Kōan 1: A Buddha

In Tokyo in the Meiji era there lived two prominent teachers of opposite characteristics. One, Unsho, an instructor in Shingon, kept Buddha’s precepts scrupulously. He never drank intoxicants, nor did he eat after eleven o’clock in the morning. The other teacher, Tanzan, a professor of philosophy at the Imperial University, never observed the precepts. When he felt like eating, he ate, and when he felt like sleeping in the daytime, he slept.

One day Unsho visited Tanzan, who was drinking wine at the time, not even a drop of which is supposed to touch the tongue of a Buddhist.

“Hello, brother,” Tanzan greeted him. “Won’t you have a drink?”

“I never drink!” exclaimed Unsho solemnly.

“One who does not drink is not even human,” said Tanzan.

“Do you mean to call me inhuman just because I do not indulge in intoxicating liquids!” exclaimed Unsho in anger. “Then if I am not human, what am I?”

“A Buddha,” answered Tanzan.


This first kōan, like most of them, offers a conflicting story. Here Unsho believes himself to be zen because he follows the Buddhist teachings, but lashes out in anger when he believes he’s being criticized. It’s a story I can relate to easily, and I suspect many of us can. Criticism isn’t usually an easy thing to take because it feels so personal. In this case I think the lesson is to stop caring what others think of you. If you live a good life, what do the opinions of others matter to you?

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