Hakuin - Zen Master · James Ford - Patheos · Zen - Study




by Hakuin Ekaku

Translated by Albert Low
Hakuin on Kensho: The Four Ways of Knowing, Shambhala, 2006, Pages 29-39


Someone asked Hakuin, “Are the three bodies and four ways of knowing inherent, or are they brought into being by our coming to awakening? Furthermore, are they realized suddenly, all at once, or, with practice, do they come gradually?”

Hakuin answered by saying that although the three bodies and four ways of knowing are originally inherent and complete in everyone, unless they are brought to light they cannot be realized. After you have become strong through study and practice, and the awakened nature suddenly manifests, you realize the essence of inner reality all at once. When one way of knowing is realized, all are realized. However, although you reach the level of Buddhahood suddenly, and without passing through steps and degrees, if you do not practice gradually, you cannot reach the pure, unobstructed knowing and ultimate great awakening.


Someone then asked, “What does realization all at once mean?”
Hakuin answered that when the discriminating mind is suddenly shattered and the awakened essence immediately appears, the universe is filled with boundless light. This is called the way of knowing of the Great Perfect Mirror, the pure body of reality (dharmakaya). This is realization all at once. At this time alaya , the eighth level of consciousness, is transmuted.


That all things in the six fields of sense– seeing, hearing, discernment, and knowledge– are your own awakened nature is called knowing equality, the fulfilled body of reward (sambhogakaya )


Discerning principles by the light of true awareness is the way of knowing by differentiation.


Coughing, spitting, moving the arms, activity, stillness, all that is done through harmony with the nature of reality, is called knowing through doing things. This is the sphere of freedom of the transformation body ( nirmanakaya ).

Even so, you still do not see the way with complete clarity, and your power of shining insight is not yet fully mature. Therefore, if you do not go on with your practice, you will be like a merchant who hoards his capital and doesn’t engage in trade. In this way, not only does he never become rich, but eventually he even goes broke through spending just to keep up the appearance of being wealthy.

What do I mean by going on with your practice? It is like a merchant engaged in trade who spends a hundred dollars to make a profit of a thousand. In this way he accumulates vast wealth and treasure, and so becomes free to do as he will with his blessings. Whether rich or poor, money is still money, but without engaging in trade, it is impossible to get rich. Even if your breakthrough to reality is genuine, if your power of shining insight is weak, you cannot break down the barriers of habitual actions. Unless your knowing of differentiation is clear, you cannot benefit sentient beings according to their abilities. Therefore, you must know the essential road of gradual practice.


Hakuin then asks, rhetorically, “What is Great Perfect Mirror knowing?”

He replies that it means that if you want to see into this great matter, you must first generate great will, great faith, and great determination to see through the originally inherent, awakened nature.

After great will, faith, and determination are aroused, you should then constantly ask, “Who is the host of seeing and hearing?” Walking, standing, sitting, lying down, active or silent, whether in favorable or unfavorable circumstances, throw your mind into the question of what it is that sees everything here and now. What hears?

Question like this, ponder like this– ultimately, what is it? If you keep on doubting continuously, with a bold spirit and a spirit of shame urging you on, your effort will naturally become unified and solid, turning into a single mass of doubt throughout heaven and earth. The spirit will feel suffocated, the mind distressed, like a bird in a cage, like a rat that has gone into a bamboo tube and cannot escape.

At this time, if you just keep going without falling back, you will feel that you are entering a crystal world; the whole world, inside and outside, mats and ceiling, houses and cars, fields and mountains, grasses and trees, people and animals, utensils and goods, all are as they are but illusions, like dreams, like shadows, like smoke. When you open your eyes clearly with presence of mind and see with certainty, an inconceivable realm appears that seems to exist, yet also seems not to exist in a way. This is called the time when the knowing essence becomes manifest.


If you think this is wonderful and extraordinary and joyfully become infatuated and attached to this, you will, after all, fall into the cave of demons and will never see the real, awakened nature.

At this point, if you do not fondly cling to your state but arouse your spirit to wholehearted effort, from time to time you will experience such things as forgetting you are sitting when you are sitting, forgetting about standing when you are standing, forgetting about your own body, forgetting the world around you.

Then, if you keep going without retreating, the conscious spirit will suddenly shatter and the awakened nature will appear all at once. This is the Great Perfect Mirror knowing.

This is the first stage of inspiration; you can discern the source of eighty thousand doctrines, with their limitless subtle meanings, all at once. As one becomes, all become; as one decays, all decay– nothing is lacking, no principle is not complete. As a newborn child of Buddha, the new bodhisattva will reveal the sun of wisdom of the awakened nature; but even so, the clouds of his former actions will not have yet been cleared away.

Because one’s power in the way is weak and one’s perception of reality is not perfectly clear, the Great Perfect Mirror wisdom is associated with the easterly direction and called the Gate of Inspiration. It is like the sun rising in the east– although the mountains, rivers, and land receive the sun’s rays, they are not yet warmed by its light. Although you may have seen the way clearly, if your power of shining through is not strong enough, you may be blocked by inherent and chronic afflictions, and will still not be free and independent in both agreeable and adverse situations. This is like someone who has been looking for an ox and who may one day see through to the real ox, but if he doesn’t hold the halter firmly to hold it in check, it will, sooner or later, run away.

Once you have seen the ox, make ox herding your only concern. Without this practice, after awakening, many people who have seen reality miss the boat. Therefore, to reach knowing of equality, do not linger in Great Perfect Knowing. Go on and on, concentrate on practice after awakening.


First, with the intimate perception, which you have had into knowing itself, enlighten all worlds with radiant insight.

When you see something, shine through it; when you hear, shine through what you are hearing; shine through the five skandhas (form, feeling, perception, will, consciousness); shine through the six fields of sense perceptions– in front, behind, left and right, through seven calamities and eight disasters, become one with radiant vision of the whole body. See through all things, internal and external; shine through them. When this work becomes solid, then perception of reality will be perfectly, distinctly clear, just like looking at the palm of your hand.

At this point, while increasing the use of this clear knowing and insight, if you enter awakening, then shine through awakening. If you get into agreeable circumstances, then shine through agreeable circumstances. If you fall into adverse situations, then shine through adverse situations. When greed or desires arise, shine through greed and desire; when hatred or anger arise, shine through hatred and anger; when you act out of ignorance, shine through ignorance. When the three poisons of hatred, greed, and ignorance are no more, and the mind is pure, shine through that pure mind. At all times, in all places, be it desires, senses, gain, loss, right, wrong, visions of Buddha or of dharma, in all things shine through with your whole body.

If you do not fall back, the karma created by former actions will dissolve naturally. You will be liberated in a way that cannot be imagined.

The way you act will conform to how you understand. Host and guest will merge completely. Body and mind will no longer be two, and what you are and the way you appear will not obstruct each other. Getting to the state of true equanimity is called knowing equality as the nature of reality.

This way of knowing is associated with the southerly direction and called the Gate of Practice. It is like when the sun is in the south, its light is full and brings light to all the hidden places in the deep valleys, melting even the most solid ice and drying the ground however wet. Although the bodhisattva has the eye to see reality (kensho), unless you go through this gate of practice, you cannot clear away obstructions brought about by afflictions and actions and therefore cannot attain to the state of liberation and freedom. What a pity that would be, what a loss.


After you have reached the nondual realm of equality of reality, it is essential that you then clearly understand the awakened ones’ profound principle of differentiation. After this you must master the methods for helping sentient beings. Otherwise, even though you have developed and attained unhindered knowing, you will, nevertheless, remain in the nest of the Hinayana and will be unable to realize total, unobstructed knowing. You will lack freedom to change in any required way to help sentient beings, to awaken yourself and others, and reach the ultimate Great Awakening where awareness and action are completely perfect.

This is why one must arouse an attitude of deep compassion and commitment to help all sentient beings everywhere.

To begin with, you should study day and night the verbal teachings of the Buddha and patriarchs so that you can penetrate the principles of things in their infinite variety. Ascertain and analyze, one by one, the profundities of the five houses and the seven schools of Zen and the wondrous doctrines of the eight teachings given in the five periods of the Buddha’s teaching career.

If you have any energy left over, you should clarify the deep principles of the various different philosophies. However, if this and that get to be too much trouble, it will just waste your energy to no avail. If you thoroughly investigate the sayings of the Buddhas and the patriarchs that are difficult to pass through, and clearly arrive at their essential meaning, perfect understanding will shine forth and the principles of all things should naturally be completely clear. This is called the eye to read the sutras.

Now, the verbal teachings of the Buddhas and the patriarchs are extremely deep, and one should not consider that one has mastered them completely after one has gone through them once or twice. When you climb a mountain, the higher you climb, the higher you are; when you go into the ocean, the farther you go, the deeper it is. It is the same in this case. It is also like forging iron to make a sword; it is considered best to put it into the forge over and over, refining it again and again. Though it is always the same forge, unless you put the sword in over and over and refine it a hundred times, it can hardly turn out to be a fine sword.

Penetrating study is also like this; unless you enter the great forge of the Buddha and patriarchs, difficult to pass through, and make repeated efforts at refinement, through suffering and pain, total and independent knowing cannot come forth. Penetrating through the barriers of the Buddha and patriarchs over and over again, responding to beings’ potential everywhere with mastery and freedom of technique, is called subtle, observing, discerning knowing.

You do not investigate by means of intellectual considerations. This way of knowing, to save yourself and to liberate others, when completely fulfilled and mastered, is subtle, observing, discerning knowing. This is the state of the perfectly fulfilled body of reward; it is associated with the westerly direction and called the Gate of Awakening. It is like the sun having passed the high noon, gradually sinking toward the west. While the great way of knowing of equality is right in the middle, the faculties of sentient beings cannot be seen and the teaching of differentiation among things cannot be made clear. If you do not stop in the realm of self-enlightenment as inner realization but, instead, cultivate this subtle, observing, discerning knowing, you have done what you can do; having done your task, you can reach the land of rest. This rest is not what the setting sun means; it means that you have accomplished all the ways of knowing, having fulfilled awakening, because awakening self and others, fulfillment of awareness and action, is considered real ultimate awakening.


This is the secret gateway to the command of the mind and is the realm of ultimate liberation. This is knowing without any kind of defilement, a virtue that is not created. If you do not realize this way of knowing, you will not be able to do freely what must be done to benefit yourself and others. It is the effortless way.

Because the preceding way of knowing by differentiation is gained through correct practice, it is in the realm of cultivation: realization is gained by practice. It is therefore a way of knowing that is reached through effort. The way of knowing perfect action transcends the bounds of practice, realization, and attainment through study. It is beyond any kind of demonstration or explanation. One could say that knowing by way of differentiation is like the flower of complete awakening; practice is this flower coming into bloom. On the other hand, with knowing and “doing what needs to be done,” the flower of full awakening and practice drops away and the fruit ripens. You cannot possibly see this even in a dream unless you have passed through the final stages of transcendence of our school. That is why it is said that at the last word, you finally come to the impenetrable barrier.

The way to point out the direction is not in verbal explanations; if you want to reach this realm, just refine your subtle, discerning knowing through the differentiating and difficult-to-pass-through koans, smelting and forging hundreds of times, over and over. Even if you have passed through some, repeat them over and over, examining meticulously– what is this little truth beyond all convention in the great matter of transcendence? If you do not regress in your examination of the sayings of the ancients, someday you may come to know this bit of wonder.

Even so, if you do not seek an awakened master and personally enter his forge, you cannot plumb the profound subtleties. The only worry is that real teachers of Zen are extremely few and hard to find. But if someone exerts his energy to the utmost in this, and penetrates through clearly, he attains freedom in all ways, transcends the realms of Buddhas and devils, resolves sticking points, removes bonds, pulls out nails and pegs, and leads people to the realm of purity and ease. This is called the knowing required to accomplish works. It is associated with the northerly direction and is called the Gate of Nirvana. It is like when the sun reaches the northern quarter, when it is midnight and the whole world is dark; reaching the sphere of this knowing is not within understanding or comprehension– even Buddhas can’t see, much less outsiders and devils.

This is the thoroughly peaceful state of pure reality of the Buddhas and patriarchs, the forest of thorns that patch-robed monks sit, lie, and walk twenty-four hours a day. This is called great nirvana, replete with four attributes (self, purity, bliss, and eternity). It is also called knowing the essential nature of the cosmos, in which the four ways of knowing are fully complete. The center means harmonizing the four ways of knowing into a whole, and the essential nature of the cosmos means the king of awakening, master of the teachings, being king of the dharma, free in all ways.

I hope that you Buddhists of great faith will arouse great trust and commitment and develop the great practice for the realization of these four ways of knowing and true awakening. Do not forgo the great matter of countless ages just because of pride in your present view.

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