The Well of Youth – Koan 10

Since the Minamoto shogun set up his capital at Kamakura, seventeen times there has been a drought so long that the wells ceased to give water. At those times the country folk came to Kenchoji to draw water from the two wells called Golden Bright and Youth, to allay their thirst. The water of the well of Youth was traditionally reputed to have the special virtue of prolonging life, and invigorating the aged.

The warrior pupil Ota Kunikiyo brought this up at the end of an interview with Master Seisetsu, the 22nd teacher at Kenchoji. The teacher said:

‘Leave for a moment the question whether the well of Youth water can prolong life. Length of life is the number of years between a man’s birth and his death, but it is not predetermined. So how will Your Honour know whether in a particular case the life has been made longer, or shortened?’

The nobleman said: ‘I was only mentioning a traditional belief. How should I know what causes the length of life?’

The teacher said: ‘Even if one extended his life span by drinking from the well of Youth, still he will not escape death in the end. But at Kenchoji there is also a water of Immortality. He who drinks that, never dies. Does Your Honour know of it? The water of Immortality! When it bubbles up and from what source, there is none who knows; whither it flows and where it goes back to, there is none who knows. Since the government was set up here, seventeen times there have been great droughts, but this has not lessened by one drop; since (the first Emperor) Jimmu, forty-six times have there been great rains, but this has not increased by one drop. Nothing in the world can compare with it in purity and coolness. One drop of it heals all the countless ills of men and nature. He who drinks it, will never die. This old priest will give a drop to Your Honour; I ask you just to open your mouth to receive it.’

The soldier said: ‘I cannot open my mouth for that drop.’

The teacher said: ‘How is it that you cannot open your mouth?’

The soldier said: ‘I suppose I have not trained enough under the iron hammer.’

The teacher said: ‘Your mouth is in your own body. Why do you wait for training from another? Do you yourself open it.’

The officer bowed and went out. When he got home he had a realization, and made a poem:

The water of immortality I had thought was in the temple well,

When I returned and looked, was flowing in my own well.

(Imai’s note: In the Bukedoshinshu version the poem runs: The water of Immortality I had thought was in the temple well, When I returned and looked, was in my own well too.)


(1) What is the difference between the water of Youth and the water of Immortality? Say!

(2) Drink that water. From your own experience how is it, hot or cold?

This became a koan in Kamakura Zen in the interviews of Butsuju (literally, Buddha-life), the 30th teacher at Kenchoji.



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