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Rinzai Zen roshi Hakuin (1685-1768). From a Self-Portrait.

A pretty girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone previously revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter's accusation, he simply replied:

"Is that so?"

When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility.

"Is that so?" Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.

For many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents at once went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened.

"Is that so?" said Hakuin and handed them the child.

Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1768) of the Rinzai Zen school was one of the most influential teachers in Japanese Zen Buddhism. He came to represent rigorous training methods with meditation and koans to solve.

A kóan is a story, dialogue, question, or statement used to provoke "great doubt" in a Zen practitioner, and to test progress in Zen. [WP, "Koan"]

As a child, Hakuin attended a lecture on the Eight Hot Hells. The lecture made him fear of hell a lot, and on the other hand to seek a way to escape it. He became a Zen monk after first serving as a novice for three or four years, studying Buddhist texts. He read the Lotus Sutra and found it disappointing.

At nineteen, he came across the story of the Chinese Ch'an master Yantou Quanhuo, who had been brutally murdered by bandits. Hakuin despaired that even a great monk could not be saved from a bloody death. How then could he, just a simple monk, hope to be saved from hell?

Hakuin started to travel around with twelve other monks, studying literature and poetry instead of striving hard get enlightened. But once he got a collection of Zen stories from the Ming Dynasty in his hands he was inspired to practise Zen again.


When he was twenty-three he settled down at a temple, and next year he locked himself away in a shrine in the temple for seven days, and eventually woke up when he heard the temple bell ringing. However, his master refused to acknowledge this awakening - also called enlightenment - and Hakuin left the temple.

Hakuin went to an intensely demanding teacher, Shoju Rojin, who hurled insults and blows at him. When asked why he had become a monk, Hakuin said that it was out of terror to fall into hell.

His teacher answered, "You're a self-centered rascal, aren't you!" and gave him three koans (conundrums).

Hakuin left Shoju after eight months, without receiving formal recognition from him or any other teacher. For all that, Hakuin considered himself to be a sort of heir of Shoju Rojin, and today Hakuin is considered to have "received dharma transmission" from Shoju.

Hakuin was unable to sustain the tranquility of mind of the Zen hall in the midst of daily life. When he was twenty-six he read that "all wise men and eminent priests who lack the Bodhi-mind fall into Hell".

Bodhi in Buddhism is the understanding possessed by a Buddha about the true nature of things. It is a word tied in with being enlightened or awakened.

What Hakuin had read about bodhi-mind and the effects of lacking it, raised a "great doubt" (taigi) in him, for he had hitherto misunderstood what the bodhi-mind was to mean.

For Good

Hakuin was installed as head priest of Shoin-ji in 1718. Around this time that he took the name "Hakuin", which means "concealed in white", as "hidden in the clouds and snow of mount Fuji".

When he was forty-one, he got Awakened while reading the Lotus Sutra, and got the idea that the bodhi-mind meant working for good, as the Bodhisattva's mission was to continue practice beyond enlightenment, and then teaching and helping others "until all beings have been saved".

What is to be valued above all else is the practice that comes after satori is achieved. What is that practice? It is the practice that puts the Mind of Enlightenment first and foremost.

He would spend the next forty years teaching at Shoin-ji. Zen students began to come from all over the country to study there. Eventually Hakuin's students numbered in the hundreds. He would eventually formally certify over eighty disciples as successors.

At the age of 83, Hakuin died in Hara, the village of his birth, and which he had transformed into a centre of Zen teaching.

Such Study, Such a Lot

Studying Hakuin-style Zen required a great deal of stamina. He deeply believed that the most effective way for a student to achieve insight was through extensive meditation on a koan. He himself originated one of the best-known koans,

You know the sound of two hands clapping; tell me, what is the sound of one hand?

Hakuin preferred this new koan to the most commonly first koan from the Chinese tradition, the Mu koan. He believed his "Sound of One Hand" to be more effective.

The Mu koan: A monk asked Zhaozhou Congshen, a Chinese Zen master (known as Joshu in Japanese), "Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?"

Zhaozhou answered, "Wú" (in Japanese, Mu). [WP, "Mu (negative)"]

The koan originally comes from the Zhaozhou Zhenji Chanshi Yulu, The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu, koan 132: Here is the tale:
A monk asked, "Does a dog have a Buddha-nature or not?"

The master said, "Not [Mu]!"

The monk said, "Above to all the Buddhas, below to the crawling bugs, all have Buddha-nature. Why is it that the dog has not?"

The master said, "Because he has the nature of karmic delusions". [WP, "Mu (negative)"]

Hakuin was a firm believer in bringing the wisdom of Zen to all people. Showing a surprising broad-mindedness, most of his instruction to the common people focused on living a morally virtuous life.

Hakuin was also a popular Zen lecturer. He urged his students not to be satisfied with shallow attainments.

He wrote frequently in the last fifteen years of his life. An important part of Hakuin's practice of Zen was painting and calligraphy. He seriously took up painting when he was nearly sixty.



Hakuin Thinking

Get paid in time. Allow for that

One should be careful about spreading one's own, innate, rare, and penetrating old wit, but try to remain firm instead and holding fast, unless words flow with little effort.

Zen accomplishmentsTo get penetrating in almost graphic detail can make us despised soon enough

Within the Meditation Hall
I am hated by the thousand Buddhas;
In the company of myriad demons
I am despised by the myriad demons.

- Zen master Hakuin. [Addiss, p. 102]

Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1769) was the most influential Zen monk of the past five hundred years. His writings are voluminous. Hakuin's calligraphy and paintings became very influential art. Hakuin introduced dozens of new subjects into Zen art. Some of these themes came from his Zen teachings, others from observation of the world around him, and still others from folklore, often invested with his own very wry humor. He was a trendsetter. [Addiss, p. 102]

Although it is not a feature of most religions, quick, almost inpenetrable humour has long been associated with basic Zen.

Zen masters have often used brisk humour. The result of Hakuin's turning to brushwork to express his Zen vision was an avalanche of painting and calligraphy that spread his wit or genial wisdom in the world. It was profoundly influential. More than one thousand of Hakuin's works survive. [Addiss, p. 102]

When Hakuin was seven, his mother took him to a temple where they heard some famous travelling monk give a lecture on the torments of the eight burning hells. His whole body shook with terror, and when he came home from the lecture, he determined to become a monk. [Addiss, p. 102]

A certain medicine
The pill I'm talking about is called
Chew it well, chew it well -
Won't you take my pill? - Hakuin. [Addiss, p. 107]

Zen accomplishmentsGood words are not the only ways to suggest Zen

Several of the trend-setter's best known ink paintings provided fundamental allegories serving what seems like brisk humor. [Addiss, p. 111-12]

LoMajor subject: Daruma (Bodhisattva)

A mass of paintings, seemingly casually depicted, was outlined and then brushed more strongly. Colour was then added, lightly but effectively. [Addiss, p. 112]

Tenet: "A human's heart can be buddhahood inside."

Hakuin invented an amazingly wide repertory of themes, but his major subject was the first Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma (Japanese: Daruma).

Hakuin added his most vital message:

Pointing directly to the human heart:
See your own nature and become Buddha.

- Zen roshi Hakuin. [Addiss, p. 125]


  1. To get penetrating in almost graphic detail makes you despised soon enough.
  2. Good words are not the only ways to suggest Zen.
  3. The eyes mobilised well, unswervingly, give help to attain the Zen-mind deep inside.
  4. A human heart can be buddhahood inside.

Simple adages One may suggest Zen through both depictions and terms. There are many other outlets too. If a Zen sitting goes well, then the heart can makes its presence strongly felt or known.


Life of Buddha by Paul Carus, Literature  

Addiss, Stephen. The Art of Zen. New York: Abrams, 1980.

Low, Albert, tr. "The Four Cognitions." In Hakuin on Kensho: The Four Ways of Knowing. London: Shambala, 2006-

Waddell, Norman, tr. Beating the Cloth Drum: Letters of Zen Master Hakuin. London: Shambhala, 2012.

Waddell, Norman, tr. The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin: A Translation of the Sokko-roku Kaien fusetsu. London: Shambhala, 1994.

Waddell, Norman, tr. Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin. London: Shambhala, 2001.

Waddell, Norman, tr. Zen Words for the Heart: Hakuin's Commentary on The Heart Sutra. London: Shambhala, 2013.

WP: Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

Yampolsky, Philip B., tr. The Zen Master Hakuin: Selected Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

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