Mirror Zen – Koans 30

(Imai’s Introduction: At the beginning of the Jokyu era (1219), fifty days before the fighting broke out, the Nun Shogun (Hojo Masako) had a dream of a great mirror floating in the waves off Yui beach, and a voice coming from it: ‘I am the voice of the great shrine, and what is to happen in the world is seen in me. There is a war imminent, and the army must be mobilized. If Yasutoki polishes me, he will be victorious and bring about a great peace.’ On hearing this dream, Yasutoki sent Hatanojiro Tomosada as an emissary to the great shrine at Yui beach, to pray for the peace of the land.

When the Jokyu rebellion had been put down, Yasutoki had a mirror made with a circumference of six foot, following the description of the spirit mirror given by the Nun Shogun of her vision, and it was installed in the shrine of Tsurugaoka Hachiman. Later when Shido (of the household of Tokimune) founded the Tokeiji convent-temple, the great mirror was reported to have been moved there and set up in a special mirror hall. But in fighting afterwards between Hojo Hayagumo and Miura Michisu, the temple was plundered and the mirror carried off: so it is recorded in the Kamakura Journals, Volume 4.

When Enkakuji was burnt down in the seventh year of Oan (1374), a precious mirror (the one referred to in the first koan of the present collection), which was one of its treasures, was got away to Tokeiji, where it was installed in the mirror hall, then enlarged to become the zazen meditation hall for the nuns. Afterwards all the nuns from eastern Japan who entered Tokeiji did meditation before the mirror, and thus arose Tokeiji Mirror Zen, as it came to be called. Again it is said that Shido, the nun who was the founder and first teacher there, had her own realization when facing a mirror, and so the nuns of later generations were following this precedent in meditating facing the great mirror.

The poems which follow are those composed by the successive nun teachers at Tokeiji on the mirror practice. There were ten of them, but it was the first eight, all by nuns who had received the full confirmation (inka) of their realization, that were given as koans to nuns. The Tests are those given by Master Sanpaku, the 156th teacher at Enkakuji, to nuns taking interviews with him. These poems are the Eight Koans of the Enkakuji Nuns referred to in Sorinzakki.

The comments (chakugo) here given are those presented by the nun Myoto (the widow of Uesugi Yoshimitsu), and they in turn became subjects presented to nun students. I am not here recording which Master Sanpaku approved and which he did not.

In the first year of Keicho (1596) there was a winter retreat at Tokeiji attended by 108 nuns, of whom forty-one took interviews at which they had to present comments to the koans. Of these, seventeen were taking one of the ancient classical koans, and only eight of these composed poems of their own as a comment, the others presenting something from the Zenrin Kushu anthology. There were thirty-five nuns passed by Master Sanpaku at their interviews, both on their realization and on their comments, and among them the nun Myotei distinguished herself by passing the notoriously difficult koan called the Four Katzu!s of Rinzai. There are accounts of the interviews and the comments given by the nuns at the interviews, kept in the private archives at Tokeiji, but it is not proper to publish such records.

Imai’s further comments as given in the appendix:

For many of the Kamakura koans, some ‘comment’ or chakugo was required. Provided that this was a spiritual utterance manifesting a true expression of Great Realization, it was not necessary (as it later became necessary) that in order to pass the koan some particular Zen phrase had to be presented. The essential thing was that the words arose from a great realization. In the comments to the Kamakura Zen koans, some saying of the Buddha or of the patriarchs could be employed if they were infused with life, and again there were poems both classical and newly composed. So long as the comment, whatever its form, did express clearly the realization, the teacher would approve it, and this was the original style of Kamakura Zen. But after the Tensho era (end of the sixteenth century) gradually quotations from the Zenrin Kushuo anthology became more frequent. (This was a collection of over 4,000 put together by the Japanese Zen master Eicho from Chinese Zen texts, for just this purpose.)

A ‘comment’ to a koan rises naturally from the inner state on the occasion of realization, and is not something that has to be said in the wake of someone else. Even when a verse is employed by which an ancient expressed this state, it is not now an ancient verse, but one’s own. But then there can be some argument as to the particular meaning and appropriateness or otherwise of some of the classical verses, so that in later times it became the rule that at the interviews with the teacher, some particular verse had to be presented in order to be passed through that koan. So the Zen followers in later centuries came to compile secret Zen records of the ancient comments to particular koans. Certainly as a means to focus meditations on the comments given by the ancients, and so develop spiritual strength, it was not useless to compile such private collections of the comments given in earlier times.

In the examples which I am venturing to give of comments in the Tokeiji Mirror Zen, taken from the private records at Tokeiji, I simply wished to record how in later times, after the sixteenth century, the Zenrin Kushu phrases were used.

The chakugo comments recorded here are taken from the notes of interviews given by Sanpaku, the 156th master at Enkakuji, to nuns of all parts of Eastern Japan who had come to attend a winter retreat on the 350th anniversary of Shido, founder of Tokeiji. The comments were given in connection with the Mirror Zen koans which are recorded below. The records mention whether Master Sanpaku accepted or refused the comments, but I have omitted this here as I am simply giving an example of how the Zenrin Kushu anthology phrases were coming to be used so extensively. (However in some cases, as in the comment in reply to Test 2 of the first poem, two words have been substituted in the Zenrin Kushu lines, to give a completely different meaning – Tr.))


I The poem of the founder, the nun Shido:

If the mind does not rest on anything, there is no clouding,
And talk of polishing is but a fancy.


(1) If the mind does not rest on anything, how will anything be seen or heard or known or understood?

Comment: Rising and sinking according to the current, Going and coming, no footprint remains.

(2) A mirror which does not cloud and needs no polishing – Set it before the teacher now.

Comment: The things are hidden in no secret treasure-house; The heart is eternally clear to see.

II The poem of the second teacher, the nun Runkai:

Various the reflections, yet its surface is unscarred; From the
very beginning unclouded, the pure mirror.


(1) When it reflects variously, how is it then?

Comment: The heart turns in accordance with the ten thousand things:

The pivot on which it turns is verily in the depths.

(2) If from the very beginning the mirror is unclouded, How is it that there are reflections of karmic obstacles in it?

Comment: Within the pure mirror never clashing with each other,

The reflections of pine and bamboo are in harmony.

(3) Show the pure mirror right before the teacher’s face.

Comment: Heaven and earth one clear mirror, Now as of old, luminous and majestic.

III The poem of the third teacher, Shotaku:

As night falls, no more reflections in the mirror,
Yet in this heart they are clearly seen.


(1) What does the poem mean?

Comment: On a dark night, things in front of the mirror are seen no more by the eye: yet images are reflected in the heart, and in face of them we go astray. When we have passed beyond this path of illusion, then our gaze pierces through even the darkest night to see the sun-Buddha ever shining everywhere, illumining all.

(2) What is the colour and form of that heart which sees in the dark?

Comment: The ten directions with no sign of an image: The three worlds pass and leave no trace.

IV The poem of the fourth teacher, Junso:

Reflections are clear yet do not touch the eye,
And the I facing the mirror is also forgotten.


(1) If you think the reflections are there but do not touch the eye, this is at once a dust on the mirror, so what is the meaning? Try and see!

Comment: When it is said that they do not touch the eye, it means that the eye is not joined to awareness: there is no agitation in the heart. So there is not even the thought that they do not touch the eye.

(2) What is the mirror state when I is forgotten?

Comment:To pass this test, the nun had to demonstrate directly without recourse to words.

(3) What is the difference between forgetting-I Zen and Void Zen (Ku-zen)?

Comment: Void Zen is still a duality of seeing Voidness in the person and in the things. Forgetting-I Zen is the Mahayana when mind and its object are one.

Aspiring to heaven but not seeing heaven; Searching for earth but not seeing earth.

V The poem of the fifth teacher, the former princess Yodo: Heart unclouded, heart clouded;

Rising or falling, it is still the same body.


(1) Heart unclouded, what is that?

Comment: Ten thousand miles without a cloud, Ten thousand miles of heaven.

(2) Heart clouded, how is that?

Comment: In the spring, clouds rise round the mountain And in the cave it is dark.

(3) What is this rising and falling?

Comment: The moon sets, and in the pool no reflection; A cloud is born and the mountain has a robe.

VI The poem of the sixth teacher, Ninbo:

Even without any mirror to reflect the things,
Every time one looks, there is a mirror reflecting them in the


(1) What is this looking?

(2) What is this reflecting heart?

To these tests, the nun was to demonstrate directly without words, but many of them did present comments.

VII Poem of the seventh teacher Ryodo

If one asks where the reflections in the pure mirror go when
they vanish,
Do you declare their hiding-place.


Right now this old teacher is asking, where are those reflections gone? Answer well! Where are they?

Comment: Close the door and shut out the moon, Dig a well and chisel space apart.

VIII Poem of the eighth teacher, nun Kanso:

Clouded over from time without beginning is that pure
When polished, it reflects – the holy form of Amida.


(1) What is this polishing? Speak!

(2) Declare the form of Amida.

After this second test had been passed, a fitting comment had to be supplied. One such was:

This body the Lotus Paradise,
This heart verily Amida.