Samurai Zen: The Warrior Koans



Painting the nature

Ekichu, the 7th master of Jufukuji, was famous as a painter. One day Nobumitsu came to see him and asked whether he could paint the fragrance described in the famous line ‘After walking through flowers, the horse’s hoof is fragrant.’

The teacher drew a horse’s hoof and a butterfly fluttering round it (attractedby the fragrance).

Then Nobumitsu quoted the line ‘ Spring breeze over the river bank ‘ andasked for a picture of the breeze. The teacher drew a branch of willow waving.

Nobumitsu cited the famous Zen phrase : ‘A finger direct to the human heart, See the nature to be Buddha ‘. He asked for a picture of the heart. The teacher picked up the brush and flicked a spot of ink onto Nobumitsu’s face.

The warrior was surprised and annoyed, and the teacher rapidly sketched the angry face.

Then Nobumitsu asked for a picture of the ‘nature’ as in the phrase ‘see the nature’.The teacher broke the brush and said, ‘That’s the picture’.

Nobumitsu did not understand and the teacher remarked, ‘If you haven’t got that seeing eye, you can’t see it.’

Nobumitsu said, ‘ Take another brush and paint the picture of the nature.’

The teacher replied: ‘Show me your nature and I will paint it.’

Nobumitsu had no words.


(1) How would you show the nature?

(2) Come, see your nature and bring the proof of it.

(3) Say something for Nobumitsu.

This incident became a koan in Kamakura Zen at the interviews of Mitsudo, Master at Hokokuji.


This medieval Japanese text, little known even in Japan, consists of: A selection of one hundred zen training interviews of Japanese samurai, beginning in the 13th century when they faced the crisis of Kublai Khan’s attempted invasions. A feature of this Zen is that it is not based on the classical Chinese koan riddles; the masters used incidents from everyday life – a broken tea-cup, a water-jar, a cloth – to bring the warrior pupils to the Zen realization, and then test that realization. Some of the tests are given in the text.


a) Imai Fukuzan’s Introduction to Shonankattoroku.

b) Extracts from Imai Fukuzan’s Introduction to Warrior Zen.

c) Kamakura Koans

Numbers 1 – 100


The mirror of Enkakuji

The bucket without a bottom

Jizo stands up

The Nembutsu Robe

Wielding the spear with hands empty

Daikaku’s one-word sutra

Bukko’s no-word sutra

The charm

The gravestone with no name

Victory in the midst of a hundred enemies

d) Index of Chinese Characters


A leading theme in Trevor Leggett’s books is that in the spiritual traditions of the Far East, instruction is often given in the form of vivid images, rather than in terms of logical categories. Their function is not to charm, but to act as flint and steel in making a light.

The collection of 100 odd koans here presented in translation was put together in 1545, under the name Shonan Kattoroku, from records in the Kamakura temples dating back to the foundation of Kenchoji in 1253 when pure Zen first came to Japan. For a long time the teachers at Kamakura were mainly Chinese masters, who came in a stream for over a century. As a result, this Zen was conducted between masters and pupils not fluent in each other’s language.

On the political and religious background, there are explanations in my book Zen and the Ways, in which I translated about one quarter of these koans. In that book I gave some account of the then Rinzai system of koan riddles, and the modifications that were introduced when this line of Zen came to Japan.
The text in its present form was reconstituted from fragmentary records in Kenchoji and other temples in Kamakura by Imai Fukuzan, a great scholar of Zen in the early part of this century. He was joint author, with Nakagawa Shuan, of a standard reference book of Zen phrases, Zengo-jii- Imai was himself a veteran Zen practitioner, as had been his father before him, and he knew personally many of the great figures of Zen at the end of the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth century. In the small edition (500 copies) of the Shonan Kattoroku collection which he published in 1925, he put a number of notes of his own, and I have translated most of these along with the koans to which they refer. His Introduction to the text is put here at the beginning, along with extracts from his Introduction to a much longer work, to have been called Warrior Zen, of which this was to have been only the first part. That work was never completed, and much of the Introduction consists of long lists of Zen masters at the Imperial palace, with feudal lords, or teaching warriors in various parts of the country. However, there are some references to the present text, and these I have translated, along with a few personal details which he gives.

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