The Snake round the Ginko Tree – Koan 14
In the fourth month of the third year of Kencho (1249), Priest Rankei (Zen master Daikaku) was at Jorakuji temple in Kamakura. One of his students, Ronen, braving the dangers of the night came a long way for an interview, and arrived early in the morning. As he came in the gate, he saw round a ginko tree a white snake, coiled seven and a half times. As Ronen stared fixedly at it, the scaled form vanished like a dream. When he came to the hall, he told the master’s attendant monk about it.
The monk said: ‘Benzaiten (the goddess of prosperity) of Enoshima Island reveres the Master, and watches over this temple. What you saw will have been some divine form of hers.’
Ronen said: ‘Can even a long snake get the dharma from the Master?’
The attendant said: ‘A long one is a long dharma-body; a short one is a short dharma-body.’
(1) Why was the snake-form coiled seven and a half times?
(2) A snake cannot understand human speech; how could it get the dharma from the Master?
(3) What does the attendant’s last remark mean?
This incident became a koan in Kamakura Zen at the interviews of Taiko, the 81st master at Kenchoji.