Women in the Warrior Koans

Ten of the hundred stories centre round women mostly of the Warrior class who were noted for their virtue and strength of character. A special feature of Zen has been the absence of prejudice against women; anyone who could practise the discipline was of equal status with everyone else. While there are stories such as the The sermon of Nun Shido – Koan 87 and The paper sword – Koan 69, a special point is the creativity which appears in this brief record of the poems in The flower hall on Buddha’s birthday – Koan 41.

In Zen as it developed in China the original living incidents recorded in the Transmissions of the Light were revived and set as koan riddles to later generations. The scene was set mostly against a monastery background, and the main characters would have been familiar. But it meant that creativity of the original was now replaced by a revival which had to be whipped up into a sense of crisis.

Spontaneous comments on these revived koans themselves became stereotyped. When Zen went to the Warriors of Kamakura the classical Chinese koans could not be used: there was no familiar monastic background and few warriors knew much of the Chinese history. So in a sense Zen began anew, with incidents from the daily life of warriors. The genius of the Chinese masters who brought Zen initiated the ‘On the spot’ Zen dealing with water buckets, pieces of paper, iron fans, and even loin cloths. These incidents in their turn became koans for future generations, who had the same background.

The poems composed by nuns in The flower hall on Buddha’s birthday – Koan 41 on decorating the flower hall are in simple Japanese but profound in meaning. The flower hall decorations for the Buddha’s birthday are familiar to all Japanese and the event comes every year. So these verses could speak directly to the heart and became koans perfectly adapted to the time and place.

It may be that this type of on-the-spot koan will have an important future in bringing Zen to western countries remote from the traditions of the Far East.

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