Maudgalyayana’s mother – Koan 98

No. 98. Maudgalyayana’s mother

In the eighth month of the first year of Bunna (1352), on the day of the airing of the temple scrolls at Jufukuji, a high official who also trained at Zen came to see them, and was greatly impressed with a Sung dynasty picture of Maud- galyayana’s mother falling into hell.

He said to the monk in charge: ‘I have heard in the Zen priests’ sermons the phrase, When a son renounces home, the ancestors for nine generations attain a birth in heaven. So what is happening here? How is it that the mother of Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha’s ten great disciples, falls into hell?’

The monk said, ‘The meaning of a Zen phrase must not be sought in the words as they stand. When the Zen priests say a son, I myself am the son; and renounces home means that he renounces the whole world. Nine generations of ancestors means the nine worlds out of the ten, and birth in heaven means to ascend to the Buddha world, the tenth. So When a son renounces home, nine generations of ancestors attain heaven means that this son who is I has been wandering lost in the nine worlds, but when he leaves the worlds of distinctions, the nine worlds become the heaven of Vairocana (the Buddha world), and all ten worlds attain fulfilment.’ The visitor said, ‘I have listened to your Zen explanation. But even so, how was it that when for some reason his mother was falling into hell, Maudgalyayana, first of the disciples in supernatural powers, was unable to help her?’

The monk said, ‘Ask someone else.’


  1. Say something for the monk.

  2. If someone comes and asks you what the words, about the son renouncing home and the ancestors being born in

heaven, really mean, how will you make a response? (Those who use what the monk said will not be passed by the teacher.)

This became a koan in Kamakura at the interviews of master Kendo, the 70th teacher at Zenkoji.

(Note by Imai Fukuzan: The words, One youth renounces home and nine generations of ancestors are born in heaven come in the ‘comments’ to some of the Kamakura koans. This is then being used in a different sense from that of the ordinary Zen understanding of it. The ancient phrase traditionally ascribed to Obaku is quite different.

In answering the second test, it is no use trying to make something of what the monk said. One will have had to pass through one of the basic koans first before he can produce anything.)

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