The Cave of the Man in Mount Fuji – Koan 24

(Imai’s note: In the Record of Nine Generations of the Hojo Rulers, the first part, the following story occurs:

On the third day of the sixth month of the third year of Kennin (1203 A.D.) the Shogun Yoriie went hunting on the foot-slopes of Mount Fuji, in the country of Suruga. There is a big cave on the lower slope of the mountain which the local people call the Cave of Man. He thought he would like to find out where it led, and called Nitta Shiro Tadatsune; giving him a most precious sword, he told him to go into the cave and explore it to the end. Tadatsune bowed, received the sword and withdrew. At the head of a party of six, he went into the cave. The next day, the fourth, at the hour of the snake (10 a.m.) Shiro Tadatsune came back out of the cave, his journey altogether having taken a day and a night. He was brought before the Shogun to report, and this was his account.

The cave became very narrow so that it was difficult even to turn round; they had to squeeze through one after another, and as in a nightmare they felt they could hardly move. The darkness was indescribable. The party had each a pine torch; they kept in touch by calling to each other. A stream running along the bottom soaked their feet. Innumerable bats, startled at the light, flew on ahead, filling the passage. They were black like the ordinary bat, but with not a few white ones among them. As they followed the stream, little snakes were continuously coiling round their feet; they had to keep cutting and cutting into the stream at these, in order to get on.

Sometimes a rank smell of raw flesh assailed their nostrils and at times they felt sick, but again a delicious heart-soothing fragrance would also come.

The passage gradually widened, and above them something like a transparent column, as it were a pillar of blue ice, was clearly seen. One of the men said that he had heard this kind of stalactite was a mineral from which the Sennin immortals prepare the nectar of immortality – so he had been told.

As they went further, under their feet came the thunder of furious shouts as from a thousand throats of demons fighting. It was terrifying.

Going still further they lit more pine torches, and saw that the place had widened out somewhat. On every side they could see nothing but pitchblack emptiness, but from far and near human cries from time to time arose. Their hearts contracted as at treading the paths of hell.

Now they came to a wide river. There was no indication of the way (no ‘miyako-bird’ – allusion to Narihira’s famous poem). By the sound of it, a torrent was rushing down into an unimaginable abyss. They tested the surging current with their feet, and it was swift as an arrow and colder than any ice – as if it were from the frozen hells Guren and Daiguren.

The further bank was 200–250 feet away, and opposite them there appeared a light something like a blazing torch but not the colour of fire; in the light they described 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 about the world within different from this world, determined to send another expedition with many men and a specially made boat. But his senior counsellors dissuaded him, telling him that according to tradition this cave was the abode of the great Bodhisattva of Asama, and from ancient times it had not been permitted to men to look upon it.)

The nyudo Wada Hidetsura, going to Kenchoji for an interview with master Nanzan (the 20th teacher there), asked about this story of the Cave of Man in the field at the foot of Mount Fuji. The priest said:

‘What Your Honour has related is a tale of the heroic daring of warriors. The heroism of Zen must be in penetrating to the uttermost 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 gets a feeling of his feet being cut by icy waters. He experiences sensations of fragrance, and then again there are perceptions of bright light. The treasure sword which he received from his master – 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 yet he sees this spirit form, he is caught by the Buddha, tied up by the dharma, and cannot have the freedom of 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?

If you want to have the full view of a thousand miles, Mount one more storey of the tower.’


(1) Going into the Zen cave, there is a feeling of the feet being cut by icy water. Why is that?

(2) Why do sensations appear like a bad smell or a fragrance?

(3) When comes the awareness of bright light?

(4) What is the throwing away of the precious sword?

(5) What is the appearance of the spirit form?

(6) After the spirit form disappears, what is there further within?

(Note by Imai Fukuzan:) The Bushosodan records that these tests were used in the interviews of warriors when Kosen Ingen (38th master at Kenchoji) was teaching at Chojuji temple in Kamakura. They were used when aspirants were entering on the practice of Zen meditation. But in times like the present (1925) when the importance of Zen meditation is overlooked, there will be few who could answer them properly. The fashion of Zen these days, among monks and laymen alike, is to absorb oneself in examining the words of the patriarchs in the koans, and since they do not experience the states of Zen meditation, there are hardly any who could open their mouths to these tests. The tests have as subject the meditation experiences of a Zen aspirant, experiences of the six consciousnesses (senses plus mind) and then making void the seventh consciousness, and then thrusting a sword down into the heart-field of the eighth Alaya consciousness. When as at present ‘philosophical’ followers of Zen hope to travel the path of the patriarchs at high speed on an express train as it were, these koans are quite unsuitable for them. But twenty or thirty years ago, among some of the senior laymen who practised Zen, there were quite a few who actually went through them.



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