Norman Waddell's translations of Zen classics are consistently lucid and highly readable, and his rendering of this text is no exception. So my 3-star review reflects my issues, not with the translator, but rather with the highly esteemed Hakuin himself. His continuous carping, at least in this particular volume of his teachings, overshadows whatever wisdom he has to impart. Even old Lin-chi (810-866 C.E.), the hyper-critical founder of the Rinzai sect to which Hakuin belonged, occasionally came up for air!
No doubt Hakuin had legitimate concerns with the decline and deplorable status of Zen in his own time. The history of Zen is replete with examples of teachers who strongly expressed their discontent with the status of popular practice during their respective times. He exceeds them all, however, with his relentless rant against every approach and school that does not use his own method, namely that in order to realize enlightenment it is essential for a student to arduously struggle with and penetrate the paradox of a koan (to the satisfaction of the teacher, of course!). This is expressed repeatedly by such emphatic statements as, "You must strain and suffer as a means to enlightenment," and "work through the final koans before you die." Incongruously, between rants he gives faint praise to the very schools he condemns. Nevertheless, Hakuin's emphatic insistence on systemized koan training equates to elevating his raft as being superior to all other rafts for crossing the river.
His incessant condemnation goes on page after page, often throwing out bucket after bucket of babies with the bath water. Hakuin's obsessive use of derogatory epithets include calling Soto School silent meditation practitioners and followers of the Pure Land sect as "half dead duffers...listless old grannies...and miserable wretches." He even refers to those adherents of his own Rinzai sect who espoused quietist approaches to practice as lazy do-nothing "buji" Zennists. Ironically, buji is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese term chen, which means natural or uncontrived. Lin-chi, or Rinzai in Japanese, frequently used the term Cen-jen (Jp. Buji-nin) to describe a "True Man of no rank" or enlightened person (see Burton Watson, The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi). Unfortunately, contemporary institutionalized Japanese Zen schools still use Hakuin's misappropriation of the term "buji" to mean an undisciplined or frivolous approach to practice.
By his own account, it appears that Hakuin often unsparingly used the shout and the stick on his students. This approach was deplored by a teacher who proceeded him by a half century: the esteemed Zen Master Bankei (see Waddell, The Unborn) who felt that hitting a student with the stick was disrespecting the Buddha-mind within each being. Concerning the use of koans, Bankei acknowledged that they once might have been of value as spontaneous responses to a specific person and a given situation of the moment. Once systematized, however, they degenerated into "hopelessly contrived artificial techniques and unnecessary encumbrances." Since koans were not used systematically until the middle of the 10th century, Bankei rhetorically asked, "Zen teachers didn't use koans before the Sung Dynasty (960-1280 C.E.). Why do I have to?"
The core teaching of the historical Buddha has nothing to do with koans, sutras, any specific form of meditation, or doctrines identified by various "-ists" and "-isms." He advocated following The Middle Way and taught the Four Noble Truths for the cessation of our self-created suffering. He made no claim other than being awake, which is what the term "budh" means in Sanskrit. It would also appear, according to words attributed to him in the Diamond Sutra, that he did not intend to establish a religion: "In reality there is no formula that gives rise to enlightenment [and] what is called `the religion given by Buddha' is not, in fact, Buddha-religion."
It is said that Bodhidharma defined Zen as "A special transmission outside the scriptures with no dependence on words and letters." Perhaps it is time we stopped using the words Zen and Buddhism as connectives for a common term.