At the foot of Mount Fuji towards the end of the 17th century, eight year-old Iwajiro attends a lecture on the Eight Hot Hells, and develops a childish, but deeply ingrained, fear of eternal damnation. His mother encourages him to attend the local temple, hoping that he will develop a devout belief which will pave the way for a life of religious development and enlightenment. His father, a businessman who neglects his own devotions, tries unsuccessfully to discourage him. So begins this fictionalised biography of Hakuin, one of the greatest teachers in the history of Zen. Iwajiro leaves home and joins the temple as an apprentice, where the head monk renames him Ekaku (Wise Crane).
Dissatisfied with life at the temple, Ekaku travels from one end of Japan to the other seeking knowledge and spiritual enlightenment from a wide range of sources and experiences. He sees the aftermath of a tsunami and sits in a state of perfect concentration whilst Mount Fuji erupts, throwing molten rock into the vicinity. Eventually Ekaku becomes Sensei, teaching both monks and lay people as he slowly moves to his inevitable destiny.
The book is full of dramatic scenes – of physical and mental struggles with teachers, some of whom he discounts as worthless, others who dismiss his beliefs and describe him as a corpse. The author paints a vibrant picture of Japanese society, full of stories and poetry. I would have liked to have seen a glossary or footnotes to explain the various Japanese words and phrases which abound throughout the book, which just become meaningless to the reader without explanation. This novel will not be to everyone’s taste. It is both frustrating and challenging – very Zen.