14  Zen



In Japan, Zen Buddhism was at its peak just a few centuries ago and, therefore, has a more modern feel to it than the other world religions. In fact, it can barely be called a religion since the great Zen masters often rejected all forms of dogma. They were often purposefully iconoclastic, mocking any attempt to capture Zen in some fixed system of ideas.

Instead of some complicated metaphysics, Zen is mostly concerned with direct experience. Its practitioners often find their revelations in the pure, simple, and seemingly trivial moments of everyday life. This simplicity makes Zen at once very simple and very difficult to understand.

It is useful to compare the various schools of Eastern philosophy. The Indian philosophers had been disillusioned by the self and wanted it dissolved, the Chinese Daoists had been disillusioned by society and wanted to return to nature, but the Japanese were generally comfortable in the world. They did not retreat anywhere, but instead wanted to experience reality just as it is, right here and right now.



As in Mahayana Buddhism, the goal of Zen was to achieve awakening through an experience of the emptiness of existence. Zen masters, however, realized that such descriptions are next to meaningless to a disciple. Teaching this doctrine can even be counterproductive as an attempt to clear the mind, ironically, fills the mind with self-judging and self-defeating thoughts about not being able to clear the mind. The answer is to simply let go of the thoughts altogether, but this is easier said than done.

To attain this, Zen monks practiced a form of meditation called zazen (“sitting meditation”). The practice is deceptively simple and often described as shikan taza (“just sitting”). During zazen, the disciple sits cross-legged, folds his hands gently in his lap, and concentrates on his breath while letting his thoughts dissipate. The trick is to not resist the thoughts but to allow them to arise, take note of them without judgment, let them pass away again, and then to refocus the attention on the breath. Then, in time, the number of thoughts that come up will decrease. A layman asked the Zen master Bankei (1622–1693) about this process:

My mind is constantly filled with thoughts. No sooner do I get rid of one than another arises. How can I clear my mind of these?

Bankei responded:

To try to rid the mind of thoughts by effort is like trying to wash away blood with more blood. What you must realize, is that the Unborn Buddha-mind is free of illusion. It’s because you think your thoughts are something real, that you are caught up in them. Just understand that they are unreal, ephemeral apparitions that arise and pass away. Don’t seize them or reject them; let them be. They’re like the images reflected in a mirror. The mirror itself is empty but reflects whatever is placed before it. Nor does the image leave a stain on the mirror. When the object is removed, the mirror is empty and bright once again. The Unborn Buddha-mind is much brighter than any mirror. [94]

Although the Buddhist scriptures are widely read and respected by Zen masters, they were not considered important in comparison to the practice of zazen. The early Chinese Zen Buddhist Dayi Daoxin (580–651) remarked about this:

Zazen is basic to all else. Don’t bother reading the sutras; don’t become involved in discussions. If you can refrain from doing so and concentrate instead on zazen, for as much as thirty-five years or more, you will benefit. [94]

Eventually the disciple was supposed to extend his meditation practice to daily life. A common trick was to let an advanced student endlessly clean the Zen temple. The disciple, first thinking he was not yet worthy of further instruction, eventually discovered that the cleaning was the practice. His purpose was now to experience the same meditative state, but now while doing a simple activity.

Zen Master Muso (1275–1351) famously said that eating, drinking, getting dressed, and even going to the toilet were opportunities for meditation. Or in the words of Chinese Zen-master Pang (740–808):

How miraculous! How wondrous! Hauling water and carrying wood!

The Chinese Zen master Dazhu (8th century AD) explained: “When most people eat, they don’t just eat; their minds are preoccupied with a thousand different fantasies. When they sleep, they don’t just sleep; their minds are filled with any number of idle thoughts.”

Finally, the goal was to be mindful even in the most challenging situations of everyday life.



To get students beyond an intellectual understanding to a direct experience of Zen required bypassing the overcontrolling, analytical part of the brain. To achieve this, Zen masters often deliberately confused their disciples, snapping them out of their analytical state of mind. Some used paradoxical and illogical questions called koans, while others outright startled their students with a hit on the head. Commonly, a koan describes a question by a disciple to a great Zen master of the past and the master’s incomprehensible reply. Students were asked to meditate on a koan in order to find its meaning, which they then had to demonstrate to their teacher. The koan many students started with was Joshu’s Dog. A student asked the 9th century Chinese master Zhaozhou (or in Japanese: Joshu): “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Joshu replied:

No! (Mu!)

What can this possibly mean? Does Joshu’s answer not contradict the Buddhist belief that all things have Buddha-nature? Does the “no” perhaps refer to the emptiness of existence, or is it a rejection of the question itself? As stated before, we should not expect a logical answer.

An important collection of koans was the Gateless Barrier, compiled in the 13th century by the Chinese Zen master Wumen Huikai (1183–1260 AD). Another one is the Blue Cliff Record, compiled in 1125. Not all Zen masters used koans. The Rinzai school generally used them, while the Soto school preferred zazen, although this distinction is not absolute.


Enlightenment stories

Zen is also known for its curious enlightenment stories, describing the moments the great Zen masters had their awakening. Similar to the koans, these stories are often difficult to understand, not because of the use of complicated jargon but because they are so surprisingly simple that it becomes hard to imagine how they contain any deep value. Take, for instance, the following story. According to an 11th century AD Chinese Zen legend, the Buddha once gave a sermon without words, called the Flower Sermon. Instead of speaking, he simply raised a flower. Only one of his students, Mahakasyapa, understood his message, smiled, and reached enlightenment. How can this be understood? By raising the flower, the Buddha pointed to the suchness of existence (tathata, also meaning “reality being as it is.”). Like all of reality, the flower has no meaning in itself and does not need meaning. The flower “just is.” Interestingly, the related word “Tathagata,” a title of the Buddha, has been interpreted at times as “someone who just is.”

Another enlightenment story is about an emperor who received instruction from the Zen master Gudo Toshoku (1577–1661). When the emperor asked what happens to an enlightened man after he dies, Gudo responded, “I don’t know.” The emperor responded, “You don’t know? Aren’t you an enlightened teacher?” Gudo replied, “I am. But not a dead one.” The blunt honesty took the emperor by surprise, and when he was about to regain himself, Gudo struck the floor with his hand. The sound brought the emperor to awakening.

Years later, Gudo reflected on his own journey and the simplicity of Zen:

After all these years of journeying about, here I am knocking at the gates of Zen. I have to laugh. My staff is broken; my umbrella torn. And the teaching of the Buddha is so simple: when hungry, eat; when thirsty, drink; when cold, wrap yourself in a good warm cloak. [94]

Other enlightenment stories are even more absurd. When a student begged Master Zhaozhou to take him on as a student, the Chinese master stated: “Have you had anything to eat yet?” When the disciple responded, “Yes, I have. Thank you,” the master simply added: “Then you better wash your bowl.” We are informed that on hearing these words, the monk achieved awakening. In another instance, a student asked the Chinese master Yanguan Qian (750–842 AD) “Who was the Buddha?” The master replied, “Would you please pass me the water pitcher?” Thinking the master had not heard him, he asked the question again, to which Yanguan Qian responded: “Oh, yes! Well, you know, he’s been dead a long time now.” After these words, the student reached enlightenment. [95]

Notice that these enlightenment stories make no references to gods, nor to complex metaphysics or even morality. Instead, they are about a direct experience of the here and now. During these moments, reality is not overcomplicated with religious dogma, but instead is experienced with perfect clarity and simplicity. It is a method truly unique in the history of religion.


The Bodhidharma

The history of Zen started in India. In fact, the word Zen comes from the Indian word “dhyana,” meaning meditation. In China, the word became “chan,” and finally, in Japan, it became “zen.” According to Chinese tradition, the teachings of Zen were passed down directly from the Buddha through 28 patriarchs, starting with his student Mahakasyapa, and ending with a monk named Bodhidharma who lived during the 6th century AD and who brought Zen from India to China. Bodhidharma became a favorite subject of Zen painting, with his rough beard, shaggy eyebrows, his large round eyes, and his stern expression (see Fig. 252). He was likely a real historical character, as he is mentioned in The Monasteries of Luoyang (547 AD) by Yang Xuanzhi, who noted that he met an elderly monk named Bodhidharma in a temple, who claimed to be over 100 years old.


Fig. 252 – Portrait of the Bodhidharma at the Himeji Castle (Edo period, Japan)

Fig. 253 – Bodhidharma meditating in his cave, by Sesshu Toyo (1496). His future student Huike has just cut off his hand to show his commitment.

On his arrival in China, Bodhidharma met with Emperor Wu, the founder of the Liang Dynasty, who was himself a Buddhist (Mahayana Buddhism had already been introduced to China in the 1st century AD). Emperor Wu had come to the throne through rebellion and had his rivals executed, but later became concerned about his misdeeds and tried to make up for them by supporting Buddhism. When he asked what merits he had accumulated because of this support, Bodhidharma replied:

“No merit whatsoever.” The emperor responded, “Why not?” “Motives for such actions are always impure. They are undertaken solely for the purposes of attaining future rebirth,” the Bodhidharma replied. The emperor then said, “Then, what is true merit?” “It is clear seeing, pure knowing, beyond the discriminating intelligence. Its essence is emptiness. Such merit cannot be gained by worldly means.”

The emperor responded with another question:

“According to your understanding then, what is the first principle of Buddhism?” Bodhidharma responded, “Vast emptiness and not a thing that can be called holy.” “What is that supposed to mean? And who are you who now stands before me?” the emperor replied. “I don’t know,” said the Bodhidharma. [94]

After these words, Bodhidharma left the court.

His rejection of the emperor’s good deeds reflects the fact that Zen is not about morality but about experience. It is about undoing the mental filters that distort our vision of the world. In the same vein, he complained about students who spend more time reading the sutras than meditating. We read this, for instance, in his definition of Zen:

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not dependent on words or letters
By direct pointing to the mind of man,
Seeing into one’s true nature and attaining Buddhahood. [94]

The point was not to study Zen, but rather to become the Buddha through zazen. Bodhidharma practiced what he preached. He is said to have practiced zazen facing the wall of a cave for nine years without saying a word. There, he was visited by the Confucian scholar Ji, who had studied both Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in order to find peace of mind. Yet none of these teachings had helped him. Bodhidharma suspected Ji was yet another student who wanted only an intellectual explanation, but was not willing to do the work, so he ignored him. Ji waited patiently outside the cave for several days, until snow came to his knees. Impressed by his persistence, Bodhidharma asked him: “What is it you seek?” When Ji asked for his teaching, Bodhidharma responded:

The teaching of the Buddha is subtle and difficult. Understanding can only be acquired through strenuous effort, doing what is hard to do and enduring what is hard to endure, continuing the practice for even countless eons of time. How can a man of scant virtue and great vanity, such as yourself, achieve it? Your puny efforts will only end in failure.

To prove his dedication, Ji drew his sword and cut off his left arm (see Fig. 253), but even this wasn’t enough. “What you seek,” Bodhidharma told him, “can’t be sought through another.” Ji begged him: “My mind isn’t at peace.  Please, master, pacify it.” Bodhidharma responded: “Very well. Bring your mind here, and I’ll pacify it.” Ji answered, “I’ve sought it for these many years, even practicing sitting mediation as you do, but still I’m not able to get hold of it.” Bodhidharma responded: “There! Now it’s pacified!” and suddenly Ji came to awakening (possibly realizing there was nothing to pacify). After the experience, Ji was renamed Huike, meaning “wisdom.”

Bodhidharma made Huike his successor and when his life came to an end, he gave him his robe and begging bowl. Huike became the first in a line of Chinese Zen patriarchs, the last being Huineng (638–713 AD), who was buried with Bodhidharma’s robe and bowl.

Fig. 254 – The Zen poets Hanshan and Shide by Sesshu Toyo (15th century AD)


Chinese Zen poetry

Zen in China also became strongly entwined with art and poetry. The two most memorable Chinese Zen poets are the friends Hanshan and Shide (9th century AD), two eccentric figures who spent their time in nature, drank wine, and rejected many social conventions. The name “Shide” means “picked up,” as he was abandoned in a forest as a baby and then picked up by a monk and raised in a monastery. That is where he met his friend Hanshan. Hanshan, meaning “Cold Mountain,” adopted his name later in life, as he preferred to live as a hermit far up the mountains. About this lifestyle, he wrote the following poem:

In the mountains it’s cold. It has always been cold, not just this year. Jagged peaks forever snowed in, woods in the dark ravines spitting mist. Grass is still sprouting at the end of June [down below], and here I am, high on mountains, peering and peering, but I can’t even see the sky. [95]

Another poem reads:

When men see Hanshan, they all say he’s crazy and not much to look at—dressed in rags and hides. They don’t get what I say
and I don’t talk their language. All I can say to those I meet: “Try and make it to Cold Mountain.”

The theme of celebrating hermits alone in nature is common in both Chinese and Japanese Zen. Another beautiful poem on the topic was written by Damei Fachang (752–839):

Since the world has discovered my [hermit] dwelling so easily, I shall move my hermitage deeper into the mountains. [95]



Mahayana Buddhism was first introduced to Japan in 552 AD by a delegation of Korean diplomats. They offered as gifts a statue of the Buddha as well as copies of sutras. At this time, Japan was still culturally underdeveloped. Although some Japanese people had learned to write Chinese, there was not yet a script to express the Japanese language, which would happen a century later, based on Chinese characters. The Japanese would also adopt Confucianism, Chinese medicine, architecture, music, and astronomy, as well as the Chinese calendar.

The first recorded Zen student from Japan was named Dosho (629–700), who spent time in China, studying under various masters, including the fourth Chinese patriarch Daoxin (580–651). Another early Japanese Zen master was Kakua (b. 1142). In 1172, he also traveled to China to study Zen closer to its source. On his return, he was invited by the emperor of Japan to share his wisdom. Standing before the emperor, he removed a flute from his sleeve, blew a single note, bowed, and left the court.

One of the most important contributors to early Japanese Zen was Dogen (1200–1253). Dogen became an orphan when he was still a child. Sitting beside the body of his mother, he watched the smoke released by incense rise up into the air and dissipate. This experience gave him a deep understanding of the impermanence of all things. Trying to understand more about what he had learned, he began to study the scriptures. During his reading, he became confused about why the great Zen masters worked so hard to achieve enlightenment while also believing that, in reality, everyone already has Buddha-nature. Obsessed by this paradox, it became his first self-assigned koan. He used this koan as a Great Doubt, which has the purpose of aiding him in shattering his preconceived notions of the world. When asking the Zen master Eisai to resolve this paradox, he got the following answer:

No Buddha is conscious of having Buddha-nature, only the shallow are aware of it. [94]

Dogen was impressed with the answer and asked to become his student. Eisai accepted, but unfortunately, he died within a year.

A little later, Dogen traveled to China, where he practiced meditation in several monasteries. In one of these monasteries, he became the disciple of a very strict master who demanded his students practice meditation from early in the morning until late at night. When a student wanted to give up, he confronted him about his lack of discipline and compared his relatively easy life to the harsh reality of the working class. When a student fell asleep, the master woke him up and said, “You must discard both body and mind!” These words brought Dogen the deep awakening he had been looking for.

nowheretostay: Dōgen Zenji - 道元禅師

Fig. 255 – Dogen (c. 1250) (Hokyoji monastery collection, Japan)

In 1227, Dogen returned to Japan. When asked what he had learned during his stay in China, he simply responded:

That the eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical. I have returned to my native country empty-handed. [...] There is not even a hair of Buddhism in me. Now I pass the time naturally. [94]

Back home, he headed his own meditation class and wrote an influential manual on meditation. About the practice, he wrote:

For zazen, you will need a quiet room. Eat and drink in moderation. Forget about the concerns of the day and leave such matters alone. Do not judge things as good or evil, and cease such distinctions as “is” and “is not.” Halt the flow of the mind, and cease conceptualizing, thinking, and observing. Don’t sit in order to become a Buddha, because becoming a Buddha has nothing to do with such things as sitting or lying down. [94]


Commitment to Zen is casting off body and mind. You have no need for incense offerings, homage, praying, nembutsu [ritual recitation aimed at Amitabha Buddha], penance, discipline, or silent sutra readings. Just sit single-mindedly. [96]

In line with his Great Doubt, Dogen came to reject the idea that enlightenment was the main goal of Zen. He therefore rejected koans since they were designed to snap people into enlightenment. Instead, Dogen preached that “Zen is zazen” and nothing else was needed. Since all things are Buddha things to begin with, he concluded that zazen and enlightenment are one and, therefore, the Zen master has no need for a higher goal.



Ikkyu (1394–1481) was one of the most unconventional and controversial Zen masters. He was believed to be the illegitimate child of the emperor. To keep the affair a secret, his mother was kicked out of the palace and had to raise her child in poverty. At a young age, Ikkyu joined a monastery, where he was soon recognized as a talented child, yet he was also known for his misbehavior. For instance, when he was asked to put out the candles in the temple, he decided to play a game with his abbot by blowing them out instead of waving with his hand. The abbot reprimanded him, stating he shouldn’t use his filthy breath in a sacred shrine. But the abbot had fallen right into his trap, for soon after, he found Ikkyu singing with his back to the altar, stating that he couldn’t possibly sing without breathing.

A patron of the temple was fond of wearing leather, but this was not allowed in the temple. To tease him, Ikkyu made a large sign stating, “Leather goods are not allowed in the temple. Whoever breaks this rule will be caned.” The patron immediately recognized Ikkyu’s handwriting, went up to him, and complained that the temple did allow the giant drum in the central hall, which was also covered with a leather sheet. Having the patron right where he wanted him, Ikkyu responded, “You are right. That’s why we beat the drum really hard.”

During his time in the Zen temple, Ikkyu soon realized the monks did not live up to their own principles. He became especially critical about their focus on social status. Sick of their hypocrisy and corruption, Ikkyu announced his departure:

Full of shame, I can hardly keep my mouth shut. The words of Zen are being overpowered, while demonic forces appear as victors. These monks are supposed to teach about Zen, but they only boast about their family history. [97]

His aversion to elitism made Ikkyu attracted to the work of the Chinese Zen master Lin-chi (d. 866), who advocated for a down-to-earth, unpretentious form of Zen. Lin-chi wrote:

Shit and piss and be human. Eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired and master every situation.

When a scholarly monk asked Lin-chi whether he believed if some sacred text revealed Buddha-nature, he responded:

You haven’t even removed the weeds in your garden.

For the same reason, Ikkyu felt attracted to Hsu-tang (1185–1269), who was a wanderer who placed emphasis on the purity of Zen. He wrote: “The law of the Buddha is to do what is right and just, not about erecting lavish buildings and collecting decorative titles.”

Fig. 256 – Ikkyu by Bokusai (15th century) (Tokyo National Museum, Japan)

After leaving the temple, Ikkyu approached a local hermit named Keno (d. 1414), who took him on as a student. Keno was an eccentric monk who lived in a run-down hut on a hill near Kyoto. In his past, he had caused outrage by rejecting a Zen certificate from his master. Ikkyu learned a lot from Keno, but unfortunately, Keno died five years later. This made Ikkyu so upset that he attempted to drown himself. He was saved just in time.

After getting himself back together, Ikkyu sought out a very demanding teacher named Kaso. Kaso made it clear he had no interest in Ikkyu and closed his door in front of him, but Ikkyu persisted. He sat outside Kaso’s porch in meditation during the day and slept under an upturned boat at night. After ignoring Ikkyu for five days and having one of his disciples empty a bucket of wastewater over his head and beat him with a broom, Kaso finally gave in and accepted him as a student.

Kaso gave Ikkyu a koan, which he worked on for five years. Ikkyu spent his days meditating on this koan with the other monks and his nights meditating in a small fishing boat floating on a lake. During one of his nighttime meditation sessions, he was startled by the loud caw of a crow, which snapped him into awakening. Ikkyu was so convinced by the experience that he saw no need to have it authenticated by his teacher. The next morning, he changed his mind and told his teacher what had happened. Kaso listened to Ikkyu and then made a dismissive gesture, saying:

“This is still only the level of understanding of an arhat [signifying he had only reached an intermediate stage of enlightenment]. You are nowhere near the level of a master yet.” “Then I am content to remain an arhat,” Ikkyu told him. The master then replied, “Ah, then you have reached the level of a master after all.” [94]

To commemorate his enlightenment, Ikkyu wrote the following poem:

Ten years of confusion, angry and furious, but now my time has come! The crow laughs and an arhat emerges from the filth.

Kaso then presented him with his certificate, signifying his status as an enlightened man, but Ikkyu threw it on the floor and stamped on it. When he later discovered that Kaso had kept the document, he tore it into pieces and threw it into the fire. Ikkyu would later also refuse to give these documents to his own students. He did not care about these kinds of formalities, especially since these documents could be easily faked.

Even as an enlightened man, Ikkyu was not willing to walk in line. He continued to disrespect many of the Buddhist principles and mocked monks who painstakingly followed the monastic rules without actually understanding the insights of Zen. On one occasion, he appeared at the memorial service of Kaso’s master in a torn cloak and broken sandals. When Kaso confronted him about his behavior, he said:

I am dressed as a monk should be dressed. All the other con artists are dressed in glorified shit bags. [97]

As the ultimate act of sacrilege, he also engaged in various love affairs, drank a lot in local pubs, and even visited prostitutes.

Nevertheless, Ikkyu stayed very devoted to his master. When his teacher got old, he even carried him from place to place and helped him go to the bathroom. But their relationship was damaged when Kaso chose a more traditional monk named Yoso as his successor. Likely, Kaso believed this to be the safe choice, but Ikkyu could not accept it since Yoso was little more than an administrator. As a result, Ikkyu saw no other choice but to leave the temple.

After this, Ikkyu would never again have a permanent residence. Instead, he wandered the Kyoto area like a “crazy cloud,” which became his nickname. In his own words:

A Crazy Cloud, out in the open.

Blown about madly, as wild as they come!

Who knows where this cloud will go,

where the wind will still? [97]

Ikkyu traveled from city to city, visiting both Zen temples, wine shops, and brothels. In his poetry, he provocatively wrote that he preferred his time with prostitutes even over his enlightenment experience. He wrote:

The crow’s caw was okay, but one night with a lovely prostitute opened a wisdom deeper than what that bird said. [94]

At some point, he was asked to be the abbot of a temple. He accepted the position but only managed to stay for ten days:

I’ve spent ten days in this temple, my mind reeling! Between my legs the red thread stretches and stretches [referring to his growing sexual desires]. If anyone wants to find me now, try the fish stand, brothel, or sake shop. [97]

While most other Zen masters avoided the topic of sexuality, Ikkyu got interested in a koan about a woman who tried to seduce a monk. When she gave the monk a hug and asked him how he felt, he replied, “A wilted tree among frozen rocks. No trace of warmth for three winters.” Ikkyu had his own take on the incident:

If a beautiful girl would embrace this monk, my withered branch would immediately stand upright. [97]

On New Year’s Day, Ikkyu was seen walking around with a bamboo stick with a human skull on top. When people complained about this macabre display, he stated, “Thoughts of death do not have to spoil your party. [...] Of all things there is nothing more festive than this weathered skull.”

Fig. 257 – Ikkyu holding a bamboo stick with a skull on top, by the great Zen master Hakuin (18th century)

On another occasion, he was invited to a festive meal organized by a rich merchant and several abbots. Because he showed up in a worn cloak, he was mistaken for an ordinary beggar and turned away at the door. When he received another invitation, he came in elegant clothes, but once he was allowed inside, he took them off and placed them on his plate, stating, “Apparently, the food is for the clothes and not for me.” He then walked out the door.

Later in his life, he met a blind musician named Mori. In the evenings, the couple could be heard playing duets. She would play the harp while he accompanied her on the flute. The poems he wrote about her are often explicitly sexual. The following poem is my favorite:

White-haired priest in his eighties. Ikkyu still sings aloud each night to himself, to the sky, the clouds, because she gave herself freely. Her hands, her mouth, her breasts, her long moist thighs. [98]

It was not until his sixties that Ikkyu felt ready to accept students. He turned out to be an effective and demanding teacher, using both koans and stressing the importance of staying mindful under all circumstances.

One of his young students once gave him a taste of his own medicine, by deciding to imitate Ikkyu. He slept on the altar between the statues of the Buddha and used the pages from the holy sutras as toilet paper. Ikkyu did not like this one bit. To stop him, he asked:

Why do you use something as dirty as a page from a sutra as toilet paper? Doesn’t a Buddha need something better, like clean white paper? [97]

At some point, Ikkyu received news that the temple of his old master had collapsed. Feeling obligated to rebuild it so that the legacies of Kaso and the temple’s founder, Daito, wouldn’t disappear completely, he reluctantly assumed the official position of abbot at the age of 80. He wrote about this:

Daito’s descendants have nearly extinguished his light. After such a long, cold night, the chill will be hard to thaw, even with my love songs. For fifty years, a vagabond in a straw raincoat and hat. Now humiliated by purple robes. [97]

As his death approached, he told his students:

After my death, some of you will retreat to the solitude of forests and mountains, while others will drink sake and enjoy the company of women. Both forms of Zen are excellent. But if any of you become professional clerics and start talking about “Zen as the Way,” then they are my enemies. I have never issued a certificate, and if anyone ever claims to have received one from me, he must be arrested! [97]

His farewell to Mori was much more tender:

Ten years ago, beneath the blossoms we began a fragrant alliance. Each stage was a delight, full of endless passion. How sad, never again to pillow my head on her lap. Making sweet love together, we vowed to be together always. [97]

A few hours before his death, at the age of 87, he wrote his final poems while in lotus posture. One of them reads:

In this vast realm

Who understands my Zen?

Even if Master Hsu-tang shows up,

He is not worth a cent! [97]

His last poem beautifully conveyed his characteristic iconoclasm:

Age eighty, weak,

I shit and offer it to Buddha. [98]



Hakuin (1686–1768) was one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen. During his childhood, he attended a sermon in which a monk spoke about the “eight fiery hells” to which the wicked were sent to atone for their sins before their rebirth. The young Hakuin was deeply frightened by this experience, especially by the notion that evildoers would be tortured by being immersed in a cauldron of boiling water, especially since he had bullied other children and killed some insects. When his mother was heating water for a bath, he started to panic, thinking, “Even a little bit of hot water hurts! How could I bear the torments of the fiery hells?” [94] His hope was rekindled when he heard another priest speak about a monk who had reached such a high level of enlightenment that he could walk through fire without getting hurt and stay underwater without drowning. To attain these powers for himself, Hakuin decided to become a Zen monk.

But his time in the Zen temple also didn’t ease his anxiety, for he learned about the death of the Chinese Zen master Ganto. A number of robbers had entered the temple in which Ganto was meditating. All the other monks fled, but Ganto was not willing to break off his meditation. When the robbers reached him, they pierced him with their swords, after which he let out a scream so loud it could be heard for miles around. The story deeply frightened Hakuin, and it made him question the value of Zen, thinking, “If a virtuous priest can suffer so badly, what is left for me? There is probably nothing more worthless than a Buddhist monk!” [97] As a result, he left the monastery.

Instead, he turned to poetry and calligraphy, for which he had a clear talent, but this didn’t ease his anxiety either. He wrote, “Even if my poems would surpass those of Li Po and Tu Fu, it would still not help me when I stand before the king of hell.” [97] As a result, he ended his practice in the arts as well.

When the books from a monastery were being aired outside, he prayed for insight, thinking, “Buddha and the gods, help me in my search and indicate the path I must follow!” He closed his eyes, picked up a book at random, and started to read. His eyes fell on a story about a Chinese Zen master who had practiced zazen day and night without interruption. He had even stabbed himself in the thigh to avoid falling asleep. Impressed by his commitment, Hakuin concluded he had not given Zen a real chance.

He resumed the practice by locking himself up in a shrine for seven days, during which he meditated on Joshu’s Dog, repeating the word “Mu!” with every breath. He became so absorbed by this koan that he felt as if he had been frozen into a thousand-mile-long sheet of ice. Then, in the middle of the night, the sound of a temple bell made him feel as though the ice had shattered, and his “body and mind fell away.” At that moment, he realized he had resolved both Joshu’s Dog and Ganto’s death:

Ganto is truly alive and in good health! [...] There is no birth or death! There is no enlightenment to seek! The 1700 koans are of no value whatsoever!

Believing no one could have had such a profound awakening for centuries, he sought out Master Shoju to have his experience verified. Shoju was an old hermit who lived in the mountains. He was a very strict teacher who was said to have meditated for a week in a cemetery inhabited by wolves. He was also known to give swordsmen advice on how to harmonize their mind and their technique. He would challenge the swordsmen to attack him, but they all missed, instead receiving hits on the head with his fan. When they asked him how he did this without any training in martial arts, he told them, “If your eye is clear and your mind is unobscured, nothing can beat you, not even an attack with a sword.”

When the two first met, Hakuin presented him with a poem about his enlightenment experience. Shoju barely looked at the poem and then tossed it aside:

“These are just a few words of book knowledge. Show me what you know.” Hakuin made a gagging sound and replied, “If I had anything to show you, I would vomit it up.” “Show me how you understand Mu,” Shoju demanded. “How can one touch it?” Hakuin said. Shoju reached forward, grabbed Hakuin’s nose, and gave it a sharp twist. “Here is how one can touch it!” Hakuin was stunned and did not know how to reply. “You poor cave-dwelling demon,” Shoju said dismissively. “Are you really so easily satisfied with this meager understanding?’’ [94]

To show Hakuin what was missing, Shoju began a story about a Chinese Zen master, but Hakuin was not ready to hear it. Instead, he put his hands over his ears and ran out of the room, after which Shoju again yelled, “You cave-dwelling demon!” On another occasion, Hakuin brought Shoju another verse. His master responded with, “Stuff and nonsense, stuff and nonsense!” Hakuin then shouted at his master, after which Shoju pushed him off his porch, into the mud. While Hakuin lay there in shock, his master laughed at him. Hakuin then pulled himself together, got up, and bowed to his master.

To show his resolve, Hakuin threatened to kill himself if he wouldn’t solve the koan in seven days. Shoju was unimpressed and called him a “half-cooked monk, trapped in a dark, smelly cave with demons.”

At that point, Hakuin had enough. “Why am I listening to this peasant in his ruined temple? This country is filled with famous masters, there must be someone better suited for me.” Shoju responded, “Leave then and scour the world looking for a better teacher. You have an even better chance of seeing stars in the middle of the day.”

Not long after, Hakuin became so absorbed in a walking meditation that he stopped right in front of someone’s fence. Thinking he was there to collect alms, the owner of the house yelled at him, saying she had nothing to give. When he didn’t respond, she hit him with a broom until he fell to the ground and lost consciousness. When he awoke, he suddenly realized he had solved various koans at the same time. He jumped up and screamed for joy. Not surprisingly, bystanders thought he had gone crazy.

When telling Shoju what had happened, his master showed a smile of approval. Nevertheless, he was not willing to give Hakuin a certificate, possibly because he believed Hakuin hadn’t fully reached enlightenment yet. However, Hakuin was convinced he was on the right track and left his teacher, never to return.

It turned out Shoju had been right that his enlightenment had still been incomplete, as Hakuin fell ill from what is known as Zen sickness, which we would today call a nervous breakdown. He had extreme headaches, severe depression, terrifying dreams, and was exhausted. It took him two full years to recover.

Finally, at the age of 41, Hakuin experienced his final and total awakening while reading the Lotus Sutra, a text which he, ironically, had dismissed as a young boy. He realized the answer to his problem was not to overly focus on his own personal enlightenment but to instead work for the good of all sentient beings. At that moment, he “suddenly penetrated the perfect, true, and ultimate meaning of the Lotus.” As a result, he began to dedicate his life to helping others.

In time, Hakuin became a demanding and highly respected teacher in his own right. Interestingly, he had both men and women as his followers and also spent a lot of time helping laymen.

He also made sure to often remind landlords about the importance of the working class in society. When landlords came to visit him, he served them the simple food that farmers ate. If they protested, he would tell them about the virtues of living a simple life. He once told a landlord he could treat his sore throat, for which he had to return to him the next day without having breakfast. Hakuin let the man wait for hours until he became very hungry. He then offered the landlord simple food, which he enjoyed due to his hunger. He then reminded the landlord that the farmers on his land were hungry as well.

In his teachings, Hakuin often spoke about the simplicity of Zen. In one of his most famous poems, he wrote about how close enlightenment actually is:

Not knowing how near the truth is, people seek it far away. Like one in water crying, “I thirst.” [...] Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes. This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land [Sukhavati] and this very body, the body of Buddha. [99]


Hakuin is best known for his creation of what is perhaps the most famous koan:

You know the sound of two hands clapping. But, tell me, what is the sound of one hand clapping?


Fig. 258 – Bodhidharma by Hakuin. (Ascander)

Fig. 259 – Hotei in a boat with his large magical cloth sack in which he keeps all his belongings, by Hakuin (Yale University Art Gallery, United States)

At the age of 60, Hakuin again took up painting and calligraphy, becoming one of Japan’s most accomplished artists. He painted in a remarkably personal style, often incorporating humor in his work. Most famous are his large paintings of the Bodhidharma (see Fig. 258). He also drew a couple of images of Ikkyu carrying his skull (see Fig. 257) and of the laughing Buddha Hotei (see Fig. 259), whom he sometimes depicted as a merchant, with the caption “Even merchants must hear the sound of one hand clapping, otherwise their merchandise will stink.” [97]

At the age of 83, Hakuin awoke from sleep, let out a horrifying scream, and died.



Ryokan (1758–1831) was a very gentle, modest, and friendly man. As a child, he loved books. On various occasions, his mother would tell him to join festivities in his village, only to find him hidden near a stone lantern in the garden, reading the Analects by Confucius. However, as a teenager, Ryokan also began to show his extroverted side, taking an interest in women and sake. At the age of 18, he enrolled as a student of Master Kokusen, with whom he studied both Zen, poetry, and calligraphy for 12 years. His master awarded him a certificate at the age of 33. In line with Dogen’s school, his enlightenment was not characterized by an overwhelming breakthrough but instead by a gradual clarity developed within himself. Because of his childlike honesty and his lack of pretension, he received the nickname Ryokan Daigu (meaning “good” or “generous fool”). Kokusen wrote about the event:

To Ryokan, good as foolish,
who walks the broadest way.
So free and so untrammeled,
none can truly fathom him. [100]

When his teacher died, Ryokan could have become an abbot, but instead, he left the temple and found himself an old hermitage on the side of a mountain, which he named Gogoan (meaning “five little bowls”), referring to the small amount of rice his former abbot received as his daily meal. True to its name, he lived there in poverty:

One cloak, one begging bowl, are all I own. [97]

Yet, being the generous person that he was, he even often gave away the little food he had to other beggars who were worse off. One day, when he was offered a piece of fish, a visitor reminded him that Buddhism prohibits eating flesh, to which Ryokan responded:

Oh, I don’t mind so much, I eat fish when it’s available and at other times I let lice and fleas feast on me. It’s all the same to me.

Despite his hermitage being hidden from the world of men, he still often visited the nearby village and showed his social side. He drank sake with local farmers, danced at festivities, and was especially fond of playing games with the local children.

Ryokan was especially loved in the village for his poetry and calligraphy, which he was rarely willing to share with the villagers. Ryokan never officially published his work and didn’t even consider himself a professional poet. In fact, he even claimed to dislike poems written by poets. As a result, the villagers had to trick him to obtain his artwork. On one occasion, Ryokan was caught stealing a rose from a garden. The owner caught him in the act and told him he would let him go, but only if he wrote him a poem. Ryokan wrote:

Ryokan was caught red handed,
while he was stealing flowers.
Now everyone will know about it.
Forever. [97]

On another occasion, children in the village were encouraged by their parents to ask Ryokan to paint words on their kites to make them fly higher. Fooled by the apparent honesty of the children, he wrote the words “heaven,” “up,” “great,” and “wind” on their kites.

The subject matter of his poems was usually very ordinary. Being very forgetful, he often lost his bowl. About one of these occasions, he wrote:

Once again I have forgotten my bowl.
May none pick it up.
My lonely little bowl. [94]

Most of his poems showed a deep love for nature:

A solitary path among myriad trees.
A thousand hilltops wrapped in fog.
It’s not yet autumn, but already here

leaves have begun to fall.
It hasn’t rained,

but the boulders are always wet.
Carrying my basket, I go hunting for mushrooms
or fill my water bottle at a spring
that bubbles from between the rocks.
No one finds this place,
only those who have lost their way. [101]

His most famous poem was written after someone tried to steal from his hermitage but noticed he owned nothing of value. The thief was just about to leave when Ryokan returned home. “It’s a shame that you’ve come all this way and not received anything for your troubles,” he said to the thief, after which he took off his robe and handed it to him. Deeply confused, the thief took the robe and left. Afterward, Ryokan sat on the floor of his hermitage, looking at the moonlight through the window. The event inspired his best-known haiku:

The thief left it behind
the moon
at my window. [97]

When Ryokan turned 60, he found it harder to make ends meet and as a result, he was forced to move. Leaving the Gogoan behind was very hard for him:

On the slope of Mount Kagumi, in the shadow of the mountain. For how many years was this hut my home? At this time of departure, my thoughts will wither like the summer grass. Back and forth, I walked around it and then I walked away, until the hut disappeared among the trees. I kept glancing back at that spot at every turn. [97]

When he visited his hut years later, he wrote:

I grabbed my staff and slowly set off for the hut where I spend so many years. The walls had withered away and foxes and rabbits now live there. The pond near the bamboo forest was dry and thick cobwebs covered the window, where I once read by the moonlight. The steps were overgrown by weeds and a lonely cricket sang in the bitter cold. I wandered restlessly, unable to tear myself away from that place, while the sun was setting in sadness. [97]

When he was 70, Ryokan met a Buddhist nun in her thirties named Teishin (1798–1872). Together they wrote poetry, talked about literature and religion, and went on walks. When he felt he was about to die, he managed to wait for Teishin:

“When, when?” I sighed. “The one I longed for has finally come. With her now, I have everything I desire.” [97]

He finally presented her the following poem:

First their fronts
Then their backs
Falling maple leaves. [94]

After his death, Teishin published his poems, which became valued possessions.



The greatest Zen poet was Matsuo Basho (1644–1694), who was admired as both a poet and a Zen master. The event that brought him to awakening was the sound of a frog jumping into a pond. About this experience, he wrote the world’s most famous haiku:

An old pond
A frog jumps in

It is sometimes said that this haiku sums up the entirety of Zen as it brilliantly makes the reader lose himself and focus on this single moment of experience.

Basho felt most at ease as a homeless traveler, which his weak health often made very difficult. Yet he persisted anyway. He stayed in inns whenever possible but often had to sleep in rougher places, such as stables. We read:

Lice, fleas,
a horse pissing
by my pillow. [94]

Many of his haiku express his deep love for nature and allow the reader to pay attention to the simple moments of everyday life that would normally pass unnoticed. Here are two examples:

No one walks
along the path
this autumn evening. [94]


I am awestruck
to hear a cricket singing
in the cavity of an old helmet. [102]



The clarity of mind that comes with enlightenment allowed some Zen masters to create enlightened art. The way to do this was to attain a state of mind called mushin (“no mind”), in which the person is “empty of ego” and lets his body act by itself. In such a state, an enlightened artist achieves precision, speed, and an inventive genius that is unparalleled. An art form that was particularly suited for mushin was calligraphy. Japanese calligraphers used a broad brush with thick ink. As a result, a painting was ruined with one wrong move. The only way to get a good result was to move the hand smoothly and with assurance, which required a zen-like clarity of mind. Like Zen itself, Zen art is often deceptively simple. Some of the great masterpieces of Zen art are simple shapes, like the famous Zen circle¸ also known as the enso (see Fig. 260). The simpler the art, the more difficult it becomes to convey mushin since there is no hiding behind fancy details. Only truly awakened artists, it was believed, could make these artworks. One of the greatest Japanese Zen artists was Sesshu Toyo (1431–1506). He was especially known for his famous landscapes, which he portrayed with unprecedented simplicity (see Fig. 262). It is no surprise that the impressionists of the 19th century were deeply influenced by Japanese art.


Fig. 260 – A Zen circle (enso) by Taido Shufu (1776 – 1836) (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Fig. 261 – “The Universe” by Sengai Gibon, showing geometric shapes including the Zen Circle (before 1819) (Idemitsu Museum of Art, Japan)

Fig. 262 – A landscape by Sesshu Toyo (1495) (Tokyo National Museum, Japan)

Inspired by Daoist painters, Zen artists also often made use of large amounts of empty space in their paintings. Take, for instance, Fig. 263, by the Chinese Zen painter Ma Yuan (1171–1225 AD).

Fig. 263 – The Solitary Angler, by the Chinese artist Ma Yuan (1195) (Tokyo National Museum, Japan)


Zen and the martial arts

Martial artists also became interested in Zen as it could help them control their state of mind in dangerous circumstances. Similarly, the practice of martial arts could help with meditation. The Zen master Takuan Soho (1573–1645) studied the parallels extensively. He noticed that untrained students often instinctively moved their bodies to ward off attacks. During this stage, the students display an unrefined state of mushin, but their moves aren’t very effective. During the first phase of training, the students have to consciously learn techniques. This forces them to overthink, which makes them even worse off. But when the students persist, they return to the state of mushin, but now with refined skill. This return to mushin is called the beginner’s mind (shoshin). Similarly, the goal of Zen masters was to perceive the world like a child who has not yet adopted any preconceived notions about the world, while simultaneously retaining the wisdom and skill of a mature individual.

Suzuki Shosan (1579–1655) was trained as a samurai but became a monk later in life. He became one of the few Zen masters who reached enlightenment without the aid of a teacher. Since he had to look death in the eyes on a regular basis as a samurai, he was deeply aware of the impermanence of life, which helped him with his Zen practice. When a monk asked Shosan to assign him a koan, he told him to focus on the character “death,” claiming no other koan was necessary. “Keep that alone in your heart and let all else go.” He told his disciples:

It is always the same. People believe that it is only others who die. They ignore the fact that it is their fate as well. So they pursue trivial things and live their lives as if immune to death. They plan and scheme and are surprised and unprepared when death comes upon them unexpectedly. [94]

Two years later, he fell ill. The doctor who was called in to examine him reported that his case was terminal. Undisturbed by the prognosis, Shosan commented:

I dealt with my own death more than thirty years ago. [94]