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
Dokuon said quietly: “If nothing exists, where did this anger
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
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
“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
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
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
“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.”
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
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.