The Snake at Itozaki – Koan 37

(Imai’s note: In the third volume of the Chronicles of Nine Generations of the Hojo Rulers is the following story:

On the first day of the sixth month of the third year of Kennin (1203 AD) General Yoriie was stopping at a hunting lodge in a remote part of Izu. In the mountains at a place called Itozaki there is a great cave. Lord Yoriie felt that there was something strange within it, and Wada Heitaro ordered a warrior named Tanenaga to investigate the interior. Tanenaga took a pine-torch and went into the cave. He was there from the hour of the snake (10 a.m.) till the hour of the bird (6 a.m.), when he came out and reported.

Within the cave he had gone along several leagues. The darkness was indescribable. Holding high the pinetorch he went far in; in places there was a little stream flowing. On each side were slabs of rock, and the damp underfoot was slippery. Going still further, he came on a great snake lying coiled up. It was about a hundred feet long, with two glittering eyes and layers of scales with moss growing on them. When it saw Tanenaga, it opened its mouth wide and made to swallow him. He drew his sword and cut through the mouth lengthwise, so that it was split apart, and the snake fell dead, shaking the earth. Its huge body blocked the way further in, and he gave up and returned.

The Shogun was displeased with this report, saying that to go into the cave without exploring it right to the end had no value. Wada Heitaro was mortified and Tanenaga slunk away.

(This is the account in the Hojokudaiki; it appears in more detail in the Kamakura Ezoshi (picture-book), and in Kanto Ghost Stories, in which it is the third.)

Once Banda Moritsuna, when seeing priest Tori, the 16th teacher at Kenchoji, brought up the story of the slaying of the Itozaki snake. Tori pointed to himself and said:

‘And this old general too is displeased that it was merely killing a snake and not penetrating the inner depths of that cave. Though a snake of the three poisons and five passions be cut down, unless the inner depths are penetrated, the real essence of Zen cannot be known. Far within, where the snakes of the three poisons and five passions are gathered, is a dark cavern of the basic Ignorance, and here the magicianking manipulates at will his 84,000 retainers. Unless your one sword cuts him into two, your world will not be at peace. Already you have spent tens of years polishing that one sword; you do cut into the crowd of sins in the outer cave, but you have not struck down the devil in the inmost cavern of Ignorance. And so at the door of the prison of life-and-death, you are still under his spell.’

Moritsuna said: ‘Your Reverence has told us that in the way of the patriarchs there is no life-and-death. Why do you now teach about the door of its prison?’

The teacher said: ‘The golden coin comes from out of the iron-black mountain of Pamir. Get to the bottom of that line.’


(1) Why is it taught: In the line of the patriarchs, no life-and-death?

(2) When you break down the prison door, how is it then?

(3) What is at the bottom of the line: The golden coin comes from out of the iron-black mountain?

This was first used as a koan at the interviews of Gukei, the 63rd teacher at Enkakuji.


Similar Posts