Kōan 26: How Grass and Trees Become Enlightened

Note: Tendai (天台宗 Tendai-shū) is a Mahayana Buddhist school established in Japan in the year 806 by a monk named Saicho also known as Dengyō Daishi (伝教大師, “The Pure Land School”).


During the Kamakura period, Shinkan studied Tendai six years and then studied Zen seven years; then he went to China and contemplated Zen for thirteen years more.

When he returned to Japan many desired to interview him and asked obscure questions. But when Shinkan received visitors, which was infrequently, he seldom answered their questions.

One day a fifty-year-old student of enlightenment said to Shinkan: “I have studied the Tendai school of thought since I was a little boy, but one thing in it I cannot understand. Tendai claims that even the grass and trees will become enlightened. To me this seems very strange.”

“Of what use is it to discuss how grass and trees become enlightened?” asked Shinkan. “The question is how you yourself can become so. Did you ever consider that?”

“I never thought of it in that way,” marveled the old man.

“Then go home and think it over,” finished Shinkan.


I sometimes wonder if kōans themselves are actually meant to be distractions from achieving enlightenment at times. After all, while I’m contemplating this kōan I could instead just be as the grass and trees are. Then again without the kōan to give me this realization, how else would I be spending my time? Probably not being Zen, but this seems to be creating a never-ending cycle.

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