On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

January 20, 2015

Idle Talk On a Night Boat

Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768)

On the day I first committed myself to a life of Zen practice, I pledged to summon all the faith and courage at my command and dedicate myself with steadfast resolve to the pursuit of the Buddha Way. I embarked on a regimen of rigorous austerities that I continued for several years, pushing myself relentlessly. One night, everything suddenly fell away.

All the doubts and uncertainties that had been burdening me over the years suddenly disappeared, roots and all, just like melted ice. Karmic roots that for endless kalpas had  bound me to the cycle of birth and death completely vanished, like foam on the water.

It is true, I thought to myself, the Way is not far from people. All those stories about the ancient masters taking twenty or even thirty years to attain it must be fabrications. For the next several months I was waltzing on air, flagging my arms and stamping my feet in mindless rapture.

Afterwards, as I began reflecting over my everyday behavior, I could see that the two aspects of my life—the active and the meditative—were totally out of balance. No matter what I was doing, I never felt free or completely at ease. I realized I would have to rekindle a fearless resolve and once again throw myself life and limb together into the Dharma struggle. With my teeth clenched tightly and eyes focused straight ahead, I began devoting myself single-mindedly to my practice, forsaking food and sleep altogether.

Before the month was out, my heart-fire began to rise upward against the natural course, parching my lungs of their essential fluid. My feet and legs were ice-cold; they felt as though they were immersed in tubs of snow. There was a continual thrumming in my ears, as though I was walking beside a raging mountain torrent. I became abnormally weak and timid, shrinking and fearful in whatever I did. I felt totally drained, physically and mentally exhausted. Strange visions appeared to me during waking and sleeping hours alike. My eyes watered constantly. I traveled far and wide, visiting wise Zen teachers and seeking out noted physicians, but none of the remedies they offered brought me any relief.

Then I happened to meet someone who told me about a hermit named Master Hakuyu, who lived in a cave high in the mountains of Shirakawa district of Kyoto. He was reputed to be between one hundred eighty and two hundred forty years old. His cave was three or four leagues from human habitation. It was hard to tell from looking at him whether he was a man of great wisdom or a mere fool, but the people in the surrounding villages venerated him as a sage. Rumor had it that he had been the teacher of Ishikawa Jozan, that he was deeply learned in astrology, and well versed in medical arts as well.

Those who approached him and requested his teaching in the proper manner, observing the proprieties, had on rare occasions been known to elicit a remark or two of enigmatic import from him. After leaving and giving the words deeper thought, the people would generally discover them to be of great benefit.

In the middle of the first month in the seventh year of the Hoei era, I shouldered my travel pack, slipped quietly out of the temple in eastern Mino where I was staying, and headed for Kyoto. On reaching the capital I bent my steps northward, crossing over the hills at Kurodani and making my way to the small hamlet at Shirakawa. I dropped my pack off at a teahouse and went to make inquiries about Master Hakuyu’s cave. One of the villagers pointed his finger to a thin thread of water high above in the hills.

Using the sound of the water as my guide, I struck up into the mountains, hiking on until I came to the stream. I made my way along the bank for another league or so until the stream petered out. There was not so much as a woodcutter’s trail to indicate the way. At this point I lost my bearings completely and was unable to go another step. Just then I spotted an old man. He directed my gaze far above to a distant site up among the swirling clouds and mist at the crest of the mountains.

I could just make out a small yellowish patch, not more than an inch square, appearing and disappearing in the eddying mountain vapors. He told me it was a rushwork blind that hung over the entrance to Master Hakuyu’s cave. Hitching the bottom of my robe up into my sash, I began the final ascent to Hakuyu’s dwelling. I clambered over jagged rocks and pushed through heavy vines and clinging underbrush, the snow and frost gnawing into my straw sandals, damp clouds and mist drenching my robe. It was very hard going, and by the time I reached the spot where I had seen the blind, I was covered with thick oily sweat.

I now stood at the entrance to the cave. It commanded a prospect of unsurpassed beauty, completely above the vulgar dust of the world. My heart trembling with fear, my skin prickling with goose-bumps, I leaned against some rocks for a while and counted several hundred breaths. 

After shaking off the dirt and dust and straightening my robe to make myself presentable, I bowed down, hesitantly pushing the blind aside, and peered into the cave. I could just make out the figure of Master Hakuyu in the darkness. He was sitting perfectly erect, his eyes shut. A wonderful head of black hair flecked with bits of white reached down over his knees. He had a fine, youthful complexion, ruddy in hue like a Chinese date. He was seated on a soft mat made of grasses and wore a large jacket of coarsely woven cloth.

The interior of the cave was small, not more than five feet square, and except for a small desk, there was no sign of household articles or other furnishings of any kind. On top of the desk I could see three scrolls of writing, the Doctrine of the Mean, Lao Tzu, and The Diamond Sutra.

I introduced myself as politely as I could, explained the symptoms and causes of my illness in some detail, and appealed to the master for help. After a while, Hakuyu opened his eyes and gave me a good hard look. Then, speaking slowly and deliberately, he explained he was only a useless, worn out old man “more dead than alive.” He dwelled among these mountains living on chestnuts and wild mountain fruit he gathered. He passed the nights together with the mountain deer and other wild creatures. He professed to be completely ignorant of anything else and said he was embarrassed that such an important Buddhist priest had made a long trip expressly to see him.

I persisted, begging repeatedly for his help. At last, he reached out and gently took my hand. He proceeded to read my nine pulses and examine my five bodily organs. His fingernails, I noted were almost an inch long.

Furrowing his brow, he spoke with a voice tinged with pity. “Not much can be done. You have developed a serious illness. By pushing yourself too hard, you forgot the cardinal rule of religious training. You are suffering from Zen sickness, which is extremely difficult to cure by medical means. If you attempted to treat it with acupuncture, moxabustion, or medicines, it would do you no good. You came to this grievous pass as a result of meditation. You will never regain your health unless you are able to master the techniques of Naikon meditation. It is just as the old saying has it: “When a person falls to the earth, it is from the earth that he must raise himself up.”

“Please,” I said, “teach me the secret technique of Naikan meditation. I want to practice it together with my Zen training.”

With a demeanor that was now solemn and majestic, Master Hakuyu softly and quietly replied, “Ahh, I can see that you’re a very determined young man. I suppose I can tell you a few things about Naikan meditation that I learned many years ago. It is a secret method for sustaining life known to few people. Practiced diligently, it will yield remarkable results and enable you to look forward to a long life as well.”

“When a student is training and meditating and finds that he has become exhausted in body and mind because the four constituent elements of this body are in disharmony, he should gird up his spirit and perform the following visualization:

“Imagine a lump of soft butter, pure in color and fragrance and the size and shape of a duck egg, is suddenly placed on the top of your head. Slowly it begins to melt, imparting an exquisite sensation as your head becomes moistened and saturated both within and without. It continues oozing down, moistening your shoulders, elbows, and chest, permeating your lungs, diaphragm, liver, stomach, and bowels, then continuing down the spine through the hips, pelvis, and buttucks.

“At that point, all the congestions that have accumulated within the five organs and six viscera, all the aches and pains in the abdomen and other affected parts, will follow the mind as it sinks down into the lower body. You will hear this distinctly—like water trickling from a higher to a lower place. It will continue to flow down through the body, suffusing the legs with beneficial warmth, until reaches the arches of the feet, where it stops.

“The student should then repeat the contemplation. As the flow continues downward, it will slowly fill the lower region of the body and suffuse it with penetrating warmth, making him feel as if he is sitting immersed to his navel in a hot bath filled with a decoction of rare and fragrant medicinal herbs that have been gathered and slowly infused by a skilled physician.

“In as much as all things are created by the mind, when you engage in this contemplation your nose will actually smell the marvelous scent of pure soft butter, your body will feel the exquisite sensation of its melting touch. Body and mind will be in perfect peace and harmony. You will feel better than you did as a youth of twenty or thirty.

“All the undesirable accumulations in your vital organs and viscera will melt away. Before you know it, your skin will glow with health. If you continue to practice this contemplation unfalteringly, there is no illness that cannot be cured, no virtue that cannot be acquired, no religious practice that cannot be mastered, no level of sage-hood that cannot be reached. Whether such results appear swiftly or appear slowly depends only upon how scrupulously you apply yourself.

“I was a very sickly youth. I experienced ten times the suffering you have endured. The doctors finally gave up on me. I explored hundreds of cures on my own, but none of them brought me any relief. I turned to the gods for help, praying to the deities of both heaven and earth, begging them for their imperceptible assistance. I was marvelously blessed, because they extended me their support and protection. I came upon this wonderful soft butter method of contemplation. My joy knew no bounds. I immediately set about practicing it with total and single-minded determination. Before even a month was out, my troubles had almost totally vanished. Since that time I’ve never been bothered the least bit by any complaint, physical or mental.

“Young man, you have just learned a secret that you could not use up in a whole lifetime. What more could I teach you?”

Master Hakuyu sat silently with his eyes closed. I thanked him profusely, my own eyes glistening with tears, and then bade him farewell. The last vestiges of light were lingering in the topmost branches of the trees when I left the cave and made my way slowly down the mountain. Suddenly I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of wooden clogs striking the stony ground and echoing up from the sides of the valley. Half in wonder, half in disbelief, I peered apprehensively around to see the figure of Master Hakuyu coming toward me in the distance.

When he was near enough to speak, he said, “No one uses these mountain trails. It’s easy to lose your way. You might have trouble getting back, so I’ll take you partway down.” A skinny wooden staff grasped in his hand, high wooden clogs on his feet, he walked on ahead of me, talking and laughing. He moved nimbly and effortlessly over rugged cliffs and steep mountainside, covering the difficult terrain with the ease of someone strolling through a well-kept garden. 

After a league or so we came to the mountain stream. He said if I followed it I would have no trouble finding my way back to the village of Shirakawa. With what seemed a look of sadness, he then turned and began to retrace his steps.

I stood there motionless, watching as Master Hakuyu made his way up the mountain trail, marveling at the strength and vigor of his step. He moved with such a light, unfettered freedom, as if he was one who had transcended this world, sprouted wings, and was flying up to join the ranks of Immortal Sages. Gazing at him, my heart was filled with respect and with a touch of envy as well. I felt a pang of regret because I knew that never in this lifetime would I again be able to encounter and learn from a person such as this.

I went directly back to Shoin-ji and set about practicing Naikan meditation over and over on my own. In less than three years, without recourse to medicine, acupuncture or moxabustion, the illnesses that had been plaguing me for years cleared up of themselves. What is more, during the same period I experienced the immense joy of great satori six or seven times, boring through and penetrating to the root of all the hard to believe, hard to penetrate, hard to grasp koans that I had never before been able to get my teeth into at all.

Don’t be saying that old Hakuin, half-dead and gasping out his final breaths, has recklessly scribbled out a long tissue of groundless nonsense hoping to hoodwink superior students. What I’ve put down here is not intended for those who possess spiritual powers of the first order, the kind of superior seeker who is awakened at a single blow from his master’s mallet. But if dull plodding oafs like me—the kind of people who will suffer from illness as I did—set eyes on this book, read it and contemplate its meaning, they should surely be able to obtain a little help from it. I’m only afraid that when other people read it, they will clap their hands and break out into peals of laughter. Why is that?

Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768)

Excerpted from Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave edited and translated by Norman Waddell, 2009

This classic story from the history of Zen is an excellent example of the lengths some have taken to explore meditation, the results than can happen when someone goes too far in over zealous attempts, and the commitment it takes to extricate oneself and return to a more middle way of practice. In some ways it mirrors the Buddha’s own time spent pursuing austerities which wound up being a dead end. Very few people in modern times, however, have to worry about going too far in their practice; we face more not spending enough time or being satisfied with more superficial results.

The beginning of each year seems appropriate to introduce meditation techniques for beginners and more advanced practitioners. This one happens to come with a charming story of an encounter between Hakuin and a real recluse. Through his eyes we get to travel on foot up into the mountains, trail-less, and finally experience an encounter with a genuine person of the Way who shares an ancient practice called Naikan meditation.

It is not a complicated practice, and until someone actually tries it, who knows exactly what effects it might have? For both these men, though, it healed them physically and deepened their meditation practice. Like any practice it will take time to master and may be right for you to try now.

Stories are like seed teachings and seem to be easier to remember than lists of rules or principles. This classic teaching is also a rich journey in itself. While we may lack access to a true hermit with secret teachings, we can make this journey through another’s eyes. May it serve you well.

With Enthusiasm,


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