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The First Principle

Zen Buddhist Koans: Exposing the Paradox of Reality


When one goes to Obaku temple in Kyoto he sees carved over the gate the words "The First Principle".

The letters are unusually large, and those who appreciate calligraphy always admire them as being a mastepiece.

They were drawn by Kosen two hundred years ago.

When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which the workmen made the large carving in wood.

As Kosen sketched the letters a bold pupil was with him who had made several gallons of ink for the calligraphy and who never failed to criticise his master's work.

"That is not good," he told Kosen after his first effort.

"How is this one?" "Poor. Worse than before," pronounced the pupil.

Kosen patiently wrote one sheet after another until eighty-four First Principles had accumulated, still without the approval of the pupil.

Then when the young man stepped outside for a few moments, Kosen thought: "Now this is my chance to escape his keen eye," and he wrote hurriedly, with a mind free from distraction: "The First Principle."

"A masterpiece," pronounced the pupil.



The Stone Mind

Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country.

One day four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves.

While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity.

He joined them and said: "There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?"

One of the monks replied: "From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind."

"Your head must feel very heavy," observed Hogen, "if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind."



Right & Wrong

When Bankei held his meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend.

During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing.

The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled.

Bankei ignored the case.

Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again bankei disregarded the matter.

This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they woudl leave in a body.

When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him.

"You are wise brothers," he told them. "You know what is right and what is not right. You may somewhere else to study if ou wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave."

A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen.

All desire to steal had vanished.


A Parable

Buddha told a parable in sutra: A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger.

He fled, the tiger after him.

Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge.

The tiger sniffed at him from above.

Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him.

Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine.

The man saw a luscious strawberry near him.

Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other.

How sweet it tasted!


Teaching the Ultimate

In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns were used with candles inside.

A blind man, visiting a friend one night, was offered a lantern to carry home with him.

"I do not need a lantern," he said. "Darkness or light is all the same to me."

"I know you do not need a lantern to find your way," his friend replied, "but if you don't have one, someone else may run into you. So you must take it."

The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him.

"Look out where you are going!" he exclaimed to the stranger.

"Can't you see this lantern?"

"Your candle has burned out, brother," replied the stranger.



Storyteller's Zen

Encho was a famous storyteller.

His tales of love stirred the hearts of his listeners.

When he narrated a story of war, it was as if the listeners themselves were on the field of battle.

One day Encho met Yamaoka Tesshu, a layman who had almost embraced masterhood in Zen.

"I understand," said Yamaoka, "you are the best storyteller in our land and that you make people cry or laugh at will. Tell me my favorite story of the Peach Boy. When I was a little tot I used to sleep beside my mother, and she often related this legend. In the middle of the story I would fall asleep. Tell it to me just as my mother did."

Encho dared not attempt to do this.

He requested time to study.

Several months later he went to Yamaoka and said: "Please give me the opportunity to tell you the story."

"Some other day," answered Yamaoka.

Encho was keenly disappointed.

He studied further and tried again.

Yamaoka rejected him many times.

When Encho would start to talk Yamaoka would stop him, saying: "You are not yet like my mother."

It took Encho five years to be able to tell Yamaoka the legend as his mother had told it to him.

In this way, Yamaoka imparted Zen to Encho.


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