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Zen Parable: Anecdote of Mokurai

Updated on October 16, 2017
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

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Foreward

The story goes that a pilgrim once went on a journey to a distant monastery in search of higher knowledge. Coming upon said monastery, the pilgrim went to the innkeeper in request of a chance to debate with a wise man. The reason for these debates was to see the degree of enlightenment they had come to realize. If the pilgrim was able to “win” the debate, he was given free food and board for the night. If he “lost” the debate, he was to immediately pack up his things and leave the monastery.

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Mokurai's Test

In approaching the monastery, the pilgrim noticed an all-pervading silence surrounding the area. He thought this was peculiar, since monks were typically jovial people, laughing and working loudly around the grounds. The pilgrim, Mokurai, decided to enter the monastery to engage in dialogue with the wisest monk. Upon entering, he encountered the gatekeeper.

The gatekeeper told Mokurai that the only man who could engage in these kind of debates was the man tending the garden. He told the pilgrim that he would recognize the man by the eye patch he was wearing, for he only had one eye.

However, said the gatekeeper, their monastery was currently engaged in a month of silence; he was the only one who could speak so that he could intercept any visitors for the day. Mokurai could try to debate with the gardener, but it could not be verbal. The Mokurai thanked the keeper and went into the garden wondering what form of communication he would use.

A Conversation Without Words

Mokurai wandered past the gates and into the monastery, marveling at the monks silently working in complete and dedicated concentration. Eventually, Mokurai found a quiet monk tending to the community garden. He approached the man and bowed deeply.

The monk immediately understood that Mokurai's intent was to have a debate. He smiled and bowed back, squaring up with the wandering pilgrim. In undistracted mindfulness, the monk waited for Mokurai to proceed.

Nervous and eager, Mokurai began the conversation. He boldly stuck out one finger.

The one-eyed monk seemed taken back by this gesture, but with great self-control and poise he stuck out two fingers.

At this point, Mokurai realized the monk's depth and wisdom. He panicked and foolishly stuck out three fingers.

The one eyed monk was shocked. His face turned beat red and he shook a balled up fist in the air. Mokurai had lost. He was deeply embarrassed at his lack of understanding. Without a further gesture, he turned and fled the garden.

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Mokurai's Mind

As Mokurai was leaving, the gatekeeper asked him, “How did your debate go? This debate without words.”

Mokurai looked depressed “Well, we decided to use hand signals. I stuck out one finger to symbolize the oneness of all things, the illusion of duality.

However, your friend is a very advanced being with great spiritual power and self control. He stuck out two fingers. Immediately I knew he was referring to chapter in the Tao De Jing that says, ‘The Tao produces the one, the one produces the two, the two produces the three.’ The two referring to Yin and Yang, and the three referring to all creation.

His confidence and spiritual power shook me up. I was taken back and lost my ability to debate. All I could do was continue the quote so I stuck out three fingers. At that point your friend shook his fist in the air with a ferocious look on his face. I knew he was chastising me for merely quoting the thoughts of others. I bowed to the superior man, and now, I will be on my way.

I will contemplate the lessons I have learned here today on the road to the next monastery. Saying, "Goodbye,” Mokurai turned and left forever.

The Garden Monk's Mind

Moments later, the one-eyed monk burst into the gatekeeper's office. Breaking the vow of silence, he yelled, “Where is that pilgrim? I am going to beat him up!” The gatekeeper, shocked at this monk’s outburst, asked, “Why, what happened?”

The one-eyed monk said, “He was so rude! He stuck out one finger making fun of the fact that I only have one good eye. I was so angry, but I managed to restrain and control myself.I stuck out two fingers, complementing on the fact that he had two good eyes. But he was relentless in his rudeness. He stuck out three fingers, making fun of the fact that between the two of us, there were only three good eyes.

At that point I lost it. I got so angry, I lifted my fist and I was going to punch him out then and there. But that coward, he ran away! I tried to remember the teaching of Buddha, to be calm and to practice equanimity. But I can’t, I just want to beat that guy up. Which way did he go?”

The gatekeeper realized what had happened and laughed and laughed and laughed.

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In Reflection

The pilgrim represents someone who likes to travel but is afraid of going anywhere. The one-eyed monk represents someone who is afraid of traveling but will readily advance into unsavory territories. The moral of the story is that these two monks are both experts in their fields. Both are masters of jumping to conclusions. Both are advanced practitioners at nourishing unproductive habitual thought patterns. Both describe a tendency of the average human mind.

Meditation has been said to be the vigorous shaking up of unproductive habitual thought patterns. Meditation helps prevent practitioners from jumping to conclusions instead of accepting an invitation into paradise.

With deep courage and perseverance we must concentrate deeply with great intensity on our object of meditation, whatever it is. With great certainty, we plow ahead. We will come to know that we are a thread woven into the fabric of God.

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Zen and Koans

Zen, a Buddhist school of intuition, focuses on meditation and mindfulness as a path toward wisdom and enlightenment. Parables, anecdotes, poetry, and similar stories are frequently used by masters to reveal some underlying theme or lesson. Out of all the lessons shared, none are quite as unique or valuable as the Zen koan.

The Zen koan is a story, question, or problem that presents the pupil with great difficulty in thinking. The goal of the koan is to frustrate the practitioner into a state of self-doubt. As the pupil struggles to find an answer to these impossible inquisitions, they eventually learn the ability to give up trying. Only then, do they begin to realize the true meaning of Zen.

Don Dianda, author of “See for Your Self: Zen Mindfulness for the Next Generation,” put it this way in a blog for Elephant Journal:

The koan serves as a surgical tool used to cut into and then break through the mind of the practitioner... Koans aren’t just puzzles that your mind figures out suddenly and proclaims, “Aha! the answer is three!” They wait for you to open enough to allow the space necessary for them to enter into your depths—the inner regions beyond knowing.

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Famous Koans

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

What is your original face before you are born?

When you can do nothing, what can you do?

As the roof was leaking, a zen Master told two monks to bring something to catch the water. One brought a tub, the other a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the second highly praised.

A monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax, “What is Buddha?” Tozan said, “This flax weighs three pounds.”

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© 2017 Luke Holm

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    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 9 months ago

      Jodah, thank you for the read! I love stories such as this that give concrete examples to subconscious aspects of human interaction. Although, on some level, making snap judgements was probably a life saving element for our species back in the day. Call it intuition?

      On another note, my first thought was that koans aren't supposed to be completely understood. However, I think they are also meant to be conversation starters. I would say the basket was the correct receptacle because it was the one that required less thought.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 9 months ago from Queensland Australia

      A very thought provoking and interesting read. Tell me though, why was the basket the correct receptacle to catch water from the leaking roof?