The Shogun Iemitsu in early seventeenth-century Japan, was very interested in fencing, and kept several fencing masters at his court. Also in favour was the Zen master Takuan, from whom many of these masters took lessons in meditation and Zen.
A wild tiger was sent from Korea to the Shogun as a present, and when the caged animal was being admired, the Shogun suggested to the renowned fencer Yagiu that he enter the cage and use the arts of fencing to approach the tiger and stroke its head.
In spite of the warnings of the tiger’s keeper, Yagiu went into the cage with only a fan. Holding the fan before him he fixed his gaze on the tiger and slowly advanced. In face of the animal’s threatening growls he managed to hold it under a psychological dominance and just to touch its head. Then he slowly retreated and escaped from the cage. As he came out the sweat poured off him.
The Shogun turned to Takuan and said: ‘Has Zen anything else to show?’ The Zen master ran down to the cage, his sleeves flying in the wind. He jumped into the cage and faced the tiger. The master spat on his palm and held it out to the tiger, which sniffed and then licked his hand. The master lightly touched its head, then turned and softly jumped out of the cage.
‘After all,’ marvelled the Shogun, ‘our way of the sword cannot compete with Zen.’
* * *
When a rebel army swept into a town in Korea, all the monks of the Zen temple fled except for the Abbot. The general came into the temple and was annoyed that the Abbot did not receive him with respect. ‘Don’t you know,’ he shouted, ‘that you are looking at a man who can run you through without blinking?’
‘And you,’ replied the Abbot strongly, ‘are looking at a who can be through without blinking!’ The general stared at him, then made a bow and retired.
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Kasuisai is one of the important temples of the Soto sect in Japan, and the name means a place for sleeping. This strange name derives from an incident after the civil wars in Japan, during which the temple had given refuge to fleeing warriors of both sides, in spite of warnings not to do so.
After Ieyasu had established himself as effective ruler of Japan, he rode up to the temple in order to settle accounts with the Abbot. His retinue of warriors made it clear that he intended to revenge himself.
He sent in a message to the Abbot to present himself immediately. The boy came back with a message that the Abbot was feeling sleepy, and would the Shogun come back some other time.
Ieyasu bowed his head in respect and rode away.
* * *
During the civil disturbances in the nineteenth century a fugitive samurai took refuge in the temple of Soto Zen master Bokusan. Three pursuers arrived and demanded to know where he was. ‘No one here,’ said the Zen master. ‘If you won’t tell us, then let’s cut off your head,’ and they drew their swords to do so. ‘Then if I am to die,’ said the Zen master, ‘I think I’ll have a little wine.’
And he took down a small bottle, poured it, and sipped with evident relish.
The samurai looked at one another. Finally they went away.
Bokusan was repeatedly asked about this incident, but did not want to discuss it. Once however he said: ‘Well, there is something to be learnt from it. When those fellows came, I did not do what they wanted, but neither did I quarrel with them or plead with them. I just gave up their whole world and had nothing to do with them And after a time I found they had gone away.
‘Similarly when people complain that they are overwhelmed with passions and wrong thoughts, they should know that the right way is not to quarrel nor to plead or argue. Simply give up all claim on their world and have nothing to do with them, and after a time you will find that they have gone away. ’
* * *
Zen masters did not every time go unscathed. One of the greatest figures in Chinese Zen, Ganto of the Tang dynasty, always told his disciples: ‘When I go, I shall go with a great shout.’ Brigands invaded the place and all fled the temple except Abbot Ganto, who remained quietly in his quarters. A brigand came and demanded food; when the Abbot could not supply it he ran him through. The Abbot gave a great shout which was heard for miles, and died.
This incident was a formidable obstacle to Haknin in Japan many centuries later; all his doubts crystallized round the death of Ganto. When illumination finally came he cried: ‘I am Ganto, unharmed!’
* * *
Daito, one of the great lights of Rinzai Zen in Japan, for many years lived unknown among the beggars of Kyoto. At this time there was a barbarous habit of testing a new sword on a man; some degraded samurai used to take a new sword out and try it on a beggar. One such man appeared near the bridge where the beggars congregated, and all were terrified, knowing that when evening came he would probably appear among them and cut a man down.
The Zen master told the others to hide, and when the samurai appeared on the bridge at dusk he saw a beggar sitting in meditation posture. He drew his sword and shouted: ‘Get ready, my sword is going to make two of you!’ The beggar remained unmoving. An awe came over the samurai; he hesitated and then beat a retreat.
* * *
Shoju, teacher of Haknin, practised his meditation sitting in the face of death. He came upon a village which had been invaded by wolves so that the inhabitants had fled. He sat in meditation throughout the night; he felt a wolf put its paws on his shoulders and growl into his face, but remained without moving.
He recommended such practices to his pupils as the only means of knowing whether they had overcome identification with the illusory self of body-mind.
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Muso Kokushi, teacher of emperors, was one of the spiritual giants of the Rinzai transmission in
Japan. Once he and a lay follower, who was an expert fencer, were crossing a river together. The layman took the baggage and the master, as it happened, sat on the other side of the ferry-boat. The boat filled up and the boatman was turning away passengers when a drunken samurai rushed up and demanded to be taken on board.
The boatman was afraid to refuse. In the dangerously overloaded boat the samurai began to start a quarrel; the Zen master intervened and pointed out that any violent movement might sink the boat.
‘Meddling priest!’ shouted the drunken man, and hit him on the forehead with his iron war-fan. The blood poured down. The master sat unmoving and the samurai, satisfied, slumped in his own place without further disturbance.
The boat reached the other shore, and the fencer lightly jumped out, looking steadily at the samurai and waiting for him to come ashore.
There is something about the posture of an expert with
the sword which is unmistakable; the bully had enough experience to know that he was going to pay with his life for having struck the friend of a master swordsman.
But Muso came forward quickly and said: ‘No! Now, now is the time to apply our Buddhism.
These forms are Emptiness; anger and all the passions are the Bodhi.’
And he led his follower quietly away.