Yakushi of a thousand forms – Koan 36

On the eighth day of the eleventh month of the first year of Katei (1235) General Yoritsune was in great pain from an infected wound. All shrines and temples were to offer prayers for him, and the Buddhist image-maker Yasusada was ordered to make, in a single night, a Yakushi of a thousand forms, each one to be 1 ft 6 ins (Yakushi is the bodhisattva of healing). And the astrologer Chikamoto was to perform a ceremony 36,000 times in the same time. It is said that in the event, the general recovered in less than a day.

I don’t ask you about the 36,000 ceremonies, but how could the thousand images of Yakushi be made in a single night?


Those in the line of the patriarchs are said to have the ability to use a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Now use them to make the Yakushi of a thousand forms in an instant. Bring the proof of it and show me!

This was first given as a koan to the Buddhist image-maker Yasunori by Zen master Daien (the 3rd teacher at Enkakuji).

(Note by Imai Fukuzan: This story of the Buddhist image-maker Yasusada and how at the official order he made the Yakushi of a thousand forms in a single night appears in a number of writings. There is a matter-of-fact explanation according to which it could be done easily. At that time what was done to make a Yakushi of a thousand forms as a prayer for recovery from illness was, to impress a black-ink stamp with the holy picture on to a board and then cut up the latter into sections each with one of them on it. After the ceremony, many of them were thrown into the river. Again there was, and still is, a custom of making seal impressions onto pieces of paper in the same way. Yasusada would have had a number of apprentices and it would have been nothing marvellous for them to turn out a thousand Yakushi representations in one night perhaps each one making a hundred or so.

But from the point of view of Zen training, as the wording of the test shows, the Zen pupil has to display his skill with a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. If he cannot do that, then however many times he repeats a dharani or mantra of the bodhisattva of a thousand hands and eyes, he will not be sure whether it has any effect or not. And then he might as well give up his dazed mumbling and go.

This is something the Zen student has to meditate on. If he becomes one who can use the thousand eyes and hands freely, he will be able to make not merely the Yakushi of a thousand forms, but the three thousand Buddhas of whom they speak at the ordination ceremony, in an instant. If he cannot do it, he may make the Yakushi of a thousand forms, he may pray for recovery from illness, but what will be the use? The one who knows, he alone knows.)



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