'Take everything in life easy'
When I went to university, I joined a Tai Chi club. I'd been interested in meditation and related matters for some time, and I'd read a book which suggested that the absolute best way to get enlightened was through the esoteric energy practices found in certain martial arts, including Tai Chi. I'd separately been fascinated by the idea of a system promoting health and relaxation which could apparently be used for fighting, and since the entertainment of my childhood had given me the idea that adult life would involve a long string of attacks by gang members who needed to be fended off with kicks and punches, my attention was piqued.
As it happened, I didn't learn much in the way of esoteric energy practices with that particular club, and while I did spend a fair bit of time engaged in combative pushing hands, I wouldn't say that these skills have really been all that necessary in daily life. My teacher did, however, say two things (one of them many, many times) which have stayed with me. One - 'shoulders, Matt!' - was his frequent comment whenever he saw he doing the form, my body a solid mass of tension as always, my shoulders up somewhere around my ears. Gradually, through repetition that was probably painful for us both, I figured out how to relax. The other thing that has really stayed with me was the last line of an email he sent me one day - 'Take everything in life easy.'
At the time, it seemed like such obviously terrible advice that it really stuck in my mind. I was an academic high achiever, blazing my way to a fancy degree, working so hard I gave myself repetitive strain injury in the run-up to Finals. My general approach to life was to apply effort, and if that wasn't working, try harder. I didn't have time to take it easy!
Well, it turns out that 21-year-old me had at least one thing in common with one of the greatest Zen masters of the last five hundred years, Hakuin Ekaku.
Hakuin's youthful exuberance
Hakuin tells his own story in a short work which he titled 'Idle talk on a night boat'. (Excerpts below are from Norman Waddell's translation.) Describing his early years of practice, he begins:
On the day I first committed myself to a life of Zen practice, I pledged to summon all the faith and courage at my command and dedicate myself with steadfast resolve to the pursuit of the Buddha Way, I embarked on a regimen of rigorous austerities, which I continued for several years, pushing myself relentlessly.
Then one night, everything suddenly fell away, and I crossed the threshold into enlightenment. All the doubts and uncertainties that had burdened me all those years suddenly vanished, roots and all - just melted like ice.
So far, so good. Hakuin has attacked his practice with vigour, and it's paid off! It turns out that, contrary to what you'll sometimes hear, a high-effort approach actually can result in some spiritual progress - particularly when you're young and healthy. My own Zen teacher Daizan has commented that he attacked his own practice in a similar manner, and there were times when he could see quite clearly that the only thing keeping his body from breaking down entirely was his youth and robust constitution. If you're over the age of about 25, this is probably not the path for you!
Nevertheless, Hakuin had scored an early victory. But, as is so often the case, his initial opening to his true nature wasn't the end of the story.
Afterwards, however, as I began reflecting upon my everyday behavior, I could see that the two aspects of my life - the active and the meditative - were totally out of balance. No matter what I was doing, I never felt free or completely at ease.
Again, this is very often the case. We reach a point of breakthrough in meditation, but the benefits of what we've discovered don't immediately transfer to the rest of our lives. Indeed, after a while we begin to notice more the ways in which we're not awakened than the ways we are, and we recognise the need for further practice.
I realized I would have to rekindle a fearless resolve and once again throw myself life and limb together into the Dharma struggle. With my teeth clenched tightly and eyes focused straight ahead, I began devoting myself single-mindedly to my practice, forsaking food and sleep altogether.
Before the month was out, my heart fire began to raise against the natural course, parching my lungs of their essential fluids. My feet and legs were always ice-cold: they felt as though they were immersed in tubs of snow. [...] I felt totally drained, physically and mentally exhausted.
Much like my younger self, Hakuin really only had one 'gear' at this point in his practice. He knew how to apply himself with maximum effort, and if that didn't work... well, he just tried harder.
The thing is, we can only maintain maximum effort for so long before we start to burn out. I've been through cycles of burnout myself, and it took me a while to learn the lesson because I'm so bull-headed when I'm in my 'must try harder' mood. Fortunately I never pushed things quite as far as Hakuin!
Meeting the hermit
Searching for a solution to his predicament, Hakuin got word of a hermit who lived up in the mountains above Kyoto (where Hakuin was based at the time). This hermit was rumoured to have studied traditional Chinese medicine, and to have a great understanding of the principles and methods involved. And, as is often the case with hermits in stories like these, there was a bit of an air of mystique around him:
Then I happened to meet someone who told me about a hermit named Master Hakuyu, who lived inside a cave high in the mountains of the Shirakawa district of Kyoto. He was reputed to be three hundred and seventy years old.
His cave dwelling was two or three leagues from any human habitation. He didn't like seeing people, and whenever someone approached, he would run off and hide. From the look of him, it was hard to tell whether he was a man of great wisdom or merely a fool, but the people in the surrounding villages venerated him as a sage.
(Sorry that the names Hakuin and Hakuyu are so similar - henceforth I'll refer to Hakuyu as 'the hermit' to avoid confusion.)
Anyway, Hakuin decided to pay this hermit a visit - after all, he was pretty desperate at this point. Despite his weakened condition, he hiked up into the mountains to find the hermit's dwelling. After a bit of an adventure, he finally tracked him down, and made his introductions:
I introduced myself as politely as I could, explained the symptoms and causes of my illness in some detail. and appealed to the master for his help.
After a while, [the hermit] opened his eyes and gave me a good hard look. Then, speaking slowly and deliberately, he explained that he was only a useless, worn-out old man - "More dead than alive." He dwelled among these mountains living on such nuts and wild mountain fruits as he could gather. He passed the nights together with the mountain deer and other wild creatures.
He professed to be completely ignorant of anything else and said he was acutely embarrassed that such an important Buddhist priest had made a long trip expressly to see him.
It has long been a tradition in Zen to be actively unwelcoming to people wishing to join a community, as a way of testing their resolve. New aspirants might have to stand out in the snow for a couple of days before being let into the temple, for example. Here we see the hermit giving Hakuin the same treatment. But he wasn't to be deterred!
But I persisted, begging repeatedly for his help. At last, he reached out with an easy, almost offhand gesture and grasped my hand. He proceeded to examine my five bodily organs, taking my pulse at nine vital points.
Furrowing his brow, he said with a voice tinged with pity, "Not much can be done. You have developed a serious illness. By pushing yourself too hard, you forgot the cardinal rule of spiritual training. You are suffering from meditation sickness, which is extremely difficult to cure by medical means. [...] You came to this grievous pass as a result of meditation. You will never regain your health unless you are able to master the techniques of Introspective Meditation. [...]"
"Please," I said, "teach me the secret technique of Introspective Meditation, I want to begin practicing it, and learn how it's done."
Introspective meditation (naikan)
Rather confusingly, the term 'naikan' (translated above as 'introspective meditation') has two meanings. One is as an umbrella term for Zen energetic practices in general; the other is as the name of a specific technique, which you can find on my Audio page (complete with a video showing the physical component of the practice).
The energy practices we find in Zen today have a very strong overlap with the techniques of qigong - hardly surprising, since many of them trace back to Hakuin and this mountain hermit versed in traditional Chinese medicine. (I guess I did learn some esoteric energy practices after all!) In a forthcoming article we'll talk more about the energetic model of the body that's found in traditional Chinese medicine.
For now, however, I'd like to focus on the remedy that the hermit gave to Hakuin. Why? Well, first of all, as we've seen from Hakuin's story, if we push too hard, we can get ourselves in a mess. If we jump into energetic cultivation practices without having adequately prepared the environment, we can develop severe headaches and other physiological imbalances. To make matters worse, many of us are not particularly in touch with our bodies - we work at desks, consume our entertainment from screens, and spend long periods of time sitting in cars or on public transport. Our bodies are often stiff, awkward and insensitive, to the point that it's quite common for people to struggle to feel normal bodily sensation in a simple body scan practice, never mind the subtle energetic sensations of naikan practices.
The practice that the hermit offered Hakuin is a nice way to get into this style of practice. It's a gentle, grounding practice which gradually wakes up the sensation of our body whilst simultaneously relaxing it, and as such it's an excellent preparation for the more active cultivation practices to come.
But I'm getting ahead of myself! Back to the story...
With a demeanor that was now solemn and majestic, [the hermit] softly and quietly replied, "Ah, you are determined to find an answer to your problem, aren't you, young man? All right, I suppose I can tell you a few things about Introspective Meditation that I learned many years ago. It is a secret method for sustaining life known to very few people. Practiced diligently, it is sure to yield remarkable results. It will enable you to look forward to a long life as well.
The hermit goes on to describe the functioning of the body in energetic terms - and, as I mentioned, we'll look more at this next time. Eventually, the hermit gets around to addressing Hakuin's unbalanced condition.
"The Buddha himself taught that we should 'cure all kinds of illness by putting the heart down into the soles of the feet.' The [early discourses] teach a method in which butter is used. It is unexcelled for treating debilitation of the heart."
"When a student engaged in meditation finds that he is exhausted in body and mind because the four constituent elements of his body are in a state of disharmony, he should gird up his spirit and perform the following visualization:
"Imagine that a lump of soft butter, pure in color and fragrance and the size and shape of a duck egg, is suddenly placed on the top of your head. As it begins to slowly melt, it imparts an exquisite sensation, moistening and saturating your head within and without.
"It continues to ooze down, moistening your shoulders, elbows, and chest; permeating lungs, diaphragm, liver, stomach, and bowels; moving down the spine through the hips, pelvis, and buttocks.
"At that point, all the congestions that have accumulated within the five organs and six viscera, all the aches and pains in the abdomen and other affected parts, will follow the heart as it sinks downward into the lower body. As it does, you will distinctly hear a sound like that of water trickling from a higher to a lower place. It will move lower down through the lower body, suffusing the legs with beneficial warmth, until it reaches the soles of the feet, where it stops.
"The student should then repeat the contemplation. As his vital energy flows downward, it gradually fills the lower region of the body, suffusing it with penetrating warmth, making him feel as if he were sitting up to his navel in a hot bath filled with a decoction of rare and fragrant medicinal herbs that have been gathered and infused by a skilled physician.
"Your body and mind will be in perfect peace and harmony. You will feel better and enjoy greater health than you did as a youth of twenty or thirty."
This practice has become known as nanso no ho - 'the soft ointment technique'. You can find a guided version of this practice on my Audio page.
So did it work?
It sure did! Here's what Hakuin has to say on the matter:
I went directly back to Shoin-ji. There I devoted myself to Introspective Meditation, practicing it over and over on my own. In less than three years—without recourse to medicine, acupuncture, or moxacautery—the illnesses that had been plaguing me for years cleared up of themselves.
What is more, during the same period I experienced the immense joy of great satori six or seven times, boring through and penetrating to the root of all those hard-to-believe, hard-to-penetrate, hard-to-grasp, and hard-to-enter koans that I had never before been able to get my teeth into at all.
I am more than eighty years old this year, but even now I never suffer from the slightest indisposition. Surely all of this is due to the lingering benefits I enjoy from having practiced the wonderful secret technique of Introspective Meditation.
So what about 'take everything in life easy'?
Well, the truth is, Hakuin didn't actually slow down, even right up until the end of his life. But introducing the gentler naikan practices gave him a counterbalance to all that effort - a way to relax and restore himself before resuming his fierce self-cultivation. Ultimately, he extended that attitude to the monks studying under him as well - he worked them hard, but when they began to show similar signs of burn-out, he shared the techniques he'd learnt from the hermit, and they too found the same health benefits.
There's a lot to be said for this. Often our lives place a great many demands on us, and we can't simply opt out of them all in order to live a quiet life - we may aspire to move our lives in that direction, but we generally can't get there overnight, and in the meantime there's work to be done. Given this, having a nourishing, recuperative practice like the soft ointment technique can be a tremendous asset.
That said, I do find that there's a lot of wisdom in my Tai Chi teacher's words as well. I've found it very interesting to investigate what happens when I find myself making a strong effort in a certain direction. There's definitely tremendous value in having a kind of quiet persistence, an energy that keeps us going even when times are tough. But a lot of my 'effort' is actually not terribly useful - a kind of internal pressure that builds up when I'm trying to force an outcome which isn't (yet) available to me. I've found that 95% of what needs to be done can be achieved with substantially less than maximum effort - and doing so leaves me with some energy in reserve, which is great when there's an unexpected demand on my time.
So, while I wouldn't yet say that I take everything in life easy, I'm certainly a lot more easy-going than I used to be - and I think that's for the best.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!