THREE ZEN MASTERS: Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan
John Stevens
Kodansha International: New York, 1993.
161 pp., $10.00 (paperback).

Richard Jaffe

IF ALL THE JAPANESE BOOKS, both popular and scholarly, devoted to Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan were collected in one place, one would have nothing less than a small library. Such prodigious output testifies to the importance of these three masters and, at the same time, has helped to create it. Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481), Hakuin Ekaku (16861768), and Daigu Ryokan (17581831) rank among the greatest Zen masters in Japanese history-their names have become nearly synonymous with Zen itself. Iconoclastic, funny, and artistically vital, these men represent that which drew many of us Westerners to Zen in the first place.

Both Ikkyu and Hakuin played pivotal roles in the formation of modern Rinzai Zen. Ikkyu, despite his early disregard for the stilted atmosphere of the institutionalized Zen of his day, oversaw the initial rebuilding of Daitokuji, which had been almost totally destroyed during the violent Onin War, and helped pave the way for the ascendance of the Myoshinji/Daitokuji line of Rinzai Zen. Hakuin revitalized the system of koan study in accordance with the Myoshinji/ Daitokuji tradition and reemphasized the importance of zazen, close study under a teacher, and meditation in action. Although today the details of Hakuin’s system of koan study are unknown, the system formalized by his disciples remains at the heart of Rinzai practice. All contemporary Rinzai masters are in Hakuin’s lineage. Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan in many ways defined what we now think of as Zen, and they in turn are now considered quintessential Zen masters.

In Three Zen Masters: Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan, a slim paperback, John Stevens has given us a neat, concise compilation of the traditional biographies of the three men, culled from traditional biographical materials, autobiographical primary sources, and the scholarly literature. Stevens’ inspirational biographies are by no means critical, however, and little has been done (particularly in the case of Ikkyu, for whom contemporary biographical sources are very limited) to separate apocryphal and hagiographical tales about the teachers from more reliable information. Though Stevens has taken this approach deliberately, for example, in the case of Ikkyu, because “each story conveys an important message characteristic of Ikkyu,” the stories often tell us more about the ideals of the compilers than about Ikkyu. Had Stevens provided a richer description of the historical context in which the men lived, such things as the vigorous sectarianism of Ikkyu and Hakuin would have been more easily understood.

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