These koans, or
parables, were translated into English from a book called the Shaseki-shu
(Collection of Stone and Sand), written late in the thirteenth century
by the Japanese Zen teacher Muju (the "non-dweller"), and from anecdotes
of Zen monks taken from various books published in Japan around
the turn of the 20th century.
1. A Cup of
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912),
received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then
kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could
restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"
"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions
and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty
2. Finding a Diamond on a Muddy Road
Gudo was the emperor's teacher of his time. Nevertheless, he
used to travel alone as a wandering mendicant. Once when he
was on his way to Edo, the cultural and political center of
the shogunate, he approached a little village named Takenaka.
It was evening and a heavy rain was falling. Gudo was thoroughly
wet. His straw sandals were in pieces. At a farmhouse near the
village he noticed four or five pairs of sandals in the window
and decided to buy some dry ones.
The woman who offered him the sandals, seeing how wet he was,
invited him in to remain for the night in her home. Gudo accepted,
thanking her. He entered and recited a sutra before the family
shrine. He was then introduced to the women's mother, and to
her children. Observing that the entire family was depressed,
Gudo asked what was wrong.
"My husband is a gambler and a drunkard," the housewife told
him. "When he happens to win he drinks and becomes abusive.
When he loses he borrows money from others. Sometimes when he
becomes thoroughly drunk he does not come home at all. What
can I do?"
"I will help him," said Gudo. "Here is some money. Get me a
gallon of fine wine and something good to eat. Then you may
retire. I will meditate before the shrine."
When the man of the house returned about midnight, quite drunk,
he bellowed: "Hey, wife, I am home. Have you something for me
"I have something for you," said Gudo. "I happened to be caught
in the rain and your wife kindly asked me to remain here for
the night. In return I have bought some wine and fish, so you
might as well have them."
The man was delighted. He drank the wine at once and laid himself
down on the floor. Gudo sat in meditation beside him.
In the morning when the husband awoke he had forgotten about
the previous night. "Who are you? Where do you come from?" he
asked Gudo, who was still meditating.
"I am Gudo of Kyoto and I am going on to Edo," replied the Zen
The man was utterly ashamed. He apologized profusely to the
teacher of his emperor.
Gudo smiled. "Everything in this life is impermanent," he explained.
"Life is very brief. If you keep on gambling and drinking, you
will have no time left to accomplish anything else, and you
will cause your family to suffer too."
The perception of the husband awoke as if from a dream. "You
are right," he declared. "How can I ever repay you for this
wonderful teaching! Let me see you off and carry your things
a little way."
"If you wish," assented Gudo.
The two started out. After they had gone three miles Gudo told
him to return. "Just another five miles," he begged Gudo. They
"You may return now," suggested Gudo.
"After another ten miles," the man replied.
"Return now," said Gudo, when the ten miles had been passed.
"I am going to follow you all the rest of my life," declared
Modern Zen teachings in Japan spring from the lineage of a famous
master who was the successor of Gudo. His name was Mu-nan, the
man who never turned back.
3. Is That So?
The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbours as one living
a pure life.
A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived
near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered
she was with child.
This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man
was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.
In great anger the parent went to the master. "Is that so?"
was all he would say.
After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time
he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he
took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his
neighbours and everything else he needed.
A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told
her parents the truth - the real father of the child was a young
man who worked in the fishmarket.
The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to
ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child
Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was:
"Is that so?"
The master Bankei's talks were attended not only by Zen students
but by persons of all ranks and sects. He never quoted sutras
not indulged in scholastic dissertations. Instead, his words
were spoken directly from his heart to the hearts of his listeners.
His large audience angered a priest of the Nichiren sect because
the adherents had left to hear about Zen. The self-centered
Nichiren priest came to the temple, determined to have a debate
"Hey, Zen teacher!" he called out. "Wait a minute. Whoever respects
you will obey what you say, but a man like myself does not respect
you. Can you make me obey you?"
"Come up beside me and I will show you," said Bankei.
Proudly the priest pushed his way through the crowd to the teacher.
Bankei smiled. "Come over to my left side."
The priest obeyed.
"No," said Bankei, "we may talk better if you are on the right
side. Step over here."
The priest proudly stepped over to the right.
"You see," observed Bankei, "you are obeying me and I think
you are a very gentle person. Now sit down and listen."
5. If You Love, Love Openly
Twenty monks and one nun, who was named Eshun, were practicing
meditation with a certain Zen master.
Eshun was very pretty even though her head was shaved and her
dress plain. Several monks secretly fell in love with her. One
of them wrote her a love letter, insisting upon a private meeting.
Eshun did not reply. The following day the master gave a lecture
to the group, and when it was over, Eshun arose. Addressing
the one who had written to her, she said: "If you really love
me so much, come and embrace me now."
6. No Loving-Kindness
There was an old woman in China who had supported a monk for
over twenty years. She had built a little hut for him and fed
him while he was meditating. Finally she wondered just what
progress he had made in all this time.
To find out, she obtained the help of a girl rich in desire.
"Go and embrace him," she told her, "and then ask him suddenly:
The girl called upon the monk and without much ado caressed
him, asking him what he was going to do about it.
"An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter," replied the monk
somewhat poetically. "Nowhere is there any warmth."
The girl returned and related what he had said.
"To think I fed that fellow for twenty years!" exclaimed the
old woman in anger. "He showed no consideration for your needs,
no disposition to explain your condition. He need not have responded
to passion, but at least he should have evidenced some compassion."
She at once went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.
Tanzan wrote sixty postal cards on the last day of his life,
and asked an attendent to mail them. Then he passed away.
The cards read:
I am departing from this world.
This is my last announcement.
July 27, 1892
8. Great Waves
In the early days of the Meiji era there lived a well-known
wrestler called O-nami, Great Waves.
O-nami was immensely strong and knew the art of wrestling. In
his private bouts he defeated even his teacher, but in public
he was so bashful that his own pupils threw him.
O-nami felt he should go to a Zen master for help. Hakuju, a
wandering teacher, was stopping in a little temple nearby, so
O-nami went to see him and told him of his trouble.
"Great Waves is your name," the teacher advised, "so stay in
this temple tonight. Imagine that you are those billows. You
are no longer a wrestler who is afraid. You are those huge waves
sweeping everything before them, swallowing all in their path.
Do this and you will be the greatest wrestler in the land."
The teacher retired. O-nami sat in meditation trying to imagine
himself as waves. He thought of many different things. Then
gradually he turned more and more to the feeling of the waves.
As the night advanced the waves became larger and larger. They
swept away the flowers in their vases. Even the Buddha in the
shrine was inundated. Before dawn the temple was nothing but
the ebb and flow of an immense sea.
In the morning the teacher found O-nami meditating, a faint
smile on his face. He patted the wrestler's shoulder. "Now nothing
can disturb you," he said. "You are those waves. You will sweep
everything before you."
The same day O-nami entered the wrestling contests and won.
After that, no one in Japan was able to defeat him.
9. The Moon Cannot Be
Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little
hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the
hut only to discover there was nothing to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. "You have come a long way to
visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed.
Please take my clothes as a gift."
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryoken sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused,
"I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon."
10. The Last Poem of Hoshin
The Zen Master Hoshin lived in China many years. Then he returned
to the northeastern part of Japan, where he taught his disciples.
When he was getting very old, he told them a story he had heard
in China. This is the story:
One year on the twenty-fifth of December, Tokufu, who was very
old, said to his disciples: "I am not going to be alive next
year so you fellows should treat me well this year."
The pupils thought he was joking, but since he was a great-hearted
teacher each of them in turn treated him to a feast on succeeding
days of the departing year.
On the eve of the new year, Tokufu concluded: "You have been
good to me. I shall leave tomorrow afternoon when the snow has
The disciples laughed, thinking he was aging and talking nonsense
since the night was clear and without snow. But at midnight
snow began to fall, and the next day they did not find their
teacher about. They went to the meditation hall. There he had
Hoshin, who related this story, told his disciples: "It is not
necessary for a Zen master to predict his passing, but if he
really wishes to do so, he can."
"Can you?" someone asked.
"Yes," answered Hoshin. "I will show you what I can do seven
days from now."
None of the disciples believed him, and most of them had even
forgotten the conversation when Hoshin called them together.
"Seven days ago," he remarked, "I said I was going to leave
you. It is customary to write a farewell poem, but I am neither
a poet or a calligrapher. Let one of you inscribe my last words."
His followers thought he was joking, but one of them started
"Are you ready?" Hoshin asked.
"Yes sir," replied the writer.
Then Hoshin dictated:
I came from brillancy
And return to brillancy.
What is this?
This line was one line short of the customary four, so the disciple
said: "Master, we are one line short."
Hoshin, with the roar of a conquering lion, shouted "Kaa!"
and was gone.