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Hakuin Studies

Toward a Hakuin Studies  by Yoshizawa Katsuhiro


The Zen master Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), famed as the reformer of the Japanese Rinzai Zen school, was a religious figure of exceptional stature. Present-day Japanese Rinzai Zen is, in effect, Hakuin Zen, with every Rinzai monastery in Japan headed by a Hakuin-line master.

How, though, is this important figure perceived in Japan today? The Kōjien, a representative Japanese dictionary, contains the following entry:

Hakuin 白隠: Rinzai Zen monk of the Edo period (1603-1868). His name was Ekaku 慧鶴, his style Kokurin 鵠林. A Dharma successor of Shōju Rōjin 正受老人 (1642-1721), he was awarded the rank of First Seat (dai’ichizo 第一座) in the Myōshin-ji 妙心寺 school. Shunning fame, however, he dedicated himself to teaching in the provinces. Known as the Reviver of the Rinzai School, he was beloved by the people. He advocated a forceful form of Zen. His posthumous title was Shōshū Kokushi 正宗国師. His writings include the Goroku 語録, Yasen kanna 夜船閑話, Kaiankoku go 槐安国語, and Orategama 遠羅天釜.

A nearly identical entry is found in another important dictionary, the Nihon kokugo daijiten:

Hakuin: Rinzai Zen monk of the middle Edo period (1603-1868). His name was Ekaku, his style Kakurin, and his imperial titles Shinki Dokumyō Zenji 神機独妙禅師 and Shōshū Kokushi. A Dharma successor of Shōju Rōjin, he assumed the priesthood of Shōin-ji 松蔭寺 in his native village but the following year entered Myōshin-ji. He subsequently shunned fame and traveled throughout the provinces teaching Buddhism. He is called the Reviver of the Rinzai School. His writings include the Kaiankoku go (7 vols.), Yasen kanna, and Orategama.

These entries, factual and concise though they seem, perpetuate several common misconceptions regarding Hakuin’s life. One of these misconceptions — that Hakuin attained, then rejected, high rank at the great temple Myōshin-ji in Kyoto — is quite significant. This view is based on the entry in Hakuin’s Nenpu 年譜 (Chronological biography) dated Kyōhō 3 (1718), when Hakuin was 34 years old: “In the eleventh month he received the rank of First Seat at Myōshin-ji, and adopted the name Hakuin.”

The author of the Kōjien entry apparently believes the rank of First Seat to be an important one, but in fact it is the lowest rank a monk can hold in the Myōshin-ji school and still qualify for the priesthood of even a small temple like Shōin-ji. It is hardly a source of fame or status for its holder.

Similarly, the author of the Nihon kokugo daijiten is under the impression that “entering Myōshin-ji” meant assuming the position of Myōshin-ji’s abbot, but all Hakuin did was register himself as a priest of the Myōshin-ji school. Hence Hakuin did not attain — and thus could not reject — high rank at Myōshin-ji.

The popular biographies repeat many other common beliefs about Hakuin’s life. He is said to have worn simple black robes all his life, to have preached the Dharma in terms easily understandable to the people, and to have overcome his childhood fear of hell through his severe Zen training. Such beliefs are not entirely mistaken, yet the tendency to describe Hakuin’s life in terms of such snippets leaves the reader with a very limited impression of the man.

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  Last Update: 2003/07/01