The Enlightenment of Zen Master Hakuin

IN the spring of 1704, when he was nineteen and already a monk, Hakuin went to the Zen community at Aomizu. The master was discoursing to the public on the history of Buddhism in China, and mentioned Gen-Tao, a famous master of the Tang Dynasty, in whose time Buddhism was subjected to persecution. After the lecture he thought he would like to find out some details about this master’s life, and went by himself to read Gen-Tao’s life in one of the histories. The following phrases caught his eye :

” Master (sen-Tao told his disciples one day : `When I go, I shall go with a great shout.’ In fact this master was killed by brigands. As they drew their knives, he stood perfectly calm, and just before he was killed he gave one great cry, which was heard a long way away.”

This story produced a great uncertainty in Hakuin’s mind. Master Gen-Tao had been the great religious genius of his century, and yet he had not been able to escape the brigands. What hope, then, was there for himself? Why had he left the world? He fell into complete discouragement, and thought of taking up poetry as a career. He thought of the subjects of poetry -the beauty of the flowers and trees-and of its rewards -honour, money and success.

When he looked at the scriptures he always felt depressed, and the next year, when he encountered a famous poet at the Zui-un temple, he began to give his mind to poetry to try to forget the doubt that tortured his heart. But he could not shake it off, and it continued to plague him, becoming deeper still. When he could bear it no more, he saw one day several hundred books from the temple library piled on the verandah for airing. He thought he would try to get a revelation from them. He first lit a stick of incense and prayed to the Buddhas of the Ten Directions for guidance, then closed his eyes and pulled out a book at random.

When he opened his eyes, he found he had a Zen anthology in his hand, and his eye fell on the following :

“The monk used to meditate the whole night without sleep, for the old masters did so, and through such austerities grows and prospers the light within. What sort of a man is he who spends his life profitlessly, to go at death he knows not whither ? “

This made him determined to begin his practices anew, and he resumed them with vigour, under his old teacher. The time came when in his meditations he lost for a long time all consciousness of everything except the meaning of the meditation.

He felt as if he were in the middle of a field of ice extending thousands of miles, and within there was a sense of the utmost transparency.

Suddenly through the meditation he heard faintly the sound of the great bell of the temple, and all at once awoke to a great Enlightenment.

He shouted : ” Wonderful, wonderful ! The old master Gen-Tao is here within myself ; in all these centuries nothing has been lost.

Life and death have no power to bind, and Nirvana is not something that has to be achieved.”

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