In the classical Zen of China a monk, called by the Japanese Kyogen, was famous as a scholar who after many years had mastered the scriptures. When the Abbot, his teacher died the new Abbot told him he could if he wished leave the monastery as he had now full knowledge of the doctrine. To the others’ protests he set Kyogen the Koan riddle: “What is your true face before your father and mother were born?” Baffled and furious Kyogen left the monastery but the riddle haunted him. He spent the next years in isolation minding the shrine of the 6th Chinese Patriarch without hope or expectation but still revolving the riddle in his mind.
Eleven years on as he swept the courtyard, the stroke of his broom sent a stone skidding across the ground to strike the bamboo fence. The loud Clack! seemed to knock away a wedge in his thinking and a great realisation of truth rose in him. He made a bow of reverence in the direction of his former monastery.
Some enthusiastic students were told the story of Kyogen at a Zen meeting. Afterwards they went home. One of them however a little later had to go on an errand which took him past the home of one of the others, whom he saw sweeping in the garden with a broom.
After exchanging a few words he went on and fulfilled his errand. A couple of hours later on the return journey he again pasted the house of his friend who still seemed to be sweeping vigorously.
Peering over the gate, he saw that he had collected a pile of stones. He would take one, put it in front of him and then drive it with a stroke of the broom into the wooden fence.
Sometimes he got a small clack! and sometimes a big one.
He listened expectantly each time. Then when he saw his friend watching he remarked: “I don’t know whether it could work for you if you haven’t got the broom.”
© 1999 Trevor Leggett