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.
91. The Taste
of Banzo's Sword
Matajuro Yagyu was the son of a famous swordsman. His father,
believing that his son's work was too mediocre to anticipate
mastership, disowned him.
So Matajuro went to Mount Futara and there found the famous
swordsman Banzo. But Banzo confirmed the father's judgment.
"You wish to learn swordsmanship under my guidance?" asked Banzo.
"You cannot fulfill the requirements."
"But if I work hard, how many years will it take me to become
a master?" persisted the youth.
"The rest of your life," replied Banzo.
"I cannot wait that long," explained Matajuro. "I am willing
to pass through any hardship if only you will teach me. If I
become your devoted servant, how long might it be?"
"Oh, maybe ten years," Banzo relented.
"My father is getting old, and soon I must take care of him,"
continued Matajuro. "If I work far more intensively, how long
would it take me?"
"Oh, maybe thirty years," said Banzo.
"Why is that?" asked Matajuro. "First you say ten and now thirty
years. I will undergo any hardship to master this art in the
"Well," said Banzo, "in that case you will have to remain with
me for seventy years. A man in such a hurry as you are to get
results seldom learns quickly."
"Very well," declared the youth, understanding at last that
he was being rebuked for impatience, "I agree."
Matajuro was told never to speak of fencing and never to touch
a sword. He cooked for his master, washed the dishes, made his
bed, cleaned the yard, cared for the garden, all without a word
Three years passed. Still Matajuro labored on. Thinking of his
future, he was sad. He had not even begun to learn the art to
which he had devoted his life.
But one day Banzo crept up behind him and gave him a terrific
blow with a wooden sword.
The following day, when Matajuro was cooking rice, Banzo again
sprang upon him unexpectedly.
After that, day and night, Matajuro had to defend himself from
unexpected thrusts. Not a moment passed in any day that he did
not have to think of the taste of Banzo's sword.
He learned so rapidly he brought smiles to the face of his master.
Matajuro became the greatest swordsman in the land.
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92. Fire-Poker Zen
Hakuin used to tell his pupils about an old woman who had a
teashop, praising her understanding of Zen. The pupils refused
to believe what he told them and would go to the teashop to
find out for themselves.
Whenever the woman saw them coming she could tell at once whether
they had come for tea or to look into her grasp of Zen. In the
former case, she would server them graciously. In the latter,
she would beckon to the pupils to come behind her screen. The
instant they obeyed, she would strike them with a fire-poker.
Nine out of ten of them could not escape her beating.
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93. Storyteller's Zen
Encho was a famous storyteller. His tales of love stirred the
hearts of his listeners. When he narrated a story of war, it
was as if the listeners themselves were on the field of battle.
One day Encho met Yamaoka Tesshu, a layman who had almost embraced
masterhood in Zen. "I understand," said Yamaoka, "you are the
best storyteller in our land and that you make people cry or
laugh at will. Tell me my favorite story of the Peach Boy. When
I was a little tot I used to sleep beside my mother, and she
often related this legend. In the middle of the story I would
fall asleep. Tell it to me just as my mother did."
Encho dared not attempt to do this. He requested time to study.
Several months later he went to Yamaoka and said: "Please give
me the opportunity to tell you the story."
"Some other day," answered Yamaoka.
Encho was keenly disappointed. He studied further and tried
again. Yamaoka rejected him many times. When Encho would start
to talk Yamaoka would stop him, saying: "You are not yet like
It took Encho five years to be able to tell Yamaoka the legend
as his mother had told it to him.
In this way, Yamaoka imparted Zen to Encho.
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94. Midnight Excursion
Many Zen pupils were studing meditation under the Zen master
Sengai. One of them used to arise at night, climb over the temple
wall, and go to town on a pleasure jaunt.
Sengai, inspecting the dormitory quarters, found this pupil
missing one night and also discovered the high stool he had
used to scale the well. Sengai removed the stool and stood there
in its place.
When the wanderer returned, not knowing that Sengai was the
stool, he put his feet on the master's head and jumped down
into the grounds. Discovering what he had done, he was aghast.
Sengai said: "It is very chilly in the early morning. Do be
careful not to catch cold yourself."
The pupil never went out at night again.
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95. A Letter to a Dying Man
Bassui wrote the following letter to one of his disciples who
was about to die:
"The essence of your mind is not born, so it will never die.
It is not an existence, which is perishable. It is not an emptiness,
which is a mere void. It has neither color nor form. It enjoys
no pleasures and suffers no pains.
"I know you are very ill. Liek a good Zen student, you are facing
that sickness squarely. You may not know exactly who is suffering,
but question yourself: What is the essence of this mind? Think
only of this. You will need no more. Covet nothing. Your end
which is endless is as a snowflake dissolving in the pure air."
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96. A Drop of Water
A Zen master named Gisan asked a young student to bring him
a pail of water to cool his bath.
The student brought the water and, after cooling the bath, threw
on to the ground the little that was left over.
"You dunce!" the master scolded him. "Why didn't you give the
rest of the water to the plants? What right have you to waste
even a drop of water in this temple?"
The young student attained Zen in that instant. He changed his
name to Tekisui, which means a drop of water.
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97. Teaching the Ultimate
In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns were used
with candles inside. A blind man, visiting a friend one night,
was offered a lantern to carry home with him.
"I do not need a lantern," he said. "Darkness or light is all
the same to me."
"I know you do not need a lantern to find your way," his friend
replied, "but if you don't have one, someone else may run into
you. So you must take it."
The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had
walked very far someone ran squarely into him.
"Look out where you are going!" he exclaimed to the stranger.
"Can't you see this lantern?"
"Your candle has burned out, brother," replied the stranger.
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Kitano Gempo, abbot of Eihei temple, was ninety-two years old
when he passed away in the year 1933. He endeavored his whole
like not to be attached to anything. As a wandering mendicant
when he was twenty he happened to meet a traveler who smoked
tobacco. As they walked together down a mountain road, they
stopped under a tree to rest. The traveler offered Kitano a
smoke, which he accepted, as he was very hungry at the time.
"How pleasant this smoking is," he commented. The other gave
him an extra pipe and tobacco and they parted.
Kitano felt: "Such pleasant things may disturb meditation. Before
this goes too far, I will stop now." So he threw the smoking
When he was twenty-three years old he studied I-King, the profoundest
doctrine of the universe. It was winter at the time and he needed
some heavy clothes. He wrote his teacher, who lived a hundred
miles away, telling him of his need, and gave the letter to
a traveler to deliver. Almost the whole winter passed and neither
answer nor clothes arrived. So Kitano resorted to the prescience
of I-King, which also teaches the art of divination, to determine
whether or not his letter had miscarried. He found that this
had been the case. A letter afterwards from his teacher made
no mention of clothes.
"If I perform such accurate determinative work with I-King,
I may neglect my meditation," felt Kitano. So he gave up this
marvelous teaching and never resorted to its powers again.
When he was twenty-eight he studied Chinese calligraphy and
poetry. He grew so skillful in these arts that his teacher praised
him. Kitano mused: "If I don't stop now, I'll be a poet, not
a Zen teacher." So he never wrote another poem.
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99. Tosui's Vinegar
Tosui was the Zen master who left the formalism of temples to
live under a bridge with beggars. When he was getting very old,
a friend helped him earn his living without begging. He showed
Tosui how to collect rice and manufacture vinegar from it, and
Tosui did this until he passed away.
While Tosui was making vinegar, one of the beggars gave him
a picture of the Buddha. Tosui hung it on the wall of his hut
and put a sign beside it. The sign read:
"Mr. Amida Buddha: This little room is quite narrow. I can let
you remain as a transient. But don't think I am asking you to
help me to be reborn in your paradise."
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100. The Silent Temple
Shoichi was a one-eyed teacher of Zen, sparkling with enlightenment.
He taught his disciples in Tofuku temple.
Day and night the whole temple stood in silence. There was no
sound at all.
Even the reciting of sutras was abolished by the teacher. His
pupils had nothing to do but meditate.
When the master passed away, an old neighbor heard the ringing
of bells and the recitation of sutras. Then she knew Shoichi
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101. Buddha's Zen
Buddha said: "I consider the positions of kings and rulers as
that of dust motes. I observe treasures of gold and gems as
so many bricks and pebbles. I look upon the finest silken robes
as tattered rags. I see myriad worlds of the universe as small
seeds of fruit, and the greatest lake in India as a drop of
oil on my foot. I perceive the teachings of the world to be
the illusion of magicians. I discern the highest conception
of emancipation as a golden brocade in a dream, and view the
holy path of the illuminated ones as flowers appearing in one's
eyes. I see meditation as a pillar of a mountain, Nirvana as
a nightmare of daytime. I look upon the judgment of right and
wrong as the serpentine dance of a dragon, and the rise and
fall of beliefs as but traces left by the four seasons."