Poison Blossoms from a Thicket of Thorn
Trans. Norman Waddell
Counterpoint Press, 2014
608 pp; $33.00

North American Zen Buddhists revere Dogen, the monk who founded the Soto school and became its most brilliant exponent. But the other great figure of Japanese Zen, the Rinzai master Hakuin, remains more enigmatic. Every few years, it seems, preeminent scholars from Japan and the United States organize a conference to celebrate Dogen’s masterpiece, the Shobogenzo. At the same time, Dogen’s lineage extends to almost every roshi or sensei now teaching on this continent. Hakuin has yet to spark anything like the academic “Dogen boom,” and Rinzai practice centers can be counted on the fingers of two hands. Why this neglect of a figure who rescued Japanese Zen at a time when its survival hung in the balance?

Norman Waddell, a professor at Otani University in Japan, has probably done more than anyone else to bring Hakuin to North American readers through brilliantly adapted books like Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin and The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin. Now he has translated Poison Blossoms from a Thicket of Thorn, a sprawling collection of talks, exegetical discourses, poetry, letters, and inscriptions for paintings by the giant of the Rinzai school. Will this book give Hakuin the visibility Dogen continues to enjoy?

Maybe yes and maybe no. One of Hakuin’s Japanese admirers, Iida Toin Roshi, confessed that Poison Blossoms offers up “much material that is extremely difficult to grasp.” If Iida Toin, a roshi’s roshi, found the book opaque, why should we even try to read it? Toin’s own answer is well worth pondering. “It gives me,” he wrote, “the feeling that I am living together with the old master.” This line, which could at first seem like a throw-away, might actually get to the heart of Hakuin’s Zen: Hakuin wants his readers to believe that he is right there with them, in the flesh. He wants to persuade them by his presence and the sheer force of his personality.

We might not be ready for this. The case could be made that North Americans like their Zen masters cool and remote—if not up on the mountaintop, then far enough away in time and space to give them an archetypal quality. Dogen might be Exhibit A. The images of the Zen master that come down to us look almost like commercial logos—we can make out the high forehead, the small mouth, the long chin, each communicated by a few spare strokes. By contrast, our representations of Hakuin are not just portraits but self-portraits—vigorous, detailed, and powerfully infused with the artist’s own personality. Their energy vibrates off the page, not at all serene but electric; so does the artist’s self-consciousness. It is this self-consciousness, which infuses every word he writes and every line he draws, that poses a problem for those of us who expect great teachers to be empty presences or, at least, discreetly understated.

Much the same holds true for the two masters’ ideas. Like Aquinas in the West, Dogen has become the symbol for a universal system that explains almost everything. His dense, cryptic thought has the same complexity as modern monuments of pure intellect like Heidegger’s Being and Time or Wittgenstein’sTractatus. But Hakuin’s prose and poetry, no less than his self-portraits, are very much the products of his era, peppered with allusions, at times salty and crude, to contemporary people and events. The style is not cerebral and abstract but almost too engaged.

What are we to make of a Zen master who steered clear of the most prestigious temples in Japan—as we would expect a true Zen master to do—but then avidly promoted his own reputation, often by mythologizing himself? As Waddell observes, the sayings of Linji (Jpn. Rinzai), Yunmen (Jpn. Ummon), and other great figures of Chinese Chan were collected after their deaths by admiring students. This is certainly the way Hakuin wanted to be seen. One of his followers, a layman named Kida, records that when he visited Shoinji, Hakuin’s little temple, he begged the master to send Poison Blossoms to press. “When I mentioned this to Hakuin Roshi,” Kida recalls, the Master answered, “‘No, don’t do that. If the notions my mouth happens to mumble off when I am asleep are published, it will only steer future generations off course. Take the manuscript and burn it. I don’t see any need to make a special effort to humiliate myself.’” Yet the truth is that a burning could not have been further from Hakuin’s plans, and he tirelessly lobbied his supporters to pay for publication—a very un-Dogen-like thing to do. But as a well-known adage in Zen maintains, things are not always what they seem, nor are they otherwise.

Dogen found a way to embody a cultural ideal, but Hakuin is a modern individual. Dogen’s Japan was a feudal world in which personal identity and social role were expected to be one and the same. Men and women in the 13th century had to learn how to inhabit their roles—how to embody the archetype—convincingly and without too much ambivalence. But Hakuin lived in early modern Japan, where the Tokugawa shogunate was determined to keep the aristocrats in line, put a lid on the rising merchant class, and ready preparations for invaders from the West like the Spanish fleet, which had a century earlier destroyed the indigenous society of the nearby Philippines. For Hakuin, and for other Japanese of his complicated era, the old roles had already failed. He simply couldn’t be a Dogen. Everything was changing rapidly, and Buddhism would also have to change or it too would eventually disappear. Hakuin understood or intuited that a new kind of selfhood was emerging, an invented self-hood that was exposed to all kinds of dangers and contingencies unimagined in Dogen’s day. At the same time, he remained nostalgic for the world that had disappeared.

What looks at first glance like Hakuin’s narcissism or his shameless hypocrisy—a Buddhist monk painting his own portrait or flacking for his book while feigning indifference—can also be seen as a heroic response to the unraveling of Japanese tradition. Instead of telling Buddhists not to have a self, in Blossoms, Hakuin is trying to show what a Buddhist self might look like—and how liberating it might feel from the inside out. Whatever sort of person Hakuin might have been in private, the public Hakuin was constantly encountering inner obstacles, reaching a crisis and then breaking through to new vistas of awareness. Lay Buddhists who had never done zazen could still understand this trajectory, because they were going through much the same thing in their tumultuous social lives: the same disorientation, paralysis, crisis, and transformation. When Hakuin gave a form to their experience, he also gave them confidence to face it. Beyond that, he pointed to the sacredness of their own confusion—a sacredness intrinsic to consciousness itself, as he had learned from the Lotus Sutra. When Hakuin described the inner drama of Zen, it was not an arcane ritual but a tool for coping with the instability of the age.

Hakuin also had to contend with something else that Dogen never faced: a growing anti-Buddhist sentiment from Neo-Confucianists at the court and from intellectuals who admired the West and blamed Buddhism for what they saw as Asia’s backwardness, laying the ground-work for the later Meiji campaign to destroy Buddhism’s broad support among the peasantry. The “Buddhist self ” Hakuin tried to create challenged in every possible way the stereotype of the dharma as a torpid, world-evading, life-denying quiescence. When Hakuin fulminates in Blossoms against what he describes as false teaching, especially the teaching of “silent illumination,” he typically has this form of Buddhism in mind, which he countered in his public life with an explosive energy that brought forth a roaring stream of poems, paintings, commentaries, sermons, and calligraphy. And in his role as a roshi/meditation guide, he pushed students to their limits, where they would amaze themselves by unexpectedly crashing through. Hakuin wanted them to discover that the emptiness they were facing day and night, the emptiness of Mu, was not static but dynamic, not passive but wildly creative.

Hakuin invented a Buddhist vitalism that had its roots not only in the Book of Changes (which he often references in Blossoms) but also, more important, in the Chan of Linji. Linji’s screaming-shoving-slapping version of Zen, which took Chinese temples by storm, was a revolt against the spirit-crushing hierarchy of Imperial China and an education system that trained everyone, even the Mandarin elite, into habits of self-loathing, envy, and acquiescence to power. Linji saw emptiness as a way of wriggling free from that straitjacket of the mind. With his teaching of the “person of no rank,” he pointed to a spaciousness and spontaneity beyond the reach of codes and powers.

Hakuin’s problem, however, was the opposite of Linji’s. With everything dissolving around him in the solvent of a market economy, he had to restore a center of some kind when the social contract had been cancelled and the heaviest burden fell on the poor among whom he lived and suffered—from famines, among other things. Again and again Hakuin did it somehow—making the center hold—in public talks that fill page after page of Blossoms. These talks compress an enormous range of Mahayana sources, which Waddell skillfully unpacks, but their style is never pedantic. Rather, they are classic enactments of Zen pedagogy. Like koans, they prod Hakuin’s listeners out of their small, discursive minds and into a wordless samadhi that has the potential to make the here and now the center of the universe. If the talks seem difficult to understand, as Iida Toin wryly attests, that’s because we are trying to interpret them instead of allowing our disorientation to let us see in new and unexpected ways. Even listeners as deeply versed in Buddhist texts as Hakuin was—and there must have been very few— would have had a hard time teasing out all the playful, half-concealed references and the piling up of metaphors. But Hakuin wasn’t making an argument. He was creating a bodhimandala, a place of awakening.

Once we understand Hakuin’s goals, we can appreciate why he worked so hard to get Blossoms into print. He must have valued this collection as the distillation of everything that he had done, even more intimate than Wild Ivy, his spiritual autobiography. When we read Wild Ivy, we see Hakuin’s self-mythologizing at its most exorbitant. A cold wind is never just a cold wind; in Wild Ivy it becomes an arctic blast, freezing the blood and cracking the bones. Discouragement is never just discouragement. Rather, Hakuin tells us, “I began to waste away right there in the monk’s quarters. Not so much as a grain of rice would pass my craving throat.” But Blossoms gives us a different Hakuin: a person wrestling more visibly with his society’s dilemmas, working hard to preserve the dharma he loves and helping people in all kinds of distress. In Wild Ivy we get the persona, but in Blossoms we can see the priest/shaman/showman reinventing Buddhism for his time. One can only suppose that some of these talks fell flat. Some of the dharani-like poetry must have left onlookers scratching their heads in bewilderment. “I am deeply saddened,” he admits to his monks, “that so few of you have undertaken to investigate the Five Ranks.” Anyone who tries to teach the dharma today, in our age of mass distraction, knows exactly how this feels.

Of course, there’s self-mythologizing in Blossoms too. We get some of the same big fish yarns he spins out in his other works, but the book is still a revelation. Here is the Hakuin who helped to shape Zen for the next two centuries. And as usual with visionaries, the strengths of his innovations also concealed weaknesses that only became clear later on, after it was too late.

For one thing, Hakuin might have been a modern man with all of the self-consciousness that “modern” implies, but his awareness could never reach far enough to make him postmodern. His nostalgia for the idealized roles of Dogen’s lost world placed him in an impossible position because he felt compelled to feign a surefootedness not even Dogen actually possessed: he had to believe that his invented self could get free from every contradiction. This explains the aspect of his work readers today will probably find the most troubling: his rigid, even violent insistence on a single version of the Buddhism he was struggling to recreate. He couldn’t recognize that there might be other ways of cutting the cat in two, and that the Rinzai Zen master Bankei’s teaching of the unborn, to consider just one example, had much to recommend it. To Hakuin, such differences appeared deeply destabilizing, as they often did to his counterparts in Europe (think Spanish Inquisition). Regrettably, postmodernism’s “fusion of horizons” lay far beyond his own horizon. Only now, coming out on the other side of modernity, are we better positioned to regard our differences, including different dharmas, as a wealth of possibilities instead of as existential threats.

Hakuin’s Zen also brought with it another set of liabilities. When the Meiji’s modernizers tried to reduce the sangha to a puppet or a corpse, Zen priests salvaged whatever they could, jettisoning their old cosmopolitan ways and embracing the new nationalism. That accommodation eventually set the stage for the rape of Nanjing and the spectacle of Buddhist priests exhorting the troops to die for their Emperor. Half a world away, in Germany, Nietzsche’s brand of vitalism would get taken up by the Nazi party, and much the same fate befell Hakuin’s work. His Eastern vitalism all too easily became the instrument of a dictatorship, while his neglect of other, crucial elements of Buddhist tradition—compassion and lovingkindness, for example— made a bad situation even worse.

A kinder, gentler, more truly Buddhist Zen will dispense with some of the items in Hakuin’s bag of tricks, but it would be a crime to throw away the insight that enabled him to bring Zen back to life when it was comatose. While he was fashioning in Blossoms the public role of the Great Man of Zen, he also sensed the dangers intrinsic to identity of any kind, even a convincing one. And so he tried to counterbalance the artifice by insisting on total authenticity. In Hakuin’s mind, there could never be a substitute for a face-to-face encounter with the dharmakaya, our intrinsic buddhanature. As long as we can find our way back to that, he thought, we will never get lost. This is the item in the bag we should keep. If Buddhism is to survive and thrive here in North America, Hakuin’s insight still has to hold true. Sooner or later, we will need to follow him into the thicket of thorn.