Tengai’s heart-binding – Koan 83

No. 83. Tengai’s heart-binding

In the fighting in the Ganko era (1331—4), the Nitta forces set fire to Kamakura, and (sparks) from the burning streets carried the fire to fishing villages and mountain hamlets, so that their people were fleeing in all directions before the blaze, crying out with fear. The priests of the Kamakura temples guided and distributed them among the temples, and used the produce of the temple lands to feed the destitute. At the same time there were many relatives of the refugees imprisoned in the caves (used as prisons) who were choking in the smoke and on the verge of dying of suffocation, at which their families were in great distress.

Then Hakuun (namely Butcho, 26th master of Kenchoji), Tengai (namely Shinkaku, 19th master at Enkakuji), Reiko of Jufukuji, and Tengan of Inayama and others organized the laymen and priests, and battered down the gates of the caves, setting free the prisoners, whom they conducted to the various temples.

The officer of prisons protested that these were criminals of violent character, who if not under restraint would disperse and do great damage to the ordinary people. Tengai of Enkakuji laughed and told him, ‘However many thousands of criminals there might be, they can be held with merely a single rosary. No need to worry about it.’

Next day he had them brought from all the temples to the great hall at Zenkoji, where he held up his rosary in front of them and said: ‘Yesterday we saved you from the raging fire

and brought you to safety and gave you food and clothes to relieve your hunger and cold. But as law-breakers, it is proper that you be under restraint. Now with this single rosary I bind your hearts and prohibit you from doing any wrong. You will follow the path ordained for you, and never resort to violence.’

They were impressed by this, and not one of them disobeyed the instructions they were given by the priests and lay officers. After the destruction of the Hojo Government, many of them became workers on the lands of the various temples. Bairin (37th master at Enkakuji) at the end of a sermon, admonished Hatayama Yoshinori, who was a pupil and an official in charge of prisons:

Does Your Honour use a long rope to restrain criminals? It will indeed serve to restrain their bodies. But to bind their hearts, one inch of cord is more than enough. In the Genko fighting, there were criminals — who knows how many hundreds or thousands? — in the great hall of Zenkoji, but Tengai of this temple in one instant bound them all with a single rosary. If Your Honour and the other officers bind the hearts of the wrong-doers, they will respect and obey you, and many will reform and turn to good. If you simply punish them by confining their bodies, certainly the effect will be that no small number will become violently rebellious.’

Hatayama said: ‘How is the heart of the law-breaker to be bound?’

The teacher said: ‘People have in their inner heart evil-doers — who knows how many hundreds or thousands? — in revolt against the Lord of the heart. If you do not bind them by Zen meditation, and (ultimately) kill them by prajna wisdom, there will never be true peace there. Now if the officer is asking how he may bind the hearts of others, let him first bind his own heart.’

The pupil said, ‘How am I to bind my own heart?’

The teacher said in a loud voice, ‘Lord Hatayama!’

Yes?’ said the officer.

The teacher said, ‘Bind the asking.’

On these words the pupil understood. He bowed and went out.


  1. Say what is your own heart.

  2. Who is it who binds?

  3. How is the binding done? Say!

  4. One’s own heart is often astray; how will it bind the heart of another? Say! Bring the proof to show.

This incident became a koan at the interviews of Bairin, 37th master at Enkakuji.

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