Zen in riddling form

This is an almost unknown but very important text recording Zen incidents from the first stages of Zen in Japan. It survived in tiny editions. It would appear that Dr D.T. Susuki did not know it directly though he refers vaguely to a collection of koans given to warriors by the first immigrant Zen teachers from China. It contains some important material in their lives as is now recognized in the official history of the founder of Kenchoji temple in 1253. Below are given a few extracts from this recently published history.


Kenchoji, founded 1253, is one of the oldest purely Zen temples in Japan. In 1988 this large and wealthy temple produced a handsome, massively researched 700-page biography of its first Master, the Chinese monk known in Japan by his honorific title Daikaku. After the materials on China the first text for his activity in Japan is the Shonan-katto-roku, which I have translated as The Warrior Koans. The official Kenchoji historian, Priest Takagi Sokan, on pages 18–21 introduces it as follows: The second source for Daikaku is the 55th Koan, Daikaku’s One Word Sutra, in the Shonan-katto-roku collection of 100 warrior koans in Eastern Japan.

‘This work has only recently been brought to notice in an elaborate presentation in English. The text originated on the occasion (October 1543) of ceremonial Buddhist masses at Meigetsu-in temple in Kamakura for the departed spirit of Prince Uesugi Norikata who had founded that temple 150 years previously. Kokoku Society organisers asked Muin-Roshi of Zen Koji temple to select a hundred of the Koans which were given to warriors at that time. 500 copies of this selection were printed and distributed for the occasion.

‘An acquaintance of the present writer, the London scholar Trevor Leggett, has made a fine English translation of the text (and much of the commentaries to it by the modern Zen historian Imai Fukuzan who has done research at Kenchoji) and here is his account of Koan 55….’ After this, the official history quotes the present translation in full, as it also does elsewhere.


Traditionally Zen was brought from India to China by Bodhidharma, often referred to as ‘the blue-eyed Brahmin’ (though he was the third son of a West-Indian king) who was a disciple of the 28th Indian patriarch of the sect of Meditation. He took a ship to Ceylon and then another to China where he established the tradition of the sect by bewildering the pious emperor with the famous: ‘Vastness, No holiness!’ He then left for a distant cave to sit in meditation for nine years facing the wall. The sayings and doings of the patriarchs, from the Buddha onward, in India and China make up the records called Transmissions of the Light, numbering 1701 ‘cases’ concerning 956 persons. These incidents are called Ko-an, literally ‘public record’; there are not a few women in them.

They engage the mind and draw it ultimately towards its own transcendence. Often the process took years on one koan.

Originally each case, often in riddling form, was a face to face confrontation with those present. But later on some of the most mind-catching were given to students to penetrate into outside the meditation periods. This meant that the original situation, with the student as a participant, had to be recreated vividly. One or more of these cases were given to students as problems to be solved by going deeply into them outside the meditation period. In the meditation itself they practised ‘thinking the unthinkable’, hinted at as Thinking Nothing (hi-shiryo).

But with the 12th-century Master Dai-e one branch of Zen began to use meditation on the koan itself as the means to enlightenment. The classical basic koan was called Joshu’s Mu: Joshu was asked ‘In a dog, is there Buddha-nature or not?’ Joshu replied: ‘Not’ (Mu). In as much as it is a fundamental doctrine of Chinese Buddhism that the Buddha-nature is all pervading, this reply from a great Buddhist patriarch is bewildering. A surface answer can be given intellectually: ‘The Buddha-nature is not in the dog; it is the dog that is in the Buddha-nature’. Such an answer is merely a matter of words and concepts. It does not change the life, and it does not give freedom from the fear of death.

A deeper solution is this: the enquirer himself is the dog and he is seeking for the Buddha-nature within himself. The teaching says it is there but Joshu is describing the present experience, namely that it is not. But Joshu embodies the Buddha doctrine, so his reply is bringing the contradiction right before the eyes, and he is saying implicitly ‘Search within, search within’ (and indeed Joshu is reported as sometimes saying ‘It is’). Again, this is no solution.


An acceptable solution must be one that changes the whole life when it arises, and it is not a question of outer form. There is indeed an outer form: it is well known that some students who give a great shout MU-U-U! may be passed through the koan. In a BBC television series, ‘The Long Search’, there was a section on Zen. I had been head of the BBC Japanese service for over twenty years and with the help of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation I arranged some of the episodes and in fact translated for some of them. A well-known Zen master of the time, Yamamoto Genpo, agreed to illustrate what could happen in a Zen interview between master and pupil. He sat in his formal robe in the interview room with the camera just outside, and a senior monk came in, prostrated himself three times and sat in front of the teacher. He announced his koan in the usual way: The Mu of Master Joshu. The teacher said ‘How is it?’ and the monk roared with great force M-U-U-U-U-U-U!

The teacher said: ‘You have to be one with it from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. Your heart, your guts, and everything.’ Then he rang the little hand bell to indicate that the answerer had failed and was dismissed. Of course, this was not a real interview but a sort of charade to show what an interview could be like.

Classically, when the answer is really attained it gives freedom from the fear of death and from entangling concerns about what is happening and what is going to happen. The Mu has to be No to these entanglements: in form it is something like the Neti Neti of the ancient Upanishads – ‘Not so, not so’ to all ideas and concepts. And not just an intellectual No, but a No in living consciousness. (This was realized by repetition of a sacred syllable, Om: ‘When you recite Om every cell and pore of your body must tingle with it as you throw body consciousness and mind consciousness into Om’.)

In Zen the freedom from such entanglement leads to freedom of action and beyond that to creativity: creativity in everyday life, in the arts and even abstract thought. At different periods one or more of these elements could become dominant but if that went on too long, the line of Zen began to decay. When Zen was first establishing itself in Japan in the 13th century the islands were facing the gathering storm of the Mongol threat. Khubilai Khan began to launch his attempts at invasion in 1282 and the Japanese government at Kamakura mobilized the whole country to resist. The rulers and many of the fighting men had become adherents of the new Zen sect and it did set them free from the fear of death. The leading teachers at the beginning were Chinese monks seeking to carry the seeds of Buddhism beyond the reach of the Mongol. Kenchoji (1253) and Enkakuji (1282) were the two main temples which inspired the young warrior genius Tokimune and others to repel the Mongols (aided, it must be added, by typhoons which scattered the invasion fleets). Khubilai was preparing a third invasion but for various reasons this never materialized.

The records of the Zen interviews between warriors and the Zen teachers are recorded in the collection here translated. It will be seen that a good many of them are concerned mainly with matters of life and death but we can also find other elements of Zen inspiration. A number drive at realization of the Buddha-nature in everyday things and events such as a water bucket or a teacup. And there is a very important group where the Buddha-nature is roused in man (for example Tozan’s Who’s-This? – Koan 93).

The Zen of Kamakura was indeed successful in inspiring the warriors with fearlessness and for over fifty years helped the ruling Hojo dynasty to maintain some sort of order as the country recovered from the Mongol invasions. But in 1333, by one of the spectacular acts of treachery which have occasionally defaced Japanese history, a trusted General, Nitta Yoshisada, turned on and destroyed his Hojo overlord. (Nitta was himself killed 5 years later by the order of a former fellow conspirator Ashikaga Takauji, who had similarly changed his allegiance.) Some of the new rulers practised Zen but it was becoming reduced to the field of courage and its creativity in other directions began to decline.

There are references to the samurai of the Nitta forces and to Takauji himself in the koans here. In the 16th century the weak Ashikaga government could not maintain national order; the warriors simply could not stop fighting. The Zen in Kamakura lost creativity and decayed into a few much smaller living lines of transmission. In fact, almost all the Rinzai Zen today derives from the line established by the 18th century master Hakuin.

© Trevor Leggett

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