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Zen Stories


When the Tesshu, a master of Zen, calligraphy and swordsmanship, was a young man he called on the Zen master Dokuon. Wishing to impress Dokuon he said, “The mind, the Buddha, and all sentient beings after all do not exist. The true nature of phenomenon is emptiness. There is no realisation, no delusion, no sagacity, no mediocrity, nothing to give and nothing to receive.

Dokuon promptly hit him with a bamboo stick. Tesshu became quite furious.

Dokuon said quietly: “If nothing exists, where did this anger come from?”

A Flexible Grip

Tesshu once met a street fighter nicknamed ‘The terror of Edo,’ who had had more than thirty sword fights without once being defeated. Tesshu asked him where he had learned his skill. The street fighter replied that he was entirely self taught.

“Then how did you succeed?” asked Tesshu.

“As soon as the fight began I would get close enough to touch the tip of my enemy’s sword with my own. If he held his sword stiffly I knew I could win easily, but if he held his sword in a flexible grip with a strong projection of ki, I didn’t take the risk of a fight. If I meet such a man I throw my sword at him and run away, and thus remain undefeated.”

The Assembly of the Cats

Once there was a sword master called Shoken, who lived in a house infested with a large rat. This rat was truly ferocious, and no matter how hard Shoken chased it with his bokuto he could not kill it. Fortunately, one of Shoken’s neighbours was a cat breeder who specialised in training his cats to kill rats. Shoken asked if he might borrow a cat to catch the rat.

The cat trainer gave Shoken a viscous ginger alley cat, a real street fighter with sharp claws. But when the cat came to face the rat, the rat stood it’s ground and the cat was afraid. Shoken returned the cat to the cat master.

“Must be some rat,” said the breeder, and gave Shoken a lean black and white cat. “This cat has had years of training, and is highly skilled.” The second cat fought with the rat, but the rat was able to beat it easily.

Shoken went back to the cat breeder, and retuned with a jet black cat. The black cat had a very strong presence, projecting a quiet confidence. “This cat has mastered flawless technique, and has developed his mind through meditation. His zanshin is truly powerful. This cat will get the rat,” the master had said. But this cat also was defeated.

When Shoken returned to the cat master, the master said. “Very well, this time I will give you the master of the cats. This cat was old and grey, and did not look so impressive. Shoken took the cat home and brought it to face the rat. The rat moved to attack the old cat, but the old cat sat quietly unconcerned. Suddenly the rat felt a slight tinge of fear. The rat hesitated, and suddenly the old cat reached out a claw and killed the rat with a single strike.

When Shoken brought the cat back to the breeder he asked him how it was that the old cat could kill the rat while the younger ones had such a hard time. “Come with me,” said the breeder, “I’m sure the cats will discuss this, and since cats know a great deal about martial arts I’m sure you will find their conversation interesting.” They listened in to the cats’ discussion.

The ginger cat stood up and said, “I am very tough.”

“Then why couldn’t you beat the rat? Because toughness is itself not enough. There will always be a tougher rat somewhere.” Said the old grey cat.

The black and white cat spoke. “I have had years of training and impeccable technique, why could I not beat the rat?” “Because, although your waza is brilliant, and although you have had many years in the dojo, this is not enough in a real fight.

“But I have perfected my body through training and my mind through meditation,” said the black cat, “I have flawless technique, and also have achieved enlightenment. Why did the rat defeat me?”

“Because, Kuroi-san, although your skill is indeed great, and you have both spiritual and physical power you are not without desire. When you faced the rat you had an object in your mind, you did not have mushin. The rat sensed this, and his intuition was better than yours. Because you did not have mushin you were unable to harmonise your strength, your technique and you consciousness. I was able to use all these three elements naturally and unconsciously to defeat the rat. This is why I was successful.

“But I know of another cat, in a village not far from here. His fur is snow white with age, and he’s not very strong looking. He doesn’t eat meat, but lives on vegetables and rice gruel, although he is known to take a little sake occasionally. He hasn’t caught a rat in years because the rats are all terrified of him! As soon as he walks into a house all the rats leave at once. Even in his sleep he chases away rats! We must all learn to be like him, beyond violence, beyond technique, beyond even the desire for skill.”

One Finger Zen

Gutei was a Zen teacher who had a habit of answering questions by simply raising a single finger. One day Gutei noticed a young boy imitating him. Someone had asked the boy what the master had taught that day, and the boy cheekily raised his finger. Gutei grabbed the boy suddenly and cut of his finger.

The boy yelped and ran away, but Gutei called out to the boy. The boy stopped and looked back. As he did so Gutei raised his finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.

What Are You Saying?

When Munan was getting old he called his senior pupil, Shoju in to see him.

“Shoju,” he said, “I am getting old. This book was handed to me by my teacher, to him from his teacher for seven generations. You will succeed me, and I am now passing the book to you.”

Shoju declined to accept the book. “I have received your teaching without writing and am satisfied. I have no need for the book. Perhaps you should keep it.”

“Even so,” said Munan, “you should take the book as a symbol of my teaching. This has been so for seven generations.” And he passed the book to Shoju.

Shoju threw it into the fire.

“What are you doing!” Shouted Munan.

“What are you saying!” Shouted Shoju back.

Emperor Meiji’s Wrestling

Tesshu served in the household of the Emperor Meiji as Japan transformed from a feudal to a modern society. Meiji enjoyed Sumo wrestling and often wrestled with his aids. Since he was the Emperor his opponents always let him win, giving Meiji a false impression of his own abilities. One evening Tesshu was drinking sake with the emperor and some of the other aids when the emperor challenged Tesshu to a sumo match.

Since he did wanted neither to humiliate the emperor nor fake a loss, Tesshu politely declined to wrestle the emperor. Meiji insisted and, having drunk a lot of sake, became angry at Tesshu’s continued refusal. Meiji began to shove Tesshu but found him to be solidly grounded. He threw a punch at Tesshu, but Tesshu moved slightly to the side, causing the emperor to lose his balance and tumble to the floor. Tesshu then pinned him to the ground while the other aids shouted at him to be appropriately respectful. Eventually Tesshu released the emperor and went to another room.

Everyone demanded that Tesshu immediately apologise for causing such humiliation to the emperor, but Tesshu only said “If I deliberately let him throw me I would be nothing better than a lackey, whereas I have pledged my life to him. He must learn not to lose his temper and not to be a bully. If he does not learn defeat in a wrestling match he will become a tyrant. Tell him what I have said and if he orders me to commit suicide I will do so immediately.

The emperor sent Tesshu a message to say that he would henceforth abstain from both sake and sumo.

A Test of Good Health

Matsuka, one of Tesshu’s students heard he was dying, but because Tesshu was only in his early 50s and always apparently in good health he did not believe it. Creeping into Tesshu’s room late at night he saw his teacher sitting zazen and jumped on him. Tesshu quickly pinned him to the ground, and seeing who it was demanded an explanation. The student however saw that his teacher was still strong and quickly ran away to tell the other students that there was nothing wrong with Tesshu. The following week Tesshu died of stomach cancer.

Pot Lid Zen

Yagyu Matajuro was a young member of the Yagyu family, famous for the family tradition of swordsmanship. However Matajuro’s father was disappointed in his son’s tendency towards laziness and banished him from the dojo. Matajuro, his pride stung resolved to seek out a master and return as a great swordsman. Matajuro journeyed to the Kumano shrine in the province of Kii, where he had heard of a great teacher called Banzo. The monks at the shrine told him that Banzo lived as a hermit in the nearby mountains, and showed him the trail to follow. Eventually he found Banzo asked to be accepted as a student.

“How long will it take me to learn swordsmanship?” he asked.

“The rest of your life,” was the reply.

“I can’t wait that long. I will accept any hardship, and will devote myself completely to the study of swordsmanship.”

“In that case, ten years.”

“What if I train twice as hard?” tried Matajuro.

“In that case, thirty years.”

“Why is that? First you say ten then thirty years. I will do anything to learn, but I don’t have that much time.”

“In that case, seventy years.”

Sensing the direction of the conversation, Matajuro capitulated and agreed to work as long as it took, and do anything he was told. However, for the first year all Banzo had Matajuro do was to perform simple physical tasks such as chopping wood. After a year of this Matajuro was disappointed and demanded that Banzo teach him some swordsmanship. Banzo merely insisted that he chop wood.

Matajuro went to the woodpile and was chopping, but inwardly he was furious. He resolved to leave Banzo the next day. But while he was chopping Banzo crept up behind him and struck him painfully with a wooden sword. “You want to learn swordsmanship, but you can’t even dodge a stick,” he said.

From that day on Banzo would creep up on Matajuro and attack him with a wooden sword. Eventually Matajuro’s senses became heightened, and Banzo had to change tactics. Now Banzo would attack repeatedly, even when Matajuro was asleep. For the next four years Matajuro had not a moment’s rest from the fear of unexpected attack.

One day, when Matajuro was stirring some food on the fire, Banzo crept up and attacked him by surprise. Without thinking Matajuro fended off the blow with the lid of the pot without taking his mind off stirring the food. That night Banzo wrote out a certificate of mastery for Matajuro.

When it is Possible to Break Study

One of Tesshu’s former students, Ogura Tetsuju, had undertaken a three year Zen retreat when he heard that Tesshu was on his death bed. He asked for, and was given, permission to visit his teacher one last time. However, when he arrived Tesshu refused to see him, saying only “Tell him the three years are not up yet.

The day before he died Tesshu noticed that there were no sounds of training to be heard from the dojo. He was told that the students had decided to cancel training to be with him in his last hours. “Training is the only way to honour me!” he thundered, and ordered them back to training.

Carry It Out

A monk once asked Joshu “If I have nothing in my mind, what should I do?”

“Throw it out.” Replied Joshu.

“But if there is nothing in my mind how can I throw it out?”

“Then,” said Joshu, “you will have to carry it out.”

The Moon

Ryokan was a Zen master who lived a very simple life in the countryside. One summer evening, Ryokan returned home to find a thief in his house. The thief was looking for something to steal but could find nothing. “You have come a long way to visit,” said Ryokan, “I cannot let you return empty handed. Please accept my clothes as a gift.” The thief was so confused he grabbed the clothes and ran away. Later Ryokan sat outside watching the moon. To himself he said, “What a shame I could not give him this beautiful moon.”

Anyone wishing to learn more about the life of Yamaoka Tesshu is recommended to The Sword of No Sword, by John Stevens.

The indispensable repository of short Zen stories is Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Edited by Paul Reps.

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