I was doing a bit of research lately on various kinds of Japanese-Buddhist home services by sect, known informally in Japanese as otsutomé (お勤め) or more formally as gongyō (勤行). While looking at the Rinzai Zen services in particular, I encountered something I had never seen before called Song of Zen by the 17th-century Zen master Hakuin. The actual name in Japanese for this “song” seems to be the zazen wasan (坐禅和讃) or hakuin zenshi zazen wasan (白隠禅師坐禅和讃). The term “wasan” probably would be better translated as “hymn”,¹ so for the sake of this post, I call it the Hymn of Zen.
But enough about linguistics, what the heck is it?
This is a kind of Buddhist hymn composed by Hakuin that explains Zen teachings in a simple, accessible series of verses. Unlike more traditional Japanese-Buddhist writing which uses Sino-Japanese writing (that is Chinese characters with Japanese pronunciation), this hymn was composed in more vernacular Japanese for easy readability by followers.
The translation below is by Trevor Legget (Japanese version can be found on Wikipedia for reference):
All beings are from the very beginning Buddhas.
It is like water and ice:
Apart from water, no ice,
Outside living beings, no Buddhas.
Not knowing it is near, they seek it afar.
What a pity!
It is like one in the water who cries out for thirst;
It is like the child from a rich house
Who has strayed away among the poor.
The cause of our circling through the six worlds
Is that we are on the dark paths of ignorance.
Dark path upon dark path treading.
When shall we escape from birth-and-death?
The Zen meditation of the Mahayana
Is beyond all praise.
Giving and morality and the other perfections,
Taking of the name, repentance, discipline,
And the many other right actions,
All come back to the practice of meditation.
By the merit of a single sitting
He destroyed innumerable accumulated sins.
How should there be wrong paths for him?
The Pure Land paradise is not far.
When in reverence this truth is heard even once,
He who praises it and gladly embraces it
Has merit without end.
How much more he who turns within
And confirms directly his own nature,
That his own nature is no-nature –
Such has transcended vain words.
The gate opens, and cause and effect are one;
Straight runs the way – not two, not three.
Taking as form the form of no-form,
Going or returning, he is ever at home.
Taking as thought the thought of no-thought,
Singing and dancing, all is the voice of truth.
Wide is the heaven of boundless Samadhi,
Radiant the full moon of the fourfold wisdom.
What remains to be sought?
Nirvana is clear before him,
This very place the Lotus Paradise,
This very body the Buddha.
The references to the Lotus Paradise and Pure Land allude to the Pure Land of Shakyamuni Buddha as described in the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, which Hakuin was deeply devoted to since his youth.
¹ See for example Shinran’s Hymns of the Pure Land (jōdo wasan, 浄土和讃) composed in the 13th century. These short, melodious hymns are usually chanted during the end of reciting the Shoshinge in Jodo Shinshu services. Speaking from experience.