Three Ages of Zen



From Part III, Autobiography of Zen Master Tsuji Somei

1. Master Gyodo used to say:


‘Zen is something about which someone who doesn’t really know can still manage to write without giving himself away. But if you hear him speak just a couple of words, you know his inner state exactly.’


‘In order to see the Nature, it has to be fierce as a lion; but after that realization, the practice has to go slow like an elephant.’


‘If you get through the first barrier (the first koan) without much trouble, you get stuck afterwards and can’t get on. It’s as if you’d thrust your hand into a glue pot.’


‘However much you go to Zen interviews, and however many koans you notch up, if you don’t get to the great peace …….’


‘Going simply by the number of koans you pass – however many they may be, it’s no good unless you come to the samadhi of no-thought. In the samadhi of no-thought, there’s no soul, there’s no body, there are no objects of the senses, much less any koans.’


After the experience of profound enlightenment which I had on Horomushiro Island during the war, I had a secret notion that I should have nothing to fear from any of the classical koans. But when I resumed the interviews with Master Gyodo after my return from the imprisonment in Russia, I discovered that it was no such simple matter. The very first one I was given, about the ox passing through the window (No. 38 in the Mumonkan) took me quite a number of days to pass through myself. At the same time, thanks to this koan, there was a marked advance in my grasp of enlightenment. The Master once said that to hold people up is what a koan is for, and one should appreciate this. Anyway, it made me humble again, and I assiduously worked at the training at the interviews.



This unusual book consists of three translations by the author:


(1) Samurai Zen: a selection of the training interviews of Japanese samurai of the 13th century, when they faced the crisis of Kublai Khan’s attempted invasions;


(2) Feudal Zen: practised by the samurai officials who ran the country during the 250 years of internal peace under the Tokugawa Government from 1600 – 1868;


(3) Modern Zen: Zen in war and peace in one life. The autobiography of a Zen priest who was a prisoner-of-war in terrible conditions in Russia, during which he had nevertheless an enlightenment experience. But as he explains, he still had to resume his Zen training with Master Gyodo after being re-patriated.


Part I

Warrior Zen.


Selected Koan riddles from translation of Shonan-katto-roku (Record

of Koans given at Kamakura)

Part II

Feudal Zen


Translation of Master Torei’s ‘The Good Steed’

Part III


Translation of the autobiography of the late Master Tsuji Somei’s ‘Treading

the Way of Zen’


Not the least valuable part of the book is the masterly introduction by the translator which precedes each part.

Japan Times

The translations in this text illustrate three phases of Zen in Japan: Warrior Zen of crisis, when Japan faced and repulsed Kublai Khan’s naval attacks in the thirteenth century; feudal Zen for officials in the 250 largely peaceful years up to the Western naval attacks in the mid-eighteenth century; and twentieth-century Zen, before, through, and after World War II.
The three parts are concerned mainly with laymen’s Zen. Mahayana Buddhism has always had a close connection with the world. It is indeed possible that it began with groups of laymen in India. In the first text, the warriors remained in fact laymen, taught mostly by monks. It is to be noted that some of them were women. There was no prejudice in Zen, as there sometimes was in other branches of Buddhism. But there were no concessions either.

The second part is an essay written for a samurai official by abbot Torei. Zen had fallen into decay and was being dramatically revived by Hakuin. It had to contend with government-sponsored Confucianism. That code,like the code of the gentleman, could become a culti-vated semi-skepticism and end up as a shell of acceptable behavior masking emptiness within.
The third part consists of extracts chosen by me from the published autobiography of Zen master Tsuji Somei (with his agreement). He did most of his training as a layman, becoming a priest relatively late in life. The account gives details of Zen practice in very severe conditions, when the author was a prisoner of war in Siberia and other parts of Russia. (I should add that the heroism of Mrs. Tsuji, when left to bring up the family on her own, was of equal stature.)
Zen practice for laypeople in the world will be a more useful model for Westerners than monastery practice. There are some 15,000 temples in Japan but almost none in Western countries.

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