A First Zen Reader



All Japanese know of the great painter Kano Tanyu, whose work exists even today. This is the story of the time when he painted the great dragon on the ceiling of the main hall at the temple. It was his masterpiece and is one of the art treasures of the world. At that time, the master of the temple at Myoshinji was the celebrated Gudo, famous as the teacher of the Emperor. He had heard that the dragons painted by Tanyu were so realistic that when a ceiling on which one had been painted fell down by chance, some said it had been caused by the movement of the dragon’s tail.

When the painting of the dragon at Myoshinji was mooted, Gudo went to the painter’s house and told him: ‘For this special occasion I particularly want to have the painting of the dragon done from life.’ Naturally the painter was taken aback, and saying: ‘This is most unexpected. As a matter of fact, I am ashamed to say that I have never seen a living dragon,’ would have refused the commission.

The Zen teacher, however, agreed that it would be unreasonable to expect a painting of a living dragon from an artist who had never seen one, but told him to try to have a look at one as soon as he could.

The painter asked wonderingly: ‘Where can one see a living dragon? Where do they dwell?’

‘Oh, that’s nothing. At my place there are any number. Come and see them and paint one.’

Tanyu joyfully went with the teacher, and when they arrived, at once asked: ‘Well, here I am to see the dragons. Where are they?’

The teacher, letting his gaze go round the room, replied: ‘Plenty of them here; can’t you see them? What a pity!’

The painter felt overcome with regret, and in the event spent the next two years with Gudo, practising Zen assiduously. One day something happened, and he rushed excitedly to the teacher, saying:’By your grace I have today seen the form of a live dragon!’ ‘Oh, have you? Good. But tell me, what did his roar sound like?’

At this query, the painter was again at a loss, and for one further year laboured on at his spiritual practices. What he painted at the end of the year was the dragon of Myoshinji, a supreme masterpiece in the history of art, remarkable for its technique but far more for the life which the artist has infused into it. It seems as if it contains the great Life which embraces heaven and earth, the universe and man also. It was to pierce through to this reality that the master painter Tanyu poured out his heart’s blood.

To hear such a story is wonderful, but attainment is no easy thing…The sutra says: ‘Heroes become Buddhas with one thought, but the lazy people are given the three collections of scriptures to traverse.


If the attention is put at the beginning of the stroke, the stroke tails off into weakness.

If the attention is put at the end of the stroke, the beginning becomes just a preliminary and shows weakness.

If we try to hold beginning and end together, the middle of the stroke suffers.

If we try to move the mind with the brush, the sense of unity is lost, and the stroke gets out of proportion (here too big).

The Koan: How to make each bit of the stroke with full attention and power, and yet keep the unity and proportion

The koan riddle of the chinese character ‘One’.


The main body of the book consists of two translations: A Tongue-tip Taste of Zen, by Primate Takashina Rosen, who was the head of the whole Soto sect in Japan, with its over 10,000 temples; Hakuin’s Song of Meditation, as commented on by Amakuki Sessan; these last were in fact a series of broadcasts over the Kyoto Radio in 1936.


The Original Face by Daito Kokushi

A Tongue-tip Taste of Zen by Takashina Rosen, Primate of the Soto Sect in Japan

Hakuin’s ‘Song of Meditation’ commentary by Amakuki Sessan, of the Rinzai Sect

The Two Poems by Oka Kyugaku

Bodhidharma and the Emperor from the Rinzai and Soto Koan anthologies

A Note On The Ways by Trevor Leggett


One can easily imagine what a less great translator might have made of much of this material: the lengthy disquisitions on technical terms, the general nit-picking and colophon-grubbing. Instead, we have here attractive, lucid prose that actually says something, than which nothing could be more desirable in this field (of Zen).

Professor Roy Andrew Miller

When Zen Buddhism crossed from China to Japan in the twelfth century, it entered a phase of development that was not only to inspire a magnificent range of artistic achievement but also to exert a tremendous influence upon Japanese life itself and, eventually, to bring to the attention of the West a religious philosophy both unique and challenging in its power. ‘Yet’, as one of the contributors to this book (first published in 1960) expresses it, ‘if asked what Zen is, to reply is very difficult.’ It is the purpose of this anthology to suggest an approach to such a reply. The texts here translated will give a general idea of Zen theory and practice, and are outstanding selections from the treasury of Zen literature. To these, the anthologist has added a valuable ‘Note on the Ways’, in which he points out how ‘the student keeps his Zen practice in touch with his daily life’. The exceptional interest of the text is further enhanced by twenty illustrative plates.

The Rinzai and Soto agree on the main points; they differ in the stress given to certain elements in Zen, notably what is called koan. This is a sort of riddle, not completely solvable by the intellect, which is an artificial method of concentrating the energies of a spiritual student. The koan method was devised quite late in Zen history. The Rinzai emphasizes concentration on koan, especially those in the anthologies Hekiganroku and Mumonkan. The Soto, though it has its own collection, the Shoyoroku, does not make so much of them, pointing out that the masters of the golden age of Zen in the T‘ang dynasty did not rely on artificial koan. Mostly the koan are stories about these masters, though Hakuin (1685-1768) in 18th-century Japan devised one of the most famous, the “ sound of one hand.” Even this may derive from a phrase in the Hekiganroku.

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