Two and a half centuries after his death, the thing he’s most remembered for is his line “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” which, for some unknown reason, became the most famous of all koans—those notoriously confounding questions Zen masters use to check their students’ awakening. It pops up in the strangest places whenever Zen inscrutability needs to be demonstrated: it’s been the title of a novel, of a movie—and even the answer to a question on Jeopardy. It’s hard to know what Hakuin would have thought of his inadvertent contribution to twenty-first-century popular culture, but if the record he left us in words and images is any indication, he had a fine and subtle sense of humor. He’d likely have gotten a kick out of the Simpsons episode in which Lisa poses the famous case to her aggressively indifferent brother Bart.
Cartoon sitcoms aside, Hakuin Ekaku is undeniably one of the most important of all Zen masters. He came into the Rinzai school of Zen and revitalized it during a period when its very survival was in question, focusing practice back on the basics of zazen and koan study. He was the quintessential Zen master of the people, who extended his teaching far beyond the monastery to include folks from all walks of life. All modern Rinzai masters trace their lineage back through Hakuin. Among the more well-known of them to teach recently in the West have been Soen Nakagawa Roshi, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, and Maurine Stuart Roshi, one of the first female Zen masters in America.
Compared to a lot of figures from the eighteenth century, we actually know a good deal about the details of Hakuin’s life—primarily through his own autobiographical writings, Goose Grass and Wild Ivy, and also through his student Torei Enji’s Biography of Zen Priest Hakuin.
Hakuin was born around 1686 in a small village near the base of Mount Fuji. At age fifteen he secured grudging permission from his parents to enter life at nearby Shoin-ji temple, from which he was eventually sent to Daisho-ji (also near his home village), where he spent his novitiate and where he read the entire Lotus Sutra. He’s said to have found the esteemed scripture deeply disappointing, as it “consisted of nothing more than simple tales about cause and effect.” He didn’t change his low opinion about it until the night of his enlightenment twenty-five years later.
Four years after his entry into the monastic life, his teacher allowed him to set off on pilgrimage to study with Zen masters all over Japan. This pilgrimage ended up lasting fourteen years, ending only when he was called back to become priest at Shoin-ji, which had fallen into near-ruin during the years he was away. It became his place of practice and teaching for the rest of his life. An example of the intensity with which Hakuin practiced comes from Torei’s biography:
He endured great privation without ever deviating from his spare, simple way of life. He didn’t adhere to any fixed schedule for sutra-chanting or other temple rituals. When darkness fell, he would climb inside a derelict old palanquin and seat himself on a cushion he placed on the floorboard. One of the young boys studying at the temple would come, wrap the master’s body in a futon, and cinch him up tightly into this position with ropes. There he would remain motionless, like a painting of Bodhidharma, until the following day when the boy would come to untie him so that he could relieve his bowels and take some food. The same routine was repeated nightly.
On a spring night in 1726, when he was forty-one, after numerous other “small” enlightenment experiences, Hakuin attained final, decisive awakening while reading the passage in the Lotus Sutra (the same scripture he’d scorned as a youth) that declares a bodhisattva’s mission as one of practicing beyond enlightenment until all beings are saved. That passage became the theme of the rest of his life. Up until that night, Hakuin’s practice was directed toward his own awakening. But from that moment on, his life was completely devoted to leading others to liberation—something for which he seems to have had a talent. Students gathered around him in increasing numbers, and before long, monks, nuns, and laypeople from all over Japan began to make their way to this once-obscure temple to hear Hakuin expound on the dharma. The countryside around Shoin-ji sometimes came to resemble a big Zen camp meeting.
Hakuin left over fifty written works, most of them based on recorded talks, several of which have been translated into English by the great modern Hakuin scholar Norman Waddell, and several of which Shambhala has been honored to publish. The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin is a translation of the work whose Japanese title translates “Talks Given Introductory to Zen Lectures on the Records of Sokko,” which is considered one of his most important works, most representative of his teaching in general. It’s a great place to start with Hakuin, and it includes the wonderfully titled talk “Licking Up Hsi-keng’s Fox Slobber.”
Hakuin’s teaching style was what might be referred to today as “in your face.” This quality is nowhere more apparent than in his commentary on the Heart Sutra, which is based on talks he gave around age sixty, at the height of his influence. He inscribed the book’s original title page with these words: “written by Hakuin Ekaku, edited by hunger and cold, revised by cold and hunger.” Shambhala published the translation under the title Zen Words for the Heart. Hakuin pokes fun at Avalokitesvara, at Shariputra—and at his listeners—throughout.
The seriousness of Hakuin’s efforts to save all beings, including lay-beings, is demonstrated in his correspondence, some of which has been collected and translated into English (again, by the indefatigable Norman Waddell) under the title Beating the Cloth Drum. It’s full of his advice for practice and life to both monks and laypeople, and it includes an especially interesting series of intimate letters between Hakuin and his dharma heir and biographer, Torei.
A book that’s helpful for getting a handle on one of Hakuin’s key themes is Hakuin on Kensho, by the Montreal Zen teacher Albert Low. It’s Low’s commentary on Hakuin’s Four Ways of Knowing, a text about identifying the experience of waking up to one’s true nature (which is what kensho means), but also about the four ways that the progressively deepening enlightenment experience shapes how we continue to live in the world and interact with it. For Hakuin, kensho is only the beginning of practice (you’ve still got to save all beings, after all), yet that doesn’t mean the kensho experience isn’t essential. The importance he assigned to it is reflected in this statement: “Anyone who would call himself a member of the Zen family must first achieve kensho-realization of the Buddha’s way. If a person who has not achieved kensho says he is a follower of Zen, he is an outrageous fraud. A swindler pure and simple.” He was never one for beating around the bush.
But to focus only on Hakuin’s written work would be to miss some of his most important teaching—which is found in his art. His paintings and calligraphies were a powerful vehicle for his dharma transmission, particularly to the world beyond the monastic community, because what he presents in them goes beyond words and intellectual concepts to speak directly to the heart. Using traditional Buddhist images and sayings—but also themes from folklore and daily life—Hakuin created a new visual language for Zen: profound and whimsical at the same time, and unlike anything that came before. An excellent book for getting a feel for Hakuin’s art is Audrey Yoshiko Seo and Stephen Addiss’s The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin. It includes some of the most famous works as well as lesser known gems. Some of them can make you laugh out loud.
Finally, to get a sense of his approach to the koan practice that was so important to him, the best book may well be Thomas Cleary’s Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record. It includes Hakuin’s commentary on all 100 cases of that classic collection. Unfortunately, it contains only excerpts—as his complete commentary on Blue Cliff runs to over 900 pages! The fact is that only a small portion of Hakuin’s work has been translated into English at this point. We can only hope that a new generation of scholars will continue the work of bringing Hakuin’s teaching into our language. In the meantime, we can exult in his art–for which no translation is necessary–and we can be grateful for the work of people like Norman Waddell, through whom we’ve come to know texts like Hakuin’s delightful “Song of Zazen”:
Boundless and free is the sky of Samadhi!
Bright the full moon of wisdom!
Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here, before our eyes,
This very place is the Lotus Land,
This very body, the Buddha.
 Norman Waddell, trans. The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin. p. xvii.