One law, a thousand words – Koan 85

No. 85. One law, a thousand words

Hosoi Naotaka, the superintendent of the temple lands, came to the teaching hall at Kenchoji and asked the teacher Horin after the sermon:

If someone doesn’t understand the meaning of the sutras, but still recites them, does he have merit or not?’

The teacher said: ‘It’s like a man who takes medicine. Even if he doesn’t know the principles of a good medicine, still if he takes it, it will do him good. And it’s like that with a poison: if he doesn’t know that this particular thing is in essence a poison, when he takes it he’ll die. Or again, it’s like travelling in a ship. Even though one may not know the principles of the construction of a ship, still, if he boards it he will arrive at his

destination. Reading the sutras is like that. Though one may not know the principle of law (dharma), if he recites, and he has faith and he does right conduct, the merit will be without limit.

These days the autumn is warm, and in the gardens you’ve got so many things to do. A superintendent of agriculture like you, a layman, why are you concerned with what goes on in the daily services in the temple?’

If it’s not necessary to listen to the principle of the sutras,’ replied the superintendent, ‘why is it then that priests, and you yourself, for so many years have been conducting these daily services?’

The teacher said: ‘The people at large have very many illnesses, and they go astray from the Way, or they are confused about the Way. It’s like providing medicines, or building a boat. We are talking about the arts of doing those things, making up medicines and building boats. The pharmacist and the boatman are specialists in the principles which are the law for their craft. The whole point is that one law is expressed in a thousand words, or ten thousand sayings.’ The superintendent of agriculture said: ‘Well, can one then hear this law? How is one to hear it?’

The teacher said: ‘The one law comprises warriors, workers on the land, artisans and merchants, all of them. You yourself every day, you are in the gardens and in your digging the ground and your ploughing, in all that there is the great manifestation and the great application of this law. If you don’t see it, look down where your feet have been for thirty years!’


  1. What is the one law before father and mother were born? Say!

  2. You right now, how do you apply that one law? Say!

  3. You are at the point of death and can’t use either hands or feet or nose or mouth, and somebody comes to you and

asks to be taught about the one law. How are you going to give your sermon? Say!

  1. You have gone to hell on a mission impelled by your karma, to save the beings there, and now you face these beings who are screaming in their terrible torments. How do you preach the one law to them? And how are you going to save them? Say!

This incident became a koan in Kamakura Zen at the interviews of priest Zokai who was the 17th master at Kenchoji.

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