By Hakuin Ekaku Zenji

The multitude of beings originally are Buddha.

            It is the same with water and ice.

There is no ice separate from water;

Outside of the multitude of beings, no Buddha.


Because the multitude of beings are unconscious of the intimate,

            They seek it far away. Alas how pitiful!

It is like the examples of someone sitting in the middle of water

            But crying out in thirst; and,

While still being the son of a millionaire's family,

As a strange good-for-nothing he loses his way in the countryside living in poverty.


The causes and conditions of the revolving wheel of the six appearances

            Are but one's own road through the darkness of ignorance;

Walking down dark roads to dark roads,

            Someday you should abandon birth and death.


As to the zen samadhi of the Mahayana, 

            There is just too much to praise.

The several perfections such as charity, morality, and such;

            Chanting Buddha's name, confession and repentance, austerities, and the like;

The many good deeds and various virtuous pilgrimages;

All these are coming from within it.


Also, a person succeeds by the merit of a single sitting

            To destroy one's immeasurably accumulated crimes.

Where then should the evil appearances exist?

The Pure Land is then not far away.


One, who by this Dharma graciously

            Has the occasion to hear it announced even one time,

Who is a person extolling it with deep gratitude,

Receives supreme blessings without limits.


Much more, to personally turn around to face inward and,

            In that case, directly confirm by one's own nature,

That here, one's own nature is neither more nor less than no-nature.

            And afterwards leave off from silly debate;

Then opens the gate of the oneness of cause and effect;

The Way of not-two and not-three is straightened.


When form is the form of non-form,

            One's going and one's returning are not someplace else.

When thought is the thought of no-thought,

            One's singing and one's dancing are the voice of Dharma.


The sky of boundless Samadhi is wide!

            The moon of the Four Wisdoms' round brilliance is transparent!

At this time what more should you want?

            Consequently, Nirvana appears before you.

This place is neither more nor less than the Lotus Country.

As it is, this body is neither more nor less than the Buddha.       




[The original has no breaks between lines. Spaces between the lines of stanzas are added to show my view of the structural arrangement of the stanzas in a 4-6-4-6 pattern around the central stanza of 4 lines resulting in: 4-6-4-6-4-4-6-4-6.]




by Gregory Wonderwheel

(This is still a work in progress, last edit February 27, 2010.)

Hakuin Ekaku Zenji (白隠禅師) was the meditation master of his age.  He was born on 12/25/1685 and died on 01/18/1769.

Zazen Wasan    和讃

            Hakuin was a Zen master of the Japanese Rinzai (Ch. Lin-ji) tradition, and so the “Ode to Sitting-Meditation” is usually chanted in Zen temples and centers where the Rinzai tradition is followed.   The creative genius of the Ode to Sitting Meditation is not to be found in any new idea about Buddhism, for in fact it doesn’t present any new idea. What is so creatively sublime about the Ode is how it presents its distillation of the traditional timeless teaching of Buddhism both completely and succinctly from the position of the Zen Sect, while at the same time being a powerful polemic within the cultural setting of late medieval Japan speaking to the common people in the context of the popularity of the Pure Land and Nichiren Sects with their focused reverence on the Lotus Sutra.  Hakuin was poetically informing the people that the practice of sitting meditation is fully and completely in unity with the Lotus Sutra and in fact is really the essence of the Lotus Sutra’s teaching. 

Hakuin was raised in a family belonging to the Nichirin Sect (J. Hokke Shu) whose focus is almost exclusively on the Lotus Sutra with the primary practice of chanting “namu myo ho renge kyo” (homage wondrous dharma Lotus Sutra).  He was said to have a remarkable memory and at a very young age he astonished family members by repeating the sermon that was preached on a section of the Lotus Sutra when they returned home.  However, when he decided to leave home and become a monk he enrolled in Shoinji, a Rinzai Zen temple in his hometown.   In a personal sense, Hakuin’s Ode to Meditation is the reconciliation of his path as a Zen practitioner with his roots growing up immersed in the Lotus Sutra.

Hakuin’s awakening was truly that of the Buddha mind-nature and not based on doctrine, for throughout his life Hakuin never became a sectarian. The complete assurance of his own experience gave him the freedom to appreciate the practices of other ways. He acknowledged that the chanting practices of both the Pure Land and Nichirin schools were efficacious when practiced with the right attitude, just as the zazen and koan practice were worthless if practiced with the wrong attitude. He said that the chanting of the sacred formulas were equivalent to the use of koan in Zen when it is understood that the object of the formula, Amida Buddha or the Dharma Lotus, is the one-mind.  He also acknowledged that all sects of Buddhism when practiced faithfully and with determination could bring one to awakening since the wondrous law of the one mind is the beginning of Buddha knowledge as taught in the Lotus Sutra.

In a letter to a nun of the Nichirin school, Hakuin said that by her practice of “namu myo ho renge kyo” she could enter the Diamond Circle and be as one who has reached the depth of death, and then instantly the un-confused truth would rise up and she would attain to the true dignified beauty of the Lotus Blossom, which is called in the Tendai sect, “The Calm of the Absolute, and the Treasure House of Calm and Perpetual Light”, in the Shingon sect “The Sun Light of the Non-Origin of the Adhi Buddha,” and in the Pure Land sect, “The Fundamental Purpose of Immediate Heart-Birth into the Pure Land.”  He advised her to not think that the Shingon or the Pure Land teachings were worse or lower than the Nichirin teachings.  He told her that the ultimate goals of even Confucian, Taoist, and Shinto teachings were the same as Buddhism with different names. It is in this radical ecumenical context that Hakuin’s zazen wasan should be read and understood.

The Japanese word wasan means a poetic song of praise to be chanted or recited. The word ode is the best English equivalent since it means a lyric poem usually composed in dedication to some special person, object, emotion, or ideal. 

The term zazen is a combination of the terms za and zen. Literally, za means sitting, and zen is derived from the Sanscrit word dhyana meaning meditation, thus the translation of zazen into "sitting-meditation."  However, in Buddhism the activity of sitting meditation should not be taken only literally. The literal act of sitting meditation is the physical gateway or vehicle for the spiritual realization of sitting meditation, which is enlightenment and its function. The Sixth Patariarch of Zen, Hui Neng, described zazen thusly: "to sit means to gain absolute freedom and to be mentally unperturbed in all outward circumstances, be they good or otherwise. To meditate means to realize inwardly the imperturbability of the Essence of Mind."  The veneration and direct exhibition of the enlightenment embodied in sitting meditation is the purpose of the "Ode to Sitting-Meditation." 

            The Ode was written in a total of 22 couplets in the Sino-Japanese calligraphy.  The chanted version does not have any stanza groupings.  Some translations have the lines grouped into stanzas of differing arrangements, and some do not group the lines into stanzas at all.

            I have divided the "Ode" into nine stanzas with 4 or 6 lines per stanza (4-4-6-6-4-4-6-6-4) based on the themes being stated.  The first stanza (lines 1-4) presents the basic truth of Buddhism. The second and third stanzas (lines 5- 14) portray the plight or condition of ordinary sentient beings who are confused about our inherent nature and therefore are bound to cause and effect conditions and finally asking how to resolve the predicament of birth and death. The fourth, fifth, and sixth stanzas (lines 15-28) introduce sitting-meditation and sing the praise of its efficacy. The seventh stanza (lines 29-34) focuses on the way to practice sitting-meditation.  The eighth stanza (lines 35-40) presents the freedom realized through sitting-meditation. And the last stanza (lines 41-44) reiterates the first stanza presenting the realization of enlightenment.

“Living beings originally are Buddha.”

            This line is the essence and summation of Buddhism.  If one fully comprehends this line then the whole song is sung.  These are the famous first words of enlightened exaltation uttered by the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama Shakyamuni, upon the occasion of his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. This is the plain truth of Buddhism.  This one line expresses in Buddhist terms the primary fact of all spiritual reality by pointing directly to the inherent nature of all sentient beings as the Way of awakening.  The heartfelt aspiration for awakening leads us to seek awakening, but first, since we are still attached to the notions of good and evil, self and other, we seek outside of our own nature in the heavens of otherness. But the Buddha reminder is that each of us is originally Buddha nature, so seeking outside of our own nature is fruitless.  

From its first line to its last line, the "Ode to Sitting-Meditation" is intended to bring the reader to this truth by showing that sitting-meditation is the superb unsurpassed Way to make this truth real for oneself just at the taste of water is real only in the drinking. 

The word “honrai” is translated here as “originally” and is sometimes translated as “primarily” or “essentially,” or sometimes more strictly in the temporal sense as “from the first” or “from the beginning.”   Hakuin is stating that from the beginning, every being is complete, and every being, both ordinary beings and Buddhas, is originally the same Buddha nature, i.e., the Tathagata.

“It is the same with water and ice.

There is no ice separate from water;”

            When Hakuin wrote this in the 18th century (of the Common Era) “water and ice” was already a well known Zen metaphor that appears as early as the treatise attributed to Bodhidharma (d. 532) titled “Great Master Dharma’s Discourse on the Nature of Awakening” (達磨大師悟性論). [fn?]

            Also, Bassui Tokusho, a Japanese Rinzai Zen master of the 14th Century, used it in his talks collected in the work “Mud and Water”:

“There is no ice or snow apart from water.   The Buddhahood of ordinary people can be likened to snow and ice melting and becoming water.  From the beginning nothing has ever been lost.” (n. 1,)

Ice is the solid form of water. As water manifests as solid, liquid, or gas, so Buddha manifests in various ways, one of which is as sentient beings. There may be water which is not solid-water, i.e., ice, but there can never be solid-water that is not water.

Hakuin’s short Zazen Wasan has several references which occur in Bassui’s “Mud and Water”, so many in fact, that one can’t help but feel that the Zazen Wasan was directly inspired by Hakuin’s reading of Bassui’s talks.

“Outside of living beings, no Buddha.”

            One might think of sentient beings as solid-Buddha: the Buddha who has come to think of selves as egos or personalities, as entities separate from other entities. This objectification of one's identity is like freezing and solidifying our true Buddha Nature. But even when our ideas of ourselves are bound and stuck, we are nonetheless still Buddha: essentially free.

“Because living beings are unconscious of the intimate,"

            Even though we are told how near the truth is we just can't really believe it. We can only really know by our own experience, and our usually accepted interpretation of our experience tells us that we are out of or apart from the truth.

“They seek it far away! Alas how pitiful!”

            The spiritual quest always begins with this feeling of being distant from the truth. Whether it is the search for the Holy Grail, the realm of Heaven, the grace of God, or the enlightenment of Buddha, we imagine the goal to be somewhere else than where we are since we are convinced of our own deficiency. It is a pitiful shame and disappointment to see but also evokes compassion and tenderness for those who are searching.

“It is like the examples of someone sitting in the middle of water, But crying out in thirst;”

            What could be more pitiable than one standing chest deep in water and dying of dehydration. This is the image of Tantalus from the Greek teachings, chained forever just out of reach of food and water. We torment ourselves chained by our own actions caused by our misunderstanding.

            The thirst quenching water of clear awareness is ever present but we seek comfort and satisfaction in transient objects that only dull awareness.

            When it comes to awakening this image of standing in water yet crying out in thirst is completely expressive of our natural predicament.  Whatever we call it, God, Buddha, Suchness, Nirvana, etc., we cry out for it while we are immersed in it, yet we don’t perceive our own immersion.

“and, While still being the son of a millionaire's family, As a strange good-for-nothing he loses his way in the countryside living in poverty.”

            This refers to the parable Lost Son in Chapter 4 of the Lotus of the True Dharma Sutra in which the elder monks Subhűti,  MahâKâtyâyana, Mahâ-Kâsyapa, and Mahâ-Maudgalyâyana describe to the Buddha how they understand his teachings to be skillful means of enticing beings back to an understanding of their true inheritance which is the realization of our own nature.  This is the central teaching of the Mahayana which said that awakening to one’s own true nature, not the Nirvana of the elders, is the true goal of the Buddha dharma. The highlights of the parable may be told thusly.

The son of the rich man wanders away and becomes a poor beggar. After 50 years of missing his son the father sees his wandering in the town, but the son does not recognize the father.  The son runs away for fear that the rich man will put him to forced labor.  Without telling anyone who the man is, the father sends servants to bring the poor beggar back. The son becomes so distraught at believing he is being captured into slavery that he faints. The rich man sees the dilemma of trying to convince the son of his inheritance and devises a scheme. He “frees” his son and then gets another man to pretend to hire the son for work for that other man.  The son is sent to work at the rich man’s home removing piles of dirt.  Eventually the rich man befriends him and is able to convince the son that there is no danger from the rich man.  As they have more interactions the son begins to trust his father, and the father promotes him and has him move onto the property and work there exclusively. The father begins to call the man “son” as an older man would a younger. 

After twenty years the father is sick and feels himself near death. He tells the son that he needs an heir and is making the poor man his heir. The poor man then becomes the steward of the rich man and show that he can manage the wealth even though he himself has no personal interest in it and continues to live in his hut. 

Here is Kern’s translation of the end of the parable: “The time of his death approaching, he sends for the poor man, presents him to a gathering of his relations, and before the king or king's peer and in the presence of citizens and country-people makes the following speech: ‘Hear, gentlemen! this is my own son, by me begotten. It is now fifty years that he disappeared from such and such a town. He is called so and so, and myself am called so and so. In searching after him I have from that town come hither. He is my son; I am his father. To him I leave all my revenues, and all my personal (or private) wealth shall he acknowledge (his own).’  The poor man, Lord, hearing this speech was astonished and amazed; he thought by himself: Unexpectedly have I obtained this bullion, gold, money and corn, treasures and granaries.” (n. 2.)

The elders then proclaim that the Tathagata’s teaching is like the rich man’s attempt to get the son to recognize his true inheritance. The elders now understand that their striving for Nirvana was like the fee given to the poor man for working in the rich man’s home, but that the rich man’s inheritance is supreme perfect enlightenment itself. 

This story is important here for several reasons. First, it was very familiar to the Buddhists of Pure Land Buddhism who used the Lotus Sutra as their central teaching.  Hakuin knew that he only had to refer to the parable and his listeners would know it.   One of the themes of Hakuin’s teaching throughout his career was the compatibility and mutual confirmation of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism.  Hakuin never set up Zen as a detractor of Pure Land, but said that if Pure Land Buddhism was practiced according to the teaching of the Lotus Sutra that the results would be the same as Zen.

Second, it is important because the parable itself is about the essential purpose of the development of Mahayana Buddhism.  The Mahayana teaching is conceived as a return to the two central themes of Buddhism: awakening and bodhisattva action. The parable is telling the Buddhists of its time that the pursuit of Nirvana as a personal means of extinction of suffering is not the Buddha’s primary purpose. The true inheritance of Buddhism is Awakening not Nirvana. If it were merely Nirvana then the Buddha would have entered Nirvana immediately and not have spent 50 years communicating awakening. 

Reference to this story is also found in Bassui’s “Mud and Water” collection.  There a questioner relates the parable as part of his question regarding how to interpret apparent contradictions in the sutras and why each sutra says that there is nothing higher than the recitation of that sutra.  Bassui in his response says, “Those who seek the Buddha and dharma outside of mind are all children of rich men who have forgotten where their homes are. When you awaken to the unique and wonderful dharma of your true nature, it is as if the lost child had come home.” (n. 3.)

The causes and conditions of the revolving wheel of the six appearances,”

            The “causal wheel” is otherwise called “The Wheel of Life.”  The Six Worlds are the spheres of activity of the six kinds of sentient beings in which Buddha manifests: Demons, Hungry Ghosts, Beasts, Humans, Titans, and Gods. Buddhist cosmology states that these are the six “worlds” or “realms” in which beings reincarnate depending upon the accumulated karma resulting from our previous actions within each of the worlds. A sentient being may realize Buddhahood within any of the six realms, but of the six, the domain of the humans is the most conducive to realizing enlightenment because in it the attractions and distractions of sentience are most equally balanced, and sentient beings have a better chance of discovering that still point of equilibrium which leads to enlightenment.

            In Buddhist psychology these six worlds are the metaphors for the emotional fields in which people move and have their identity.  When, through anger or vengeance, we want to hurt someone, then we are demons. When we are consumed by desire and greed which never seems to be sated we are living the life of a Hungry Ghost. When we are dumb to the conditions of others and living our own life within the narrow concerns of survival we are living the lives of beasts. When we are filled with a spirit of competition or desire for fame and greatness, when we see life as a struggle and fight or we believe that survival is for the fittest, then we are living in the realm of the warrior giants or Titans. When we find pleasures and ease without sorrow, absolute control, reverence from others, or any other godlike condition, then we are residing in one of the many Heavens among the heavenly beings and Gods. When we can see that all these concerns affect us and entice us but that we are most ourselves by balancing their influences and living in a community of people with similar concerns who we care about then we are human.

            The Wheel of Life is a favorite subject of Buddhist iconography. [n. 4]  [transmigration & the wheel]

“Are but one's own road through the darkness of ignorance;”

            The road we are lost on is not someone else's road; the ignorance we should be concerned with is not someone else’s ignorance.  It is only our own ignorance of "where" we really are that makes us “lost” and that makes the road “dark.”

            Bassui said, “The root of life and death is the conscious mind. Beginning practitioners mistakenly take things like the emission of light and he performance of miracles, which are really the roots of ignorance, for the clear expression of Buddha Nature.  … This conscious mind is the boss of notorious robbers, the origin of the ten evil deeds, and the pit of knowledge based on attachment to form. If it is not destroyed, though you were to speak wonderful words of the miraculous they would all be no more than strange spirits of wild foxes. In the end you wouldn’t be able to avoid floating in the world of transmigration. That’s why its destruction is connected with the one great matter. The reason for transmigration through the six realms of existence, from the beginningless beginning to the present, tossing and turning in great pain is that you can’t turn off this conscious mind.” (n. 5.)

“Walking down dark roads to dark roads,”

            The dark roads are the many paths within the Six Worlds. We wander from one to another never being sure of where we are going or what is our ultimate destination.

“Someday you should abandon birth and death.”

            This is the primary question that motivates the spiritual quest within the Buddhist context. Having come to an awareness of the human condition of reincarnation through transmigration on the Wheel of Life, the question naturally arises, "How can we be free from this everlasting cycle?" [This is equivalent to the Christian question of ...]

“As to the zen samadhi of the Mahayana," 

            In the Mahayana, meditation practice is technically called zen-samadhi (in Sanskrit dhyana samadhi), or the samadhi of meditation. In practical language it is simply called sitting zen (zazen) or sitting meditation.  Zen-samadhi is the primary solution to the Buddhist question of the spiritual search.  The historical Buddha realized enlightenment by sitting zen-samadhi, and as taught in the Parable of the Wayward Son in the True Dharma of the White Lotus Sutra, though Buddha preached and taught many truths, principles, and doctrines they all amounted to the skillful means of a wealthy father (Buddha) who wanted to return his lost and poor son (all beings) to his true inheritance to be gained by zen-samadhi. Thus all the words of Buddhism amount only to various means of convincing us to sit and meditate like Buddha did to realize enlightenment for oneself.

            The difficulty of translating the Sanskrit term samadhi adequately into English is one reason the word has been used without translation and incorporated into English dictionaries. It is commonly, though erroneously, translated as “concentration”. Among the problems with the term “concentration” is that it is weighted too much on the “one pointedness” aspect of attention training which is only the beginning step of initial samadhi practice, and it creates the false impression that the whole of samadhi is the act of concentrating on a single object.  A better translation would be “focus” in the sense that when awareness is concentrated on the focal point of awareness itself, rather than on a single object, then everything else (i.e., all things or ''dharmas'') comes into focus.


            In the way that a camera or one’s eye does not reach out to things to bring them into focus and clarity but makes an inner adjustment of the focal point, so too, does the practice of zen-samadhi make an inner adjustment of the focal point of awareness. This inner adjustment is sometimes called “turning the light around” to draw attention to the fact that zen-samadhi does not reach out to focus on objects but turns inward to be aware of themeless or objectless awareness itself.   Whether one is practicing zazen as “only minding doing sitting” (J. shikantaza) or as inquiry into “the source of speech” (Ch. huatou) with koans, the common denominator that makes them both zazen is that the zen-samadhi in the practice is not a concentration on an object but a themeless or formless focus on the focal point of awareness itself without the externalization of an object of form or thought used to act as a mediated object of awareness.  Though “just sitting” zazen may start with concentration techniques such as focused breath counting or breath awareness and “koan inquiry” zazen may start with focused awareness on pivotal words of the koan (e.g., a [i]huatou[/i] such as “What is it?” or “Who hears?” or “Mu”) neither method of zazen becomes real zen-samadhi until the awareness is “turned around” from reaching out to objects to “focus” on the true suchness of awareness itself.


            Another acceptable translation is “contemplation” in the sense of considering, observing, or noticing with steady attention.  In Christian terminology contemplation can mean the state of mystical awareness of God’s being or the Godhead, which in Buddhist terminology would mean the direct awareness of the ground of being, that is, the Dharmakaya of the Tathagata.


            From the etymological root of samadhi meaning “putting together,” “to join,” and “to combine,” other valid translations of samadhi are “union”, “unification”, and “absorbtion” in which all discriminations are joined or combined into a realization of the great non-dual harmony of true suchness.


            Essentially, samadhi is the inherent state of steady or unperturbed awareness of one’s true nature.  In the Platform Sutra Huineng describes zen-samadhi in this way:


“Learned and virtuous ones, what is called zen-samadhi (dhyana-samadhi)? Outwardly, to be free from characteristics is doing zen. Inwardly, to not be perturbed is doing samadhi. Outwardly, if one attaches to characteristics, inwardly, the heart-mind is immediately perturbed. Outwardly, if one is free from characteristics, the heart-mind is immediately not perturbed. The root nature by itself is pure, by itself is samadhi. Only by seeing conditions and thinking about conditions is one immediately perturbed. If someone sees various conditions and the heart-mind is not perturbed, this is real samadhi. Learned and virtuous ones, outwardly, to be free from characteristics is immediately zen. Inwardly, to not be perturbed is immediately samadhi. Outwardly, zen, inwardly, samadhi, this is doing zen-samadhi.”


“There is just too much to praise.”

            In the case of the meditation practiced in Mahayana Buddhism words cannot encompass the reality of personal experience much less the experience of going beyond personal experience which occurs. When the Bodhisattva Manjusri asked the Buddhist Layman Vimalakirti: "What is the Bodhisattva's initiation into the non-dual Dharma?" Vimalakirti kept silent without saying a word.

            Even though words are insufficient we must still use words to communicate, so this sentence is a reminder to not be fooled, deluded, or trapped by the words of the song even when the joyous heart bursts out in praise.  Whatever is said in praise about zazen will ultimately be short of the mark.

“The several paramitas such as charity, morality, and such;”

            The Six Perfections or Transcendences  [S. paramitas] are: impartial charity (dana), mindful morality (sila), patient endurance (ksanti), devoted zeal (virya), evenminded meditation (dhyana), and profound wisdom (prajna).

“Chanting Buddha's name, confession and repentance, austerities, and the like;”

            Chanting Buddha's name, usually the Buddha Amida, is called in Japanese Nembutsu.  This is the central practice of Pure Land Buddhism.   The Nembutsu is repetition of  Namu Amida Butsu”, or “Homage Amida Buddha.” Amida (or Amitabha) Buddha means Infinite-light Buddha. 

A similar practice to chanting Buddha’s name is chanting “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” which means "Homage Wondrous Dharma Lotus Sutra," and was made the central practice of the Nichirin branch of Buddhism which was founded by Nichirin who was a 13th Century contemporary of Dogen.   Both Dogen and Nichirin were Tendai monks who, with others, left Tendai to found what were called “the New Kamakura Religions” consisting of Rinzai and Soto Zen, Pure Land, and Nichirin sects.  Nicherin was a reformer and total believer in the Tendai’s Lotus Sutra but was opposed to Tendai's elaborate tantric rituals and esoteric teachings that seemed out of reach of the common people.   Nichirin objected to the Pure Land’s Nembutsu chanting saying that it was the Lotus Sutra itself which must be central to practice in this life, giving results in this life, and not the chanting of Buddha’s name for a future life.  More is said about Nichirin and his chanting practice below in the discussion of ekayana.

Repentance is an important religious practice in Buddhism.  The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng, has a section which records one of Hui Neng’s sermons titled “On Repentence.” Hui Neng leads the audience in a recitation of the “Formless” Repentance saying may we be free from the taints of ignorance and delusion, arrogance and dishonesty, and envy and jealousy.  He adds, “On account of ignorance and delusion, common people do not realize that in repentance they have not only to feel sorry for their past wrongdoings but also to refrain from doing wrong in the future. Since they take no heed of their future conduct they commit new wrongs before the past are expiated. How can we call this ‘repentance’?” 

“The many good deeds and various virtuous pilgrimages;”

            In Buddhism, the concept of good deeds and the "merit" they engender is often misunderstood even by Buddhists.  The well-known story of Bodhidharma and the Emperor Wu is a tale about the misunderstanding of the notion of merit (it also is referenced below).   In the Platform Sutra, which Hakuin wrote a commentary on, Hui Neng is asked the meaning of Bodhidharma’s statement to Emperor Wu that the good works of the emperor would not bring merits.  Hui Neng says such good works as building temples, allowing monks to join, giving alms, etc. will bring only felicities (i.e., good karma) not merits (kung teh).  Hui Neng gives a list of paired characteristics of kung and teh,

            Merit does not refer to the beneficial results, material or spiritual, which one may accrue from one's actions due to the natural law of karma and which will be made manifest in the future such as comforts, happiness, or enlightenment. Those are karmic felicities not merit.  The notion of merit is a means used to focus one's attention on doing good deeds without an idea of rewards.  To seek rewards for good deeds is not the Buddhist way, though the Buddha acknowledged that doing so was obviously better than doing bad deeds with no fear of the karmic consequences. 

When one does good deeds for rewards, the nature of the benefits which one desires for life in the future reflects the level of one's spiritual maturity. There are two basic diminsions in the spectrum of felicitiy-merit seeking: the type of benefit accrued and to whom it accrues.  First, desire for wealth or creature comforts is less mature than desire for happiness, and both less than the desire for enlightenment, and the most mature is no desire for results. Desire for personal benefits is less mature than the desire that one's benefits may compensate others.

            Desire to be reborn in one of the heavens as a reward for a life of purity has motivated many generations of Buddhists, yet with certain exceptions heaven is not conducive to enlightenment because of its one sided conditions of pleasure and longevity.  Desiring to be reborn in Amida’s Pure Land, though it shares many attributes with heaven, is still fundamentally a desire for enlightenment not pleasures or bliss.  

Many Buddhists believe that merit can be stored up like a bank account and donated to specific others, such as one's parents, for their fortunate rebirth. Yet even this desire to benefit selected others for personal motives reflects an essentially self-serving reason for doing good. Thus the most mature form of desire for merit is that which aims for the enlightenment of all beings without discrimination, because this desire is consonant with the true nature of reality. As the Lotus Sutra says, like the rain and the light of the sun or moon, Buddha's enlightenment falls and shines on all beings impartially.

 “All these are coming from within it.”

            This conclusion may seem doctrinaire or hyperbole, yet it is the essence of Buddhism that Buddha was enlightened through sitting meditation.  Every praxis of Buddhism that has developed as a skillful means to respond to people’s spiritual ailments is derived directly from Buddha’s enlightenment which itself flowered from sitting meditation. 

            In sitting meditation is the realization of enlightenment without having to seek it elsewhere. This is the open secret of “shikantaza” as taught by Zen Teacher Dogen.  This realization cuts through all levels or dimensions of reality.  Sitting meditation is the essence of Buddha within the absolute nature. Sitting meditation is the radiance of the essence of mind. Sitting meditation is the manifestation of the radiance of the essence of mind. Sitting meditation is the physical expression of the infinite within space and time. 

"Also, a person succeeds by the merit of a single sitting"




"To destroy one's immeasurably accumulated crimes."


            This is the mystery of Buddhist practice.  To say that the enlightened person escapes karma is wrong and only leads to more karma.  This is the teaching of the story of Bai Chang’s fox in which a teacher’s karma was to live 500 lives as a fox because he fell into duality when answering the question of whether an enlightened person is subject to the law of karma.  Bai Chang showed the teacher how to answer the question without falling into polarity and thus showed him how to release the remaining karma.

But the act of sitting meditation is an act of supreme renunciation and open equanimity without a trace of polarity. Such sitting counteracts all karma in a completely natural way much like a grounding wire prevents shock from a short circuited electrical appliance.  Without reliance on magical or supernatural thinking, sitting meditation actually neutralizes the charged karmic potentials in the atmosphere of the sentient mind by removing the fixation on the polarized distinctions of ordinary thought. 


"Where then should the evil appearances exist?"





“The Pure Land is then not far away.”


This phrase is a direct reference to Hui Neng’s Platform Sutra in which Hui Neng discusses the distance to the Pure Land.  Hakuin was well versed in the Platform Sutra as one of his writings is “A Talk on the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng” in which Hakuin discusses the third section on “Questions and Answers” where Hui Neng is asked whether it is possible for people to be born in the Pure Land by practicing the Nembutsu, i.e., chanting the name of Amida Buddha. Hui Neng says that according to the Amida Dhyana Sutra “the Pure Land is not far from here.” (n. 6)  Hui Neng then says the distance that is given as 108,000 miles (Chinese li) is a metaphor for the ten evils and eight errors. 


In another part of the PlatformSutra, Hui Neng recites a formless stanza (i.e., a free form poem) and then says, "Hearers of this stanza who put its teaching into actual practice will find paradise in their very presence." [Ch. 3]


A contemporary Chinese priest of the Ming era named Shuko of Unsei had written a criticism of Hui Neng alleging that Hui Neng said in the Platform Sutra that the Pure Land is in India.  Hakuin wrote in retort, “Faugh! Who was this Shuko anyway? Some hidebound Confucian? An apologist for the Lesser Vehicle? Maybe a Buddhist of Pure Land persuasion who cast groundless aspersions on this sacred work because he was blind to the profound truth contained in the Meditation Sutra -- which states that the Pure Land is ‘not far from here.’ -- because he was simply not equipped with the eye which would enable him to read sutras?”  (n. 7)



"One, who by this Dharma graciously"




"Has the occasion to even once hear it announced,"




"Who is a person extolling it with deep gratitude,"




"Receives supreme blessings without limits."



"Much more, to personally turn around to face inward and,"


            This is the pivotal point of Buddhism and Zen practice as taught in the Lankavatara Sutra, the Surangama Sutra, the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, and other Sutras. 


The Lankavatara says, “The cessation of the discriminating-mind cannot take place until there has been a ‘turning-about’ in the deepest seat of consciousness. The mental habit of looking outward by the discriminating-mind upon an external objective world must be given up, and a new habit of realizing Truth within the intuitive-mind by becoming one with the Truth itself must be established. Until this intuitive self-realization of Noble Wisdom is attained, the evolving mind-system will go on. But when an insight into the five Dharmas, the three self-natures, and the twofold ego-less-ness is attained, then the way will be opened for this ‘turning-about’ to take place.” (n. 16)


            Hui Neng used the term “introspection” for this “backward step,” “turning-about,” or “turning the eye inward.” 


            In the Record of Linji, Linji says, "An old master said: 'If you seek the Buddha by karmic (volitional) actions, the Buddha will become the great symbol of birth and death.' Venerable ones, time is precious! Yet you run about hither and thither, studying Zen, learning the Way, chasing names and phrases, seeking the Buddha and patriarchs and good teachers, full of arbitrary judgments. Do not commit such errors. Followers of the Way, you each have a father and mother. So what more do you seek? Turn round and look into yourselves. An old master said: 'Yajnadatta thought he had lost his head. When he ceased from his frantic looking for it, he had nothing further to seek.'" [n.25]  Hakuin's "turn the eye inward" is exactly Linji's "turning round and looking into yourselves." 


            In his "Universal Reference Guide to Zazen", Dogen wrote, “Therefore, put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward.”  Though some so-called followers of the Soto and Rinzai Zen schools may argue that their zazen practices differ, in these phrases we see that Dogen borrowed directly from Linji's admonition against investigating words and "chasing phrases" when emphasizing the practice of turning the light inward.  Again, Hakuin was of one mind with these predecessors in highlighting the essential practice of zazen as the turning inward of the eye’s light, which as a practice was both handed down teacher to student and in deep accord with the Sutras. 


"In that case, directly confirm by one's own nature,"


Only the one who actually sees inwardly can actually verify the Buddha truth and see the original face of one’s own true nature.  This is the realization called satori or kensho in Japanese.


"That here, one's own nature is neither more nor less than no-nature."




"And afterwards leave off from silly debate;"


            The term "silly debate" is sometimes translated "sophistry." Within the term "silly debate," Hakuin includes not only sophistry (in the modern sense) but also empty or deceptive rhetoric, use of logical fallacies, and most fundamentally relying on false premises derived from taking discrimination literally.  All belief in the reality of categories is within the ken of false logic. The Lankavatara uses terms like viparyasa (confusion, error, inversion, etc.) and vikalpa (false discrimination) and says that the difference between the wise and the ignorant is that the wise are free from viparyasa while the ignorant are not.  Going beyond the ken of false logic doesn't mean going to a different world, but going beyond false discrimination in the awareness of this world.  It is false logic and discrimination that makes us mistaken about our original self-nature and leads to the grasping of subject and object as external realities, thus obscuring the truth of mind-only. 

            In another sense, false logic is what we consider our ordinary understanding of things.  Thus Hakuin is again echoing the Lankavatara where it says, "they will… walk on the path and enter into the realm of Tathagatahood, which is outside the ken of the ordinary understanding." [Studies p. 141.]


            D.T. Suzuki, in his Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra, says, "Therefore, things in one sense are as they are, but in another sense they are not. This is what is meant by Buddhist phenomenalism, but we are not to be carried away by its doctrine of emptiness as was explained before, as Buddhism has after all something to affirm. Its superficially paradoxical way of presenting the truth is often baffling to logicians.  The Lankavatara proceeds to say that te ignorant and confused use their own way of discrimination (vikalpa) to grasp the theory of non-ego, but as existence is really beyond any system of categories, the Tathagata's wisdom alone is capable of penetrating into reality.  [Studies p.136.]  The Buddha states in the Lankavatara, "It [the nature of enlightenment] is not something that is subject to discrimination and hence perceptible, nor is it for that reason to be understood as non-existent; it is the very nature of things as they are." [p.137 from Studies] 

            And in the Shurangama Sutra, the Buddha says:

"Even after the ideas of both creation and destruction have been abandoned, with no more thought of practice and realization, if the (least belief in) self-existence remains this shows clearly that the death of the worldly has given birth to the self-existent mind which also pertains to samsara with its implied opposite, self-existence. This is like the mixture and fusion of various worldly materials into a composite compound which implies its opposite, the uncompounded. (But) the Absolute which is neither original nor unoriginal, neither mixed and united nor not mixed and not united, and neither apart nor not apart from union and separation, is above and beyond all sophistry." [n. 26]


"Then opens the gate of the oneness of cause and effect;"








“The Way of not-two and not-three, . . .”


            Hakuin is presenting here the core experience of the Ekayana, or direct path of the One Vehicle, which is another direct reference to the Lotus Sutra that points both to its historical importance as a primary sutra explaining the Mahayana and to its being the most popularly known sutra in the Japan of his day.  Essentially, Zen is “One Vehicle Buddhism.”  The importance of this key phrase has largely been lost on the present generation of Zen adherents.


The term “ekayana” is composed of “eka” and “yana.”  Yana can mean the nouns “vehicle,” “journey,” “path,” or “way,” and the verbs “going,” “moving,” “riding,” etc. Yana as a path or the vehicle on the path may be distinguished from the synonym marga (as in the Eight-fold Path) which has the added sense of seeking on the track, path, way, or road, as in a hunter following the track of the wild animal or an expedient way or a main road.   Eka can mean “one,” “singular,” “chief,” “alone,” “unique,” etc.  Therefore in combination, ekayana can be translated as “the one vehicle,” “a singular path,” “a narrow path wide enough for one only,” “a direct path,” or “one who has fixed all his thoughts on one object.” 


One of the earliest Buddhist uses of the term ekayana was used in the Satipatthana Sutra, the Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which describes mindfulness meditation focusing on body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities.  Referring to mindfulness the Buddha says, "This is the one vehicle [ekayana, ekayano in Pali] along the path [marga, maggo in Pali] of purification...".   However, as the Buddhist teaching proliferated the many sutras became not only ways to focus on techniques but also flags for sectarian rallying cries.  Additionally, too many Buddhists had gone off track by making Nirvana into a literalized goal or state to be achieved as separate from the world of samsara, with the argument that this world is annihilated or extinguished as a result of enlightenment. 


This was the heresy of nihilism that the teaching of the One Vehicle of the Mahayana was intended to treat and correct.   In the view of the One Vehicle all the sutras and all the teachings of the Buddha, in fact all roads to awakening in whatever human tradition, are the many expedient means for pointing directly to Buddha Nature for the purpose of awakening to supreme-perfect-enlightenment.  The Buddha Vehicle, i.e., the vehicle of awakening itself, is the One Vehicle that is all inclusive of the lesser vehicles that are used only to point to the awakening of the one Buddha mind.  Because this vehicle is all inclusive it was called the Great Vehicle, or Mahayana.  However, the term Great Vehicle rather than simply being great in the all-inclusive sense became yet another source of conflict by which it was called the greater vehicle and other vehicles by comparison were called lesser vehicles. Thus as with the newspapers of today where controversy gets more print than meaningful substance,  the term “Mahayana” as a polemic against “Hinayana” became the commonly used and accepted label while the original and inclusive label “Ekayana” fell into disuse. 


            Along with the Flower Garland Sutra (Avatamsaka Sutra), the White Lotus of the True Dharma Sutra (Saddharma Pundarika, or Lotus Sutra for short) were the two primary sutras presenting the essential Mahayana view of the One Vehicle as the way to include all the divergent forms of Buddhism while at the same time refocusing on awakening as the Buddha Vehicle.  Here is the teaching of this “not two, not three” as found in the Lotus Sutra:


“Sâriputra, I do show all creatures the sight of Tathâgata-knowledge; I do open the eyes of creatures for the sight of Tathâgata-knowledge, Sâriputra; I do firmly establish the teaching of Tathâgata-knowledge, Sâriputra; I do lead the teaching of Tathâgata-knowledge on the right path, Sâriputra. By means of one sole vehicle, to wit, the Buddha-vehicle, Sâriputra, do I teach creatures the law; there is no second vehicle, nor a third. This is the nature of the law, Sâriputra, universally in the world, in all directions. For, Sariputra, all the Tathâgatas, &c., who in times past existed in countless, innumerable spheres in all directions for the weal of many, the happiness of many, out of pity to the world, for the benefit, weal, and happiness of the great body of creatures, and who preached the law to gods and men with able means, such as several directions and indications, various arguments, reasons, illustrations, fundamental ideas, interpretations, paying regard to the dispositions of creatures whose inclinations and temperaments are so manifold, all those Buddhas and Lords, Sâriputra, have preached the law to creatures by means of only one vehicle, the Buddha-vehicle, which finally leads to omniscience; it is identical with showing all creatures the sight of Tathâgata-knowledge; with opening the eyes of creatures for the sight of Tathâgata-knowledge; with the awakening (or admonishing) by the display (or sight) of Tathâgata -knowledge; with leading the teaching of Tathâgata-knowledge on the right path. Such is the law they have preached to creatures. And those creatures, Sâriputra, who have heard the law from the past Tathâgatas, &c., have all of them reached supreme, perfect enlightenment.”  (n. 8.)


While the term Ekayana did not become as popular as the PR-heavy imagery of the term Mahayana, the T’ian Tai Sect, or Lotus Sutra School, of Buddhism in China continued to use the term One Vehicle, and it was through the interactions with T’ian Tai that the Ch’an teachers in China and Zen teachers in Japan continued to use the phrase One Vehicle regularly for their  focus on meditation and awakening to the One-mind as the direct path of Buddhism.  Here are some examples from the Old Teachers of Ch’an and Zen.


The Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng had an important encounter with a follower of the Tiantai school that is recorded in the “Sutra Spoken by the Sixth Patriarch on the High Seat of the Treasure of the Law” (Sutra of Hui Neng, for short). Fa Da’s practice was to recite the Lotus Sutra and he asked Hui Neng to explain the parable of the three carts. 


“The reason why Sravakas, Pratyeka Buddhas and Bodhisattvas cannot comprehend the Buddha-knowledge is because they speculate on it. They may combine their efforts to speculate, but the more they speculate, the farther they are from the truth. It was to ordinary men, not to other Buddhas, that Buddha Gautama preached this Sutra. As for those who cannot accept the doctrine he expounded, he let them leave the assembly. You do not seem to know that since we are already riding in the White Bullock Cart (the vehicle of Buddhas), there is no necessity for us to go out to look for the other three vehicles. Moreover, the Sutra tells you plainly that there is only the Buddha Vehicle, and that there are no other vehicles, such as the second or the third. It is for the sake of this sole vehicle that Buddha had to preach to us with innumerable skilful devices, using various reasons and arguments, parables and illustrations, etc. Why can you not understand that the other three vehicles are makeshifts, for the past only; while the sole vehicle, the Buddha Vehicle, is the ultimate, meant for the present?”  (n. 8.)


Nan Yang Huizhong (675-775), the National Teacher to the Emperor, entered the hall and said, “Those who study Zen should venerate the words of Buddha.  There is but one vehicle for attaining buddhahood, and that is to understand the great principle that is to connect with the source of the mind.  If you haven’t become clear about the great principle then you haven’t embodied the teaching, and you’re like a lion cub whose body is still irritated by fleas. And if [in that state] you become a teacher of others, even attaining some worldly renown and fortune, but you are still spreading falsehoods, what good does that do you are anyone else?  A skilled axeman does not harm himself with the axe head. What is inside the incense burner can’t be carried by a donkey.”  (n. 9.)


Huang Po frequently referred to Ch’an as one-vehicle Buddhism.   In the dialogue with Chancellor Pei Hsiu in the Wan Ling Record, Huang Po said, “From Buddhas to Patriarchs nothing was discussed beyond the one-mind which is also called the one-vehicle. There are no other vehicles for all seekers in the ten directions. This vehicle is twigless and formulates only reality. Hence it is not easy to believe this doctrine.” (n. 10.)


Also in the same dialogue, Pei Hsiu asks, “Is the Buddha-nature identical with or different from the nature of a living being?”  Huang Po replies by referring to the one-vehicle section of the Lotus Sutra, “Their natures are neither identical nor different.  According to the Teachings of the Three Vehicles there are the Buddha-nature and the nature of a living being. Therefore, the law of causality as taught by the Three Vehicles specifies both identical and different natures. But the Buddha-vehicle and the Transmission handed down from the past patriarchs do not discuss this; they only point to the One-mind which is neither identical nor different, and is neither cause nor effect. Hence it is said that there is only one vehicle with neither a second nor a third one unless the Buddha preaches in an expedient way.” (n. 12.)


Bassui in Japan also cited this Sutra’s passage, “Once you see after clarifying your true nature, all words return to the self like waves by the thousands returning to the sea. It is said in a sutra: ‘In the hundred thousand Buddha lands, with the exception of discourses of expedient means, there is only the dharma of One Vehicle, not a second, nor a third.’  This one Vehicle is the One Mind.” (n. 13.)


. . . is straightened.”


Hakuin’s phrase “straight ahead runs the Way” is a pun of sorts taking the prosaic rendition of ekayana as the one vehicle and presenting it in the very poetic image using the meanings of eka as direct or straight ahead and yana as the running of the Way.


This phrase is also a direct reference to Hui Neng’s Platform Sutra.  In section III of the Platform Sutra, which was the focus of Hakuin’s essay referred to above, Hui Neng is asked the meaning of Bodhidharma’s statement to Emperor Wu that the good works of the emperor would not bring merits.  Hui Neng says such good works as building temples, allowing monks to join, giving alms, etc. will bring only felicities (i.e., good karma) not merits (kung teh).  Hui Neng gives a list of paired characteristics of kung and teh, and one pair is described as, “when our mental activity works without interruption, then it is kung; and when our mind functions in a straightforward manner, then it is teh.” [n.14]


"Don't doubt the words of the Sage. Emperor Wu's mind was under an erroneous impression, and he did not know the orthodox teaching. Such deeds as building temples, allowing new monks to be ordained, giving alms and entertaining the Order will bring you only felicities, which should not be taken for merits. Merits are to be found within the Dharmakaya, and they have nothing to do with practices for attaining felicities." The Patriarch went on, "Realization of the Essence of Mind is Kung (good deserts), and equality is Teh (good quality). When our mental activity works without any impediment, so that we are in a position to know constantly the true state and the mysterious functioning of our own mind, we are said to have acquired Kung Teh (merits).
            Within, to keep the mind in a humble mood is Kung; and without, to behave oneself according to propriety is Teh. That all things are the manifestation of the Essence of Mind is Kung, and that the quintessence of mind is free from idle thoughts is Teh. Not to go astray from the Essence of Mind is Kung, and not to pollute the mind in using it is Teh. If you seek for merits within the Dharmakaya, and do what I have just said, what you acquire will be real merits. He who works for merits does not slight others; and on all occasions he treats everybody with respect. He who is in the habit of looking down upon others has not got rid of the erroneous idea of a self, which indicates his lack of Kung. Because of his egotism and his habitual contempt for all others, he knows not the real Essence of Mind; and this shows his lack of Teh. Learned Audience, when our mental activity works without interruption, then it is Kung; and when our mind functions in a straightforward manner, then it is Teh. To train our own mind is Kung, and to train our own body is Teh.
            Learned Audience, merits should be sought within the Essence of Mind and they cannot be acquired by almsgiving, entertaining the monks, etc. We should therefore distinguish between felicities and merits. There is nothing wrong in what our Patriarch said. It is Emperor Wu himself who did not know the true way."


In section IV on Samadhi and Prajna, Hui Neng says, “Learned Audience, to practise the ‘Samadhi of Specific Mode’ is to make it a rule to be straightforward on all occasions—no matter whether we are walking, standing, sitting, or reclining. The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra says, ‘Straghtforwardness is the holy place, the Pure Land.’” [n.15]  Here again is a bridge connection between Zen and the Pure Land. 


“When form is the form of non-form,”


            This of course is a variation on the theme of the Heart Sutra’s “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.”  When we divide the first of the skandha branches of form into form and formlessness (or non-form) then we are living in polarized duality. 


“One's going and one's returning are not someplace else.”



            As the Lankavatara Sutra says, “it neither enters nor goes out-it is like the moon seen in water.” [n. 17]  We commonly think in reference to a system of thought based on objective constructions of places and forms in which we enter and exit, going and returning. These types of construction forms are not “the form of non-form.” 


“When thought is the thought of no-thought,”


            As Dogen says in the Fukanzazengi,


            Hui Neng speaks of “no-thought” in the Platform Sutra where is it translated as “thoughtlessness”:

            “Learned Audience, when we use Prajna for introspection we are illumined within and without, and in a position to know our own mind. To know our mind is to obtain liberation. To obtain liberation is to attain Samadhi of Prajna, which is 'thoughtlessness'. What is 'thoughtlessness'? 'Thoughtlessness' is to see and to know all Dharmas (things) with a mind free from attachment. When in use it pervades everywhere, and yet it sticks nowhere. What we have to do is to purify our mind so that the six Vijnanas (aspects of consciousness), in passing through the six gates (sense organs) will neither be defiled by nor attached to the six sense-objects. When our mind works freely without any hindrance, and is at liberty to 'come' or to 'go', we attain Samadhi of Prajna, or liberation. Such a state is called the function of 'thoughtlessness'. But to refrain from thinking of anything, so that all thoughts are suppressed, is to be Dharma-ridden, and this is an erroneous view.” [n. 21]


“One's singing and dancing are the voice of Dharma.”






“The sky of boundless Samadhi is wide!”


            Sky and space are images of emptiness.  Samadhi is the bliss or tranquility of concentration, or the state of concentration itself, which is one of the fruits of meditation (dhyana, zen).  The Lankavatara states, "By tranquility is meant oneness, and oneness gives birth to the highest Samadhi, which is gained by entering into the womb of Tathagatahood, which is the realm of supreme wisdom realized in one's inmost self."  [end of introductory chapter]  Thus again, we see that Hakuin is consistent with the Lankavatara stating that the oneness of the undifferientiated "not two, not three" give birth to the boundless and free sky of Samadhi which is the realm of the supreme wisdom, i.e., the fourfold wisdom, next mentioned.


“The moon of the Four Wisdoms' round brilliance is transparent!”


            The Fourfold Wisdom is sometimes called the Four Wisdoms (Prajnas).  They are the Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom, the Universal Nature Wisdom, the Marvelous Observing Wisdom, and the Perfecting-of-Action Wisdom.  These are the four aspects of the inherent Prajna of the One Mind. 


In his “Keiso dokuzui (The Five, Ranks of The Apparent and the Real: The Orally Transmitted Secret Teachings of the [Monk] Who Lived on Mount To)”  Hakuin has written how the Four Wisdoms correlate with the teaching of the Five Ranks of Tozan the Chinese founder of the Soto lineage.   In this way, Hakuin shows that his Rinzai lineage teaching is in harmony with the Soto and that sectarian arguments should not be maintained by followers of either lineage.   In fact, Hakuin made the Five Ranks an integral and ultimate part of his koan curriculum.


Here is an excerpt from the Keiso Dokuzui showing Hakuin’s outline of how the Four Wisdoms coincide with the Five Ranks:

“Followers of the way, if your investigation has been correct and complete, at the moment you smash open the dark cave of the eighth or Alaya consciousness, the precious light of the Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom instantly shines forth. But, strange to say, the light of the Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom is black like lacquer. This is what is called the rank of  ‘The Apparent within the Real.’

“Having attained the Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom, you now enter the rank of ‘The Real within the Apparent.’ When you have accomplished your long practice of the jeweled-mirror Samadhi, you directly realize the Universal Nature Wisdom and for the first time enter the state of the unobstructed inter-penetration of Noumenon and phenomena.

“But the disciple must not be satisfied here. He himself must enter into intimate acquaintance with the rank of ‘The Coming from within the Real.’ After that, by depending upon the rank of  ‘The Arrival at Mutual Integration,’ he will completely prove the Marvelous Observing Wisdom and the Perfecting-of-Action Wisdom. At last he reaches the rank of ‘Unity Attained,’ and, after all, comes back to sit among the coals and ashes."

            Hakuin’s reference to smashing open the dark cave of the eighth or Alaya consciousness refers to Hui Neng’s teaching regarding the Four Wisdoms and the eight consciousnesses that is found in The Platform Sutra.  Hui Neng also correlated the Four Wisdoms with the Three Bodies of Buddha, so one should realize how important the teaching of the Four Wisdoms is.  This teaching of the Four Wisdoms is from several Sutras and in The Platform Sutra a student of the Lankavata Sutra asks the 6th Patriarch to explain the meaning of the Three Bodies (Trikaya) and the Four Wisdoms as it is found in that Sutra. 

            Hui Neng says:

"As to the Three Bodies, the pure Dharmakaya is your (essential) nature; the perfect Sambhogakaya is your wisdom; and myriad Nirmanakayas are your actions. If you deal with these Three Bodies apart from the Essence of Mind, there would be 'bodies without wisdom'. If you realize that these Three Bodies have no positive essence of their own (because they are only the properties of the Essence of Mind) you attain the Bodhi of the four Prajnas

“If you deal with the four Prajnas apart from the Three Bodies, there will be Prajnas without bodies, in which case they would not be Prajnas."
The Patriarch then uttered another stanza:--
The Mirror-like Wisdom is pure by nature.
The Equality Wisdom frees the mind from all impediments.
The All-Discerning Wisdom sees things intuitively without going through the process of reasoning.
The All-Performing Wisdom has the same characteristics as the Mirror-like Wisdom.
The first five vijnanas (consciousness dependent respectively upon the five sense organs) and the Alaya vijnana (Storage or Universal consciousness) are 'transmuted' to Prajna in the Buddha stage; while the Klista-Mano vijnana (soiled-mind consciousness or self-consciousness) and the Mano vijnana (thinking consciousness), are transmuted in the Bodhisattva stage.  These so called 'transmutations of vijnana' are only changes of appellations and not a change of substance.” [n. 23]

            The functioning of the eight consciousnesses may briefly be summarized as follows.  The One Mind is the embodiment and repository of all things (dharmas) and so may be called the “storehouse” or Alaya consciousness.  When the ocean of the One Mind pulses with awareness the two primary activities of expansion and contraction form the waves of discrimination and this is called the seventh consciousness or afflicted-cognition consciousness (manas or klista-mano vijnana).  The waves of discrimination particularize the fundamental functioning that is the basis of subject and object from the pure oneness of the mind.  This particularization engenders the sixth consciousness of cognition-consciousness (mano vijnana) and the sixth and seventh consciousness in conjunction engender the first to fifth consciousness of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. 

The pulse of awareness, the system of consciousness, and the principle of particularizing that is the seventh consciousness and the consciousnesses of thought, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, all arise simultaneously and are in substance not different from the Alaya or universal consciousness.  But in the newborn baby they are not coordinated and it is through their functioning that they become coordinated and reach their full effect. 

Sixth consciousness thinking mediates the flows of awareness through refraction toward the five sense consciousnesses and by reflection back to the seventh consciousness of discrimination; thus awareness splits into the illusion of inward and outward.  Awareness then reflects from the five sense consciousnesses back to thinking consciousness and meets with the awareness now reflecting from the seventh consciousness which has a mirror effect like looking out a window that is dark on the other side since, as Hakuin says, the light of the Alayais black like lacquer.”  When these two waves of awareness mix in the sixth thinking consciousness the apparent reality of the ego-self is created.  Into the mirror effect of the seventh consciousness the sixth consciousness projects our image of our “real,” “deep,” or “inner” Self, and behind that at the depths of the Alaya consciousness we imagine the image of God or universal being.  “Outwardly” into the five consciousnesses the sixth consciousness of thinking projects the apparent solidity of the world of external objects imagining the existence of separate thingness.  These inward and outward infinite regressions of reflected awareness create our certainty of the solidity of inner and outer reality.

When one’s awareness penetrates the illusion of the apparent solid wall of discrimination of the seventh consciousness and, instead of reflecting back to the sixth consciousness with infinite regression, returns directly to the One Mind then this is the moment Hakuin calls smashing open the dark cave of the Alaya consciousness releasing the precious light of the Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom. 

When the seventh consciousness is transmuted it becomes the Equality Wisdom freeing the mind from all impediments of seventh consciousness discrimination; that is, able to engage in the expansion and contraction activity freely without the constraint of delusion.

            The sixth consciousness unhindered by false discrimination becomes transmuted into the All-Discerning Wisdom that sees things intuitively without going through the process of dissecting analysis reasoning.

            The first to fifth consciousnesses are transformed becoming the All-Performing Wisdom of intimate function of the universe.


"At this time what more should you want?"



            Having nothing further to want or seek is an essential teaching of the Linji lineage of Hakuin. The Record of Linji says:    

The master said: Today's students of the Buddha-Dharma need to look for genuine insight. If you have genuine insight, birth and death will not affect you, and you will be free to come and to go. Nor do you need to look for worthiness; it will arise of itself. Followers of the Way, the old masters had ways of making men. Do not let yourselves be deluded by anyone; this is all I teach. If you want to make use of it (genuine insight), then use it right now without delay or doubt. But students nowadays do not succeed because they suffer from lack of self-reliance. Because of this lack, you run busily hither and thither, are driven around by circumstance and kept whirling by the ten thousand things. You cannot find deliverance thus. But if you can stop your heart from its ceaseless running after wisps of the will, you will not be different from the Buddha and patriarchs. Do you want to know the Buddha? None other than he who here in your presence is now listening to the Dharma. Just because you lack self-reliance, you turn to the outside and run about seeking. Even if you find something there, it is only words and letters and never the living spirit of the patriarchs. Do not be deceived. Venerable Zen students, if you do not meet Him at this very moment, you will circulate in the Three Worlds for ten thousand Kalpas and a thousand births. And, pursuing agreeable situations, you will be reborn in the wombs of asses and cows.

Followers of the Way, as I see it, you are not different from Shaka (the Buddha). Today in your manifold activities, what is it that you lack? The flow of the Six Senses never ceases. Who can see it like that is all his life a man who has nothing further to seek. [n..]

This quote from Linji has many of the elements of the Ode to Sitting Meditation. For instance, Hakuin's lines 11-12 echo Linji's "circulating in the Three Worlds for ten thousand Kalpas and a thousand births." 

             "you are not different from Shaka (the Buddha)."

            "If you have genuine insight, birth and death will not affect you,"



“Consequently, Nirvana appears before you.”


            Again, the One Vehicle teaching of the Lankavatara Sutra instructs not to go looking for Nirvana:Then there are others who, afraid of the suffering incident to the discriminations of life and death, unwisely seek Nirvana. They have come to see that all things subject to discrimination have no reality and so imagine that Nirvana must consist in the annihilation of the senses and their fields of sensation; they do not appreciate that birth-and-death and Nirvana are not separate one from the other. They do not know that Nirvana is Universal Mind in its purity. Therefore, these stupid ones who cling to the notion that Nirvana is a world by itself that is outside what is seen by the mind, ignoring all the teachings of the Tathagatas concerning the external world, go on rolling themselves along the wheel of birth-and-death. But when they experience the ‘turning-about’ in their deepest consciousness which will bring with it the perfect self-realisation of Noble Wisdom, then they will understand.”  (n. 18)


            In this passage from the Lankavatara, we see several roots of Hakuin's ode: (1) the ignorance of separating Nirvana from life causes us to roll along on the wheel of birth-and-death, (2) the "turning about" in deepest consciousness is the cure, (3) and the self-realization of Noble Wisdom (4) revealing the universal mind which none of us lacks.


“This place is neither more nor less than the Lotus Country.”


            This ultimate place known as the Lotus Country is the One Mind.  For those who have not turned their light inward, the Pure Land of the Lotus Country is imagined to be far away in the Western Paradise.  For those who have turned their eye inward and verified the Buddha truth directly, the Pure Lotus Country is immediately at hand.


            Hui Neng said,  “According to the Sutra spoken by the Bhagavat in Shravasti City for leading people to the Pure Land of the West, it is quite clear that the Pure Land is not far from here, for the distance in mileage is 108,000, which really represents the 'ten evils' and 'eight errors' within us. To those of inferior mentality certainly it is far away, but to superior men we may say that it is quite near. Although the Dharma is uniform, men vary in their mentality. Because they differ from one another in their degree of enlightenment or ignorance, therefore some understand the Law quicker than others. While ignorant men recite the name of Amitabha and pray to be born in the Pure Land, the enlightened purify their mind, for, as the Buddha said, 'When the mind is pure, the Buddha Land is simultaneously pure.'
"Although you are a native of the East, if your mind is pure you are sinless. One the other hand, even if you were a native of the West an impure mind could not free you from sin, When the people of the East commit a sin, they recite the name of Amitabha and pray to be born in the West; but in the case of sinners who are natives of the West, where should they pray to be born? Ordinary men and ignorant people understand neither the Essence of Mind nor the Pure Land within themselves, so they wish to be born in the East or the West. But to the enlightened everywhere is the same. As the Buddha said, 'No matter where they happen to be, they are always happy and comfortable.'” (n. 19.)


            As discussed above, Hakuin’s “Talk on the Platform Sutra” is directly aimed at those Buddhists who, like a Chinese commentator on the Amida Sutra, mistakenly believed that the Platform Sutra identified the Western Paradise of the Pure Land as the physical location of India. Hakuin’s condemnation of such talk is direct and stern.  Priests of today who have woven themselves into complicated webs of words and letters, who, after sucking and gnawing on this literary sewage until their mouths suppurate, proceed to spew out a tissue of irresponsible nonsense -- should not even be mentioned in the same breath as the Sixth Patriarch.”  (n. 20)


Hakuin’s severity of criticism comes from the importance he places on the right understanding of the One Vehicle teaching as it appears in the Pure Land and Nichirin schools and their Sutras.  This is the central goal of his seemingly simple Ode to Sitting Meditation that reaches its ultimate denouement in these last two lines. 


Hakuin has a universalist’s ecumenical appreciation of all schools of Buddhism, but he is strict that what this means is that, as the One Vehicle points out, all schools of Buddhism teach nothing less than the realization of the Universal Mind of all Buddhas, and all the lesser promises, inducements, or enticements of the teachings are simply the lesser vehicles used only as expedient means to attract the wandering attention of child-like emotions and thoughts as stated in the Lotus Sutra. 


Hakuin states in his “Letter in Answer to an Aged Nun of the Hokke [Nichiren] Sect” that the title of the Wonderous Law Lotus Sutra “Myoho Renge Kyo” reduces to the two characters Myo-ho (Wonderous Law) and the two characters Myoho return to the one word Mind. He continues:


“This One Mind, derived from the two characters Myoho mentioned above, when spread out includes all the Dharma worlds of the ten directions, and when contracted returns to the no-thought and no-mind of the self-nature. Therefore such things as ‘outside the mind no thing exists,’ ‘in the three worlds there is One Mind alone,’ and ‘the true appearance of all things,’ have been preached. Reaching this ultimate place is called the Lotus Sutra, or the Buddha of Infinite Light [Amida]; in Zen it is called the Original Face, in Shingon the Sun Disc of the Inherent Nature of the Letter A, in Ritsu the Basic, Intangible Form of the Precepts. Everyone must realize that these are all different names for the One Mind.”  [n. 22]


“As it is, this body is neither more nor less than Buddha.”


            When Sakyamuni saw the Morning Star and was enlightened he exclaimed, “All sentient beings, the great earth, and I have awakened together.”  This body that awakens is the same body as Buddha and all beings. 


Yunmen said, “Within heaven and earth, in the midst of the universe, there is a treasure hidden in this heap of flesh.”  The body is the universe.  What is the treasure?  Yunmen continued, “It goes to the Buddha Hall holding a lantern.” There is no self or essence to this treasure locked away in a chest.  It can’t be counted or protected. Though Yunmen says the treasure is “hidden in” the heap of flesh he is testing whether or not you realize “this body is no more nor less than the Buddha.”  If you go searching in your body for a treasure or in this universe for a Buddha you will never find Buddha.  You will pick apart all the elements and tear off all branches and you will come up empty handed.  This is Buddha’s great discovery of no-self and emptiness (or anatman and sunyata).


But though you may understand that this body is no more nor less than Buddha, do you just think it or do you really realize it in your bones?  Yunmen adds a last line to verify your realization: “It puts the monastery gate on top of the lantern.” 


 Reference Notes:

(1)    Mud and Water: a collection of talks by the Zen Master Bassui, translated by Authur Braverman. 1989 North Point Press, Berkeley, CA. Pages 28.

(2)     The White Lotus of the True Law Sutra (Saddharma-pundarika Sutra) is available on the internet. This is the version translated by H. Kern and first published in 1884 as Volume XXI of “The Sacred Books of the East” series.

(3)    Mud and Water, page 63.

(4)    Some examples of the Wheel of Life on the internet may be found at

(5)    Mud and Water, pages 94-95.

(6)    Sutra Spoken by the Sixth Patriarch on the High Seat of the Treasure of the Law (The Platform Sutra) Translated by Wong Mou-Lam and C. Humphries. Page  The Platform Sutra of Hui Neng is available on the internet at several websites.

(7)    “A Talk on the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng”  Hakuin Ekaku,

(8)    This is from Kern’s translation of the Lotus Sutra, in Chapter Two, titled “Skillfulness.”  (Sometimes translated as “Tactfulness.”)

(9)     The Platform Sutra, page . (See note 6.)

(10)Zen’s Chinese Heritage,  by Andrew Ferguson, 2000, Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA. Pages 52-53.

(11)The Transmission of the Mind Outside the Teaching,  by Charles Luk, 1974, Grove Press, Inc. New York. Page141.

(12)The Transmission of the Mind Outside the Teaching,  page 144.

(13)Mud and Water, page 63.

(14)The Platform Sutra, page 37. (See note 6.)

(15)The Platform Sutra, page 43. (See note 6.)

(16)From A Buddhist Bible, edited by Dwight Goddard (1932), Lankavatara Sutra, translated by D.T. Suzuki and Dwight Goddard, Chapter V., online versions at: and

(17)The Lankavatara Sutra, translated by D.T. Suzuki and Dwight Goddard, Chapter VI. (See note 16.)

(18)Lankavatara Sutra, translated by D.T. Suzuki and Dwight Goddard, Chapter VIII. (See note 16.)

(19)The Platform Sutra, Chapter III, “On Questions and Answers.” (See note 6.)

(20)“A Talk on the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng”  (See note 7.)

(21)The Platform Sutra, Chaper II “On Prajna”, page . (See note 6.)

(22)Letter in Answer to an Old Nun of the Hokke [Nichiren] Sect”

(23)“Keiso dokuzui --The Five, Ranks of The Apparent and the Real:
The Orally Transmitted Secret Teachings of the [Monk] Who Lived on Mount To” by Hakuin, online at and

(24)The Platform Sutra, Chapter VII. “Temperament and Circumstances”, page . (See note 6.)

(25)The Zen Teaching of Rinzai, Translated from the Chinese by Irmgard Schloegl.    Shambhala Press, Berkeley 1976. (Part I, Section 11.a.)

(26)The Shurangama Sutra, Translated by Upasaka Lu K'uan Yu (Charles Luk) with commentary by master Han Shan.


Last edited 08/03/07.


 APPENDIX 1: Texts of Various Translations.

APPENDIX 2: Line by Line Comparison of Translations..

APPENDIX 3: Comparison of Line Order Relative to This Version.

APPENDIX 4: Interlinear Translation with Definitions



Some Hakuin links:

Hakuin on the Internet

Hakuin School of Zen Buddhism

Hakuin Zenji

Hakuin at the Theosophy Library


Return to: Top of Page  |  Wildrose Home Page  |  Gregory's Page  |  Buddha Verse Page

Page last edited on March 17, 2008.