101 Zen Koans – Numbers 48 & 49

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For hundreds of years, the secret doctrines of Zen have been transmitted from master to student in the form of seemingly absurd riddles or parables called koans. Intense meditation upon these is said to lead to enlightenment.

These koans were translated into English from a book called the Shaseki-shu (Collection of Stone and Sand), written late in the thirteenth century by the Japanese Zen master Muju (the “non-dweller”), and from anecdotes of Japanese Zen monks taken from various books published around the turn of the 20th century.

48.   Accurate Proportion

Sen no Rikyu, a tea-master, wished to hang a flower basket on a column. He asked a carpenter to help him, directing the man to place it a little higher or lower, to the right or left, until he had found exactly the right spot. “That’s the place,” said Sen no Rikyu finally.

The carpenter, to test the master, marked the spot and then pretended he had forgotten. Was this the place? “Was this the place, perhaps?” the carpenter kept asking, pointing to various places on the column.

But so accurate was the tea-master’s sense of proportion that it was not until the carpenter reached the identical spot again that its location was approved.

49.   Black-Nosed Buddha

A nun who was searching for enlightenment made a statue of Buddha and covered it with gold leaf. Wherever she went she carried this golden Buddha with her.

Years passed and, still carrying her Buddha, the nun came to live in a small temple in a country where there were many Buddhas, each one with its own particular shrine.

The nun wished to burn incense before her golden Buddha. Not liking the idea of the perfume straying to the others, she devised a funnel through which the smoke would ascend only to her statue. This blackened the nose of the golden Buddha, making it especially ugly.

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