These koans, or parables, were translated into English from a book called the Shaseki-shu (Collection of Stone and Sand)
6 Japanese Parables That Will Get You Thinking
1. The First Principle
When one goes to Obaku temple in Kyoto he sees carved over the gate the words “The First Principle”. The letters are unusually large, and those who appreciate calligraphy always admire them as being a masterpiece. They were drawn by Kosen two hundred years ago.
When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which the workmen made the large carving in wood. As Kosen sketched the letters a bold pupil was with him who had made several gallons of ink for the calligraphy and who never failed to criticise his master’s work.
“That is not good,” he told Kosen after his first effort.
“How is this one?”
“Poor. Worse than before” pronounced the pupil.
Kosen patiently wrote one sheet after another until eighty-four First Principles had accumulated, still without the approval of the pupil.
Then when the young man stepped outside for a few moments, Kosen thought: “Now this is my chance to escape his keen eye,” and he wrote hurriedly, with a mind free from distraction: “The First Principle.”
“A masterpiece,” pronounced the pupil.
2. The Gates of Paradise
A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”
“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.
“I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.
“You, a soldier!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.”
Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”
As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: “Here open the gates of hell!”
At these words, the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.
“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.
3. The Stingy Artist
Gessen was an artist monk. Before he would start a drawing or painting he always insisted upon being paid in advance, and his fees were high. He was known as the “Stingy Artist.”
A geisha once gave him a commission for a painting. “How much can you pay?” inquired Gessen.
“Whatever you charge,” replied the girl, “but I want you to do the work in front of me.”
So on a certain day, Gessen was called by the geisha. She was holding a feast for her patron.
Gessen with fine brushwork did the painting. When it was completed he asked the highest sum of his time.
He received his pay. Then the geisha turned to her patron, saying: “All this artist wants is money. His paintings are fine but his mind is dirty; money has caused it to become muddy. Drawn by such a filthy mind, his work is not fit to exhibit. It is just about good enough for one of my petticoats.”
Removing her skirt, she then asked Gessen to do another picture on the back of her petticoat.
“How much will you pay?” asked Gessen.
“Oh, any amount,” answered the girl.
Gessen named a fancy price, painted the picture in the manner requested, and went away.
It was learned later that Gessen had these reasons for desiring money:
A ravaging famine often visited his province. The rich would not help the poor, so Gessen had a secret warehouse, unknown to anyone, which he kept filled with grain, prepared for those emergencies.
From his village to the National Shrine the road was in very poor condition and many travellers suffered while traversing it. He desired to build a better road.
His teacher had passed away without realizing his wish to build a temple, and Gessen wished to complete this temple for him.
After Gessen had accomplished his three wishes he threw away his brushes and artist’s materials and, retiring to the mountains, never painted again.
4. The Real Miracle
When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through the repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.
Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared, but the fellow made such a disturbance that banker stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.
“The founder of our sect,” boasted the priest, “had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air. Can you do such a wonderful thing?”
Bankei replied lightly: “Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.”
5. In The Hands of Destiny
A great Japanese warrior named Nobunaga decided to attack the enemy although he had only one-tenth the number of men the opposition commanded. He knew that he would win, but his soldiers were in doubt.
On the way, he stopped at a Shinto shrine and told his men: “After I visit the shrine I will toss a coin. If heads come, we will win; if tails, we will lose. Destiny holds us in her hand.”
Nobunaga entered the shrine and offered a silent prayer. He came forth and tossed a coin. Heads appeared. His soldiers were so eager to fight that they won their battle easily.
“No one can change the hand of destiny,” his attendant told him after the battle.
“Indeed not,” said Nobunaga, showing a coin which had been doubled, with heads facing either way.
6. The Thief Who Became A Disciple
One evening as Shichiri Kojun was reciting sutras a thief with a sharp sword entered, demanding to wither his money or his life.
Shichiri told him: “Do not disturb me. You can find the money in that drawer.” Then he resumed his recitation.
A little while afterwards he stopped and called: “Don’t take it all. I need some to pay taxes with tomorrow.”
The intruder gathered up most of the money and started to leave. “Thank a person when you receive a gift,” Shichiri added. The man thanked him and made off.
A few days afterwards the fellow was caught and confessed, among others, the offence against Shichiri. When Shichiri was called as a witness he said: “This man is no thief, at least as far as I am concerned. I gave him the money and he thanked me for it.”
After he had finished his prison term, the man went to Shichiri and became his disciple.