The monk Hakuin was sometimes called “Hakuin of Hara” after the name of his birthplace, the thirteenth stop on the Tokaido Road between Kyoto and Edo. Nagasawa Ganjiro, as he was named at birth in 1685, was the third son born to Nagasawa Soi, head of Hara station located at the base of Izu peninsula, at the foot of Mount Aidaka, which is part of the mountain range that includes Mount Fuji. The Nagasawa family had been followers of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism for generations, and his mother, Myoson, was an intelligent woman with a very deep and strong belief.
Several stories are told of Hakuin’s childhood that are suggestive of how he came to choose a life in Buddhism. When he was about four, we are told, he was taken by a servant to play on the sea-shore near Hara. As time passed he noticed the sun sinking low on the horizon and then dyeing the sea red; forgetting his friends, standing alone on a rock at some distance from them, he also studied the floating clouds which rose and sank, continuously changing their shapes, and appeared and disappeared. On reaching home again he asked his mother what in the world was unchangeable, to which his mother replied: “The World of Buddhism.” Despite asking his father repeatedly and with great eagerness for permission to enter the priesthood, it was not until 1699, when Hakuin was fourteen years of age, that he was allowed to enter Shoin-ji in Hara under the abbot Tanrei, who gave him the monk’s name Ekaku.
After entering the temple Hakuin devoted himself to chanting, praying, and diligently reading many sutras and the writings of eminent monks. Having heard that the Hokekyo Sutra was the king of all sutras and its blessings limitless, Hakuin shut himself up in a temple hall and read through the entire twenty-eight books of the text. All these efforts came to naught, however, and for a time his faith seems to have wavered, and he also began to read extensively in Chinese secular poetry and literature. At age eighteen, in 1703, Hakuin began to travel in search of teachers who could lead him further along the path to realization and awakening. By early 1705 Hakuin was studying with the famous monk Bao of Zuiun-ji in Ogaki, who helped the young monk develop his talents in poetry and calligraphy in company with other students. In June of that year Hakuin received news of his mother’s death in late May, and read with great emotion her last letter to him. In that will, she expressed her hope and desire that he discipline himself, achieve enlightenment, and devote himself to others with the benevolence and mercy of the bodhisattva Kannon. He should treat old women with great consideration in memory of her, and writing Buddhist texts would be like prayers to her. Most importantly he should take great care not to become just an ordinary monk chanting sutras without thought, for then she would hate him even from the grave.
In 1706 Hakuin went to Shoshu-ji in Matsuyama to listen to lectures given by Abbot Itsuzen. While there he was invited along with four other monks by Okudaira Tozaemon, head of the Matsuyama clan, to visit the castle for tea and to view the paintings and calligraphies held in their collection. Having seen works of the highest quality, Hakuin concluded that calligraphy should not be judged simply by demonstrated skill but rather by the virtue manifested in the calligraphy. On returning to Shoshu-ji he thus burned all his calligraphy books and copies he had made, presumably having decided to perfect his character rather than his technical skill in writing.
The next year Hakuin and several other monks set off from Matsuyama, intending to visit his mother’s grave. As they walked along the beautiful coast, first one and then another of his companions became ill and could not carry his luggage, requiring Hakuin to act as porter for the three of them all the way to Hyogo. Boarding a boat, and intending to sail for Kuwana that night, Hakuin, exhausted by his mighty labor, fell fast asleep and didn’t wake until the following morning. On discovering that they were still in port, and inquiring of a sailor why they had not yet left, Hakuin was shocked to be told that they had in fact left as scheduled but had encountered a great storm that had sunk most other boats that had sailed at the same time and that only they had returned safely to port. Hakuin was very thankful, perhaps concluding that his simple act of kindness had saved them all, or perhaps only that his deep sleep had protected him from the great terror he would have experienced otherwise.
On New Year’s Day of the year 1708 Hakuin traveled to Eigen-ji in Echigo to listen to lectures being given by the monk Seitetsu. After sitting in meditation for more than ten days, during which he became physically exhausted, one morning at dawn Hakuin experienced what seemed like enlightenment. Hakuin tried to discuss his experience with first Seitetsu and then Butto, another monk, but neither really understood him, leading Hakuin to conclude that no monk had really been enlightened during the previous two hundred years! Only another visiting monk named Sokaku was able to discuss such things with him, and the two became very close, analyzing the comments and lectures they heard each day. When that series concluded, Hakuin asked Sokaku to introduce him to his master, Shoju Rojin (Dokyo Etan, 1642-1721), and the two then set off for Iiyama. Hakuin continued to work hard under Shoju, sitting in meditation for days and nights on end, and after eight months of further training he finally felt that he had achieved a true degree of awakening and decided to return to Hara.
Hakuin contracted tuberculosis at age twenty-five and had to rest for a while at Shoin-ji, but by 1717 he had recovered and moved to Myoshin-ji, which was in the lineage followed by Shoju, and from that time onward called himself Hakuin. Giving his first lectures to monks in training at age thirty-three, Hakuin continued throughout the rest of his long life to travel extensively, lecturing at various temples and teaching both monks and commoners through his poems, calligraphies, and paintings. Hakuin’s formal teaching required of pupils great faith, dedicated perseverance, and a willingness to focus their meditation on koan. Designed as a tool to lead by a flash of sudden intuition to a state of pure consciousness, without mental discriminations, the koan was most often illogical, nonsensical to the intellect, and soluble only by breaking through the limitations of the intellect. Hakuin in fact devised the koan known as Sekishu no onjo the “Sound of the Single Hand,” which in the West has come to be almost synonymous with the practice of Zen.
While Hakuin believed in a long and highly disciplined course of study, centering on the koan, for monastic monks, he also devoted much thought and effort to the lay world, in writings and in works of art. Done in spontaneous, humorous, and unconventional style, each of these embodies some religious concept in very memorable form and communicates its message with the utmost directness and visual impact. Often done at the request of his parishioners or of visitors to the temple, and also designed to serve as repayment for gifts that Hakuin or his temple had received, the paintings are often quite similar in composition and inscription (figures 1-4).
Hotei (Chinese Pu-tai), subject of the present painting, originated in the person of a 10th century Ch’an monk who was fat good-natured and fun-loving, and who traveled about with a large burlap bag (literally pu-tai, hence the name by which he is known) in which to collect alms and other offerings. Later held to be an incarnation of Maitreya, Buddha of the Future, Hotei achieved without striving, lived fully and well without toiling or spinning, much like the lilies of the field in the Christian tradition. This image was painted by Hakuin several times (figure 5), each accompanied by short inscriptions—in the present case from the Kannon Fumom-pon of the Hokekyo Sutra—that enjoin viewers to live naturally and morally, without ambitions or attachments, whereupon all will inevitably gain great wealth of the spirit and true happiness of living. The inscription on the storage box of the present painting was written by Abbot Sokaku, during the 1950s head of Hakuin’s home temple and a specialist in the life and art of the master. With such simple yet profound visual messages, Hakuin revitalized the Rinzai sect of his day and is considered the spiritual ancestor of all who follow the school today.
1. This account follows that of Tsuzan Sokaku: “Hakuin Zenshi-den,” in Bokubi (Hakuin Bokuseki (Sonen) Tokushu) No. 78, Kyoto, 1958, pp. 17-26.
2. Philip B. Yampolsky: The Zen Master Hakuin: Selected Writings, New York, 1971, p. 27.
Fig. 1. Hakuin: “Daruma,” after Bokubi, no. 78, Kyoto 1958, p. 34, fig. 25.
Fig. 2. Hakuin: “Daruma,” after Bokubi, no. 78, Kyoto 1958, p. 34, fig. 26.
Fig. 3. Hakuin: “Sakyamuni Emerging from the Mountains,” after Bokubi, no. 78, Kyoto, 1958, p. 35, fig. 29.
Fig. 4. Hakuin: “Daruma Crossing the River on a Reed,” after Bokubi, no. 78, Kyoto, 1958, p. 36, fig. 32.
Fig. 5. Hakuin: “Hotei,” after Yasuchi Awakawa: Zen Painting, Tokyo, 1980, p. 111, fig. 78.