Hakuin Ekaku (1686 – 1769)


Don’t waste this birth as a human being, so difficult to obtain

How truly sad! Man is endowed with the wisdom and form of the Buddha. There is nothing that he lacks. Each person possesses this precious jewel that is the Buddha-nature, and for all eternity it radiates a great pure luminescence. But while dwelling in that true land of the pure dharma-nature of Vairocana Buddha, where this very world is the light of Nirvana, men, their eye of wisdom closed, mistake this realm for the ordinary evil world; they wrongly believe that it is peopled by sentient beings. In this one birth as a human being, one so difficult to obtain, they spend their time wandering about like horses and oxen. Lacking any judgment they extinguish the light and wander through the realms of the three painful evil existences and suffer the sorrow of the six forms of rebirth.1 They grasp at the true land of Vairocana Buddha’s unchanging eternal calm, and in their fear and delusion they cry out in pain, believing they are in eternal hell. They pride themselves on their ordinary, pointless, insignificant views, reveling in the small prejudiced learning that they have heard. They do not believe in Buddhism, have not listened to the true dharma, end their days prating nonsense, and have failed to attain, even for a moment, the mind that is master of true meditation. More pitiful still, they circle for endless ages in the coils of their evil karma; more frightening yet, they reap only the bitter fruit of the long nights of birth and death.

The Zen warrior

In my later years I have come to the conclusion that it is the warrior class that holds the advantage in accomplishing true meditation. A warrior must, from the beginning to the end, be physically strong. In the performance of his duties and in his relationships with others the most rigid punctiliousness and propriety are required. His hair must be properly arranged, his garments in the strictest of order, and his swords must be fastened at his side. With this exact and proper deportment, the true meditation stands forth with an overflowing splendor. Mounted on a sturdy horse, the warrior can ride forth to face a vast horde of enemies as though he were riding into a place empty of people. The valiant, undaunted expression on his face reflects his practice of the peerless, true, uninterrupted meditation sitting. Meditating in this way the warrior can accomplish in one month what it takes the monk a year to do. In three days he can open up for himself benefits that would take the monk a hundred days.

They say that beneath a strong general there are no weak soldiers. Thus, soldiers as valiant as Kilyapa, Ananda, Sariputra, and Piiqa, beginning with Tamura and Nomura, will flock to his banner. Then, no matter what event should occur in the world, the general and his troops, motivated by the one great true vitality, though but a hundred men facing ten thousand, will be unaware of any birth up to now. How then can there be such a thing as death! They will press forward as though breaking through the hardest stone. Their quiet will be as that of a lofty mountain, their speed that of a roaring typhoon. Everything they face will fall before them; everything they touch will collapse into pieces. Even in the midst of the raging turmoils of the Hogen and Heiji wars, it would be as though they were standing in a vast, empty plain. This we call the vital spirit and purpose of the truly great man.

The superiority of meditation in the midst of activity

Frequently you may feel that you are getting nowhere with practice in the midst of activity, whereas the quietistic approach brings unexpected results. Yet rest assured that those who use the quietistic approach can never hope to enter into meditation in the midst of activity. Should by chance a person who uses this approach enter into the dusts2 and confusions of the world of activity, even the power of ordinary understanding that he had seemingly attained will be entirely lost. Drained of all vitality, he will be inferior to any mediocre, talentless person. The most trivial matters will upset him, an inordinate cowardice will afflict his mind, and he will frequently behave in a mean and base manner. What can you call accomplished about a man like this?

The Zen Master Ta-hui has said that meditation in the midst of activity is immeasurably superior to the quietistic approach. Po-shan has said that if one does not attain to this meditation within activity, one’s practice is like trying to cross a mountain ridge as narrow as a sheep’s skull with a hundred-and-twenty pound load on one’s back (the body). I am not trying to tell you to discard completely quietistic meditation and to seek specifically for a place of activity in which to carry out your practice. What is most worthy of respect is a pure koan meditation that neither knows nor is conscious of the two aspects, the quiet and the active. This is why it has been said that the true practicing monk walks but does not know he is walking, sits but does not know he is sitting.

For penetrating to the depths of one’s own true self-nature, and for attaining a vitality valid on all occasions, nothing can surpass meditation in the midst of activity. Supposing that you owned several hundred ryo of gold and you wanted to hire someone to guard it. One candidate shuts up the room, seals the door, and just sits there. True, he does not allow the money to be stolen, but the method he adopts does not show him to be a man with much vitality. His practice may best be compared with that of the Hinayana follower, who is intent only on his own personal enlightenment.

Now suppose that there is another candidate. He is ordered to take this money and to deliver it to such-and-such a place, although the road he must take is infested with thieves and evil men who swarm like bees and ants. Courageously he ties a large sword to his waist, tucks up the hem of his robes, and fastening the gold to the end of a staff; sets out at once and delivers the money to the appointed place, without once having trouble with the thieves. Indeed, such a man must be praised as a noble figure who, without the slightest sign of fear, acts with forthrightness and courage. His attitude may be compared to that of the perfect bodhisattva who, while striving for his own enlightenment, helps to guide all sentient beings.

The several hundred ryo of gold spoken of here stand for the great resolve to carry out the true, steadfast, unretrogressing meditation practice. The thieves and evil men, swarming like bees and ants, represent the delusions of the five hindrances,3 the ten fetters,4 the five desires,5 and the eight wrongs. The man himself symbolizes the superior man, who has practiced true Zen and has gained perfect attainment. “Such-and-such a place” refers to the treasure place of the great peaceful Nirvana, endowed with the four virtues of permanence, peace, Self and purity.6 For these reasons it is said that the monk who is truly practicing Zen must carry on his activity in the midst of the phenomenal world.

1. There are six possible rebirths. Three of them–being born a beast, a hungry spirit, or a dweller of the hells–are painful.
2. Dusts: rajas in Sanskrit, meaning impurities. The six sense-phenomena are sights, sounds, sensations, odors, tastes and thoughts.
3. The five hindrances to meditation practice are sensory desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt
4. The ten fetters of Buddhaghosa (see samyojana)
5. Wealth, sex, food, fame and sleep.
6. From the Nirvana Sutra, also translated as changelessness, bliss, Self and purity.

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

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