Reading Hakuin in the Age of Trump

I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for big hardcover Dharma books, especially ones that have the word “complete” in the title. Complete? Who can resist? So when I saw that Norman Waddell’s translation of Hakuin Zenji’s Complete Poison Blossoms from a Thicket of Thorn had come out last month, I ordered it. Hakuin’s great, I thought. Maybe I’ll leaf through.

Right around the same time, I was really interested to read a wonderful series of posts over at Dosho Port’s blog. Dosho’s on a Hakuin kick these days—I recommend looking at all of them. (Start with this one, then here, herehere and here)

So I ordered the book, and read Dosho’s posts, and remembered how great Hakuin is, and I started to read. And what I’ve been struck by is less anything doctrinal or any particular Dharma points in Hakuin’s writings, at least so far (Dosho has some interesting things to say about Hakuin doctrinally, especially in contrast to Dogen)—instead, what’s been powerful for me is more the tone, or the style, or the stance. The feeling of Hakuin. I’ve been really drawn to it, reading a lot—I went back and re-read his autobiography, and looked again at his letters, and I’m joyfully tearing through Complete Poison Blossoms.

It’s taken a few weeks, though, to realize why it is that Hakuin is speaking to me so deeply and directly, why he seems like such good and inspiring Dharma medicine for my practice right now. And the reason, of course, is our time—this cultural/political/historical moment, with Donald Trump in the White House and my whole wounded culture boiling up all around me. Hakuin’s decades-long religious crisis marched right through the emotional extremes of terror and anguish and despair. He was a dramatic and wounded guy, and he practiced within and through the exact states of mind that I feel in myself and in my culture right now. He’s the Zen master of desperation and anxiety and dread, and in a cultural moment so marked by those emotions, he’s just right.

For a set of slightly convoluted reasons, I’ve found myself taking cold showers these days. It all started with trying to drink less coffee (those of you who know me know how much coffee I drink.) It turns out—according to the Internet, at least—that caffeine works on dopamine receptors in the brain and so one of the ways to lessen the impact of caffeine withdrawal is to look for other ways of getting a dopamine boost. And one easy, cheap dopamine boost comes from taking cold showers.

So I’ve been giving it a try, and it’s worked—I’m drinking less coffee, and they really are energizing, the slap of them, the shock.

All of which is just to say: that’s just what reading Hakuin is like. Forceful, direct, enlivening. Like an icy blast of water.


Changing the subject: some of you know that I published a book of fiction—my first!—last fall. Here’s a link to an interview I gave about the book (namedropping Dogen and the Avatamsaka Sutra). You can order the book from Amazon, of course, or directly from the publisher. If you’re curious, I hope you’ll take a look. It’ll generate lifetimes of merit, I promise.


14 thoughts on “Reading Hakuin in the Age of Trump

    • I’d like to hear you out on this, Hae Mun, I really would, but I don’t know if I buy it. Politics/policy aside, can you name five personal characteristics of Donald Trump that are in accord with the values of the Mahayana? I can’t.

      • Considering you and I are Donald Trump and Barack Obama, yes I could.

        You are mixing your progressive politics into your Zen. I am mixing my semi-conservative politics into Zen.

  1. OR you can always make the effort of going to your local indie bookstore and face the struggle of talking to a live person and suffer the indignities of perhaps waiting in line at a register while being distracted by the possibly hundreds of other titles that you’d previously ignored but now find oddly attractive. Rant done. Still ‘Waddell-ing’ through the 2014 paperback of Hakuin that I just recently began again to leaf through. At this point in my life, more than 500 pages of text seems sufficient. I’ll wait til I find the current ‘complete’ edition in a remainder bin – at an indie.
    And I do appreciate your humor, Dave.

    • Thanks for the rant–I like it, and agree! Unfortunately my tiny press has run into some difficulties with distributors, so right now if you went into your indie bookstore looking for my book, all you’d get would be a blank stare. It’ll get sorted out (hopefully in the next few weeks) but in the meantime, this is what we’re left with. I’ll update the post once it’s worked out, and encourage supporting independent bookstores!

      • Rant came from being an erstwhile register-monkey at the last-standing indie bookstore (Readers’ Books) in the town of Sonoma (which at one point had five) and am now the ‘gardener’ there. I did some due diligence to check out title/author/etc. of your novel at Ingram distributors and – zip, nada, bupkis, so….I appreciate the dilemma here of authors finding readers. Many publisher/distributor agencies in the past few years have collapsed into one another leaving a rather bewildering array of choices as to how to find new authors (beyond the unstoppable avalanche of the daily receipt of galleys/ARCs). And, yes, while working as a register-monkey, I did at times resort to suggesting to customers that they try, uh, Amazon. Regardless of my personal feelings about soul-crushing monoliths, the thing actually produces results. So, back to Poison Blossoms.

  2. Hi, Hae Mun. Responding to your latest comment above: No. I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about character. Trump routinely stiffed contractors, for decades, on his building projects. He bragged about sexual assault on tape. He’s thin-skinned, erratic, vain and greedy. I disagreed with Obama about a lot of stuff, but to compare the two of them, as people, or to suggest an ethical equivalence between them, is bonkers.

    • Obama was arrogant, thin-skinned and made racist comments too. “They cling to their guns and religion” was one that was directed towards “my people”. They are both extremely flawed, one probably more so than the other, I agree. But so are you and I.

      As President, I’d say that Trump’s policies are more Theravadan–be a lamp unto yourself.

      • As I said, I don’t buy it. Thank you for that “probably,” though–that made me laugh. And I appreciate you coming by with a contrary opinion, even if I still think it’s bonkers . . .

      • That’s my point though, it’s only a bonkers opinion in CA and certain parts of the East Coast and on American Zen blogs. In a large part of America it’s not a bonkers opinion. As much as you feel you are right and I’m wrong, there are about 40-45% of Americans that think YOUR opinion is bonkers.

        I’m not saying who is right or wrong. I’m just asking that none of us hold our opinions so tightly that we stop acknowledging and listening to others’ opinions.

        I am glad I could make you laugh though.

  3. Hi, Hae Mun. We should probably wrap it up as far as back-and-forth comments on this post go. If you want to continue this in person (I don’t know where you live) or on the phone, let me know. I’m at

  4. This blog previously asked why young people were not attracted to zen. One answer is simple: western zen centers are full of narcissistic, left-wing-liberals boomers who don’t understand the real world, and don’t understand zen.

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