The Great Katzu! of Ryuho – Koan 90

No. 90. The Great Katzu! of Ryuho

In the seventh month of the first year of Kowa (1381), which was thirty-three years after the death of Hatayama Michichika (who had been in charge of military affairs for the whole Kanto area), a memorial service was held for him. The people assembled at Hokizan (the Zen temple Chojuji), and among them Hatayama Sukemichi came in a palanquin. He saluted priest Ryuho, the 13 th master there, and asked him about memorial services.

The teacher told him: ‘A memorial service after forty-nine days is laid down in the sutras. The services after a hundred days, one year, and three years, derive from traditions in China. The thirteenth year and thirty-third year services were inaugurated when the son of Councillor Nobunishi first had these ceremonies performed out of filial devotion for his father. Memorial services after fifty years and a hundred years and so on are performed in the temples of both Japan and China.’

Sukemichi asked: if someone makes a vow to perform the ceremony but does not carry it out, will the spirit of the dead suffer?’

The teacher replied: ‘The services are to remind the descendants of the virtues of the deceased; as an expression of their devotion, they pray for his welfare. But the pain or happiness of the spirit of the deceased is according to his karma, so the sutras declare. But it must be said that for a follower of Zen, there is something more apart from this.’

The pupil persisted in asking that the teacher should declare it, and finally the master glared at him and gave a great Katzu! shout, whereupon he swooned and lost consciousness. After

some time the teacher gave another shout and Sukemichi revived.

The teacher said: ‘Well, how are they, the happiness and pains of the departed? What you have experienced for yourself, you do not need others to tell you.’

The pupil bowed with gratitude and said: ‘In all my seventy-two years it is only now that I have come to know the real meaning of the shout which the Zen priest gives before the coffin at the funeral service.’


  1. How are they, the happiness and pains of the departed?

  2. This which is before your eyes, kill it and bring it to life.

Let me see the proof of it.

This incident became a koan in Kamakura Zen at the interviews of Ichigen, the 115th master at Kenchoji.

(Imai’s note: Since to pass this koan is a question of actually killing and reviving, those whose power in the Way is not fully matured cannot take it up. According to what I have heard from laymen like Tsuchiya Daian and Yamada Ichimisei, in the old days lay students were tested on the koan by their teachers in Kamakura Zen in this way: Master Keichii would point to a sparrow in the forecourt, and Kdsen to a cicada on a pine tree, and require them to demonstrate their ability. Sekiso would point to a bluebottle in the room, and Shinjo would put before them a worm, so that the power of killing and reviving could be shown clearly. In any case, this is a kdan that cannot be attempted by one who is not like the old warriors of Kamakura in furious energy in the Way.

Says Fukuzan (Imai): according to what I have heard from Tsuchiya and Yamada, the Katzu! in Kamakura Zen is not to be thought of as a matter of killing and reviving a man. I therefore point out that to kill and revive can also be practised by experts in the art of Kiai (concentrating the vital energy with a shout) and it was something known to experts in

Kendo like Miyamoto Musashi and Tsukahara Bokuden. In the Kendo school of Sakuma Shintosai, no one could be given the Tiger Scroll (attestation that he had mastered the highest secret of the school) unless he could kill and revive a man by a single kiai shout. But ability to kill and revive by a shout is not prized in Zen: the Zen practice of the shout is quite different from that of the warriors. The Zen shout is the spiritual realization of the Diamond King’s Sword, which by one shout has to be a means to resolve Ignorance and open up realization. It has to be spiritually effective in changing by a single shout the six paths and the four kinds of birth into Buddhahood. This is the difference between the Zen practice ofKatzu! and the kiai shout of the warriors. There have been those who having penetrated to the inner secrets of Kendo fencing, could strike down and then revive by giving a shout. Among them however were many who when themselves confronting the barrier of life and death, failed at that barrier. This was because their art did not aim at the spiritual development of the Diamond King’s Sword. It must be realized that the Kamakura Zen practice of the Katzu! did not aim at producing mere ability to strike down and revive irrespective of spiritual experience of the Diamond Sword; the former was in our school no more than the power of Zen realization. It was not the same thing as what the warriors attained, who from the very beginning were training only for striking and reviving. If the latter were the main thing, then a man very ill, whose throat was choked or who could not open his mouth, would not be able to make the shout and so show his skill. In Kamakura Zen, therefore, even warriors who could come to the interview room and demonstrate their ability to kill and revive some creature with a shout, were not allowed to pass the koan unless they had the spiritual experience of the Diamond Sword. Later generations in Zen have often wrongly supposed that the Kamakura Zen Katzu! was simply a little art of killing and bringing back to life, and I have therefore added this note.)

From ancient times in the Zen world of Eastern Japan, the three koans, 68, its variant, and this one, were known as the Three Barriers in Kamakura Zen. But in fact if one of them is passed, the other two are merely variations: it is simply that there are different chakugo comments for each of the three.

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