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Koan: Eshun’s Departure

Koan: Eshun’s Departure

When Eshun, the Zen nun, was past sixty and about to leave this world, she asked some monks to pile up wood in the yard.

Seating herself firmly in the center of the funeral pyre, she had it set fire around the edges.

“O nun!” shouted one monk, “is it hot in there?”

“Such a matter would concern only a stupid person like yourself,” answered Eshun.

The flames arose, and she passed away.

8 comments to Koan: Eshun’s Departure

  • I love koans, and this one hits awareness and emptiness on so many levels. I can understand them from a thinking perspective, but still have problems with them when meditating. I’ll meditate on this one for the rest of the week. Thanks.

  • Micah

    I didnt particularly like this koan. The nun, basically, commits suicide- something which I do not feel is in line with the dharma because it does not show compassion for one’s self (the dharma over and over again speaks about how fortunate a human birth is). I do know that Buddhist monks committed suicide in Vietnam during the war as a sign of protest. At the time, I suppose they felt that so many people were being mistreated that killing themselves was the only way to draw attention to the problem (more compassion for others than for themselves). I do not see this same principle in this koan.
    Also, by degrading the student and calling him “stupid” was a display of harsh speech. Again, against the dharma.
    I hope that this nun had accumulated really good karma before making such mistakes (IMHO) before death.
    Deep lesssons about the dharma that I got from this koan….
    No matter how “spiritual” a person has become they can still make unskillful actions, even in the end.


  • Kurtison

    What would one concern themselves with, if anything at all?

  • Micah,

    The monks in Vietnam understood that suicide would be damaging to their karma, but chose to proceed in order to make their protest stronger, and I cannot fault them for that. You have to admit it was a pretty effective form of protest. The sacrifice of one for a larger good is usually accepted. But you are right, Buddhists condemn suicide.

    Now onto this story.

    As you say, this nun committed suicide for no special reason other than age. I suspect that the author didn’t mean for that to be an important factor in this case because she was said to have been “about to leave this world” anyway. Yes, it’s technically suicide, but I think this is more a literary trick to get the character into the fire than a true depiction of real events or advocating suicide.

    I took the story as a demonstration of the power of meditation and the nun’s control over her body that she didn’t care about the fire and couldn’t conceive why the monk outside would waste his concern on something as petty as a “stupid” body. So the nun was to be commended for her power of concentration and control; she had given up the attachment to her body.

    I’m not necessarily right or wrong and neither are you; the point of these stories is to see different things by looking at them in different ways.

  • Jami

    Perhaps, she said ‘stupid’ because it was really ‘hot’.

  • Micah

    Thanks Brian for your comment.

    You stated “a demonstration of the power of meditation and the nun‚Äôs control over her body that she didn‚Äôt care about the fire…”

    One of the very first signposts that ever pointed me toward Buddhism was a fameous picture of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk sitting in lotus position while his body was being consumed by flames (I’m sure many are familiar with the fameous photo). It was then that I thought “wow, if someone could be that calm while being burned alive, then maybe there is something to this whole meditation thing”
    I’m not sure if I will ever get to the point of being that calm and I certainly will never do the ‘flame test’ to see but hopefully I can get to the point that I can easily endure my toddler’s temper tantrums 🙂

    Still think the nun was misguided and mean 🙂

  • Josh Lawler

    To me, this koan is very similar to the phrase “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

    Not, in fact, because they are similar in meaning – but because if any piece of this koan is taken too literally, it would most definitely blind the student from the wisdom being portrayed.

  • Pete

    To me asking if its hot in there is like asking a prisoner if its lonely in his prison cell when he’s been incarcerated for several years. Its a stupid question to an obvious answer.