Three Ages of Zen extract

 The bucket without a bottom

Imai’s note: The nun Mujaku, whose lay name was Chiyono, was a woman of Akita who married and had one daughter. In 1276, when she was thirty-four, her husband died, and she could not get over the grief. She became a nun, and trained under Bukko. The story is that on the evening of a fifteenth day of August, when she was filling her lacquer flower-bucket where the valley stream comes down, the bottom fell out; seeing the water spilling she had a flash of insight, and made a poem on it to present to the teacher. Later he set her a classical koan, Three pivot-phrases of Oryu, and examined her minutely on it, and she was able to meet the questions. Again she continued interviews with him for a long time, and in the end he “passed over the robe and bowl,” namely, authorized her as a successor to teach. Uesugi, Nikaido, and others had built Keiaiji temple in Kyoto, and asked her to become the first teacher there. It was not unusual in Zen for a teacher to be a woman.

After Bukko died, a hermitage called Shomyakuan was built for her at Shirogita to be the temple ofBukko’s grave. She died in November 1298 at the age of seventysix. [There is some discrepancy in the dates.-Tr.]

Mujaku, whose lay name was Chiyono, came to Bukko, Teacher of the Nation, and said, “What is Zen?”

The teacher said, “The heart of the one who asks is Zen; it is not to be got from the words of someone else.”

The nun said, “Then what is the teacher doing, that he gives sermons and they are recorded?”

Imai’s note: Bukko’s Japanese being inadequate, he gave his sermons in Sung dynasty Chinese; they were recorded and later translated, then distributed to his Japanese followers. This is what the nun is referring to.

The teacher said, “To a deaf man, you show the moon by pointing; to a blind man, you show the gate by knocking on it with a tile.”

Just then one of the deer near the Hakugando Stream gave a cry. The teacher said, ”Where is that deer?”

The nun listened. The teacher gave a Katzu! shout and said: ”Who is this listening?”

At these words the nun had a flash of illumination, and went out. At the water pipe from the Hakugando she took up a lacquered wooden bucket for flowers. As she was holding it full of water, she saw the moon’s reflection in it, and made a poem, which was presented to the teacher:

The flower bucket took the stream water and held it, And the reflection of the moon through pines lodged there in purity.

Bukko could not understand the poem in Japanese, so priest Gio translated it into Chinese and showed it to him. Bukko glanced at it and said, “Nun, take the Heart Sutra and go.”

After that, she had interviews with the master, coming and being sent away. In the end the lacquer bucket broke, and she presented another poem, of this realization:

The bottom fell out of Chiyono’s bucket; Now it holds no water, nor does the moon lodge there.

Imai’s note: The account in Zenmonkaikiden says Chance or design? The bottom fell out of her bucket; Now it holds no water, nor does the moon lodge there.

After Chiyono’s death the nun Nyozen ofTokeiji used to meditate on this poem as her basic theme. Nyozen’s lay name was Takihime (or Takkino, according to the account in the Bukedoshinshu-Imai), and she had been of the household of Oi Toshiharu, a retainer of the Uesugi family. She trained under Geno, the founder of Kaizoji, and in 1313 she grasped the essence of Zen, presenting this poem to her teacher:

The bottom fell out of the bucket of that woman of humble birth; The pale moon of dawn is caught in the rain puddles.


1. What does the poem about the water from the water pipe caught in the bucket really mean?

2. What really is the bucket without a bottom?

3. What is the real meaning of the poem of the nun of Nyozen?

These poems were used as koans at Engakuji itself after the time ofDaiko, the 5th teacher at the beginning of the Shoan era (1299).

Imai’s note: From the Bunroku era (1592), what was called Heart sutra Zen became fashionable in Kamakura: a chakugo comment had to be found to fit certain phrases of the sutra. The poems of the two nuns came to be used as comments, so a further test came into existence:

4. What are the phrases from the Heart Sutra to fit the poems of the nuns? Say!