Zen Master Hakuin – A chat on a boat in the evening!


Preface of Yasen Kanna

In the spring of 1757, Shogetsu-do, a publisher in Kyoto, wrote to the senior monks of our monastery requesting that we send them the treasured manuscript of Yasen Kanna. The letter read as follows. “We happened to hear that among your Master’s papers there is a manuscript entitled Yasen Kanna. It teaches us how to enlighten our spirits, consolidate our energy, and gather physical strength through concentration of mind. “Therefore, many people desire to read it as strongly as if they were waiting for rain during a long drought, and we wish to publish it for their benefit. Your kind, sympathetic Master will surely be glad to approve of our plan. we sincerely hope you will convey our wish to your Master.”

Then, we asked our Master. He nodded with a smile. We opened the Master’s cabinet, and found the Manuscript almost half consumed by moths. After consulting with him on the illegible parts, we copied the whole volume and sent it to Kyoto. As I was the oldest among the pupils, I was ordered to write the Preface, which I was happy to do. Our Master came to live at the Shoinji Temple as chief priest forty years ago, and has since been teaching pupils by enforcing severe discipline not only in study and meditation but also in hard physical work from early morning till late at night. During lessons and discussions, the students had to hear harsh and sharp words; and during practice and work, they had to endure hard and rather cruel treatment. But out of their sincere desire for truth and a growing ardor for enlightenment, they are willing to stay for ten, twenty, or more years. They are all elite students from the far corners of the country. Moreover, both our fame and popularity have been attracting more seekers and monk applicants year by year. As the temple is too crowded to accommodate them all, some live in vacant huts and unoccupied cottages near by. In addition to the strict discipline and hard work, they must put up with poor food and mean clothing. Nothing is more severe than the priesthood under our Master. When new pupils first come to our monastery. they are all handsome and healthy; but, sooner or later, they get tired and feel exhausted. If it were not for their religious fervor and dauntless courage, no one could endure such trials even for a single day. Therefore, in their enthusiasm the hardworking and ardent pupils are often likely to decline in health, and some become very ill. Our Master felt pity for them, and taught them how to ease their minds in order to regain their health. So he made them pursue the inner concentration method. which is none other than a means of self-help or self- improvement.

The Master said, “If you feel ill or exhausted because of hard study and work, you will not be cured by any doctor, with any medicine, by moxacautery, or by acupuncture. “I learned the method of inner concentration, which is the surest and best remedy for such diseases; and I want you to pursue it at any cost. If you follow it faithfully, you will be greatly surprised when you achieve the desired effect. “When you decide to pursue the method, you must first of all give up idle chatter, forget all your worries, throw away your troubles, and finally always make sure you get a sound sleep.” “Before you fall asleep, that is, before you close your eyes, stretch out both your legs to their full extent on the bed, fill your lower abdomen and limbs with all your mental energy and mind, and think of nothing but the following ideas: The lower abdomen and limbs, my native face, Does it have any nostrils? The lower abdomen and limbs, my inherited home, Does it bring any news? The lower abdomen and limbs, my supreme Buddha-land, Does it give any grandeur? The lower abdomen and limbs, my own Amida, Does He convey any truth?

“Consider the ideas in this poem over and over again, and always try to cherish them until they are etched in your mind. If a conscious and constant effort is made, good results will be ensured. when you have formed the habit of concentrating the ideas on the lower half of your body, all your energy and strength will fill your lower abdomen and limbs. Then, you will feel healthy and secure. If you continue your efforts for some weeks or months, your illnesses will soon disappear, and any disease you may have will be cured. I believe in this method so strongly that I would be willing to stake my life on it.”

On hearing the Master’s lesson, the pupils were very glad, thanked him heartily, and strove to follow the method. All of them were surprised to find that it had the desired effect on them. Although the speed of recovery varied with the individual, all got quite well and admired the method and the effective remedy it provided.

The Master said, “You should not rest satisfied with recovery from the disease. As you get well, you must strive to seek truth with a sincere mind. As you succeed in achieving a certain degree of effect, you must go on to cultivate mental concentration so as to seek further enlightenment. “After I became a student of Buddhism, I fell seriously ill with an almost incurable disease, and experienced twice as much agony as you did. I thought I would rather die than feel such pain. To my great joy, I was fortunate enough to learn the inner concentration method.”

“A wise man said that this method is the elixir of life, which promises the follower a long life. Hearing these words, I was very glad to pursue the method. “Gradually I recovered, my health improved, and my spirit regained its liveliness. After three years or so, I became quite well again just like you all did.

“Then I thought to myself, even if I could live to the age of eight hundred by following this method I still might become only a silly old fool like a badger sleeping away its life ‘in its den. In the world nowadays, we cannot find such prominent priests or great scholars as those of the past. why not proceed to practice the true teaching? I cannot help remembering the Four Great Vows of the Buddha, studying to establish the supremacy of Bodhisattva, doing everything possible to teach Buddhism, and attaining complete and supreme enlightenment.”

“Then I took a few hardworking pupils, and began to study, work, and meditate with them while pursuing the inner concentration method. Since then, the number of pupils has steadily increased and now amounts to about two hundred. These thirty years, numerous pupils fell ill because of the hard study and work. I taught them the inner concentration method and made them follow it. They all recovered. Then I made them study and work even harder. “Although I am over seventy, I enjoy fine health with good teeth, clear eyes, and excellent hearing. I give regular lectures twice a month, and occasionally deliver a sermon to the crowded congregation at the request of the public or pupils. Thanks to the inner concentration method, I am in better health than when I was young.” The pupils politely requested the Master to write down the inner concentration method for the benefit of those who fall ill in the future. Finally, the manuscript was finished. The principal point is as follows:

It is very important to have good posture and endeavor to preserve it if one wants to stay healthy throughout life.’ In order to assume a good posture, it is essential to fill one’s lower abdomen and limbs with all one’s mental energy and mind for a whole day. If you always rivet your attention on the lower half of your body, you will surely become sound in mind and body, which ensures not only fine health and true happiness but also further advance in Zen.

Kyuboan Kito


Yasen Kanna – A chat on a boat in the evening!

When I first came to the monastery to study, learn, and practice the teachings of the Buddha, I vowed to be pious, studious, and hardworking. After three years of industrious study and devotion, one evening I suddenly thought I had gained enlightenment and that I was able to study and solve all the difficult problems of religion and life. I thought to myself that I had been clever to find the path to enlightenment in such a short time, while those senior to me were said to have taken thirty long years. For several months I was supremely happy over it. But strange to say, I began to feel sick or out of sorts. I wondered what was wrong with me. At any rate, I could not leave the matter as it was, and I could not help thinking about what to do next. Then I began to study and work much harder than before forgetting myself completely.

A month had hardly passed when I began to feel seriously ill. My head burned, my feet felt extremely cold as if they were soaking in icy water, and my ears were ringing all the time as if I were walking along a rapid stream. I became timid and nervous, delicate and faint, and at night I could not sleep well due to nightmares. My armpits were always wet with cold sweat, and my eyes were always wet with tears. Then I sought and consulted with famous doctors far and wide, but I could find no remedy for my disease. Someone said, “In a distant mountain cave at Shirakawa lives a man named Hakuyu. He is very old and does not like to see people. Although it is not clear whether he is wise or not, villagers call him ‘the Hermit.‘ It is rumored that he was once a . teacher of the famous scholar Jozan Ishikawa and that he is an expert in astronomy and medicine. If someone politely asks him for advice, only a few words. But afterward, the inquirer will find the hint very useful and helpful.”

Hearing this, I set out for Shirakawa in the middle of January, 1710. when I arrived at the village of Shirakawa, I went on to visit the cave leaving my things at an inn. A villager pointed to a stream which led to the cave. Following the path that ran along the stream, I walked about two miles. The footpath now entered a narrow gorge in the mountains and began to rise steeply. Just then, an old woodcutter showed me a yellow curtain hanging over a high rock on the misty, steep hill. He told me that the curtain covered the entrance of the cave in which Hakuyu lived. Then I made my way step by step climbing the wet and slippery hillside with care. Arriving at the top, I found that the cave was on a sheer precipice, which commanded a fine view. The hard climb made me pant heavily. For a while, I counted my breaths to quiet my breathing and slow down my heartbeat.

After I had regained my breath and composure, I dusted off and adjusted my clothes. Humbly and timidly, I peeked through the curtain and saw Hakuyu sitting straight in the dim light with his eyes half shut. with his long hair reaching to his knees and his ruddy face beaming, he sat on a grass mat in a long loose garment. In the cave which was only two yards square or so, there was only a small desk with three books on it.

  • The Golden Mean
  • Lao-Tzu
  • The Diamond Prajna-paramita Sutra

I knelt down reverently, told him the symptoms of my disease, and asked him for help. After a while, Hakuyu opened his eyes and said, ‘I am nothing but an old man living alone in the heart of the mountains on nuts and the like. So I’m afraid I shall not be able to help you.” At this, I persisted in begging for his advice courteously and humbly and wouldn’t leave. At last he held my hand in his, and looked at my complexion and body closely. Knitting his brows, he said with a tone of pity, “Yours is a Zen disease caused by hard study, intensive training, and excessive work. This disease is very hard to cure. Even if you consult world—famous doctors, no medicine or treatment will work, and both moxibustion and acupuncture will be useless. “You must realize that the wrong way of studying and training has utterly destroyed your health. You will never be cured without mending your ways and pursuing the inner concentration method.” I said, “Would you kindly teach me the inner concentration method? I will follow it while I study.”

He suddenly became serious and said solemnly, “Ah, you are very curious and studious. I will tell what I learned a long time ago. The method is the true path to good health. Few people know it. If you pursue it closely, you will be delighted to make a perfect recovery. Nothing is more efficacious than this method.” “Since ancient times, it has been thought that the universe consists of the negative and the positive. If both coexist smoothly, everything will be all right. In the human body, the rule is the same. A healthy condition may be obtained by drawing a deep breath and having good blood circulation. On the contrary, if the negative and the positive are at odds with each other, one is susceptible to every known disease, which neither doctor can cure nor medicine treat.”

“Health cares can be compared to the government of a country. A wise and clever king always thinks of his lower class subjects and puts their livelihood first. “A foolish and silly ruler always sides with the upper classes to gain their favor. If he panders to them too much, the nobles think nothing of the public and high officials abuse their authority, relying instead on the ruler’s favor. Honest ministers run away or lie hidden and poor citizens become unhappy or angry. How on earth can such a ruler govern the country wisely? “If the ruler feels for the poor, considers their hardships, and has their welfare at heart, ministers follow his example and public servants do their work conscientiously and are kind to everybody. Farmers raise abundant crops, women weave more cloth wise and faithful officials assemble, and neighboring countries respect him. “It is just the same with the human body. One will not be attacked by any disease if one’s attention is directed to and fixed on the lower half of one’s body.”

“Wise people always concentrate on the lower half of their body and try to fill it with mind and energy. when much attention is focused on their lower abdomen and limbs, they will not be arflicted with mental diseases or attacked by physical ones. They will be full of life and neither taste bitter medicine nor experience any pain from medical treatment. “A stupid one always lets one’s attention be drawn to surface or trivial matters and thus becomes unbalanced and unstable. If one’s attention or mind is fixed on one’s head at will, one gets tired or does not feel up to the mark and one’s internal organ or organs will be out of order. “Therefore, a sage once said, ’A wise person breathes through the heels and an ordinary person through the throat.’ Another sage said, ‘While your attention is fixed on the lower half of your body, your breaths are long and deep. when your mind is fixed on the upper half of your body, your breaths are short and shallow.‘ “When we are worrying about something important or urgent, our face is flushed and our limbs feel cold. That fact indicates poor blood circulation. If the trouble is serious or persistent, it will eventually affect the internal organs.

“when we concentrate and fix our mind on the lower half of our body in order to keep the upper half cool and the lower warm, we shall be able to face reality calmly and readily however harsh it may be. “After all, the surest and best way of securing good health is to keep the upper half of our body cool and the lower half warm all day. Then we are sound in body and have peace of mind.”

“Once Wu Ch’i-ch’u, after purifying himself, went to see Master Shih-t’ai in order to learn the inner concentration method. Master Shih-t’ai answered, ‘I know the secret method for concentrating one’s thoughts. The method should not be taught to anyone except a worthy person, because, in days of old, a person named Huang Ch’eng-tzfi knew this method, and even Emperor Huang was taught it only after twenty-one days’ purification. “’A human being has five great outlets of energy: those through the senses; eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. If we concentrate our mind on the lower half of our body, we can control the flow of energy through these outlets, because we can free ourselves from our idle fancies and excessive worries. Then we will be in excellent health. “’This is a lofty ideal of life many sages have held since olden days. And this is the very method we recommend. Once one has mastered it, one can work, study, and live as one pleases.

“’Moreover, the emulsion or lactose bathing method will regulate breathing and the circulation of blood and will eventually promote the health of one’s body and mind.'”

I said, “I thank you heartily and will follow your advice to the letter. From now on I will carry out your instructions carefully. I will try to concentrate my thoughts and mind on the lower abdomen and limbs so as to recover my health, putting aside Zen for a while. “But one thing weighs heavily upon my mind. I wonder if the practice will greatly increase the circulation of blood to the lower half of my body. I am afraid such concentration will make it stagnate there.~ I remember Dr. Li Shih-tsfai cautioned us against excess.”

Hakuyu answered with a smile, “No. He simply warned us against extremes. He also said, ‘Sensation and warmth are like fire, which always rises. So we must endeavor to make them fall. ‘Calm and cold are like water, which tends to go downward. So we must try to make them rise. When the former falls and the latter rises, they will cross. as it were, which symbolizes life. If they remain as they are, it is a sign of death.’ “The mind and senses tend to rise: a situation that always injures health. So we must bring them under complete control. Only through the concentration of thought, can we compose our mind. “When we have a great worry, we are obsessed with it. The best way to overcome it is to keep our mind cool and composed, and thus we recover our mental balance.”

“You caught this serious disease because you have let your senses and mind go upward. Unless you can make them fall and stay calm, you will not recover your health even if you were to take any efficacious medicine or effective measure or undergo any medical treatment. “Although the method I have taught you sounds like that of Taoism, you don’t need to think it different from that of Buddhism. This is Zen. When in the near future, you recover your health, you will laugh heartily, I am sure.” “The right Zen way in which one concentrates one’s mind is by freeing oneself from all ideas or thoughts or by creating the state of mind that is void of ideas or thoughts. “Your deadly disease was caused by having ideas or thoughts. Doesn’t it seem reasonable and prudent for you to recover by mending your ways—freeing yourself from ideas or thoughts?”

“If you calm your nerves and concentrate and fix a clear, active mind on the lower abdomen and limbs, not only will you be able to keep your head and be calm, but also you will have a sound and healthy body. This is the right and true Zen way. “You must not set aside Zen. You have to remember that the Buddha said, ‘The concentration of thought on the lower half of one’s body cures all sorts of diseases.’ The Scriptures of Igama include the emulsion or lactose bathing method, which is particularly good for all kinds of mental diseases.”


“The Scripture of Mo-ko Chih-kuan, or Maka Shikan of the T’ien-t’ai, or Tendai School describes the causes of illness in detail as well as good and effective remedies for diseases. Even twelve ways of breathing are described. Many people have been cured of their diseases by reading the Scripture. And the Scripture advises the treatment of ‘seeing a bean in one’s navel.‘ The main purpose of the treatment is to concentrate your thought and mind on the lower abdomen and limbs. Not only does it cure diseases but also it advances Zen. You will derive great benefit from reading the Scripture someday.”

“The Japanese Abbot Dogen (1200-1253) learned an effective method, and it has been handed down to us. “When he went over to China during the Sung or S0 dynasty (960-1279) to study Buddhism, he entered the priesthood under the Abbot Ju-tsing at Mount T’ien-t’ung. “One day he entered the master’s room and asked about meditation. Ju—tsing answered, ‘The best way to meditate is by fixing your mind on the palm of your left hand.’ This is another efficient method of regulating one’s breathing established by Chih-i, who saved his brother from a serious disease by teaching him this method. Hsiao Chih-kuan or Sho Shikan (Japanese) presents a faithful account of it.

“Priest Hakuun said that he taught pupils, preached to people, and received guests while always fixing his mind on the vacant part of his abdomen. Then like the flowing water of a river, he was able to speak naturally and behave properly without being awkward or making blunders. When he grew old, he appreciated the merits of the method even more than before. “This is just what Su-wén teaches us. It says, ‘If one clears away greed for wealth or honor and discards a craving for pleasure or comfort, one can cultivate the true spirit of self-help. If one secures one’s mind firmly inside, one can ward off external diseases. ‘

“The best method of concentration is to fill every part of one’s body with energy and thought and to leave no space.”

“The following quotation from P’eng-tsu is called ‘the method of easing one’s mind and collecting one’s thoughts.’ It is as follows. “‘First go into a secluded room, shut all the doors and windows, and make your bed warm with a pillow three inches high. Lie down on the bed, close your eyes, rivet your attention on your chest, and imagine that a light feather is attached to your nose. Count up to three hundred breaths without moving that feather. “’Then you will feel as if you can hear or see nothing even if you open your eyes, or it seems as if you were a superhuman being. You are not disturbed by intense heat, bitter cold, or even an insect sting. You may live to be three hundred and sixty.‘

“Su Nui-han said, ‘Eat when you are hungry, but leave off before you are full. Take some moderate exercise to feel hungry. when you are hungry, go into a quiet room, sit upright and silent, and count your breaths from one to ten, ten to one hundred, and one hundred to one thousand.

Then you will be quiet and calm as if you were a clear sky. After a while, you will feel that your breaths stand still and then go out from the whole surface of your body like mist or a cloud with all the diseases and sicknesses. Then you will feel very well. It seems as if a blind man suddenly recovers his sight. And you will find that it is ridiculous for you to ask others what to do next or how to live.

“’The only effort you must make is to conserve your strength and vigor by speaking less, because one who takes good care of one’s eyesight closes one’s eyes, one who wants to improve one’s sense of hearing becomes oblivious to noise, and one who desires to nourish the spirit keeps silent. I humbly asked Master Hakuyu to tell me about the emulsion or lactose bathing method. Hakuyu answered, “If a monk under discipline feels weary or ill as if the four elements of his body are out of order, he has to make up his mind to pursue this method. In his imagination, he has to conceive that he puts a beautiful and fragrant egg- like ball made of elixir or panacea on his head. Gradually, the ball melts, and its fine, fragrant, and comfortable emulsion or lactose comes down and soaks into his head. Then the emulsion or lactose drips down, and fills his neck, both shoulders, lungs, heart, liver, stomach, bowels, and the backbone. As it comes down, he feels that the pains are gone and the swellings go down as if they were washed away by clean water. And it moistens and warms both his legs and feet.

“Again and again the monk repeats this image, in which he also imagines that he dips the lower half of his body in the fragrant, warm, and comfortable bath of elixir dripping from the ball. As he follows this method in his imagination, he perceives a sweet smell through his nose, and experiences a pleasant feeling of relief in his body. He begins to think that he has a better stomach, a softer skin, and better health than when he was young.

“If the monk tries hard to pursue the method, he can rid himself of diseases, cultivate virtues, raise his morals, and be successful in everything. The only thing he must remember is that everything depends on his efforts. “when young,” Hakuyu continued, “I was in poorer health than you are, every doctor I saw turned his back upon me, and every remedy I tried had no effect. I could but pray for health day and night.

“But how glad I was when I learned the emulsion or lactose bathing method! I tried very hard to follow it with all my heart. Before a month passed, I was cured of most diseases. Since then I have had a feeling that I have a sound, strong body and a clear, active mind. It seems that I have forgotten all about diseases, the past months and years, and even my age to say nothing of worldly cares.

“It was about thirty years ago when I became a hermit in the mountains of wakasa. My life has been just like the dream in the famous Chinese legend of Hantan.”

“Old as I am, I pass the bitterly cold winter nights pleasantly wearing only a few simple clothes. In these lonely deep woods, I live on nuts and berries sometimes without eating cereal for months. But I am in excellent health. This shows the magical effect of the method. “Now I have told you all the tenets of the method, which you can pursue all your life. I have nothing else to tell you.” Then he closed his eyes and sat on quietly. I bowed to him with tears in my eyes. As I came down from the mountain, I saw the sun setting in the west through the leaves of the trees. Suddenly I heard geta footsteps echoing through the woods. I turned around in wonder, and saw Hakuyu coming down from the cave probably to see me off. He said, “In these forested mountains, you will have difficulty in finding the right path, so I will guide you for a while.” He talked in a friendly way while carrying a long stick in his hand. Although he wore the heavy wooden geta, he leaped lightly across small ditches, and he trod the rough and stony path as if he walked on a broad, even road. After coming down a mile or so, we reached the stream I had walked along previously. He said, “If you go along this stream, you will get to the village of Shirakawa without fail.” we parted in sorrow. As I watched him return, he strode up the hill with vigorous strides as if flying up into the sky. I could not help admiring and envying him. I said to myself, “I will not be able to walk like that during my life.” After I came back, I followed the inner concentration method. Before long, the former lingering diseases disappeared without me taking medicine or applying moxa or acupuncture. Not only was I cured of the diseases, but also the great difficulties I had encountered in understanding the profound doctrines of Zen were cleared away one after another. They had been far beyond my reach before I started to pursue the inner concentration method. To my boundless delight, I came to know some of the clues for finding the path to enlightenment as I was able to keep my mind and body under complete control by concentration. Just as the great Chinese priest Miao-hsi (1089— 1163) stated clearly, I have been able to attain several periods of perfect enlightenment and have experienced numerous intuitions and perceived many omens in a flash. Now I realized that a perfect recovery to health solved all the difficult problems of life, and that the method was just what I had expected. Once my feet were as cold as stone as if soaked in ice or snow even if I put on shirts and clothes. Now even in deep winter, I wear only light simple clothing, and do not warm myself at the fire. I am now over seventy, but never have the slightest illness. It is all owing to the method, I believe. But don’t say that the crafty old priest of the Shoinji Temple speaks absurd nonsense to deceive the ignorant public. This method is not for those who are strong and intelligent enough, but for those who are as stupid and weak as I was. They will realize that this method has its merits if they follow it faithfully. I am afraid outsiders will laugh with scorn.


Hakuin’s Poem in Praise of Meditation

Every living thing is the buddha.

The situation is like water and ice.

Without water, there is no ice.

Without living things, there is no buddha.

Everyone tends to seek far

Without knowing that the buddha is near.

The state is like craving water}

Although one is in water.

T‘is also like suffering poverty,

Although one was born rich.

Grievances against one’s lot.

Complaints after complaints,

How can one be free from the cycle?

Meditation in Mahayana

Cannot be praised too much.

Paramita through charity and morality,

Reverence toward Amida and penitence,

And many other holy paths

Lead to the practice of meditating.

Even a successful man of this world

Can atone for the wrong he has done.

Hell is nowhere to be found.

The Pure Land is near at hand.

When one hears this holy truth,

If one heartily rejoices in it,

One will receive great benefit.

Much more one who believes

And devotes oneself to meditation,

Will fully realize “self is Void.”

And that it is beyond discussion.

Further one will know the truth:

Cause and effect are the same

And will always hold that the ideal should be

A mental state free from ideas

And that everything is real but unreal.

Finally in a clear sky of enlightenment

The moon of wisdom shines. l

What else do you seek?

Perfect freedom of Nirvana is at hand.

This is the Lotus Land

My body is the buddha.