Samantabhadra, painting by Vladimir Pyatsky

Samantabhadra, painting by Vladimir Pyatsky

Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768) was born to a family in charge of managing a postal station in a small village in Japan. His family was a respected.  There were samurais in his family, and his grandfather was a Zen priest. His family followed the local religious traditions. Hakuin himself was very an impressive child; keenly perceiving his surroundings. He was eleven when he first attended a sermon concerning the torments awaiting sinners in the hell realms. This overwhelmed him with fear. Searching for liberation from suffering, Hakuin decided to devote his life to religious service and followed this path until the end of his life. He lived life as a wandering monk, while looking for a worthy master, keeping on with his religious study and service. His religious fervor was so strong that it once caused him to develop a severe illness which made him unable to continue his practice and brought him on the verge of a nervous and physical exhaustion. No one was able to cure him. His power was leaving him and along with it – his hope for liberation from suffering. When seeking for a cure Hakuin met his master Hakuyu in a remote Japanese monastery. After inquiring about his sickness Hakuyu taught him the method of melted butter, which restored his powers and made him able to continue his practice. This meeting and healing became a turning point in his understanding of Dharma.

Hakuin’s autobiography “Wild Ivy” which is written in such lively and vivid language that it’s hard to believe it was written about 300 years ago. After recovery Hakuin had a few flashes of enlightenment and attained liberation from suffering.  At his time, as well as in our days, Hakuin was and is renowned for his extensive creative heritage: books, paintings, and calligraphy. Until his death, Hakuin was searching for new ways of spreading and explaining the Teaching, as he was discontented with a dogmatic approach which was very common at that time in Japan. Hakuin died at the age of 82 giving instructions to his last days. When his disciples asked him to take some rest he use to answer: “What is my tiredness compared to that hunger, which tears my disciples.” After his death his disciples found in the ashes of his remains blue precious stones; “wisdom and meditation” fruits of Hakuin’s life.



When we discussed the story of Mahavira with my Teacher, Vova Pyatsky, he made the following comments:

Refuge is inseparable from the disciple’s nature of mind, worldly wisdom and accumulated wisdom of society. This is how to overcome ones’ sufferings. The story of Hakuin, one of the greatest masters of Zen, is beautiful and instructive. Hakuin was a Japanese master and his understanding of Dharma was imported from China and Japan. Buddha explained the middle path as a path between extreme asceticism and animal indulgence in a search for pleasure. Some degree of asceticism is important for a healthy course of practice, but it should be very competent, without falling into extremes. Hakuin used to practice a strict asceticism. He had had neither a fund of spiritual knowledge nor experience of ascetics in surmounting obstacles.  Hakuin became ill as a result of exhaustion. This sickness expressed itself in nervous and physical exhaustion, bringing Hakuin to a state where hallucinations appeared as well as delirium and nervous agitation.

The cause of this disease was accumulation of tension as a result of unbalanced practice (tension narrows nervous channels and lowers their passability). For a long time Hakuin was looking for a cure until he met master Hakuyu who taught him a method of healing.

Master Hakuyu was a Taoist. In Taoism special attention is given to the flow of vital energy Chi and to the Dantian area, located below the navel, a main reservoirs of vital energy in the body. Methods of autosuggestion along with mental concentration and body energy flow’s observation were widely used in Taoism. Hakuyu taught Hakuin the autosuggestion method of melted butter.

The method is:

We start by creating a mental image of a pure, soft and pleasantly smelling butter. The butter is the size of a duck egg. When then visualize this piece of butter in our head. This may bring a pleasant sensation. It is a sensation of cooling moisture which drips from the head and flows down through the entire body washing and relaxing all its part, internal organs, muscles, and tendons. When breathing deeply we fill our navel area and lower part of the body and direct the flow of incoming awakened energy (Chi) to our heels. Pain and tension concentrated in our body and internal organs flow down like water until a feeling of powerful stream of vital energy warming up our feet to the toes will arises in our body. In a course of this exercise one should fully identify oneself with this vital energy, At the same time one is to concentrate on repetition of the following words, trying to comprehend their meaning:

This ocean of breathing, that is below my navel,

My waist and my extremities down to my heels

Are truly my face –

The face which needs no nostrils

[for breathing].

This ocean of breathing, that is below my navel,

My waist and extremities down to my heels

Is my true refuge –

Refuge which is always with me.

This ocean of breathing, that is below my navel,

My waist and extremities down to my heels

Are truly my Pure Land –

The land, which needs no adornments.

This ocean of breathing, that is below my navel,

My waist and extremities down to my heels

Are truly Amida of my body –

Amida, who needs no sermons.


“The ocean of breathing” is located three centimeters below the navel, in the Dantian area, where our center of gravity is located. In the course of meditation our vital powers concentrate in this area and are aimed at the process of healing. According to the Zen teaching, the terms “true face”, “true refuge”, “Pure Land” and “Amida” are synonymous with Buddha nature. Buddha nature is not to be looked for outside ourselves, but attained in the depths of the own higher “Self”.

The method of melted butter fills and relaxes the entire body, especially its lower part. This meditation cured Hakuin. From a physiological point of view this may be explained by the fact that the aorta is the widest blood vessel, and when it is full-contentment ensues. Through practicing the melted butter method Hakuin achieved a widening of the energy channels of his body. When his channels are widened, he realizes that wisdom had never left him, had always been with him, even at the time of disease.

Recovery becomes the crucial moment of Hakuin’s practice. After recovery, he experiences several stories and becomes confident in the nature of his mind. Filling of the lower part of the body and widening of channels bring about a sense of contentment, which is not disturbed by any outer circumstances. The sense of contentment of widened channels leads to sensation of being full, which may be compared to stability of a lantern having a wide and firm bottom and thus not disturbed by the wind. Hakuin lead a very active life, travelling around Japan, giving Dharma instructions to growing audiences. He became a writer and painter. All his creative work is permeated with simplicity and peace, relaxation and contentment. Until the end of his life he remained an ascetic, but his asceticism was efficient and wise.

Marina Sherman

Russian-English translation: Ilona Erkin & Dorey Glenn

*This article contains materials from the book “A History of Zen Buddhism” by Heinrich Dumoulin