Kamakura Koans


Kamakura Koans


Well, this is about a collection of koan meditation riddles, which began when Zen first came to Japan from China, in about 1200. These were riddles created in Japan and in the histories, as far as I can make out, they’re hardly known. The histories say, the Japanese followed the Chinese models of koans and didn’t invent any of their own.  However, by a series of chances some of the temple records have survived; sometimes apparently in only one or two copies, but they did survive. It turns out there were at least 100 purely Japanese koans.

You know about the koan. It’s a sort of riddle, but to present the answer, even in a classical form, doesn’t mean that koan has fulfilled its purpose.  The ruler of Japan when Zen came to Japan, had to face the Mongol invasion from the mainland. In one of these koans, he gave a great shout when he heard the Mongols were coming. In that particular koan, one of the answers is to give a great shout. Well, anyone can give a great shout when they’ve developed the cheek to do it, but that will be no use.

When the time comes (you’re alright), but the time will soon come when the doctor says to me, “Well, Mr. Leggett, we won’t make another appointment. Will you pay my fee on the way out?”  Then the question will be, without my thinking, whether that shout begins to come up from within me – then that will be the koan. Unless that stage is reached, just to give shouts, has no meaning at all.

I have translated some of these koans and published them. I won’t read these translations, because if you feel, “Oh, well, it’s been published. I can read it somewhere else,” it’s not interesting.  But I’ll read one that has been published, because it gives quite a good idea of how these koans are meant to function. It’s called Sermon.

The head monk at Hokokuji temple was deaf and could not hear the preaching of the Dharma. He asked to take charge of the sutras as librarian, and for more than 10 years he perused them, but he found that the accounts of the Buddha’s life in the various sutras did not agree. He asked Abbot Hakudo, the fifth master of the temple, which was right. The Abbot said, “What is in the sutras is as a finger pointing to the moon or a net to catch fish. What is a Zen man doing muddying his mind with sutra-phrases and inferences about various teachings and wanting to know which is right and which is wrong?

“The head monk’s practice is itself the Buddha’s practice; when the head monk left home that was the Buddha’s leaving home; when the head monk attained the Way, that was the Buddha’s attaining the Way; when the head monk enters Nirvana, that is the Buddha entering Nirvana. The head monk has already left home and is far advanced in the Way but has not yet entered Nirvana.  He is today in the stage of the 49 years of preaching. Now, for the sake of men and heaven and the 10,000 beings, try giving a sermon.”

The koan is: “Say what sermon it is that the great ones give as their sermon for men and heaven.” The tests are these.  “You’re giving your sermon in the high heaven-world, and now you rise to the world of ‘no form’. To that which has no color or form, what is your sermon? Say.”  “In heaven, when you are told to face the Brahma King, how do you make your sermon? Say.”  “A man comes and asks you to give a sermon to a baby less than a month old. How do you make the sermon? Say.”  “There’s a deaf old man of over 100. You are asked to give a sermon, but he cannot hear anything of the teaching because of his deafness. To this deaf man, how do you make the sermon? Say.”

“There is a furious brigand, who as yet has no belief in the Three Treasures of Buddhism.  In the middle of the night, he comes to your room, waves a naked sword over your head and demands money. If you have nothing to give him, your life will be cut off by his sword. For this man, what will your sermon be? Say.”  “A foreign enemy invades our country, killing and plundering. When this man comes, and you are asked to give him the sermon for the brigand, you do not know his foreign language.  At this moment, what will you do to make your sermon? Say.”  “You enter hell. The beings in hell are night and day screaming in pain and have no time to hear the teaching. To those on the sword-mountain, to those in the blood-lake, how will you give a sermon? Say.”

These are 15 tests, there are others, that had to be passed. It’s easy to think, “Oh, well, there’s some sort of answer.”  These koans have to be applied, not only to the universe, but to oneself.  “To the beings in hell, turning and twisting in pain, what will your sermon be? Say.” Now, one of the applications of this koan is, “When I am twisting and turning in pain, what will the Buddhism which I have learned have for me? What will the sermon be?”

“When you face the Brahma king, the king of the gods in heaven, what will your sermon be?”  When in this life, the man’s worked hard, very hard, and with a good deal of luck, and he’s achieved a great success. He’s respected by everybody, and flattered (never mind what they say behind his back). He says it were a God in heaven and he need not do any more, he just enjoys the prestige and the situation. Now to him, what will the Buddhism that he’s learned have to say? Will it convince him? When the Buddhism which he’s learned says, “Come on now. Go!  “To the Brahma king in heaven… What will your sermon be? Say.”

Well, these are some of the koans and you can see it’s not simply a question of giving an answer, but of having that koan, inspiration, go deep enough so that when these things happen, that will spring up by itself. There’ll be no time when things happen, to work things out and say, “Now, how was that? Isn’t there some story about this?”, or, “Philosophy says that.”, or “I think there’s a sutra.” No. Something will have to come up instantly with great force.

[Hakuin, has a very interesting illustration about spiritual progress. I haven’t seen it translated, it may have been. He says that when people have begun to practice a spiritual training, there are tides which are favourable and unfavourable. He compares it to an irregular coastline.  If you’re in a boat, there are areas where a favourable tide will carry you to your destination even though you do nothing; and then the reverse tide will carry you back. He says it’s the same in spiritual experience. If you’re in a spiritual tradition, the favourable tide will carry you forward when things are favourable, through different stages until you arrive at what may be a very high spiritual state.

When the unfavourable tide comes, you’ll be carried back through those stages.  All you know is the stages you’ve passed through; but what you don’t know is how far back down the return tide will take you. The points and the achievements that you make when the tide is favourable, Hakuin says you never know whether those achievements will be permanent or not.

If when the tide is unfavourable, you managed to achieve a certain stage, when the favourable tide begins it will never bring you back past this point which you passed when the tide was unfavourable. He therefore says that the only way you can know your spiritual progress is by the attainment which you make during the unfavourable, the hostile, opposing tide; and that you don’t know which of the stages you pass when you work with a favourable tide will be firm.]

The koans in Kamakura were given mainly to warriors who faced for a long time the growing threat of the Mongol invasion.  So you can say the tide was always against them, the circumstances were always difficult. They knew they might have to die the next day. After the Mongol invasions were finally repelled by tremendous bravery, but with a good deal of fortune too, then the country collapsed into civil war. The tide again was mainly unfavourable, and so this Zen of the Kamakura koans (where the koan was not something that happened in China or India centuries before, written in Chinese, but something that happened in Japan, then and there, in Japanese), those koans were effective while the tide was very hostile.

When the country attained peace, then this kind of Zen died out largely. The people in favourable circumstances had to be attracted to Zen by art, by poetry, by many means. Hakuin was one of those who did. The koans in this collection of 100 are for unfavourable times. For people who know they must do something and not for people who are rather well off.  However, the koans have survived and they’ve shown a great will to survive because the only surviving record twice nearly completely disappeared. The records were almost entirely destroyed in a great earthquake.

I’ll read now one or two of these koans and you can see the kind of thing it is, and then the test. Two of them are based on a ghost story. This is the story.  On the first day of the six month of 124 AD, the shogun Yoriie was stopping at a hunting lodge.  In a remote part of Izu in the mountains at a place called Itozaki there was a great cave. Lord Yoriie felt that there was something strange within it and Wada Heitaro ordered a warrior named Tanenaga to investigate the interior. Tanenaga took a pine torch and went into the cave. He was there from the hour of the snake, that’s 10:00 a.m. till the hour of the bird, 6:00 p.m., when he came out and reported.

Within the cave, he went along several leagues. The darkness was indescribable. Holding high the pine torch he went far in. In places, there was a little stream flowing. On each side there were slabs of rock and the damp underfoot was slippery. Going still further, he came on a great snake lying coiled up. It had two glittering eyes and layers of scales. When it saw Tanenaga, it opened its mouth wide and made to swallow him. He drew his sword and cut through the mouth lengthwise so that it was split apart. The snake fell dead, shaking the earth. Its huge body blocked the way further in and he gave up and returned. The general was displeased with this report saying that to go into the cave without exploring it right to the end had no value.

Once Banda Moritsuna, when seeing priest Tori, the 16th teacher at Kenchoji, brought up the story of the slaying of the snake at Itozaki.  Priest Tori pointed to himself saying, “This general too is displeased that it was killing a snake and not penetrating the inner depths of that cave.  Though one snake of the three poisons and five passions be cut down, if the inner depths are not penetrated, the real essence of Zen cannot be known. Far within where the snakes of the three poisons and five passions are gathered is a dark cavern of the basic ignorance. Here the magician King manipulates at will his 84,000 retainers.

Unless your one sword cuts him into two, your world will never be at peace. Already, you have spent tens of years polishing that one sword. You do cut into the crowd of sins in the outer cave, but you have not struck down the devil in the deepest cavern, and so at the door of the prison of life and death you are still under his spell.”

Moritsuna said, “Your eRverence has told us then in the way of the patriarchs, there is no life and death. Why do you now teach about the door of its prison?” The teacher said, “The golden coin comes from out of the iron-black mountain. Get to the bottom of that line.”

The tests: “Why is it taught in the line of the patriarchs, no life and death?” “When you break down the prison door, how is it?” “What is at the bottom of the line: The golden coin comes from out of the iron-black mountain?”

Some of them are humorous.  In seventh year of koan, 1285, there was a great drought. In every region, the rice fields and farmlands dried up and there was no sign of growth. The Vice-Regent, Hōjō Sadatoki, anticipated that such a bad year might cause disturbances in some areas, and he asked the great Zen master Mugaku to pray for rain according to the traditional ceremony once used by Zen master Eisai. He gave orders in the capital that in front of the stone torii of the Hachiman shrine at Kamakura an altar,12-foot square, should be erected of pure sand, and arrangements made for the ceremony with its accessories of rice-wine and so on.

Bukko was a Zen master. His attendant disciple, Isshin, did not at all welcome this performance of a rite of the Shingon school. This is the esoteric, the mantra school. The Zen master Bukko said, “Well, when you go to a village, follow the village ways. What is wrong with that?”

The attendant, seeing that the Master was going to go, hastened away first, and when he got to the altar, he jumped up on it and said, “Today instead of the Master, let this novice make the prayer for rain. The Zen way of bringing down rain is an unusual means. Do, Your Honours, please look,” and he briskly tucked up his robes, spread his legs wide, and made water on the altar.

At this, Sasaki Sukemori, the official in charge of the ceremony, was furious, and he seized the priest. He took him under arrest to the police headquarters, and on the way suddenly a great downpour fell, bathing their road. Well, then everybody looked at themselves from various angles, and Sasaki realized the divine meaning in the disciple’s action. He formally thanked him with warmth and set him free.

The tests. “What virtue is there in the disciple’s action? Say.” “If you really understand, manifest this sort of great action immediately. Show the proof of it.” The commentator here, adds, “Many people think that to pass this test, you imitate the action of making water in front of the teacher and get your face slapped by him. Don’t do it.”

This is the first of these koans.

The Regent Tokiyori founded the great temple of Kenchoji for teaching Buddhism, but there were many warrior Buddhists who wished to practice Zen, so that even this great temple could not accommodate them. He decided to build another great temple, and invited the priest to choose the ground. The teacher and the ruler walked together round the nearby hills, and found the ruins of a Shingon temple where Yoshiyori had previously long ago set up a Perfect Enlightenment pagoda. They decided on this as the place for the temple.

The teacher made a purification and the Regent followed him and planted a tree to mark the spirit of faith. In the winter of the same year, when earth was being dug, the Regent found, in a buried stone coffer, a perfect circular mirror, on the back of which was engraved the words ‘Perfect Enlightenment’. So the temple was called Enkaku, Perfect Enlightenment. Later, a warrior going for an interview with Bukko, told him this story of how the temple was founded. The teacher said, “Put aside for a moment the temple perfect mirror. The perfect mirror at this instant, in your hands, what is it? Try and bring it out of the stone coffer. If you don’t get this, the holy pagoda of Perfect Enlightenment will not be built.”

Test. “When the stone coffer is broken open, how is that perfect mirror?” This is the test. “Beneath the feet of the man of the Way, as he walks, is the ground for the temple. On this instant, try building the temple of Perfect Enlightenment.” ‘Breaking open the coffer’, was thought by some to be the body, and that breaking open the coffer was fearlessness in the face of death.  It’s worth remembering in this connection.

One of the greatest fencers of his time was named Musashi, who was also one of the best artists and sculptors. His works are now great national treasures. He killed over 50 men in duels, sometimes one against five or six. On one occasion, he was challenged and his disciples begged him to allow them to go with him, but he refused and sure enough, the opponent turned up with four men. He defeated them all.

This same man, who no sword ever succeeded in cutting, was asked to paint a picture in the court of the local noble. He says himself, that he began to paint it and he suddenly felt very nervous.  He tore up the picture, and he said, “I’ll bring it tomorrow.” He went home. Then he said, he cast himself into the frame of mind in which he fought his duels, and then he was able to paint the picture.

This same man, slanders were passed around about him, about his birth, and these slanders pierced his heart, and he couldn’t throw them off. He hardly ever washed and he used to go round in the end like a tramp. Now, when Bukko says, “Break open the stone coffer,” this Zen historian says they made a mistake who thought it was simply fearlessness in the face of death.

Another one is a sermon about the deer. It was said that when Bukko gave his first sermon at Enkakuji, some of the deer, which lived in the mountains, were hunted by the local people with dogs.  They came to the temple and the dogs didn’t pursue them that day.  The deer came and Bukko spoke, and he saw the deer crowding outside the temple, and he spoke to the deer and the deer wept.

The test is:  “The deer couldn’t understand human language. Why would they weep?”  Then: “Never mind about giving a sermon to the deer; when the dogs make for you, how will your sermon be then?”

Now, another one – this is a much longer account of the same story about the cave. There’s just one comment to make about such stories: if we think “These things are just primitive superstitions and there’s nothing whatever in them”, we may one day get a little surprise. If we think, “Yes, it’s all true and more,” well, one day we may get a little disappointment.

I’ll just read the story.  There is a folk story from a primitive area, of a family who were a very poor family in the village and who were digging in the ground. They found a ruby. They recognized it, but they knew that the local bully, if he heard of it, would simply come and take it. Their only chance was to conceal it and then, on the next visit to the city, which the peasant used to make every month, to approach a distant relative of his who was a merchant and he could have then hope to get a reasonable price.

The trouble was, the little boy of three years old had seen this. They knew that he would blab. What did they do? They kept him indoors that day. The mother went out and borrowed the neighbour’s oven and made some sweet cakes, which the little boy liked. Very early in the morning just before dawn, she took these sweet cakes and she scattered them in the garden and on the roof. As soon as the dawn came, she woke the little boy and she said, “Quick, get up. Get up. It’s been raining cakes. Come and help me pick them up.”

They went out together and they picked up these delicious cakes and he ate a few. Then they let him go. Sure enough, he went, he played with the other children, some of the grownups there, and he said, “Our family dug up a ruby yesterday.”  “Oh yes?” He said, “Yes, we’re lucky. It rained cakes on us. It did.” Then they said, “Huh, he’s just making up little stories.”

Well, the commentator says, “If we think, ‘Oh, it can’t rain cakes, so people can’t dig up rubies,’ we may miss a chance in our own garden. If we think, “People do find rubies, so it means it can rain cakes,’ well, then one day we shall have a disappointment for our superstition.” He says we should treat these stories with discrimination and sense.

On the third day of the six month of the same year, Shogun went hunting. There was the big cave, just as before on the lower slope. The local people call it the Cave of Man. He thought he would like to find out where it led to. He sent this time the name is Tadatsune. He gave him a most precious sword. He told him to go into the cave and explore it thoroughly. Tadatsune bowed, received the sword, and at the head of a party of six, he went into the cave. The next day came out, his journey there and back having taken a day and a night. He was brought before the Shogun to report.

We should notice these main points because they come up in the test. The cavern became very narrow. It was difficult even to turn round. They had to squeeze through one after another. As in a nightmare, they could hardly advance. The party each had a pine torch. They kept in touch by calling to each other. A stream running along the bottom soaked their feet. Innumerable bats flew on ahead of them. As they followed the stream, little snakes were continually coiling round their feet and they had to keep cutting and cutting into the stream with their swords in order to get on. Sometimes a rank smell assailed their nostrils so that they felt sick. Then again, a delicious, heart-soothing fragrance would come.

The passage gradually widened and they saw above them something like a transparent column, like a pillar of blue ice. One of the men said he had heard that this kind of stalactite was a mineral from which the immortals prepare the nectar of immortality. They went further. Under their feet came roars of thunder sounding as if a thousand men shouting with fury altogether, like the sound of demons fighting. It was a terrifying experience. Still further, the place widened somewhat, on every side pitch-black emptiness with human cries. Their hearts contracted as if treading the paths of hell.

Now, they came to a wide river. By the sound of it, the water was rushing down into a deep abyss. They tested it with their feet and it was swift as an arrow and colder than any ice. The further bank was 200 foot away. Opposite them there appeared a light, something like a blazing torch but not the colour of fire. In the light, they made out an awe-inspiring form standing in majesty. Four of the men fell dead then and there. Tadatsune bowed to that spirit and hearing its voice inwardly, threw the precious sword into the river, upon which the wonderful form disappeared and Tadatsune, his life spared, returned and gave his account.

Shogun Yoriie, hearing thus of the world within, different from this world, determined to send another expedition with many men, but his old counsellors dissuaded him telling him that this cave, according to tradition, was the abode of a great Bodhisattva, which from ancient times was not to be seen by men. That’s the end of the story.

The Nyudo, the warrior who was taking the Buddhist vows, when he went to Kenchoji for an interview with the master, asked about the story of the Cave of Man. The priest said, “What your honour has related is a tale of heroic daring of warriors. The heroism of Zen must be in penetrating to the very depths of the Cave of Man. When the aspirant begins his training and enters the Cave of Man in the field of Zen, as he goes further in, he has a feeling of his feet in icy waters. He gets a sensation of fragrance.  Then again, there are perceptions of bright light. The treasure sword, which he received from his lord, there comes a time when he throws it away. When he throws it away, the form of the spirit which he has been seeing, suddenly vanishes. While he still sees the spirit form, he’s caught by the Buddha, tied up by the dharma, cannot have the freedom of the Zen inspiration, but after the spirit form vanishes, he must go yet one more step into the interior. Do you not hear what I am saying?” Then he quotes two lines of a Chinese poem:

“If you want to have the view of the thousand miles,                                            Mount one more storey of the tower.”

Tests.  “Going into the Zen cave, there is a feeling of the feet in icy water. Why is that?”  “Why do sensations appear either of a bad smell or fragrance?”  “Whence comes the awareness of bright light?”  “What is the throwing away of the precious sword?”  “What is the appearance of the spirit form?”  “After the disappearance of the spirit form, what is there further within?”

The historian says the Bushosodan records (these have completely vanished, except for this note) of these tests were used for the interviews of warriors by the 38th master at Kenchoji. They were used when aspirants were entering on the practice of Zen meditation. In times when the importance of Zen meditation is overlooked, there will be few who can answer them properly.

If the fashion of Zen is to be absorbed in examining words of the patriarchs according to koans, and not in experiencing the states of Zen meditation, there are hardly any who can open their mouth to these tests. The tests have a subject, the Zen aspirants’ meditation experiences of the six consciousnesses of senses and mind, then making void the seventh consciousness and thrusting a sword down into the heart-field of the eighth.

These are the points I thought I would read to you.



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