Three Ages of Zen

Part I

Warrior Zen.
Selected Koan riddles from translation of Shonan-katto-roku (Record of Koans given at Kamakura)

Part II

Feudal Zen
Translation of Master Torei’s ‘The Good Steed’

Part III

Translation of the autobiography of the late Master Tsuji Somei’s ‘Treading the Way of Zen’

The translations in this text illustrate three phases of Zen in Japan: Warrior Zen of crisis, when Japan faced and repulsed Kublai Khan’s naval attacks in the thirteenth century; feudal Zen for officials in the 250 largely peaceful years up to the Western naval attacks in the mid-eighteenth century; and twentieth-century Zen, before, through, and after World War II.

The three parts are concerned mainly with laymen’s Zen. Mahayana Buddhism has always had a close connection with the world. It is indeed possible that it began with groups of laymen in India. In the first text, the warriors remained in fact laymen, taught mostly by monks. It is to be noted that some of them were women. There was no prejudice in Zen, as there sometimes was in other branches of Buddhism. But there were no concessions either.

The second part is an essay written for a samurai official by abbot Torei. Zen had fallen into decay and was being dramatically revived by Hakuin. It had to contend with government-sponsored Confucianism. That code,like the code of the gentleman, could become a culti-vated semi-skepticism and end up as a shell of acceptable behavior masking emptiness within.

The third part consists of extracts chosen by me from the published autobiography of Zen master Tsuji Somei (with his agreement). He did most of his training as a layman, becoming a priest relatively late in life. The account gives details of Zen practice in very severe conditions, when the author was a prisoner of war in Siberia and other parts of Russia. (I should add that the heroism of Mrs. Tsuji, when left to bring up the family on her own, was of equal stature.)
Zen practice for laypeople in the world will be a more useful model for Westerners than monastery practice. There are some 15,000 temples in Japan but almost none in Western countries.

The three translations by the author are:

(1) Samurai Zen: a selection of the training interviews of Japanese samurai of the 13th century, when they faced the crisis of Kublai Khan’s attempted invasions;

(2) Feudal Zen: practised by the samurai officials who ran the country during the 250 years of internal peace under the Tokugawa Government from 1600 – 1868;

(3) Modern Zen: Zen in war and peace in one life. The autobiography of a Zen priest who was a prisoner-of-war in terrible conditions in Russia, during which he had nevertheless an enlightenment experience. But as he explains, he still had to resume his Zen training with Master Gyodo after being re-patriated.

Not the least valuable part of the book is the masterly introduction by the translator which precedes each part.
Japan Times

Three Ages of Zen extract

 The bucket without a bottom

Imai’s note: The nun Mujaku, whose lay name was Chiyono, was a woman of Akita who married and had one daughter. In 1276, when she was thirty-four, her husband died, and she could not get over the grief. She became a nun, and trained under Bukko. The story is that on the evening of a fifteenth day of August, when she was filling her lacquer flower-bucket where the valley stream comes down, the bottom fell out; seeing the water spilling she had a flash of insight, and made a poem on it to present to the teacher. Later he set her a classical koan, Three pivot-phrases of Oryu, and examined her minutely on it, and she was able to meet the questions. Again she continued interviews with him for a long time, and in the end he “passed over the robe and bowl,” namely, authorized her as a successor to teach. Uesugi, Nikaido, and others had built Keiaiji temple in Kyoto, and asked her to become the first teacher there. It was not unusual in Zen for a teacher to be a woman.

After Bukko died, a hermitage called Shomyakuan was built for her at Shirogita to be the temple ofBukko’s grave. She died in November 1298 at the age of seventysix. [There is some discrepancy in the dates.-Tr.]

Mujaku, whose lay name was Chiyono, came to Bukko, Teacher of the Nation, and said, “What is Zen?”

The teacher said, “The heart of the one who asks is Zen; it is not to be got from the words of someone else.”

The nun said, “Then what is the teacher doing, that he gives sermons and they are recorded?”

Imai’s note: Bukko’s Japanese being inadequate, he gave his sermons in Sung dynasty Chinese; they were recorded and later translated, then distributed to his Japanese followers. This is what the nun is referring to.

The teacher said, “To a deaf man, you show the moon by pointing; to a blind man, you show the gate by knocking on it with a tile.”

Just then one of the deer near the Hakugando Stream gave a cry. The teacher said, ”Where is that deer?”

The nun listened. The teacher gave a Katzu! shout and said: ”Who is this listening?”

At these words the nun had a flash of illumination, and went out. At the water pipe from the Hakugando she took up a lacquered wooden bucket for flowers. As she was holding it full of water, she saw the moon’s reflection in it, and made a poem, which was presented to the teacher:

The flower bucket took the stream water and held it, And the reflection of the moon through pines lodged there in purity.

Bukko could not understand the poem in Japanese, so priest Gio translated it into Chinese and showed it to him. Bukko glanced at it and said, “Nun, take the Heart Sutra and go.”

After that, she had interviews with the master, coming and being sent away. In the end the lacquer bucket broke, and she presented another poem, of this realization:

The bottom fell out of Chiyono’s bucket; Now it holds no water, nor does the moon lodge there.

Imai’s note: The account in Zenmonkaikiden says Chance or design? The bottom fell out of her bucket; Now it holds no water, nor does the moon lodge there.

After Chiyono’s death the nun Nyozen ofTokeiji used to meditate on this poem as her basic theme. Nyozen’s lay name was Takihime (or Takkino, according to the account in the Bukedoshinshu-Imai), and she had been of the household of Oi Toshiharu, a retainer of the Uesugi family. She trained under Geno, the founder of Kaizoji, and in 1313 she grasped the essence of Zen, presenting this poem to her teacher:

The bottom fell out of the bucket of that woman of humble birth; The pale moon of dawn is caught in the rain puddles.


1. What does the poem about the water from the water pipe caught in the bucket really mean?

2. What really is the bucket without a bottom?

3. What is the real meaning of the poem of the nun of Nyozen?

These poems were used as koans at Engakuji itself after the time ofDaiko, the 5th teacher at the beginning of the Shoan era (1299).

Imai’s note: From the Bunroku era (1592), what was called Heart sutra Zen became fashionable in Kamakura: a chakugo comment had to be found to fit certain phrases of the sutra. The poems of the two nuns came to be used as comments, so a further test came into existence:

4. What are the phrases from the Heart Sutra to fit the poems of the nuns? Say!