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Koan: How Grass and Trees Become Enlightened

Koan: How Grass & Trees Become Enlightened

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.

10 comments to Koan: How Grass and Trees Become Enlightened

  • Do grass and trees need to BECOME enlightened? Seems to me, they ALREADY are!

  • Matt

    I think the tendai school was teaching the non-duality of the universe. That the trees and the grass were one and the same as the student. That enlightenment involves and applies to all things as one, and dharma is there in all of it. I think that Shinkan was pointing out how how the 50 year old man was just being stupid by wasting too much time on this little detail, as instructive as it might be. The man was attached to this detail in a harmful way that was not originally intended.

  • Matt

    Maybe I’ve just made the same mistake?

  • Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, ‘Mistake? Of course you made a mistake! You were born; weren’t you?’ I always took him to mean, ‘Afther such a wopper, why sweat the little stuff?!’


    There is no such thing as trivial questions. Shinkan should have given the man the honest answer which would have been that he did not know the answer to question. This was just a way for shinkan to brush off the man and maintain his own superiority.


    To many minds. Think, not think.

  • Barron

    The 50 year old studied enlightenment his whole life, but never the enlightenment of self. He always wondered about what is outside, never inside. Perhaps he spent the next 50 years studying self-enlightenment.

  • Walt

    It’s like the master hitting him on the head and telling him to go make his bed.

  • Anonymous

    It is like a joke. You are missing the point. It is not the 50 year old that is rebuked.

  • S-Salimi

    The master means that we must not waste our time questioning stupid questions.