Zen master Hakuin on the Lotus Mantra

The Sutra called “The Lotus of the Wonderful Law “ (Sad Dharma Pundarika) is one of the fundamental scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. A commentary on it was written by Prince Shotoku, who used it to introduce Buddhism into Japan in the sixth century. Since his time, the chief Buddhist teachers of Japan have given this text an important place. Dengyo Taishi, founder of the Tendai Sect in Japan, made it the centre of his doctrine ; his great contemporary Kobo Daishi, of the Shingon or Mantra Sect, wrote his own commentary on the Lotus Sutra.

There are introductions to the sutra by Honen, founder of the Pure Land sect, by the famous Zen master Dogen, and many others. Then in the thirteenth century, the saint Nichiren began to teach his followers the practice of repetition of the mantra of the Lotus, which runs:
” Namu Myoho Ren ge-kyo “, ” Reverence to the Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law “.

By repetition of this mantra with single-mindedness and sincerity, taught Nichiren, we become conscious of the essence of the Sutra, namely the eternal Buddha-nature in all.

The practice of mantra is very ancient, and goes back to Vedic times in India. The mantra is a formula constructed according to certain principles so that its repetition with concentration produces the conditions necessary for enlightenment. The mantra is first repeated aloud, but the aim is continuous mental repetition. Repetition has to be accompanied with purity, sincerity, and intense devotion, and the yogic tradition is that the mantra which is acquired from a traditional teacher is the most effective.

Hakuin does not speak here of devotion, but rather of a fierce spirit of inquiry into the Self. It is clear, however, that in either case the whole mental energy has to be thrown into the process. Furthermore, it is to be noted that he is recommending the practice of the mantra to ” followers of the Sutra “– namely those already making serious efforts to acquire the virtues mentioned in the Sutra.

Hakuin was born in Japan at the end of the seventeenth century, and is one of the most prominent figures in Zen history. He was a poet and essayist of genius, and an acute psychologist. His writings on Zen are all from the psychological standpoint, and his position might be com=pared with that of St. Teresa in Christian mysticism. This translation of his short essay on the Lotus Sutra has been kept literal, in order to convey as much as possible the fresh ness of its vivid images. Most of these are clear as they stand, but one or two references need explaining. Samadhi is the peak of Buddhist meditation.

Mount Sumeru is, in Buddhist cosmology, the central mountain of the world. The stone in the garden refers to the beautiful rock-gardens attached to most temples. In the last sentence of the text, Hakuin contrasts the so-to-say circular repetition of the mantra with the line of Chinese characters of the Zen meditation text. Such texts are often in the nature of riddles, and the monk is explicitly told not to repeat the words again and again like a mantra, but to abandon the words and extract the inner meaning.

Nevertheless, says the Zen master, the end of the mantra practice is the same as that of Zen meditation. He describes the final illumination as the vision of One without a second, just as the sages of ancient India described it. Nor are these phrases to be taken as metaphors, beautiful but not statements of fact: again and again Hakuin says that the ” true face “ of the Sutra is seen ” clearly, before one’s very eyes “, a parallel to Shri Shankara’s statement that truth must be seen ” as clearly as a fruit placed on the palm of the hand “.


If a man wants to penetrate to the true face of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law, first of all he must arouse a spirit of intense inquiry. What does it mean, the “true face of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law “? We are told that it is the Wonderful Law of one’s own true being. So it simply means seeing one’s own soul. What is one’s soul? Would it be something white, or would it be something red perhaps? Making up the mind to have the vision of it at any cost, putting forth fierce and resolute efforts of will, making the great Vows, one must continue the investigation day and night. In the inquiry into one’s own soul there are many and various practices, but for the follower of the Lotus Sutra there is none better than the Samadhi of the Lotus.

The practice of the Lotus Samadhi is this : to resolve that from to-day, whether in bitterness and hardship, sorrow or joy, resting or waking, standing or sitting, one will keep up continuously and earnestly the Lotus mantra : Namu Myoho Ren ge-kyo, Namu Myoho Ren ge-kyo. This mantra is to be made one’s strength and one’s staff; it is to be repeated with the deep determination to know the true face of the Lotus Sutra at any cost.

Trying to make every outward and inward breath into the mantra, very earnestly must one repeat it, without any interruption. Thus repeating and repeating without a break, in no long time in the essence of the soul there will be a dim perception of something set like a great stone (in a garden), at rest, un moving, the heart of holy Mount Sumeru. At this point one must not relax his efforts, but must repeat the mantra all the more.

Then without realizing it one will have grasped the great thing, the trick of Right Mindfulness. All the mind, thought, perception and emotion of ordinary life do not function any more. It is like being in a sphere of diamond, or as if seated in a vase of lapis-lazuli; there is not a trace of expectation or thought. He is no different from one at the bottom of death.

Then the revival comes, and at its merest breath there appears of itself the truth of pure unity without a second, knocking all things into one. All at once body and mind are annihilated, overwhelmed by the “true face “of the Lotus of the Law. That Buddha who attained enlightenment in remote ages, and gave illumination to others, is clearly before the eyes, and though one might push at him, he will not go away.

This is what the Tendai calls entering the
treasury of the tranquil but ever-shining Buddha-nature.
It is to be lit by the eternal Buddha-wisdom which the Shingon
symbolizes by the mystic letter ” A “.

It means to conform without effort to the great rules of conduct of the Ritsu doctrine; it is being born in the Land of Bliss of the Pure Land sect.

One sees before one’s very eyes the waters, the birds, the trees, in mystic and solemn beauty, giving reverence to the Buddha, reverence to the Law, reverence to the

Holy Ones. The true eye is opened, which sees that this very world is paradise itself. One reaches the state where the grass, the trees, the earth, all, all, have become Buddha -not even a hair of distinction to be made. Is there any greater merit in this world or in heaven ? In this is the pre-eminence of the Buddhas of the three worlds. The circle of the mantra and the line of the meditation text in Zen, in effect there is no difference between them.

© Trevor Leggett

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