Did Hakuin Need Therapy?

Did Hakuin Need Therapy? March 31, 2012

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.

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