Thursday, April 03, 2008


Some time back I gave a talk on Zen sages. For tonight I’d like to revive one of them, the Japanese monk, and later master, Hakuin Ekaku. Hakuin lived in the late 1600s and so is part of the historical record. That is, his writings, and records of others at the time, exist to this day, which means Hakuin was not a myth but a real figure.

Hakuin is remembered for several things.

1. He is considered the founder of the Japanese Rinzai school of Zen.

2. His progress on the Mu koan was so demanding it became a part of Zen history.

3. Because of the severe mental strain and the resulting physical problems Hakuin suffered in working on Mu, he came very close to giving up in his attempts to realize awakening.

Hakuin devoted himself wholeheartedly to gaining awakening, and was so dedicated, he neglected his physical well-being. He pushed himself so hard he came down with tuberculosis, and he suffered spells of severe depression.

Hakuin consulted teachers, medical doctors, acupuncture specialists, and moxa healers, but none of them was able to help him.

Do you know what the moxa cure is? It involves building little bonfires on a person’s skin—on the back, on the chest, even on the forehead—as a form of cautery that supposedly destroys abnormal tissue. As bizarre as this sounds, the moxa treatment is still practiced in Asia.

You know the old saying. If the treatment doesn’t kill you, it may cure you.

Well, nothing cured Hakuin. In what may have been his final effort he dragged himself into the mountains near present-day Kyoto in search of a hermit he had heard about in his wanderings.

The hermit was a renowned character reputed to have miraculous powers. Local people claimed he had lived several lifetimes, but they weren’t sure whether the old fellow was a very wise individual or merely a reclusive dimwit. The locals showed Hakuin a river, which he followed up into the mountains, then climbed a rocky slope, and finally came upon a cave. In the cave Hakuin saw an elderly fellow sitting in meditation. It was Hakuyu the hermit.

Hakuin explained why he had come and described his symptoms, saying that his activities and non-activities were all out of whack. He had thought the discipline of severe fasting and not sleeping would set him straight, but that made things worse. He suffered from heart palpitations, ringing in the ears, and dizzy spells. From one minute to the next he was unable to decide what to do or what not to do. He felt he was becoming mentally unhinged

Judging from descriptions in Hakuin’s autobiographical writings, he also experienced what Zen masters called makyo. These are visions and hallucinations that appear to individuals who go overboard in meditation.

Hakuin complained that from the waist down he was always cold, and from the waist up he was hot. This was in opposition to ancient Chinese wisdom that said the upper body should be cool and the lower body warm.

Hakuyu was able to tell that Hakuin’s physical problems were caused by his extreme self denial and rigid discipline, and were largely psychosomatic. That is, they originated from mental or emotional stress.

Hakuyu said that neither medication, nor moxa, nor acupuncture would be of use in remedying what he termed “the Zen sickness.” The only way a patient could be healed was through introspection, or autosuggestion. He said Hakuin must redirect the original life energy of his body into his center of breathing, his tanden, and down to his legs and feet.

“How do I do that?” Hakuin asked.

Hakuyu answered, “With the butter method.”

Now this may sound really oddball, but I’m only repeating what Hakuin has recorded. According to the hermit, the butter method involves placing an imaginary lump of soft butter, the size of a duck egg, on top of one’s head. The person should earnestly think of the butter, and picture it slowly melting from the heat of the upper body. It will ooze down over the shoulders, the arms, the upper body, the spine, and the buttocks. All of the body pains and maladjustments will flow downward with the butter and out the soles of the feet, leaving only pure energy in the body.

I don’t know if this butter method of self-healing is exercised today in Asia, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. Anyway, when Hakuin practiced it over a period of three years, he regained his health and eventually went on to gain awakening.

Happy ending.

Hakuin later mentioned that during the practice of looking into oneself, one will—without consciously seeking it—attain the benefit of the awakening experience. He wrote that the great Zen sickness arises from ignorance, illusion, and false distinctions.

So take the butter method for what you will. I’m not recommending you plop a gob of real butter, or even imaginary butter, on your head. Still, for Hakuin it worked. Stranger countermeasures have worked for other people.

I may have already related a personal experience. When I was around six years of age I didn’t like stewed tomatoes. One dinner time when I was balking at eating, my Dad told me stewed tomatoes would make my hair grow. I believed my Dad, so I picked up my dish and poured the tomatoes on my head. Sure enough, my hair has been growing ever since.