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.
11. The Story
The exquisite Shunkai whose other name was Suzu was compelled
to marry against her wishes when she was quite young. Later,
after this marriage had ended, she attended the university,
where she studied philosophy.
To see Shunkai was to fall in love with her. Moreover, wherever
she went, she herself fell in love with others. Love was with
her at the university, and afterwards when philosophy did not
satisfy her and she visited the temple to learn about Zen, the
Zen students fell in love with her. Shunkai's whole life was
saturated with love.
At last in Kyoto she became a real student of Zen. Her brothers
in the sub-temple of Kennin praised her sincerity. One of them
proved to be a congenial spirit and assisted her in the mastery
The abbot of Kennin, Mokurai, Silent Thunder, was severe. He
kept the precepts himself and expected the priests to do so.
In modern Japan whatever zeal these priests have lost for Buddhism
they seemed to have gained for having wives. Mokurai used to
take a broom and chase the women away when he found them in
any of his temples, but the more wives he swept out, the more
seemed to come back.
In this particular temple the wife of the head priest had become
jealous of Shunkai's earnestness and beauty. Hearing the students
praise her serious Zen made this wife squirm and itch. Finally
she spread a rumor about that Shunkai and the young man who
was her friend. As a consequence he was expelled and Shunkai
was removed from the temple.
"I may have made the mistake of love," thought Shunkai, "but
the priest's wife shall not remain in the temple either if my
friend is to be treated so unjustly."
Shunkai the same night with a can of kerosene set fire to the
five-hundred-year-old temple and burned it to the ground. In
the morning she found herself in the hands of the police.
A young lawyer became interested in her and endeavoured to make
her sentance lighter. "Do not help me." she told him. "I might
decide to do something else which will only imprison me again."
At last a sentence of seven years was completed, and Shunkai
was released from the prison, where the sixty-year-old warden
also had become enamored of her.
But now everyone looked upon her as a "jailbird". No one would
associate with her. Even the Zen people, who are supposed to
believe in enlightenment in this life and with this body, shunned
her. Zen, Shunkai found, was one thing and the followers of
Zen quite another. Her relatives would have nothing to do with
her. She grew sick, poor, and weak.
She met a Shinshu priest who taught her the name of the Buddha
of Love, and in this Shunkai found some solace and peace of
mind. She passed away when she was still exquisitely beautiful
and hardly thirty years old.
She wrote her own story in a futile endeavour to support herself
and some of it she told to a women writer. So it reached the
Japanese people. Those who rejected Shunkai, those who slandered
and hated her, now read of her life with tears of remorse.
back to top
12. Happy Chinaman
Anyone walking about Chinatowns in America with observe statues
of a stout fellow carrying a linen sack. Chinese merchants call
him Happy Chinaman or Laughing Buddha.
This Hotei lived in the T'ang dynasty. He had no desire to call
himself a Zen master or to gather many disciples about him.
Instead he walked the streets with a big sack into which he
would put gifts of candy, fruit, or doughnuts. These he would
give to children who gathered around him in play. He established
a kindergarten of the streets.
Whenever he met a Zen devotee he would extend his hand and say:
"Give me one penny." And if anyone asked him to return to a
temple to teach others, again he would reply: "Give me one penny."
Once he was about his play-work another Zen master happened
along and inquired: "What is the significance of Zen?"
Hotei immediately plopped his sack down on the ground in silent
"Then," asked the other, "what is the actualization of Zen?"
At once the Happy Chinaman swung the sack over his shoulder
and continued on his way.
back to top
13. A Buddha
In Tokyo in the Meiji era there lived two prominent teachers
of opposite characteristics. One, Unsho, an instructor in Shingon,
kept Buddha's precepts scrupulously. He never drank intoxicants,
nor did he eat after eleven o'clock in the morning. The other
teacher, Tanzan, a professor of philosophy at the Imperial University,
never observed the precepts. Whenever he felt like eating, he
ate, and when he felt like sleeping in the daytime he slept.
One day Unsho visited Tanzan, who was drinking wine at the time,
not even a drop of which is suppposed to touch the tongue of
"Hello, brother," Tanzan greeted him. "Won't you have a drink?"
"I never drink!" exclaimed Unsho solemnly.
"One who does not drink is not even human," said Tanzan.
"Do you mean to call me inhuman just because I do not indulge
in intoxicating liquids!" exclaimed Unsho in anger. "Then if
I am not human, what am I?"
"A Buddha," answered Tanzan.
back to top
14. Muddy Road
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road.
A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono
and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
"Come on, girl" said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms,
he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached
a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself.
"We monks don't go near females," he told Tanzan, "especially
not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"
"I left the girl there," said Tanzan. "Are you still carrying
back to top
15. Shoun & His Mother
Shoun became a teacher of Soto Zen. When he was still a student
his father passed away, leaving him to care for his old mother.
Whenever Shoun went to a meditation hall he always took his
mother with him. Since she accompanied him, when he visited
monasteries he could not live with the monks. So he would built
a little house and care for her there. He would copy sutras,
Buddhist verses, and in this manner receive a few coins for
When Shoun bought fish for his mother, the people would scoff
at him, fo a monk is not supposed to eat fish. But Shoun did
not mind. His mother, however, was hurt to see others laugh
at her son. Finally she told Shoun: "I think I will become a
nun. I can be vegetarian too." She did, and they studied together.
Shoun was fond of music and was a master of the harp, which
his mother also played. On full-moon nights they used to play
together. One night a young lady passed by their house and heard
music. Deeply touched, she invited Shoun to visit her the next
evening and play. He accepted the invitation. A few days later
he met the young lady on the street and thanked her for her
hospitality. Others laughed at him. He had visited the house
of a woman of the streets.
One day Shoun left for a distant temple to deliver a lecture.
A few months afterwards he returned home to find his mother
dead. Friends had not known where to reach him, so the funeral
was in progress.
Shoun walked up and hit the coffin with his staff. "Mother,
your son has returned," he said.
"I am glad to see you have returned, son," he answered for his
"Yes, I am glad too," Shoun responded. Then he announced to
the people about him: "The funeral ceremony is over. You may
bury the body."
When Shoun was old he knew his end was approaching. He asked
his disciples to gather around him in the morning, telling them
he was going to pass on at noon. Burning incense before the
picture of his mother and his old teacher, he wrote a poem:
For fifty-six years I lived as best I could,
Making my way in this world.
Now the rain has ended, the clouds are clearing,
The blue sky has a full moon.
His disciples gathered around him, reciting sutra, and Shoun
passed on during the invocation.
back to top
16. Not Far from Buddhahood
A university student while visiting Gasan asked him: "Have you
ever read the Christian Bible?"
"No, read it to me," said Gasan.
The student opened the Bible and read from St. Matthew: "And
why take ye thought for rainment? Consider the lilies of the
field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and
yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not
arrayed like one of these... Take therefore no thought for the
morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of
Gasan said: "Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened
The student continued reading: "Ask and it shall be given you,
seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.
For everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth,
and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened."
Gasan remarked: "That is excellent. Whoever said that is not
far from Buddhahood."
back to top
17. Stingy in Teaching
A young physician in Tokyo named Kusuda met a college friend
who had been studying Zen. The young doctor asked him what Zen
"I cannot tell you what it is," the friend replied, "but one
thing is certain. If you understand Zen, you will not be afraid
"That's fine," said Kusuda. "I will try it. Where can I find
"Go to the master Nan-in," the friend told him.
So Kusuda went to call on Nan-in. He carried a dagger nine and
a half inches long to determine whether or not the teacher was
afraid to die.
When Nan-in saw Kusuda he exclaimed: "Hello, friend. How are
you? We haven't seen each other for a long time!"
This perplexed Kusuda, who replied: "We have never met before."
"That's right," answered Nan-in. "I mistook you for another
physician who is receiving instruction here."
With such a begining, Kusuda lost his chance to test the master,
so reluctantly he asked if he might receive instruction.
Nan-in said: "Zen is not a difficult task. If you are a physician,
treat your patients with kindness. That is Zen."
Kusuda visited Nan-in three times. Each time Nan-in told him
the same thing. "A phsisician should not waste time around here.
Go home and take care of your patients."
It was not clear to Kusuda how such teaching could remove the
fear of death. So on the forth visit he complained: "My friend
told me that when one learns Zen one loses his fear of death.
Each time I come here you tell me to take care of my patients.
I know that much. If that is your so-called Zen, I am not going
to visit you anymore."
Nan-in smiled and patted the doctor. "I have been too strict
with you. Let me give you a koan." He presented Kusuda with
Joshu's Mu to work over, which is the first mind-enlightening
problem in the book called The Gateless Gate.
Kusuda pondered this problem of Mu (No-Thing) for two years.
At length he thought he had reached certainty of mind. But his
teacher commented: "You are not in yet."
Kusuda continued in concentration for another yet and a half.
His mind became placid. Problems dissolved. No-Thing became
the truth. He served his patients well and, without even knowing
it, he was free from concern of life and death.
Then he visited Nan-in, his old teacher just smiled.
back to top
18. A Parable
Buddha told a parable in sutra:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled,
the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of
the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge.
The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked
down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him.
Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started
to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near
him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry
with the other. How sweet it tasted!
back to top
19. The First Principle
When one goes to Obaku temple in Kyoto he sees carved over the
gate the words "The First Principle". The letters are unusually
large, and those who appreciate calligraphy always admire them
as being a masterpiece. They were drawn by Kosen two hundred
When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which the
workmen made the large carving in wood. As Kosen sketched the
letters a bold pupil was with him who had made several gallons
of ink for the calligraphy and who never failed to criticize
his master's work.
"That is not good," he told Kosen after his first effort.
"How is this one?"
"Poor. Worse than before," pronounced the pupil.
Kosen patiently wrote one sheet after another until eighty-four
First Principles had accumulated, still without the approval
of the pupil.
Then when the young man stepped outside for a few moments, Kosen
thought: "Now this is my chance to escape his keen eye," and
he wrote hurriedly, with a mind free from distraction: "The
"A masterpiece," pronounced the pupil.
back to top
20. A Mother's Advice
Jiun, a Shingon master, was a well-known Sanskrit scholar of
the Tokugawa era. When he was young he used to deliver lectures
to his brother students.
His mother heard about this and wrote him a letter:
"Son, I do not think you became a devotee of the Buddha because
you desired to turn into a walking dictionary for others. There
is no end to information and commentation, glory and honor.
I wish you would stop this lecture business. Shut yourself up
in a little temple in a remote part of the mountain. Devote
your time to meditation and in this way attain true realization."