On this day in 1769, the Zen Buddhist master Hakuin Ekaku died. He was one of the most important masters of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. Hakuin was born on January 19th 1686 in Hara, a small town at the foot of Mt. Fuji on the Tokkaido Road between Edo (modern day Tokyo) and Kyoto. Rinzai is known for its rather eccentric teaching methods, favouring shouting and sometimes physical violence in order to encourage a student to experience satori (instant enlightenment). Hakuin described satori as like shattering a block of ice. Thus Rinzai was the religion of the samurai warriors, and Soto (the other main Zen school) was for the farmer and the peasant.
The Rinzai school had been deteriorating in the 14th Century, but Hakuin reformed it and bought it back to the mainstream. He stressed the importance of koans (paradoxical, riddle like questions students dwell upon) and zazen (sitting meditation), in order to understand the true nature of reality and experience enlightenment, which is the goal of Zen. He became a famous teacher around Japan, and is credited with popularising Rinzai Zen once more.
He died on 18th January 1769, aged 83. Hakuin left behind over 90 enlightened students to carry on his legacy. Now, Hakuin is probably best known for one particular koan he invented for use in Rinzai training:
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”