Practicing With Demons and Dragons

· Articles & Essays · ,

By Hakuin Zenji

I went to the Shoin-ji and became a monk at the age of fourteen. Beginning that very same spring, I began serving as an attendant of Nyoka Roshi. During this period I read my way through Five Confucian Classics and studied the literary anthology Wen-hsuan from cover to cover. When I turned eighteen, I accompanied Kin Shuso to the city of Shimizu, where we were admitted to the assembly of monks at the Zenso-ji. In the course of one of the lectures there, the story of Yen-t’ou the Ferryman came up. Wanting to learn more about the life of this priest, I got hold of a copy of Praise of the True School, and Kin and I read through it on our own. I learned that Yen-t’ou had met a violent death at the hands of bandits.

It was a very disheartening discovery. After all, Yen-t’ou was said to be the kind of person who comes along only once in five hundred years: he was truly one of the dragons of his age. If it were possible for such a man to be assaulted and killed by common bandits while he was still alive, how could an ordinary garden-variety monk like me hope to avoid falling into the three evil paths after I died? A Buddhist monk, I concluded, had to be the most useless creature on the face of the earth.

“What manner of divine punishment is being visited upon me! How I rue the day I let them shave my hair off with that razor! Look at me! A sorry, wretched-looking outcast. I can’t possibly return to lay life—I’d be too ashamed. And it would be just as humiliating to sneak off somewhere and fling myself to a watery grave. One thing is sure, I am at the end of my religious quest. What a total, miserable failure I’ve become.”

For a full three days, I lay tossing restlessly on my bedding, tormented by these thoughts. I began to waste away right there in the monks’ quarters. Not so much as a grain of rice would pass my craving throat.

Fifteen unbearable days, and through it all, I could not for the life of me drive those burning hell-fires from my mind. Brooding, pondering my future over and over, cudgeling my brain for some answer, I finally came to the conclusion that, since there seemed to be no way at all to avoid entering the three paths and hell in the next life, I might as well join hands and take the leap into the conflagration along with everyone else.

At the same time, I could see no point in just wasting the rest of my life. I decided I would turn my attention to the study of calligraphy and the composition of Chinese poetry. I would try to earn universal praise as one of the master artists of the age. The matter of my future existence could take its own course. I began to familiarize myself with the major writers of the T’ang period—Li Po, Tu Fu, Han Yu, and Liu Tsung-yuan. In calligraphy, I studied the models of Sonen and Yosetsu.

One day, I was alone in the temple turning things over in my head. It suddenly dawned on me that even in the unlikely event I attained a skill at writing verse that surpassed the likes of a Li Po or Tu Fu, it still wouldn’t help me avoid falling into the three evil paths when I died. I sank once again into a very melancholy state—sadly regretting the situation in which I found myself.

My gaze happened to turn to the far end of the veranda, where several hundred old books had been stacked, after an airing, on top of an old writing desk. The moment I saw them, I experienced an indescribable surge of joy. I promptly lit some incense and recited a sutra. Then I made three deep bows, and vowed: “All Buddhas in the ten directions. All the gods who stand guard over the Dharma. I place my trust in you. If a way exists to which I can devote the rest of my life, I entreat you to make it known to me.”

Quietly approaching the desk and shutting my eyes, I stretched out my hand and blindly picked up one of the volumes. I raised it up several times in reverence, then lifted my eyelids. I had chosen a great treasure—Spurring Students through the Zen Barrier!

Almost beside myself with joy, I opened it carefully and scanned the words printed on the page before me. I had turned to a passage that described the great hardships the Chinese priest Tz’u-ming underwent many yeas ago while he was studying under Zen master Fen-yang.

From then on, I took Spurring Students through the Zen Barrier as my master. Rededicated to my practice, I began pushing myself mercilessly day and night. While reading the Three Teachings of the Buddha Patriarchs, I came upon a passage that made me leap up with joy. It compared a student practicing the Great Vehicle to a log floating down a river: never touching at either bank, it finally makes its way out into the great ocean.

In the spring, at the urging of a former brother-monk, I traveled to Fukuyama and joined the brotherhood at the Tensho-ji. There, by virtue of hard and continuous application to my practice, I entered a pitch-dark cave. When I walked around or engaged in other activities, I wasn’t even aware; of what I was doing. When autumn came, I set out for home with a party of my fellow monks.

We skirted the shores of the Inland Sea at Maiko, over the beaches of Suma. We passed the burial mound of the poet Hito-maru and the grave of Atsumori. We walked through the fields of Koyano and beside the woods of Ikuta. But my eyes were not open to any of those famous sights. All the way home, it seemed as if I were not moving at all but standing in the road alone, and the people, houses, and trees that lined the way were all moving westward.

It took about a fortnight to reach home. My family, relatives, and friends all gathered to welcome me. They were anxious to hear me tell them tales of everything, good and bad, I had experienced during my absence. But all they got for their questions was an unresponsive series of sub-lingual grunts: “Uh…Uh…” This bewildered them. They accused me of having somehow changed. They told me that I had become a “strange fellow.”

Photo by Hakuin

Photo by Hakuin

But my behavior at this time was perfectly in keeping with that described in traditional accounts of other Zen practitioners passed down through the centuries. The National Master Kan-zan, for example, is said to have walked the entire length of the Great Eastern Road twenty times without once looking up to notice Mount Fuji as he passed beneath it. I still remember the deep impression that story made on me when I first heard it. It filled me with an admiration for Master Kanzan that has never diminished.

Some time after that, I came upon a passage in Spurring Students through the Zen Barrier about the Bodhisattva Ever-Weeping. He was addressed by a voice, arising from nowhere, telling him not to look to the right or left, not to turn his gaze up or down, or in any of the four directions, as he walked along. I have trusted in those words ever since, have treated them as a koan. Perhaps that’s why I’ve turned into such a foolish fellow!

It was around that same time that I heard reports of a Zen monk in Echigo Province who had received Dharma sanction (inka) from the Obaku master Egoku Domyo. A series of lectures on The Eye of Men and Gods was to be held soon at the Eigan-ji in Echigo. Availing myself of that opportunity, when spring came, I got three other monks to accompany me to the city of Takada to attend the meeting. The first thing I did on arriving was to seek out the monk I had heard about. We long discussion, which gave me an opportunity to observe in detail the depth of his understanding. I realized he was not the enlightened man he had been made out to be.

Disappointed, I hid myself inside a shrine room dedicated to the lords of the province, vowing to fast and concentrate single-mindedly on my practice for a period of seven days. No one in the temple knew where I was or what I was doing, not even the monks I had come with. Unable to find me, they assumed I had left secretly for home.

At around midnight on the seventh and final night of my practice, the boom of a bell from a distant temple reached my ears: suddenly, my body and mind dropped completely away. I rose clear of even the finest dust. Overwhelmed with joy, I hollered out at the top of my lungs, “Old Yen-t’ou is alive and well!”

My yells brought my companions running from the monks’ quarters. We joined hands, and they shared with me the intense joy of the moment. After that, however, I became extremely proud and arrogant. Everyone I encountered seemed to me like so many lumps of dirt.

The next day, the opening of the lecture-meeting went off without a hitch. Senior priests went around the Monks Hall congratulating the men. Cho Joza came over from the main temple to pay his respects as well. While he was there, he picked up a copy of The Eye of Men and Gods that he saw lying nearby. Flipping some pages, he pointed out several places in the text and addressed questions to some of the monks around him.

“What is your interpretation of this passage?” he asked one.

“How about here? How do you explain this?” he asked another. When he had finished examining them in this way, he left. After he was gone, the new monk said, “Was that the senior monk?”

“What business is it of yours?” I replied.

“I admit what he said showed some insight,” the monk replied. “But his understanding of that one passage certainly wasn’t sound.”

I challenged him to say something about a few of the passages himself. He proceeded to explain them one by one, in a way that showed great discernment and clarity.

The judgment that the monks in the hall had formed of the man (who turned out to be called Kaku; he was a student of a priest named Shoju) underwent an abrupt and radical change. They now sat in hushed silence, trembling apprehensively. Some other monks who had been hanging around the hall freely dispensing their personal views and opinions seemed to suffer a sudden attack of timidity as well. I didn’t see their faces after that.

To me, he was like a fresh rain after a long drought. 1 felt as though I had met an old and trusted friend from my native village. From then on, we spent our days and nights debating matters of the Dharma. I could not have wished for a greater pleasure.

The evening of the final lecture arrived all too soon, and it was time for us to leave. I invited Kaku to meet me privately so I could ask him about his teacher.

“He’s an old hermit named Etan Zosu. He lives at the Shoju-an, a hermitage in Iiyama,” he told me.

I secretly yearned to go to Iiyama and pay my respects to the old man.

“Just what I was hoping you would propose,” Kaku replied when I asked him what he thought of the idea. “If you go, I’ll go along with you.”

The next day, we waited for the bell to announce the close of the meeting, then we slipped unnoticed out the temple gate. We made our way up over the pass at Mount Tomikura and from there proceeded directly on to Iiyama.

When we arrived at the Shoju-an hermitage, I received permission to be admitted as a student, then hung up my traveling staff to stay.

Once, after I had set forth my understandings to the master during dokusan [personal interview], he said to me, “Commitment to the study of Zen must be genuine. How do you understand the koan about the dog and the buddha nature?”

“No way to lay a hand or foot on that,” I replied.

He abruptly reached out and caught my nose. Giving it sharp push with his hand, he said, “Got a pretty good hand on it there!” I couldn’t make a single move, either forward or backward. I was unable to spit out a single syllable.

That encounter put me into a very troubled state. I was totally frustrated and demoralized. I sat red-eyed and miserable, my cheeks burning from the constant tears.

The master took pity on me and assigned me some koans to work on: Su-shan’s Memorial Tower, The Water Buffalo Comes through the Window, Nan-ch’uan’s Death, Nan-ch’uan’s Flowering Shrub, The Hemp Robe of Ching-chou, Yun-men’s Dried Stick of Shit.

“Anyone who gets past one of these fully deserves to be called a descendant of the Buddhas and patriarchs,” he said.

A great surge of spirit rose up inside me, stiffening my resolve. I chewed on those koans day and night. Attacking them from the front. Gnawing at them from the sides. But not the first glimmer of understanding came. Tearful and dejected, I sobbed out a vow: “I call upon the evil kings of the ten directions and all the other leaders of the heavenly host of demons. If after seven days I fail to bore through one of these koans, come quickly and snatch my life away.

I lit some incense, made my bows, and resumed my practice. I kept at it without stopping for even a moment’s sleep. The master came and spewed abuse at me. “You’re doing Zen down in a hole!” he barked.

Then he told me, “You could go out today and scour the entire world looking for a true teacher—someone who could revive the fortunes of ‘closed-barrier’ Zen—you’d have a better chance finding stars in the midday skies.”

I had my doubts about that. “After all,” I reasoned, “there are great monasteries all over the country that are filled with celebrated masters: they’re as numerous as sesame or flax seed. That old man in his wretched ramshackle old poorhouse of a temple—and that preposterous pride of his! I’d be better off leaving here and going somewhere else.”

Early the next morning, still deeply dejected, I picked up my begging bowl and went into the village below liyama Castle.

I was totally absorbed in my koan—never away from it for an instant. I took up a position beside the gate of a house, my bowl in my hand, fixed in a kind of trance. From inside the house, a voice yelled out, “Get away from here! Go somewhere else!” I was so preoccupied, I didn’t even notice it. This must have angered the occupant, because suddenly she appeared flourishing a broom upside down in her hands. She flew at me, flailing wildly, whacking away at my head as if she were bent on dashing my brains out. My sedge hat lay in tatters. I was knocked over and ended heels up on the ground, totally unconscious. I lay there like I a dead man.

Neighbors, alarmed by the commotion, emerged from their houses with looks of concern on their faces. “Oh, now look what the crazy old crone has done,” they cried, and quickly vanished behind locked doors. This was followed by a hushed silence; not a stir or sign of life anywhere. A few people who happened to be passing by approached me in wonderment. They grabbed hold of me and hoisted me upright.

“What’s wrong?” “What happened?” they exclaimed.

As I came to and my eyes opened, I found that the unsolvable and impenetrable koans I had been working on—all those venomous cat’s-paws—were now penetrated completely. Right to their roots. They had suddenly ceased to exist. I began clapping my hands and whooping with glee, frightening the people who had gathered around to help me.

“He’s lost his mind!” “A crazy monk!” they shouted, shrinking back from me apprehensively. Then they turned heel and fled, without looking back.

I picked myself up from the ground, straightened my robe, and fixed the remnants of my hat back on my head. With a blissful smile on my face, I started, slowly and exultantly, making my way back toward Narasawa and the Shoju-an.

I spotted an old man beckoning to me. “Honorable priest,” he said, addressing me, “that old lady really put your lights out, didn’t she?”

I smiled faintly but uttered not a word in response. He gave me a bowl of rice to eat and sent me on my way.

I reached the gate of Shoju’s hermitage with a broad grin on my face. The master was standing on the veranda. He took one look at me and said, “Something good has happened to you. Try to tell me about it.”

I walked up to where he was standing and proceeded to explain at some length about the realization I had experienced. He took his fan and stroked my back with it.

“I sincerely hope you live to be my age,” he said. “You must firmly resolve you will never be satisfied with trifling gains. Now you must devote your efforts to post-satori training. People who remain satisfied with a small attainment never advance beyond the stage of the Shravakas. Anyone who remains ignorant of the practice that comes after satori will invariably end up as one of those unfortunate Arhats of the Lesser Vehicle. Their rewards are paltry indeed. Why, I’d rather you be reborn into the mangy, suppurating body of an old fox than for you ever to become a priest of the Two Vehicles.”

By post-satori training, he means going forward after your first satori and devoting yourself to continued practice—and when that practice bears fruit, to continue on still further. As you keep on proceeding forward, you will arrive at some final, difficult barriers.

What is required is simply “continuous and unremitting devotion to hidden practice, scrupulous application—that is the essence within the essence.” The bands of Unborn Zennists you run into nowadays, sitting like withered tree stumps “silently illuminating” themselves, are an even worse lot than those hateful, suppurating old foxes.

“What is ‘hidden practice and scrupulous application’?” someone asked.

It certainly doesn’t mean sneaking off to some mountain and sitting like a block of wood on a rock or under a tree “silently illuminating” yourself. It means immersing yourself totally in your practice at all times and in all your daily activities—walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. Hence, it is said that practice concentrated in activity is a hundred, a thousand, even a million times superior to practice done in a state of inactivity.

 Photo by Chizen Brown, MRO

Photo by Chizen Brown, MRO

Upon attaining satori, if you continue to devote yourself to your practice single-mindedly, extracting the poison fangs and talons of the Dharma cave, tearing the vicious, life-robbing talismans into shreds, combing through texts of all kinds, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, accumulating a great store of Dharma wealth, whipping forward the wheel of the Four Universal Vows, pledging yourself to benefit and save all sentient beings while striving every minute of your life to practice the great Dharma giving, and having nothing—nothing—to do with fame or profit in any shape or form—you will then be a true and legitimate descendant of the Buddha patriarchs. It’s a greater reward than gaining rebirth as a human or a god.


Zen Master Hakuin (1686 -1768) was one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism. He is regarded as the reviver of the Rinzai school  integrating meditation and koan practice.

Norman Waddell is a professor of International Studies at Otani University in Kyoto, Japan. He has translated and published widely on Japanese Zen Buddhism.

From Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin. Copyright ©1999 by Norman Waddell. Used with permission of Shambala Publications, Inc., Boston Massachusetts.

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