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Book Review: Hakuin’s Song of Zazen

In 1962, the esteemed Zen teacher Yamada Mumon Roshi (1900–88) wrote a series of essays that served as a commentary on the poem “Song of Zazen” by Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1769). Artist, poet, and unordained spiritual adept, Hakuin was one of the most influential figures in the Rinzai tradition and remains a revered figure throughout Japan. When it comes to translations of Zen for a Western audience, one seemingly cannot escape the shadow of D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966), who provided a foreword for the original “Hakuin’s Song of Zazen” in 1962. This collection of essays has been published for the first time in English by Shambhala as Hakuin’s Song of Zazen: Yamada Mumon Rōshi on Zen Practice (2024).


Whatever one thinks of Suzuki’s thinking—and he reveals questionable assumptions in this preface—he was open and unapologetic about the need to “ascertain the place Zen occupies in modern world thought,” “extract what is vitally alive from within the Zen tradition,” and finally to understand it experientially and share it with others. (x) Norman Waddell is the translator for this volume, and he gives more context to how “Song of Zazen” arose, characterizing the author’s original intent as:

. . . to impart the true meaning and utility of the Zen teaching to contemporary readers, many of whom, including the first postwar generation to receive a modern Western-style education, had turned away from Japan’s traditional culture and religion in the wake of its crushing wartime defeat.

. . . what gave Mumon’s book its unique flavor, making it different from previous works by Zen teachers, were the forays he made into matters of everyday life, his comments encompassing interests that would be closely associated with his lay audience. He responded to a news article that caught his eye in the morning paper; delivered appraisals of contemporary political and social trends; explored matters as diversified as the uses of atomic energy, the court culture of seventeenth-century France, a trip to Hokkaidō with a group of young mendicants, a leper hospital on an island in the Inland Sea, Albert Schweitzer and other noted Western figures—and more.


Let us look at only a few of these many profound Zen observations. The book opens with the original “Song of Zazen” by Hakuin, a beautiful, veritable song of encouragement for the reader to pursue the path of enlightenment. The first lines assure us that we ordinary, fallen beings are as identical to the enlightened ones as water and ice. Alas, “Unaware Buddha is right at hand, Beings pursue him in far-off places”—Hakuin reminds us why we remain mired in the world of suffering, and the culprit is our own ignorance; we are our own worst enemy.

But all hope is not lost: the Great Vehicle has transmitted the path of Zen meditation, which embodies the Buddha’s teachings, sets one on the virtuous path, clears away all karmic obstructions, and paves the way to the Pure Land. Hakuin continues with an exhortation to treasure and remain mindful of this teaching, to finally see self-nature as no-nature, and by doing so, open the gates of non-duality. When one embodies no-form and thinks no-thought, the sky becomes boundless, nirvana descends upon the mind, and one’s body is the same as the Buddha’s.  

Yamada Mumon Roshi. From

Yamada Mumon Roshi had much to say about this ballad of bodhicitta. Essay 22, “A Land Most Suited to the Mahayana” (111) embodies two qualities, aside from his immersion in the Zen tradition: a formidable knowledge of history and a keen interest in contemporary developments in the reborn Japan after the end of American occupation and reconstruction, which ended in 1952—exactly a decade after the publication of the first Japanese edition of “Hakuin’s Song of Zazen”. In Essay 22, he uses the appearance of Prince Shōtoku (574–622) on the country’s new yen notes to celebrate his dual role as the de facto father of the Japanese nation and the Yamato Kingship’s prime servant of the Three Treasures. He was not only the “creator of Japanese culture,” but Japan’s very own “Shakyamuni Buddha.” Yamada Roshi extols Prince Shotoku for having correctly perceived that Buddhism was the “most desirable foundation for the nation,” and quoting directly the prince: “Japan is a land most suited to the Mahayana.” (113) He draws from Shotoku’s most admired bodhisattvas and holy figures to conclude that all of Japanese life and culture is drawn from the Chinese characters of zenjo: samadhi, meditative concentration.

In reading Yamada Roshi’s essays, like with all literature, it is impossible to ignore the historical context from which his thoughts and writing emerged. Militarily humbled, its “imperial Shintoist” worldview broken—yet  newly prosperous and enjoying an enviable stability—Japanese society saw thinkers and writers revisiting the country’s complicated relationship with Buddhism over the past century, starting from the Meiji Restoration to the Japanese surrender to the Allies in 1945. There is no clearer indication than in Essay 22 of Yamada Roshi’s hope to invigorate the Japanese spirit and help its intellectual life start anew. The way to accomplishing this is by building a new spiritual foundation, and returning to Prince Shotoku’s original agenda.

Of course, many essays, profound as they are, emphasize Buddhist pedagogy, urging non-materialism (Essay 25, “Miracles”), reflecting on the relationship between Zen and Pure Land Buddhism, a longtime preoccupation of Buddhist thinkers in Japan (Essay 40, Self-Power and Other-Power), or, as in Essay 44, “The Mission of Buddhism”—where he also quotes D. T. Suzuki—refutes Christianity through a combination of Zen Pure Land teachings:

A mere ten callings of Amida’s name and you can reach the Pure Land paradise. Sitting in zazen one single time cancels out all the karmic obstacles you have created from the timeless beginning; abolishes the realms of hell, hungry ghosts, and beasts; and makes the Pure Land immediately open before you. It is not a subjective Pure Land, either. When the perfected human character self-awakens, the self and the surrounding environment are purified as a matter of course, morality is exalted, and an ideal world immediately manifests.


It is all the more fascinating, perhaps somewhat darkly, to return to the immediate piece before Essay 44, Essay 43: “The Moon of True Suchness Shines Bright.” Here, Yamada Roshi uses the example of a Japanese general he visited in Sugamo Prison. This was a man who had committed war crimes, an avatar of the most terrible, evil results of the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War Two. But when Yamada Roshi writes, “In point of fact, the sins do not actually perish, for there were in the first place no sins to eliminate,” (226) the point seems, I hope, to be less absolving the general of his terrible wrongdoings, but more using his example, as a man condemned to rot in prison but also given an opportunity to perfect the human character, as the best—in the sense of the most challenging—example of the human journey toward buddhahood, which is cosmic in scale.

“Like a mirror not being defiled by reflecting the filthiest of things, the original nature remains undefiled no matter what kind of sin you create. No matter how splendid the deeds you perform, the original nature does not thereby become more splendid.” (230) Imperfectly deploying the very best of his learning and eloquence, this is a Buddhist leader grappling with the darkest shadow of his countrymen, and bringing the Pure Land to all, truly all: even to the shadows that, at the time, had only just begun to recede. Thanks to this and many other essays in this book Yamada Roshi remains one of the most important and engaging figures of post-war Japanese Buddhism. This book is not only about cultivating Dharma, crucial though that is. It is a window into the mind of a truly fascinating Buddhist clergyman.  


Yamada Mumon Rōshi. 2024. Hakuin’s Song of Zazen: Yamada Mumon Rōshi on Zen Practice. Trans. Norman Waddell. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.

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