietly repeating the Daimoku. When the authorities, thinking he had succumbed to the ordeal, removed the kettle from Nisshin’s head, they found him still calmly repeating the Daimoku, even more steadfastly than before. 

On returning home, Iwajiro thought to himself, “It must be true. A priest like Nisshin who has attained a stage of such absolute faith can undoubtedly overcome the terrible torments of hell.” He increased his prayers to Tenjin and recited the Kannon Sutra hundreds of times daily for the next week. To test his progress, he heated an iron poker until it was red-hot and touched it against his thigh. All he got for his effort was a bad burn. “It’s no good; I haven’t gained enough spiritual power yet,” Iwajiro said. “Unless I leave home, join the priesthood, and engage in authentic religious practice under a good teacher, I will never achieve the kind of power that Nisshin had. There is no other way. I must enter the priesthood.”

When Iwajiro was fifteen, he received his parents’ blessing and finally realized his desire to enter the Buddhist priesthood. He was accepted as an acolyte at Shoin-ji, a village temple next door to the family house. The head priest Tanrei ordained him, shaving his head and giving him the Buddhist name Ekaku, “Wise Crane.” 

At nineteen, Ekaku set out on a pilgrimage to visit Zen teachers in other parts of the country. His first stop was Zenso-ji in nearby Shimizu, where he set about studying Chinese and Buddhist texts. One day, he was brought up short by a story he read of a famous Chinese Zen priest named Yen-t’ou, whose head was cut off by bandits. It was said that his death cry was heard for miles around.

How could a priest of Yen-t’ou’s caliber have been slain by bandits? Shouldn’t he have acquired through his Buddhist practice the power to bring such evildoers to heel, and through his compassion turn them into right-minded men? The Kannon Sutra says, “Though you are surrounded by evil bandits with threatening blades, if you concentrate on the power of Kannon Bodhisattva, the bandits will at once give rise to compassion!” Could that just be tall talk? “No wonder that poker burned me,” thought Ekaku. “Someone in later centuries must have made up that miraculous story about Nisshin Shonin. I can only conclude that the Buddhist dharma is not worth my time. But what can I do with the rest of my life?”

Ekaku’s faith in Buddhism shattered, his pure young heart filled with disappointment. He fell into the depths of despair, suffering miserably for months.

In the spring of his twenty-fourth year, when he hung his traveling staff in the monk’s hall of Eigan-ji in Takada in the northern province of Echigo, Ekaku’s practice was finally beginning to show signs of bearing fruit. He had entered a realm where everything, within and without, had become a concentrated lump of single-mindedness. The whole world seemed to be a single shrine of purest crystal, bright and clear, and he was sitting within it. Although rapturously absorbed in this resplendent realm, he was utterly composed, and yet amid this serenity was the deep and ponderous feeling of the quickening rebirth trying to emerge. He felt that if only someone would deal this crystalline clarity a single blow, his great self would suddenly explode and the wondrous realm of nirvana would spread out beneath his feet.

He shut himself up inside the shrine room of Eigan-ji and began a weeklong practice session. Almost forgetting to sleep or eat, arousing his bodhisattva vow within the Vajra King Samadhi that cleaves through all ignorance, he pledged that if he did not achieve kensho during this session, he would bite his tongue and bring his life to an end.

At dawn, Ekaku heard the boom of a distant temple bell rolling through the morning mist. Unaware what he was doing, he suddenly leaped up from his zazen cushion in stunned surprise: “It boomed out! I boomed out!” His self crumbled into pieces, the pure crystal enclosure in which he was encased shattering to the ground. Everything he saw—a tree, a blade of grass—they were all shining with a buddha’s brilliant radiance. He waltzed mindlessly about in boundless joy, waving his hands wildly over his head, issuing peals of laughter, his face drowned in hot, ecstatic tears. He shouted out unthinkingly, “Yen-t’ou is safe and sound! Yen-t’ou is safe and sound!”

His self crumbled into pieces, the pure crystal enclosure in which he was encased shattering to the ground. Everything he saw—a tree, a blade of grass—they were all shining with a buddha’s brilliant radiance.

Young Ekaku, certain that no one in the past three hundred years had ever achieved such a splendid satori, was unable to stay still. He felt that no one could possibly understand the vast realm, greater than heaven and earth itself, he had experienced. His mind became filled with pride and arrogance. The very sight of other people grated on him. He was sure that if Shakyamuni or Bodhidharma should return to the world, his satori would surpass even their understanding. “The Buddha dharma has fallen to earth,” he cried. “Not a single person in the entire world possesses the true dharma eye.”

Now at this very moment in the village of Iiyama deep in the mountains of Shinano Province, totally isolated from the world, there lived a great priest named Shoju Rojin. Shoju Rojin was probably the only person in the entire country who could have tweaked Ekaku’s proud young nose and rescued him from the dark hole of one-dimensional satori. Ekaku slipped away from the training session at Eigan-ji before it was over and, at the urging of his fellow monk Sokaku Joza, made his way secretly into the mountain roads of Shinano Province to seek an interview with Shoju. 

On his first meeting with Shoju, Ekaku reverently handed him a sheet of paper on which he had written a verse setting forth his experience. “I ask that you overlook my lack of manners,” he said, “but this is what I have succeeded in grasping.” Shoju snatched the paper and crumpled it imperiously in his left hand, at the same time thrusting his right fist in Ekaku’s face. “This is something cooked up in your head! Show me what you grasped down in your belly!” he barked with a fierce glare in his eye. But Ekaku was not about to concede so easily. “If my satori were such a mean and miserable thing,” he said, “I’d puke it up like this, ‘Ge . . . Ge . . . Ge . . . !’” Without an instant’s hesitation, Shoju thrust back, “How do you see Chao-chou’s Mu?” “No way to get a grip on Mu,” Hakuin countered with what he thought was a fine riposte. But Shoju was faster. His large hand, gnarled and knotted like a hard lump of pine resin and clay, grabbed the bridge of Ekaku’s nose and wrenched it mercilessly. “I got a good grip on it, didn’t I? Hahahaha!” And he pressed on: “How about the story of Nanch’uan’s death?!” Shoju’s two arrows, loosed in rapid succession, knocked Ekaku back, rendering him limp and drenched in nervous sweat. Shoju stood over him shouting, “Hole-dwelling bonze!” The angry abuse struck Ekaku like a hundred bolts of lightning, and Shoju threw him bodily out of the room.

It is easy to die the Great Death but difficult to regain one’s life after that.

It is easy to die the Great Death but difficult to regain one’s life after that. Outgoing eko, transferring the merit acquired through practice to others, is not overly difficult, but returning eko, going back into the world to work for living beings after attaining realization, is a very arduous undertaking. One of the ancients said, “The deeper your satori is, the harder you must bear down!” You must not remain curled up inside a minor, self-satisfied satori, like one of those horn-turban mollusks that keeps its rock-hard lid clamped shut. The rebuke “Hole-dweller bonze!” was the iron mallet Shoju used to smash that tight lid. In truth, both Shakyamuni Buddha and Manjushri Bodhisattva, the buddha of the future, are right now still engaged in their Zen practice.

When Hakuin first read the Lotus Sutra when he was sixteen, he was disappointed and deeply discouraged. The sutra seemed to be made up of nothing but parables; it was like peeling an onion and never coming to anything of real substance.

It was not until the autumn of his forty-second year that Hakuin brought the Lotus Sutra out again. He had now been the head priest at Shoin-ji for ten years and was in the prime of life, with a growing reputation as a teacher. While he was reading the “Parables” chapter of the sutra, the doleful creek-ing of a cricket under the veranda reached his ears. Now, twenty-seven years after he had thrown it aside in disgust, he grasped for the first time the intrinsic truth of the Lotus. 

Lamenting yesterday’s mistaken notions, elated at today’s realization of the truth, he burst into tears. His heart overflowed with the Buddha’s great compassion, compassion that declares “Now this threefold world is all my domain, and the living beings in it are all my children.” He acquired a great, totally unfettered freedom in teaching others. Tears of profound emotion streamed endlessly down his cheeks as he grasped the truth that all living beings are originally buddhas, that the sole desire cherished by all buddhas who appear in the world is to make living beings awaken to buddha wisdom, that each of the parables in the Lotus stems from the same deep compassion of a mother chewing food before giving it to her child. Having joined the priesthood with the dubious aspiration of acquiring the strength that would allow him to enter fire or water without being harmed, he now found the gap between that dream and what he was now actually experiencing incomparably vast—greater than the difference between a tortoise and the moon.

It made him realize with greatest clarity that he had truly made the Buddha’s great wisdom and compassion his own. How could he help feeling jubilant? How could he not burst into loud tears? Unthinkingly, he hummed a verse to himself,

A thin cotton robe, poor food,
Unable to ignore a cricket’s cry,
Tears falling like rain.

The tears Hakuin shed on hearing the cricket trill beneath the veranda were in and of themselves the warm tears of the Tathagata’s unconditional compassion for living beings: “I will never neglect your needs. It is you who will become buddhas.” 

Adapted from Hakuin’s Song of Zazen: Yamada Mumon Roshi on Zen Practice by Yamada Mumon Roshi and translated by Norman Waddell. English translation © 2024 by Norman Waddell. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

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