Book Review: The Song of Zazen by Hakuin

- through Francois Leclercq

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In 1962, the famous Zen teacher Yamada Mumon Roshi (1900-1988) wrote a series of essays that served as a commentary on the poem "The Song of Zazen" by Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769). An artist, poet, and non-ordained 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 Western audiences, one seemingly cannot escape the shadow of DT Suzuki (1870-1966), who provided the foreword to the original "The Song of Zazen of Hakuin”. in 1962. This collection of essays was first published in English by Shambhala under the title Hakuin's Zazen chant: Yamada Mumon Rōshi on the practice of Zen (2024)


Whatever one thinks of Suzuki's thought – and he reveals some dubious assumptions in this preface – he was open and unapologetic about the need to "determine the place that Zen occupies in the thought of the modern world", “to extract what is vitally alive from the Zen tradition”. and finally to understand it experientially and share it with others. (x) Norman Waddell is the translator of this volume, and he gives more context on how "Song of Zazen" came to be, characterizing the author's original intent as follows:

. . . convey the true meaning and usefulness of Zen teaching to contemporary readers, many of whom, including the first post-war generation to receive a modern Western-style education, had turned away from culture and religion traditional traditions of Japan following 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 the subjects of everyday life, his commentaries encompassing interests that would be closely associated with its lay audience. He responded to a news article that caught his attention in the morning paper; provided assessments of contemporary political and social trends; explored topics as diverse as the use of atomic energy, the court culture of 17th-century France, a trip to Hokkaidō with a group of young beggars, a leper colony on an island in the Inland Sea, Albert Schweitzer and other renowned Western figures. and more.


Let us look at just a few of these many profound observations of Zen. The book opens with Hakuin's original "Zazen Song", a beautiful and true song of encouragement for the reader to pursue the path to enlightenment. The opening lines assure us that we, ordinary fallen beings, are as identical to enlightened beings as water and ice. Alas, “Unconscious Buddha is at hand, beings pursue him in distant 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 teachings of the Buddha, sets one on the virtuous path, eliminates all karmic obstacles and opens the way to the Pure Land. Hakuin continues with an exhortation to cherish and remain attentive to this teaching, to finally see one's own nature as non-nature and, in doing so, open the doors to non-duality. When a person embodies no form and thinks no thought, the sky becomes limitless, nirvana descends on the mind, and our body is the same as that of the Buddha.

Yamada Mumon Roshi. Taken from

Yamada Mumon Roshi had a lot to say about this ballad of bodhicitta. Essay 22, “A Land Most Adapted to the Mahayana” (111) embodies two qualities, besides his immersion in the Zen tradition: a formidable knowledge of history and a keen interest in contemporary developments in post-late resurgent Japan. of the American occupation. and the reconstruction, which ended in 1952, exactly a decade after the publication of the first Japanese edition of “Hakuin’s Zazen song”. In Essay 22, he uses the appearance of Prince Shōtoku (574-622) in the new territory of the country. yen notes to celebrate his dual role as de facto father of the Japanese nation and first servant of the Three Treasures of Yamato royalty. He was not only the "creator of Japanese culture", but also the "Shakyamuni Buddha" of Japan. Yamada Roshi commends Prince Shotoku for correctly perceiving that Buddhism was the "most desirable foundation for the nation" and directly quoting the prince: "Japan is the country most suited to Mahayana." (113) He draws inspiration 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: samadhimeditative concentration.

In reading Yamada Roshi's essays, as in all literature, it is impossible to ignore the historical context from which his thoughts and writings emerged. Militarily humiliated, its "Imperial Shinto" worldview shattered, but newly prosperous and enjoying enviable stability, Japanese society has seen thinkers and writers revisit the country's complex relationship with Buddhism over the past century, since the Meiji Restoration until Japan's capitulation to the Allies. in 1945. There is no clearer indication than Essay 22 of Yamada Roshi's hope to reinvigorate the Japanese spirit and help its intellectual life restart. The way to do this is to build a new spiritual foundation and return to Prince Shotoku's original agenda.

Of course, many essays, however profound, emphasize Buddhist pedagogy, urging non-materialism (Essay 25, “Miracles”), reflecting on the relationship between Zen and Pure Land Buddhism , a long-standing concern of Buddhist thinkers in Japan (Essay 40). , Personal Power and the Power of Others), or, as in Essay 44, “The Mission of Buddhism” – where he also quotes DT Suzuki – refutes Christianity through a combination of Pure Land Zen teachings:

It only takes ten calls of Amida's name and you will be able to reach the paradise of the Pure Land. Sitting in zazen just once undoes all the karmic obstacles you have created since the timeless beginning; abolishes the realms of hell, hungry ghosts and beasts; and immediately opens before you the Pure Land. Nor is it a subjective Pure Land. When perfect human character awakens, the self and the surrounding environment are naturally purified, morality is exalted, and an ideal world immediately manifests.


It is all the more fascinating, perhaps somewhat somber, to return to the article immediately preceding Essay 44, Essay 43: “The Moon of true suchness shines. » Here, Yamada Roshi uses the example of a Japanese general he visited in Sugamo Prison. He was a man who had committed war crimes, an avatar of the most terrible and evil results of the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. But when Yamada Roshi writes: "In fact, sins do not actually perish, because there were no sins to be eliminated in the first place" (226), the idea seems, I hope, less to absolve the general of his terrible wrongdoing, but more so using his example, as a man condemned to rot in prison but also given the opportunity to perfect human character, as the best example – in the sense of the hardest – of human journey towards Buddhahood, which is on a cosmic scale.

“Like a mirror that does not become defiled by reflecting the dirtiest things, the original nature remains intact, no matter what kind of sin you create. However splendid the deeds you perform, the original nature does not become any more splendid. (230) Imperfectly deploying the best of his knowledge and eloquence, he is a Buddhist leader grappling with the darkest shadow of his compatriots and bringing the Pure Land to all, truly. all: even to the shadows which, at the time, were barely beginning to recede. Through this essay and many others, Yamada Roshi remains one of the most important and engaging figures in postwar Japanese Buddhism. This book is not only about the cultivation of Dharma, crucial as that is. It’s a window into the mind of a truly fascinating Buddhist cleric.


Yamada Mumon Rōshi. 2024. Hakuin's Zazen chant: Yamada Mumon Rōshi on the practice of Zen. Trans. Norman Waddell. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.

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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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