Tetsugen’s Sutras

Photo by ganap0627

Tetsugen was a zen master who lived in 17th century Japan.  He wanted to produce a Japanese edition of the buddhist sutras (scriptures) which were then only available in Chinese. This was to be an expensive project because it involved making around 60,000 wooden blocks for printing.

Tetsugen wandered around Japan collecting funds for this project. Sometimes he would meet wealthy people who would offer gold and silver, but mostly he would encounter peasants who could only afford a few small coins.

After 10 years of traveling, he had collected enough funds to start his project. But there was a great flood as the river Uji overflowed. People were left homeless and starving. Tetsugen used all the money he collected to help them.

Then he began traveling and collecting money again for his project. It was several more years before he thought he had enough. Just then, an epidemic spread throughout Japan and Tetsugen once more gave away all that he had collected to aid the afflicted ones.

Then he started traveling again. Twenty years later (and one year before he died), he was able to fulfill his dream of printing the sutras in Japanese. The original printing blocks he used are preserved today in the Obaku Monastery in Kyoto, Japan.

The Japanese like to tell their children that Tetsugen actually produced three editions of the sutras, but the first two are invisible and far superior to the last.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping and other koans

Note: the following are examples of zen koans – taken from the Japanese “ko” (public) and “an” (proposition). Koans may take the form of a question, a verse or a short anecdote or teaching. It is designed to bring the student towards a direct realization of the ultimate reality. Koans are often very puzzling and incomprehensible and it may take months or even years for one to fully understand one.

The great Japanese master, Hakuin, wrote: “If you take up one koan and investigate it unceasingly, your mind will die and your will will be destroyed. It is as though a vast, empty abyss lay before you, with no place to set your hands and feet. You face death and your bosom feels as though it were on fire. Then suddenly, you are one with the koan, and body and mind are cast off. This is known as seeing into one’s nature.”

Now, on to the koans:

  1. What is the sound of one hand clapping?
  2. A monk asked master Haryo, “What is the way?” Haryo replied, “An open-eyed man falling into a well.”
  3. When the many are reduced to one, to what is the one reduced?
  4. The roof was leaking so the master asked two disciples to bring something to catch the water. The first one brought a pail while the second brought a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the second was highly praised.
  5. What is your original face, before your father and mother were born?
  6. One day, master Chao Chou stumbled and fell. He cried out, “Help me, help me!” A monk came and lay down beside him. Chao Chou got up and walked away.
  7. When you can do nothing, what can you do?
  8. (a modern koan) Where is the hole when the entire donut is eaten?

Forgotten words

fish - photo by Benjamin Hollis
fish - photo by Benjamin Hollis

“The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten.

The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.

The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.

Where can I find the man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”

– Chuang Tzu

Slippery Stone

Photo by Toshimasa Ishibashi
Photo by Toshimasa Ishibashi

There was a master called Sakito. He was also called Stonehead – partly because of his smoothly shaven head, and partly because he loved to sit in meditation on a large rock on the side of a mountain.

One day, a disciple came to Ma Tsu, another master, and said, “I shall go and challenge master Sakito.”

Ma Tsu replied, “Be careful. The path of the Stonehead is slippery.”

But the disciple waved a staff and said, “I carry the stick of an acrobat.”

The disciple made it to Sakito who was, as usual, sitting on his rock. He stood in front of Sakito, waved his stick in the air and gave a loud shout. Then he addressed Sakito, “Now tell me, what is the essence of what I have done?”

Sakito, who had barely moved or changed his expression, just said, “How sad, how sad.”

The disciple had no answer for this, so he left and went back to Ma Tsu and reported the entire incident.

Ma Tsu told the disciple, “Go back and do the same thing. Then, when he says, ‘how sad, how sad’, you start crying.”

So the disciple went back and did the exact same thing. But when he asked the question, Sakito put both hands on his face and started to cry.

The disciple was again left with no response, so he went back to Ma Tsu to report.

Ma Tsu smiled and said, “I told you. The path of the Stonehead is slippery.”

Then Have a Cup of Tea

photo courtesy of SheCat, sxc.hu
photo courtesy of SheCat, sxc.hu

One day, a travelling stranger came to visit the master Joshu.

Joshu said, “Stranger, have I ever met you before?”

“No, sir. This is the first time we have met,” replied the stranger.

“Then have a cup of tea,” said Joshu.

Joshu then turned to a monk beside him.

“Have I ever seen you before?” he asked.

“Yes, I have been in this monastery for three years,” replied the monk.

“Then have a cup of tea,” said Joshu.

The head monk was quite confused with this behavior. So he asked, “Master, why do you offer a cup of tea whether or not you have met the person before? Why do you even ask?”

“Head monk, are you here?” said Joshu.

“Of course, I am here,” said the head monk.

“Then have a cup of tea,” said Joshu.

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