Often tales with religious significance are myth; they can still carry deep meaning, but in all the telling and retelling, much of the original truth of the story was lost. So this weekend I visited Kyoto, a true place of legend for Zen Buddhism, where many of its classic stories take place. There I was lucky enough to see with my own eyes some of the landmarks of those Zen stories which I’ve grown to love, and make them a bit more real and less mythical in my own mind…
The First Principle
When one goes to Obaku temple in Kyoto he sees carved over the gate the words “The First Principle” (義一第). The letters are unusually large, and those who appreciate calligraphy always admire them as being a masterpiece. They were drawn by Kosen two hundred years ago.
When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which workmen made the larger 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 criticize his master’s work.
“That is not good,” he told Kosen after the first effort.
“How is that one?”
“Poor. Worse than before,” pronounced the pupil.
Kosen patiently wrote one sheet after another until eighty-four First Principles had been accumulated, still without the approval of the pupil.
Then, when the young man stepped outside for a few moments, Kosen thought: “Now 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 Tea-Master and the Assassin
Taiko, a warrior who lived in Japan before the Tokugawa era, studied Cha-no-yu, tea etiquette, with Sen no Rikyu, a teacher of that aesthetical expression of calmness and contentment.
Taiko’s attendant warrior Kato interpreted his superior’s enthusiasm for tea etiquette as negligence of state affairs, so he decided to kill Sen no Rikyu. He pretended to make a social call upon the tea-master and was invited to drink tea.
The master, who was well skilled in his art, saw at a glance the warrior’s intention, so he invited Kato to leave his sword outside before entering the room for the ceremony, explaining that Cha-no-yu represents peacefulness itself.
Kato would not listen to this. “I am a warrior,” he said. “I always have my sword with me. Cha-no-yu or no Cha-no-yu, I have my sword.”
“Very well. Bring your sword in and have some tea,” consented Sen no Rikyu.
The kettle was boiling on the charcoal fire. Suddenly Sen no Rikyu tipped it over. Hissing steam arose, filling the room with smoke and ashes. The startled warrior ran outside.
The tea-master apologized. “It was my mistake. Come back in and have some tea. I have your sword here covered with ashes and will clean it and give it to you.”
In this predicament the warrior realized he could not very well kill the tea-master, so he gave up the idea.
More photos of this old, tiny teahouse, said to have been designed by the tea master:
Anyone walking about Chinatowns in America will observe statues of a stout fellow carrying a linen sack. Chinese merchants call him Happy Chinaman or Laughing Buddha.
This Hotei lived in the T’ang dynasty. He had no desire to call himself a Zen master or to gather many disciples about him. Instead he walked the streets with a big sack into which he would put gifts of candy, fruit, or doughnuts. These he would give to children who gathered around him in play. He established a kindergarten of the streets.
Whenever he met a Zen devotee he would extend his hand and say: “Give me one penny.” And if anyone asked him to return to a temple to teach others, again he would reply: “Give me one penny.”
Once he was about his play-work when another Zen master happened along and inquired: “What is the significance of Zen?”
Hotei immediately plopped his sack down on the ground in silent answer.
“Then,” asked the other, “what is the actualization of Zen?”
At once the Happy Chinaman swung the sack over his shoulder and continued on his way.
I’ve been inspired by Hotei to always remember the difference between religious observance (study, devotion, piety, meditation, asceticism, etc.) and an actualization of truth, realized in a life well-lived.
Publishing the Sutras
Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, which at that time were available only in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.
Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.
It happened that at that time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.
Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people.
For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing blocks which produced the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.
The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.
I don’t know about Japanese telling their children this tale (it seems unlikely that Zen stories are told to Japanese kids at all based on my experience), but I like it. And I’ve read that this story of Tetsugen‘s door-to-door pursuit of funds may be a bit tall as well, but sure enough the blocks are still there today!
Well, those are some of the stories I made a bit more real with my trip to Kyoto. If you liked the stories and want more, they’re all from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, which is a collection of four books actually. I count it among the few texts I would call holy; its contents continue to impact my life and spirituality.
Footnotes to my trip:
The characters on this wash basin at Ryōanji all use the square in the middle. They are 吾 (I), 唯 (solely), 知 (knowledge), 足 (sufficiency). The meaning can be translated as “I learn only to be contented,” or “I know only contentment.”
Finally, nothing spoke more to me of the essence of life and Zen than watching this family enjoy one another’s company: