Yasenkanna an autobiographical narrative by Zen Master Hakuin

Yasenkanna – an autobiographical memoir by Zen Master Hakuin

When as a beginner I entered on the Way, I vowed to practise with heroic faith and indomitable spirit. After a mere three years of strenuous effort, suddenly one night the moment came, when all my old doubts melted away down to their very roots. The age-old Karma-root of birth-and-death was erased utterly. I thought to myself: ‘The way is never distant. Strange that the ancients spoke of twenty or thirty years, whereas I …’ After some months lost in dancing joy, I looked at my life. The spheres of activity and stillness were not at all in harmony; I found I was not free to either take up a thing or leave it. I thought: ‘Let me boldly plunge again into spiritual practice and once more throw away my life in it.’ Teeth clenched and eyes aglare, I sought to free myself from food and sleep. Before a month had passed the heart-fire mounted to my head, my lungs were burning but my legs felt as if freezing in ice and snow. In my ears was a rushing sound as of a stream in a valley. My courage failed and I was in an attitude of constant fear. I felt spiritually exhausted, night and day seeing dreams, my armpits always wet with sweat and my eyes full of tears. I cast about in every direction, consulting famous teachers and doctors, but all their devices availed nothing at all.

Someone told me: ‘In the mountains of the place called White-River, beyond the capital, there is one who dwells in the heights, know to the people as Master Hakuyu. He is believed to be over two hundred years old, and he lives there several miles from human habitation. He does not like to see people, and if they go he will run away and conceal himself. Men do not know whether to think him a sage or a madman, but the villagers believe him to be a Sennin, one of the mountain immortals. They say he was once the teacher of Ishikawa Jozan, deeply versed in the science of the stars and the lore of medicine. Occasionally to a seeker who went in true reverence he has vouchsafed a word, which when pondered afterwards was of great benefit.’

So in the middle of January 1710, I quietly put together some travelling things, left Mino and crossed Black-Valley, finally coming to the village of White-River. Putting down my bundle in a teashop, I asked the whereabouts of the hermitage of Hakuyu. A villager directed me to a mountain stream in the far distance. I followed the rushing water, which took me to a remote mountain valley. Following straight up for a couple of miles, I found that it suddenly disappeared. There was no path and I was at a loss; unable to go on, I stood in dismay. Helplessly I sat down on a stone to one side, and with closed eyes and joined palms repeated a Sutra. As if by a miracle there came to my ears a distant sound of blows of an axe; pursuing the sound deeply into the trees, I came upon a woodcutter. The old man pointed towards the far-off mountain mists, and I made out a tiny patch of yellowish white, now concealed and now revealed by the movement of the haze – ‘that is the reed curtain which hangs before the mouth of the cave of Master Hakuyu.’ At once I tucked in my clothes and began to climb, now over steep rocks, now pushing through mountain grasses; my sandals soaked with snow and ice were freezing, and my clothes wet through with mist and dew. As I toiled on the sweat poured down, but gradually I came up to the place of the reed curtain. The exquisite purity of the landscape made me feel I had left the world of men. A dread shook my heart and soul, and I was shivering as if stripped naked.

I seated myself on a rock for a while an counted my breath up to some hundreds. Then I straightened and tidied my dress and went forward with reverent awe. Peering through the reed curtain, I dimly made out the form of Master Hakuyu, seated in meditation posture with his eyes closed. His hair streaked with white fell to his knees, his beautiful complexion was full and clear. A quilted cloth was thrown round him and his seat was a bed of tuft grass. The cave was small, barely six foot square. There were no provisions of any kind, but on a low table three books: the Doctrine of the Mean, the classic of Lao Tzu, and the Diamond Sutra.

After making many salutations, I quietly related the course of my illness and asked for help. In a little he opened his eyes and looked at me keenly. He said slowly: ‘I am just an ordinary man living out the rest of my life in the mountains. I gather chestnuts for food and sleep in company with the tame deer. What do I know about anything else? I am only sorry that the journey in expectation of a holy man should have been in vain…’ I again and again repeated my reverences and my request. Then he quietly took my hand, made a careful examination of my condition and inspected the bodily openings. His long-nailed fingers smoothed his forehead in a gesture of sympathy: ‘Your condition is pitiable. By contemplating on truth too strenuously, you have lost the rhythm of spiritual advance, and that has finally brought on a grievous malady. And it is something very hard to cure, this Zen illness of yours. Though the sages of medicine frown over your case and put forth all their skill with needle and cautery and drugs, yet would they be helpless. You have been broken by your contemplation on truth (Ri-kan), and unless you devote yourself to inner contemplation (Nai-kan) you can never recover. There is a saying that you rise by means of that same ground on which you fell, and the Naikan method is and example of that principle.’

I said: ‘Be gracious enough to tell me the secret of the Naikan, and I will practise in the temple.’
His face became solemn, his appearance changed and he began to speak slowly: ‘So. You are a real seeker. Shall I pass on to you a little of what I heard long ago? It is the secret of replenishing life, and those who know it are few. If you practise it without falling away, you will surely see a marvellous effect in yourself, and it may well be that you will never close your eyes in death.’

‘The great Way (Tao) dividing itself, there are the two principles Yin and Yang, by whose mingling in harmony are born men and things. In man the primal Ki-energy moves silently in the centre, and the five organs range themselves and the pulse moves. The supporting Ki-energy and the nourishing blood move in a circulation, rising and falling, about fifty cycles in the course of one day and night. The lungs, under the metal sign, are feminine and float above the diaphragm. The heart – fire – is the sun, the great Yang, with its place above, and the kidneys – water – are the great Yin, occupying the lower place. In the five organs are seven divinities, the spleen and the kidneys having each two.

The outbreath goes from the heart and lungs, the inbreath comes to the kidneys and liver. With each outbreath the pulse current advances three inches, and at each inbreath another three. In a day and night there are 13,500 breaths and the pulse makes the circuit of the body fifty times. Fire is light and buoyant, ever inclined to ascend; water is heavy and always tends downwards.
‘If you do not know these things, your efforts at contemplation lose the rhythm and the will becomes over-extended; then the heart-fire blazing up strikes the metal of the lungs which is scorched and impaired. As the metal mother (lungs) suffers, the water child (kidneys) decays and dies. Parent and child are injured, all five organs are afflicted and the six auxiliaries oppressed. The elements losing their harmony produce a hundred and one diseases. Against this condition all remedies lose their power, and though every art of medicine be enlisted, in the end they can claim no success.

‘Replenishing the life is in fact like looking after a kingdom. The bright lord, the sage ruler, always concentrates his heart on those below; the dull lord, the ordinary ruler, is always letting his heart go upward as it wills. And when it flies up at its own will, the great nobles become overbearing and the minor officials rely on special favours, and no one of them ever looks down at the misery of the masses. In the country the peasants are emaciated, the land starves, the people die. Wisdom and virtue hide themselves and the masses are full of resentment and hate. The nobles become independent and rebellious, and strife arises with barbarian enemies. The people are reduced to the last extremity; the life-pulse of the country becomes sluggish and finally extinct.

‘But when the ruler concentrates his heart downwards, the great nobles check their ostentation, the minor officials carry out their duties, and the labour of the people never goes unrewarded. The farmers have abundant crops and their women clothes; many wise men are attracted into service with the ruler, the retainers are respectful and obedient, the people prosperous and the country strong. None within conspires to defeat the law, and no enemy attacks the frontiers. The country does not hear the sound of war and the people need know nothing of weapons.
‘It is just so with the human body. The perfect man always keeps the lower regions filled with his heart-energy; when the heart energy is thus made full downwards, the seven ills find no place within and assaults from without find no weak point. The body is vigorous and robust and the heart-spirit sound. So the mouth never knows the taste of medicines, sweet or bitter, the body never has to undergo the pains of cautery and needle. But the ordinary man takes the heart-energy always freely upwards, and when it thus mounts as it likes, the (heart) fire on the left overcomes the (lung) metal on the right, the senses dwindle and fail and the six auxiliaries are oppressed and lose their harmony. So it is that Shitsuen says: “The true man breathes his breath from the heels, the ordinary man breathes his breath from the throat.”

Kyoshun says: “When the Ki is in the lower region, the breath is long; when it is in the upper region, the breath is contracted.” Joyoshi says: “In man the energy is verily one alone. When it goes down to the Tanden, the Yang reacts, and the beginning of the reaction in the form of Yang can be confirmed by a feeling of warmth.” The general rule for replenishing the life is that the upper regions should always be cool and the lower regions warm.

‘The pulses of the body are twelve-branched, corresponding to the twelve months of the year and the twelve periods of the day. So also the Book of Change has its six seasons, whose cycle of change makes up the year. In this system, when five Yins are above and one Yang is held below, the omen is Thunder in the earth returning. The reference is to the depth of winter, and this is what is meant by the true man’s breathing from the heels. When three Yangs are in the lower position and three Yins above, it is Earth and Heaven in harmony, the season of the new year when everything is imbued with life-bearing energy and plants receive the abundance for the spring blossoming. This represents the perfect man’s taking down his energy to fill the lower regions, and when a man attains it he is filled with heroic vigour. But when five Yins are below and one Yang remains above, it is Mountain and Earth stripped, the season of September. When it manifests in nature, forest and garden lose their colours and all the plants fade and fall. The ordinary man’s breathing from the throat is a symbol. In the human body it is a drying and stiffening of the frame, with the teeth becoming loose and falling. Of this condition the books on the prolonging life say that the six Yangs are all exhausted – in other words the man who is only Yin is near death. What has to be known is just this: the central principle is to take the life energy down to fill the lower regions.

‘In olden times Tokeisho purified himself before appearing in front of the teacher Sekidai to ask about the secret of distilling the Tan-elixir. The teacher said: “I have the secret of the great mystic elixir, but there is no transmission except to one of superior merit.” Again in antiquity, when Koseishi transmitted it to the Yellow Emperor, the Emperor had to perform purification for twenty-one days in order to be fit to receive it. Apart from the great Tao there is no elixir, and apart from the elixir no great Tao. Now there is a method of fivefold purification: when the six cravings are abandoned, and the five senses have forgotten their operation, you will dimly perceive filling you the life-energy, hard to distinguish. This is what the Taoist Taihaku meant when he said: “Through the divine energy in me to unite with the primal divine energy.”

‘Mencius speaks of the free energy in man. This is to be led to the Tanden in the energy-sea at the navelwheel and concentrated there; for months and years protect it and maintain the unity, nourish it and make it perfect. One morning that alchemist’s crucible will be transcended, and within and without and in the middle, in all directions and in everything, there will be the one great elixir circulating. Then at last you awaken and attain to the self, the true immortality of the great spiritual Sennin, which was not born even before heaven and earth were, which does not die even after space itself has ceased to exist. In the alchemy of the Tan-elixir this is the season of Fulfilment. Why do they cling to little psychic powers like riding on the wind and bestriding the mists, crushing the earth and walking on water, churning the ocean to produce the celestial So cream and transmuting clay into yellow gold? A sage has said: “The Tan-elixir is the Tanden, just below the navel. The secret alchemical liquid is that from the lungs, which is to be taken and returned to the Tanden.” So the teaching is, the metal liquid is the circulation of the Tan.’

I said: ‘With reverence I hear. I am to drop my Zen contemplation for a while, and cure myself by devoting my time to these new practices. I have one misgiving: may this not be what Rishisai condemns as falling into pure inertia? If the heart is held to one place, will not the Ki and the blood become stagnant?’
Hakuyu smiled a little and replied: ‘Not so. Does not Rishisai say that the nature of fire is to blaze up and therefore it should be taken down, whereas the nature of water is to sink and therefore it should be made to rise? Water ascending and fire descending, that is what he calls the mixing. When they are mixed the omen is Fulfilled; when they are unmixed the omen is Unfulfilled. The former is the sign of life, the latter the sign of death. The school of Rishisai condemns the so-called sinking into pure inertia in order to save students form falling into the error of Tankei (who cultivates only the Yin).

‘An ancient says: “The minister-fire tends to rise and oppress the body; remedy this with water which by nature controls fire.” The fire indeed is of dual nature, the prince-fire which is above and has charge of stillness, and the minister-fire which is below and has charge of activity. The prince-fire is the lord of the heart, the minister-fire is its servant. The minister-fire itself is dual, namely kidneys and liver. The liver is compared to thunder and the kidneys to dragons. So it is said, when the dragons are taken back to the bottom of the sea, thunder will not break forth, and when the thunder is taken into concealment in the depths of the lake, the dragons will not soar aloft. Sea and lake are both of watery nature; this is the secret of preventing the tendency of the minister-fire to mount. Again it is said: “When the heart is exhausted, in the vacuity fire blazes up; therefore at the time when there is vacuity, take the fiery energy downwards and mingle it with the kidneys – that is the remedy.” It is the way of Fulfilment.

‘From the mounting of the heart-fire your grievous illness has arisen. If you do not take it down you will never recover though you learn and practise all the healing remedies human and divine. Now it may be that as my outward appearance is that of a Taoist, you fancy that my teaching is far from Buddhism. But this is Zen. One day, when you break through, you will see how laughable were your former ideas.

‘This contemplation attains right contemplation by no-contemplation. Many-pointed contemplation is wrong contemplation. Hitherto your contemplation has been many-pointed and so you have contracted this grave malady. Is it not then proper to cure it by no-contemplation? If you now control the fire of heart and will and put it in the Tanden and right down to the soles of the feet, your breast will of itself become cool, without a thought of calculation, without a ripple of passion. This is true contemplation, pure contemplation. Do not call it dropping your Zen contemplation, for the Buddha himself says: “Hold your heart down in the soles of the feet and you heal a hundred and one ills.” Further the Agama scriptures speak of the use of the So cream in curing mental exhaustion. The Tendai meditation classic called “Stopping and Contemplating” deals in detail with illnesses and their causes, and describes the methods of treatment. It gives twelve different ways of breathing to cure various forms of illness, and it prescribes the method of visualizing a bean at the navel. The main point is that the heart-fire must be taken down and kept at the Tanden and down to the soles, and this not only cures illness but very much helps Zen contemplation.

‘In the Tendai system there are in fact two forms of Stopping: one is by controlling the associations, and the other is clearness of Truth. The latter is full contemplation of reality, whereas the former stresses first restraining the mind and vitality in the Tanden. If the student practises it, he will find it most useful. Long ago the Zen patriarch Dogen, founder of Eiheiji temple, crossed to China and made his reverence before the teacher Nyojo on Mount Tendo. One day he entered the master’s room and asked for instruction. The master said: “O Dogen, at the time of sitting in meditation, put your heart on your left palm.” This is fundamentally what the Tendai master means by his Stopping . The latter records in one of his works on the subject of how he taught the secret to a sick brother, whom it saved from death.

‘ Again, Abbott Haku-un says: “ I always direct my heart so that it fills my abdomen. Helping students or receiving  visitors or entertaining guests, however it may be, preaching and teaching and all else, I have never ceased to do it. Now in my old age that virtue of the practice is clearly apparent.” That is well said indeed. It is based on the phrase in the Somon classic of medicine:” When you are quiet and simple, and empty within, the true Ki energy conforms to that. If the spirit is kept within, how should sickness come? The point is to keep the fundamental Ki within, pervading and supporting the whole body so in the 360 joints and 84,000 pores there is not a hair’s breadth without it. Know this to be the secret of preserving life.

‘ Master Ho (who lived 800 years) speaks thus of a method of harmonising the spirit and directing the Ki: ”Shut yourself away in a quiet private room, and prepare a bed level and warm, with a pillow two-and-a-half inches high. Stretch yourself out on the back, close the eyes and confine the heart energy within the breast. Put a feather on the nose and make your breathing so slow that it is not moved. After three hundred breaths the ears hear nothing, the eyes see nothing; in this state heat and cold cannot assail, the bee’s sting cannot poison. Life will be prolonged to 360 years and you approach the state of the immortals.”

‘The great poet- mystic Sotoba says:”Do not eat until you are hungry, and stop before you satisfied. Go for a walk until the exertion makes the stomach empty, and when it is empty enter a quiet room. Sit silently in the meditation posture and count the outgoing and incoming breaths. Count from one to ten, from one to a hundred, from a hundred to a thousand, when the body will become immobile and the heart serene as the clear sky. If this practice is prolonged the breath will come to a stop of itself. When it neither comes in or goes out, a vaporous exhalation will come from the 84,000 pores, rising like a mist. You will find that all illnesses you ever had are removed, and every obstacle eliminated. Now, like a blind man whose eyes suddenly opened, you do not need to ask another the way.” The only thing needed is to cut short worldly talk and build up the fundamental Ki. So it is said: He who would nourish the power of the eyes always keeps them shut, he would nourish the power of the ears is never eager to hear, he who would nourish the heart energy is ever silent.’

I asked:’ May I hear of the use of the So cream?’ Hakuyu said:’ If the student finds in his meditation that the four great elements are out of harmony, and the body and mind are fatigued, he should rouse himself and make this meditation. Let him visualise placed on the crown of his head that celestial So onitment, about as much as a duck’s egg, pure in colour and fragrance. Let him feel its exquisite essence and flavour melting and filtering down through his head, its flow permeating downwards, slowly laving the shoulders and elbows, the sides of the breast and within the chest, the lungs, liver, stomach and internal organs, the back and spine and hip bones. All the old ailments and adhesions and pains in the five organs and six auxiliaries follow the mind downwards.There is a sound as of the trickling of water. Percolating through the whole body, the float goes gently down the legs, stopping at the soles of the feet.

‘ Then let him make this meditation: that the elixir having permeated and filtered down through him, its abundance fills up the lower half of his body. It becomes warm, and he is saturated in it. Just as a skilful physician collects herbs of rare fragrance and puts them in a pan to boil, so the student feels that from the navel down he is simmering in the So elixir. When this meditation is being done there will be psychological experiences of a sudden indescribable fragrance, at the nose tip, of a gentle and in exquisite sensation in the body. Mind and body become harmonised and far surpass their condition at the peak of youth. If the practice is carried on without relapse, what illness will not be healed, what power will not be acquired, what perfection will not be obtained, what Way will not be fulfilled? The arrival of the result depends only on how the student performs the practices.

‘ When I was a youth I was much more ill than you are now. The doctors gave up the case, I clutched one hundred expedients but could find no art that would help me. I prayed to the deities of heaven and earth, and invoked the aid of the divine Sennin. By their grace they came to me unexpectedly the secret of the So cream. My joy was indescribable, and I practised it continuously. Before a month had passed the greater part of the illnesses had been eliminated, and there after I have felt only lightness and peace in my body and mind. Unmoving, unminding, I do not reckon the months or keep track of the years; thoughts of the world have become few, old habits and desires seem forgotten.

I do not know how old I may be. For a time I came to wander in solitude in the mountains of Wakasu;  that was about thirty years. No one in the world knew me. When I look back it is just like the dream at Koryan (where a traveller dreamed the dream of the events of a lifetime in half an hour). Now, alone in these mountains, I have set free this body. There are only a couple of cloths for covering, yet in the hardest winter, when the cloth curls under the cold, my body suffers no chill. The grain comes to an end and often there is nothing to eat several months, yet I feel neither hunger nor cold. What is this but the power of the Naikan? The secret I have given you is something whose mysteries you will never exhaust. Besides this, what have I to tell you? He closed his eyes and sat in silence. My eyes were full of tears as I made my farewell salutations.

Slowly I descended from the cave mouth. The remaining sunbeams just touched the tips of the trees. I began to notice a sound of footsteps echoing in the mountain and valley. And awe and dread came over me, and fearfully I turned to look back. I saw in the distance that the Master Hakuyu had left the rock cave. As he came up he said: ‘In these trackless mountains you can easily be lost. I will guide your steps lest you get into difficulties.’ With his great wooden clogs and thin staff he trod the steep rocks and sheer cliffs lightly as level ground; talking and laughing as he showed me the way. Two or three miles down the mountain we came to the valley stream. He said:’ follow its course and will come safe to White-River valley,’ and abruptly left me. For some time I stood like a tree, watching the master returning, his stride like that of an ancient hero. So lightly he escaped the world, ascending the mountain as if on wings. A longing and awe were on me – to the end of my days I have regretted that I could not follow such a man

Slowly I went back . I absorbed myself continuously in the Naikan practices, and in barely three years all my maladies disappeared of themselves without drugs or other treatment. Not merely was the illness cured, but the Koan, hard to hold and hard to follow, hard to understand and hard to enter, on which before I could find no purchase for hand or foot, into which I could not bite, now I followed  to the root and penetrated to the bottom. Six or seven times I and the great bliss of that passing through, end times without counting the dancing joy of minor satori. I knew that the old master Daiye was really not deceiving us when he spoke of eighteen great satori realisations and countless lesser ones.

As for myself, in the old days the soles of my feet were always freezing as if in ice, even when I wore two or three pairs of socks, but now during the three months of this winter’s rigour I neither put on socks nor warm my feet at the fire. I have passed my seventieth year, yet there is no trace of illness to be found, and surely this is the effect all that divine secret.

Now let it not be said that the old dodderer of Shoinji has with his dying gasps chronicled a mass of drivel to bamboozle good men. For those who are already spiritual ashes, whose blow has struck through to satori, and those higher ones this was never meant; but dullards like myself, who have been ill like me, it will undoubtedly be of help to be studied. The only fear is that outsiders will clap their hands and laugh over it. When the horse is chewing up an old straw basket, one can’t get a nap in peace.

Translated by Trevor Leggett


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