Daiye’s verse on ‘not’ – Koan 91

No. 91. Daiye’s verse on ‘not’

(Translator’s note: The Japanese read a Chinese text by adding inflections to the ideograms, which are without them, and by changing the order of reading the words in order to make up a Japanese sentence. To assist the reader, they developed a system of ‘pointing’, to indicate the necessary alterations. An example from English would be the terminations put after figures of dates: 2nd means that the digit is in this case to be read not as ‘two’ but as ‘second’. Some Japanese scholars specialized in putting the ‘points’ into Chinese texts, which were sometimes printed with them to assist Japanese readers.

In the present case, the ‘poem’ consists of the Chinese character for ‘not’ repeated twenty times, in four lines of five characters each. As an example, they might be ‘pointed’:

not-Not; Not ‘not-Not’; not ‘Not not-Not’, and so on. The koan, on the face of it, was a challenge to the scholar to provide such pointings.)

In the Bunei era (1264—75) the Chinese priest Daitai (Zen master Butsugen, namely Daikyu) came to Kamakura and became the first teacher at Kanpo temple (Jochiji). The nobleman Hiromaro, when he met the teacher, remarked: ‘For some years now I have been engaged in an official capacity in pointing many Chinese texts for use by Japanese. Your Reverence must have brought many such texts from China, and if I should be so fortunate as to be allowed the loan of them, I could put in points. This would surely be of immeasurable benefit to Japanese readers.3

The teacher said: ‘What I did bring was the verse which Master Daiye composed on the word ‘not3 (mu). It runs like this’:

not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not

The learned Hiromaro looked at this for a long time, but though it is only a single character, he was unable to put points to it. He made a salutation and departed.


  1. Put the points to Daiye’s four lines of ‘not’.

  2. What does the verse mean? Say!

  3. Add a comment for the first line.

  4. Add a comment for the second line.

  5. Add a comment for the third line.

  6. Add a comment for the fourth line.

  7. Add a comment for the verse as a whole.

  8. How would you apply this verse to life? Bring a comment.

  9. How would you look at Buddhism in the light of this verse? Bring a comment.

  10. What do you yourself understand in regard to this verse? Bring a comment.

This became a koan in Kamakura Zen in the interviews of Tori, 16th master at Kenchoji.

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