Hakuin’s Advice for How To Attain Kenshō

Hakuin’s Advice for How To Attain Kenshō January 22, 2018

Dosho_s Kindle for Mac 2 - The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin 2The road passes among cresting mountains,
Winding through thickets and vines;
The border of the Wu state ends at the river edge,
Soaring beyond, the serried peaks of Yueh.
(painting, “Eaglehead Peak,” and poem by Hakuin)

I find Hakuin’s teaching so powerful because of his uncluttered clarity, a direct expression of the heart of Mahayana Buddhism. I’d paraphrase it like this: in order to carry living beings across the flood, realize kenshō. Clarify kenshō until it’s limpid. Help others.

That’s also one level of meaning in the above poem.

In our day, one prevailing teaching in Zen is about “non gaining mind” and that to aspire to realize kenshō is a mistake. Meanwhile, as we learn from studying the Abhidharma or our own minds, intention is an omnipresent mental factor. So much of what is taught about non gaining puts students in a paralyzing double-bind.

This was not Hakuin’s approach. Refreshingly, he strongly advocates for realizing kenshō. In this post, I’ll follow up on the first of the above three steps, how to attain kenshō, using mostly Hakuin’s words, but note too that what he’s saying is in alignment with much of the greater Zen tradition, before and after his time, including my own experience and a bunch of other contemporary Zen students and teachers who have kenshōed. What’s different for Hakuin is his emphasis on post-kenshō training. More about that in subsequent posts.

If you are interested in kenshō, you would do well to attend closely to Hakuin’s advice. For those of you studying Complete Poison Blossoms in a Thicket of Thorn (CPB) along with these blog posts, see especially:

7. Informal Talk on the Seventh Night of the Seventh Lunar Month
8. Ascending the Teaching Seat (Jōdō) on the Ninth Day [of the Ninth Month]
and Supplement Two: “Gudō’s Lingering Radiance” (the last several paragraphs)

Pre steps to kenshō

To begin, there are a number of small steps that a practitioner ordinarily must take before kenshōing. These steps involve entering the practice, developing a teacher-student relationship, and learning basic skills in meditation. Then, like Hakuin said, “If you would cleanse yourself of the calamity and suffering of birth and death, you must arouse a strong faith that is fierce and courageous in the extreme” (CBP #4).

Specifically, an intense faith that the big problems of this life, the fundamental issues, are resolvable, that they have been resolved by the Buddha and many people through the ages in multiple lines of lineage coming through to today, that it is possible for you yourself too to resolve as well, and that the path of resolution is through taking refuge in buddha, dharma, and sangha and arousing the way-seeking mind.

In our Zen way, this seeking is actualized through turning the light of awareness around and meeting the self.  Hakuin said, “If you can encounter this One Person, at that instant you ascend into marvelous awakening…. If you manage to run into this fellow, s/he will be a far greater treasure than any you have known, more precious than even the most fabulous sword. When you encounter them, heaven and earth lose all their color, the brightness of the sun and moon are swallowed up” (CPB #8).

This is no small thing. And how an ordinary, suspicious, cynical, ornery person like most of us can come to this place is a mystery. Usually, the circumstances that lead to throwing ourselves intensively into practice seem like grace, a sublime coincidence, and involve some mix of encountering dharma literature and/or meeting a teacher just at the right time, just when we are in a particularly desperate place. I think of the young James Myoun Ford Roshi working in a bookstore in Oakland, CA. One day he mailed a paper letter (this was way, way back in time) with his Zen questions to Robert Aitken. The same day, if memory serves, John Tarrant came in the store to buy a book and they got to talking….

Stumbling into fierce faith and great determination, though, aren’t sufficient. Hakuin asks, “How to find such an elusive creature [as this One Person]” (CPB #8)?

Another essential element is to then arouse a questioning mind, the way seeking mind, also known as great doubt. “What is this life?” “How does one meet up with the [Buddha] of one’s own mind?” “Who is the One Person?” In contemporary kōan introspection, a student will usually be guided to take up the “mu kōan” at this point or perhaps, “Who hears?”

And then the most important ingredient

Once a student takes up a question, then they must “…seek singlemindedly throughout the twenty-four hours of the day, both waking and sleeping” (CPB #7).

The spirit of singleminded (aka, wholehearted) practice runs contrary to much of our culture, including the meditation subculture now developing, where what’s emphasized is leading a balanced life – breathing, smiling, and using meditation to be more effective and enjoying over-the-top lives. Nothing wrong with any of that, except that if you are interested in awakening and helping others to awakening, such a spirit just won’t do.

What will do? Wholehearted practice.

Wholehearted practice is not about getting some special state of mind. Wholehearted practice requires that we keep the vow to benefit all beings warm in our breast pocket as we throw ourselves completing into the now. As Ikkyu put it:

raging in the now hungry for it
crows rattle the air no dust

Hakuin excavates the process further: “Bore in no matter what you are doing, bore deeper and deeper until you completely exhaust all your resources and run completely out of words. When you have exhausted all your resources and are at a total and utter loss, the fellow will unexpectedly appear. When you run into [the One Person] without warning, and only then, you will experience a joy of unprecedented depth and intensity. You will soar like the phoenix when it breaks free of the golden net, like the crane that is liberated from its pen” (CPB #8).

In “Gudō’s Lingering Radiance,” Hakuin describes the process for student and teacher like this: “This kōan [,the sound of one hand,] is like an iron stake. It drives [you] into a corner. [You] must gnaw away at it from all sides. Hold it up and examine it from every angle. No matter how much [you] suffer, no matter how tired [you] become, even if [you] seem to be on the brink of death, [you] will get no help from me at all. [You must] exhaust all your skills, run out of words and rational means.”

How much time does it take?

James Myoun Ford Roshi recently wrote, “I’ve observed movement of the heart, actual changes in how one encounters life that can be associated with Zen meditation – if one sits at a minimum about half an hour a day, most days.”

He goes on to add occasional retreats, checking in with a spiritual director (aka, a Zen teacher), dharma study, and koan introspection.

In my view, James’ suggested minimum is right for a “movement of the heart, actual changes in how one encounters life.” They are sufficient to enter the Zen path, but not enough for most people to kenshō as clear as the palm of your hand, the standard Hakuin uses six times in CPB. In my experience, for most people, a clear kenshō usually takes considerably more than that. I recommend an hour a day of zazen and at least 20 days of sesshin a year. Maybe I’m just a slow learner and work with slow learners (no offense intended).

But I also I think of the old Zen sound bite, “Little shout, little echo; big shout, big echo.”

You might ask, “For how long? How long must I shout?”

There is no guarantee. Some people kenshō quickly, some even during their first sesshin. Some take several years. I’ve known one person who devoted himself to mu for forty years. He stayed with it through many changes in life, including about a decade in monastic practice and years of psychotherapy, until he finally kenshōed as clear as the palm of his hand.

Caution: Hakuin said, “That is not the moment to relax your efforts. The more you attain, the greater you must strive. The deeper you enter, the greater must be your devotion to your practice. Such is the meaning of ‘the koan that is never completed’ [miryō kōan]” (CPB #147).

But there is something important that is missing in setting minimum standards or expectations like this in terms of how much time is necessary. It is also about how a practitioner practices on the cushion and off. A focussed, wholehearted sitting of thirty minutes is much more to the point than an hour of “withered sitting,” a phrase Hakuin uses disparagingly eleven times in CBP.

Remember, wholehearted practice arises from the altruistic aspiration to awaken in order to help others awaken. Its impact is extreme. Preferences for things like sleep and food fall away. Barriers like hating pain and longing for pleasure, drop off, much more than we imagined possible when we began.

When a question really begins to cook in us, throwing ourselves into it is not a matter of being macho or of discipline, dogma, or technique. It is about living through the heart’s innermost request. And a sincere eagerness to do whatever it takes arises spontaneously from this heart.

It also doesn’t depend on lifestyle. Whether you are living at home or in a monastery, intensive practice is possible. Some lifestyles may be more supportive of wholehearted practice than others, but when the true heart is stirred and barriers arise, we call out from the depths of this heart, “Barrier welcome!”

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