Did Hakuin Need Therapy?

Did he ever!

In modern terms, of course, which is really not fair to the old boy, living as he did in the old times.

This “Did Hakuin Need Therapy?” question came up for me while reading Norman Waddell’s new Beating the Cloth Drum: The Letters of Zen Master Hakuina wonderful follow up to Waddall’s other translations of Hakuin – The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin, Wild Ivy, and Precious Mirror Cave.

Together these four texts provide us with quite a picture of this vital member of the Zen family. I heartily recommend this new book and the others too.

In the previous collections we see Hakuin largely as he wanted us to see him. And could he weave a great story! Eighty-some kensho experiences, coursing the depths of the dharma, upholding the ancient way and scolding those slouching silent illumination heretics! A Zen master the way Zen masters ought to be.

Often the prefaces to his works tell about how Hakuin saw no virtue in publishing, how so-and-so smuggled the text out of the monastery in the dead of the night and rushed to Kyoto. Or how his group of disciples pleaded and pleaded for permission to publish and then Hakuin finally and with resignation agreed.

In Beating the Cloth Drum we see a different side of Hakuin, a much more human side. The great Zen master side is here too, of course. For example, when a lay disciple has a breakthrough after only a couple nights of wholehearted sitting, we get to see Hakuin carefully checking him out.

But for the normal messed-up human side, his personal letters show a guy who was really ambitious and focused on getting his stuff published, pushing his disciples to get off their dead butts and get the work done. He also scolds and judges a well-known scholar who had promised to write the preface to one of his works but then gets cold feet because Hakuin insists on including a text that berates Shinto. The scholar was concerned about the Shogun’s censors and possible repercussions for all involved, including Hakuin.

“You should take no account,” Hakuin tells his disciple engaged in getting the work published, “of the objections of a dull, ignorant scholar who lacks the eye of kensho, has no real understanding of Zen, and who merely bandies words about while feeding on the dregs of the ancients.”

This scholar was a apparently a good friend of Hakuin so imagine how he speaks about those he’s not close too!

Hakuin frequently complains about his incompetent attendants – the guys who are carrying him around the county on a palanquin. And whines about the low attendance at one of his major teaching events on the Lotus Sutra – there’ll only be 170 or 180 people who can attend because his dullard attendants scheduled the event too close to O-ban.

I found the letters to his main disciple, Torei, most interesting. Torei was a very gifted young monk, both in terms of his literary skills and his deep (and early) enlightenment experiences. Torei seems to have had the really good judgement to keep his distance from Hakuin so as not to be ensnared in his master’s plans for him, frequently hiding out in Kyoto.

Hakuin repeatedly tells Torei, drop whatever you are doing right now and come back to assist him.

“These are the words of an old man whose strength is steadily waning. As you are well aware, I haven’t a single person here who I can count on to assist me. No one even to properly attend to me. In all earnestness, I call on you to be prepared to lay down your life in this cause.”

It isn’t so clear what the cause is – Hakuin’s personal plans or the “true” dharma. These two are so frequently entangled.

In the early years of my practice, I might have found all this disillusioning. Now, though, through years of bumbling around, bumping into my own delusions, bitching and arrogance again and again, I find it quite sweet and reassuring.

We are all really in the same boat.

Restraining the Nevertheless Deluded One: Vine of Obstacles Turns Two
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
The Way of Tenderness: the Form and Emptiness of Race, Sexuality, and Gender
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
  • desiree

    Class: Psychology of Personality (3rd level writing intensive)

    Text: Personality and Personal Growth: Sixth Edition
    Authors: Robert Frager + James Fadiman

    Chapter 14: Zen and the Buddhist Tradition :)
    Section: Major Concepts

    “Just Sitting” (The Soto Approach)

    Zazen is an expression of faith. “Those who do not have faith will not accept zazen, however much they are taught. If you don’t trust this silence and the vastness of existence, if you do not soak yourself in this realm, how can you trust yourself?” (Katagiri, 1988 p. 43)

    Other pages of interest in this point: 85 & 334

  • Stephen Slottow

    I’m reading it too. Hakuin seems to have been quite the manipulative Jewish grandmother in his relations with his chief disciples, now weedling, now bullying. I too particularly like the Hakuin-Torei letters. As you point out, Torei kept trying to escape from the snares of Hakuin’s plans for his future, and he HATED being abbot of Ryutakuji so much that when it burned down he said good riddance, told the monks to fuck off, the hell with rebuilding this dump, I only became Abbot because Hakuin badgered me into it, thank goodness it’s nothing but ruins now and I’m out of THAT–and he only relented years later.

  • Stephen Slottow

    It also perhaps sheds some light on the difficulties that Suio Genro, Hakuin’s successor at Shoin-ji, had with his old teacher. On another note, Hakuin seems to have been addicted to sweets and probably had diabetes, and liked to smoke his pipe–but hid it behind his back when anyone might’ve caught him at it. A powerful, dynamic teacher, energetic, ambitious teacher and difficult for anyone to handle, even his dharma heirs. And so thoroughly human. It’s really a lovely book.

    • doshoport


      Thanks for the added detail. I wondered about the mention of him being “rotund” given the “hungry, cold and tired” stuff and the sugar and diabetes connection might explain that. And, yes, for me too, the detail endears the old bugger even more.


  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com Gregory Wonderwheel

    Since this was posted 3/31 and not 4/1, I didn’t take it as an April Fool’s joke, so to me the title seems ridiculously provocative. Saying Hakuin needs therapy is not saying he is normal but abnormal. I see him as deliciously normal and the last thing he would need is therapy.

    I fail to see anything “messed-up” in what Hakuin says. Getting his stuff published is not “ambition”, it is love of the Dharma. Pushing his disciples to get off their butts and get the wrok done is not “ambition” either.

    What is odd about getting critical of a scholar who backs out of the project for fear of the Shogun’s censors? Hakuin was often taking chances in criticizing the powers that be when he pointed out how the poor were being taxed too heavily. Basically the oddness of his criticism of scholars is in his not maintaining the usual social obliqueness of Japanese etiquette. Clearly, there is nothing that seems erroneous about Hakuin’s assessment (not judgment) of a scholar “who lacks the eye of kensho, has no real understanding of Zen, and who merely bandies words about while feeding on the dregs of the ancients.” That’s how scholars of today operate in their attempts at critical Buddhism and attacks on Zen.

    Looking at Hakuin as if “ambition” and other such such arbitrary presuppositions were appropriate just misses the point of the intent and manner of operation of the Buddha Dharma.

    • doshoport


      No offense intended! I love Hakuin’s normalcy and abnormalcy too.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind James

    Wonderful reflection on a wonderful teacher, Dosho.

    Thank you!

  • Stephen Slottow

    Dosho’s remark was mostly tongue-in-cheek and full of admiration for Hakuin. As for my remarks, you appear to have decided that “ambition” is a pejorative and negative term. I don’t think so. The aspiration to save all beings is quite ambitious, I think, but not negative.

  • Carol

    This article sparked a lively discussion over at ZFI about the benefits of therapy in aid of Zen practice as well as what might be “missing” from zen practice that therapy might aid. http://www.zenforuminternational.org/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=8002

    I posted there:

    Well, I’m a strong advocate of therapy as one of the tools in the chest that can very much aid Zen practice. I doubt that Hakuin would disagree were he alive today in this culture. In fact, I think he did seek out his own form of “therapy” in his day when he went to visit the Taoist hermit who cured him of his “zen sickness.”

    We all have “knots” in our thinking … in the stories we repeatedly tell ourselves about how the world is and who we are in it … that are very difficult to untangle. Meditation helps, so does therapy. Sometimes the two can be quite complementary. I often think of Lou Nordstrom’s story from the New York Times back in 2009. We discussed it at length here on the forum.

    Hakuin is a great inspiration to me, precisely because he wrestled with his arrogance and other character flaws … because he saw them, wrote about them, rued and repented them, and kept on with his practice and teaching. The stories of most of the other Zen masters have been cleaned up … we don’t get the personal eye-view of how it was for them. Hakuin gave us that, along with much else. So, often when I have become discouraged, I remember him and his courage and perseverance and take heart.”