The Kenchoji library – Koan 45

No. 45. The Kenchoji library

In the 15th year of Eisho (1519) the Lord of Odawara, Hojo Nagashi, was enlarging the famous Nirayama library at Izu. Desirous of enlarging the stock of books also, he had requests made to the Five Mountains and Ten Sects (i.e. the Zen temples) of Eastern Japan. Accordingly in the October of that year an emissary, Tomita Jurokoresada, came with instructions to ask the number of rare manuscripts at Kenchoji. The abbot Unei, the 174th holder of the office, told him, ‘This temple has a store of 100,000 scrolls; if you examine them, you will be able to know absolutely everything about the affairs of gods, Buddhas, and men.’ .

The emissary was amazed. Then he happily reported to the librarians at Nirayama. At the time it was known that the Kenchoji library was the poorest of the libraries at Kamakura (because many MSS had been lost in a fire in 1293Tr.), so that among the seniors of the three classes (scholars, administrators, and librarians) there were many who were suspicious of what Unei had said.

The next month, November, ten officers of the library arrived and said, ‘The library of our Lord does not come up to 10,000 MSS. If you are now holding 100,000 scrolls, it is several times what your old library possessed and is certainly a great increase. To make a copy of 100,000 MSS would be no easy thing. Therefore today we request that first of all we should make a rough calculation of the number of characters in the rare works here, so that we can estimate the amount of copying necessary. Please therefore let us look over the scrolls.’ The abbot said: ‘The 100,000 scrolls have only one character on them; why should you need to count the characters?’

The emissary said: ‘What is this one character?’

The abbot said: ‘This one character is not loyalty and not disloyalty, not filial piety and not filial impiety, not good and not not-good, not bad and not not-bad, not god and not not- god, not Buddha and not not-Buddha, not heart and not not- heart. How should copying be needed of this character, when all beings from birth, day and night, with every thought, are writing this character?’

The emissary replied: ‘Your Reverence told us previously that if one examined the 100,000 scrolls, one would be able to know absolutely everything about the affairs of gods, Buddhas and men. How could you say this?’

The priest said: ‘I could say it because the 10,000 things of the world all arise from this one character.’ The official said: ‘Why is this character written to fill 100,000 scrolls?’ The abbot spread all ten fingers and danced in front of him.


  1. How do you copy this character? Say!

  2. How is it that this character is written to fill 100,000 scrolls? Say!

  3. What did Unei really mean by his dancing? Say!

This incident became a koan at the interviews of Kochu, 140th master of Enkakuji.

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