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The Daily Dharma – July 23, 2021

Photo of Mampukuji, an Obaku Zen Buddhist temple in Uji, Kyoto, Japan taken by Frank Gualtieri

The First Principle

When one goes to Obaku 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 over two hundred years ago.

When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which workers made the larger 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 criticize the master’s work.

“That is not good,” he told Kosen after the first effort.

“How is that 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 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.

from 101 Zen Stories
as printed in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones