Zen Koans seem like paradoxes at first. The reason is that Koans are not meant to be understood by the intellect, but by intuition. Pondering over these riddles can help us unravel greater truths about our world and ourselves. This breakdown isn’t meant to substitute the insight the Koans are meant to invoke, but merely aid in getting there.
This Koan is lengthier than most, so you might want to set aside time to ponder over this one:
From “101 Zen Stories”:
” Gudo was the emperor’s teacher of his time. Nevertheless, he used to travel alone as a wandering mendicant. Once when he was on his way to Edo, the cultural and political center of the shogunate, he approached a little village named Takenaka. It was evening, and heavy rain was falling. Gudo was thoroughly wet. His straw sandals were in pieces. At a farmhouse near the village, he noticed four or five pairs of shoes in the window and decided to buy some dry ones.
The woman who offered him the sandals, seeing how wet he was, invited him in to remain for the night in her home. Guido accepted, thanking her. He entered and recited a sutra before the family shrine. He was then introduced to the women’s mother, and to her children. Observing that the entire family was depressed, Guido asked what was wrong.
“My husband is a gambler and a drunkard,” the housewife told him. “When he happens to win he drinks and becomes abusive. When he loses, he borrows money from others. Sometimes when he becomes thoroughly drunk, he does not come home at all. What can I do?”
“I will help him,” said Gudo. “Here is some money. Get me a gallon of fine wine and something good to eat. Then you may retire. I will meditate before the shrine.”
When the man of the house returned about midnight, quite drunk, he bellowed: “Hey, wife, I am home. Have you something for me to eat?”
“I have something for you,” said Gudo. “I happened to catch in the rain, and your wife kindly asked me to remain here for the night. In return I have bought some wine and fish, so you might as well have them.”
The man was delighted. He drank the wine at once and laid himself down on the floor. Guido sat in meditation beside him.
In the morning when the husband awoke, he had forgotten about the previous night. “Who are you? Where do you come from?” he asked Gudo, who was still meditating.
“I am Guido of Kyoto, and I am going on to Edo,” replied the Zen master.
The man was utterly ashamed. He apologized profusely to the teacher of his emperor.
Gudo smiled. “Everything in this life is impermanent,” he explained. “Life is very brief. If you keep on gambling and drinking, you will have no time left to accomplish anything else, and you will cause your family to suffer too.”
The perception of the husband awoke as if from a dream. “You are right,” he declared. “How can I ever repay you for this wonderful teaching! Let me see you off and carry your things a little way.”
“If you wish,” assented Gudo.
The two started out. After they had gone three miles, Guido told him to return. “Just another five miles,” he begged Gudo. They continued.
“You may return now,” suggested Gudo.
“After another ten miles,” the man replied.
“Return now,” said Gudo, when the ten miles had passed.
“I am going to follow you all the rest of my life,” declared the man.
Modern Zen teachings in Japan spring from the lineage of a famous master who was the successor of Gudo. His name was Mu-nan, the man who never turned back. ”
Even though Gudo’s lesson about life being very brief is essential, it’s not the only lesson to be derived from this story. Mu-nan was not a reliable father or husband. He turned to drinking and gambling as a form of escape from his lifestyle. Instead of moving on, he decided to remain with the family, despite his destructive behavior. His obsession with following Gudo shows just how much he had lost his way and how desperate he was to rediscover it.
Had Guido not shown up, Mu-nan would’ve lived and died a drunk. By following his new master, as obsessively as he pursued drinking and gambling, there was hope for him as an individual, since he had failed at being a family man. Sometimes one has to leave the past behind, other times you need to be at the moment to solve your problems. Otherwise, you become a problem. Maybe Mu-nan would return as a more present individual and take responsibility for his family; perhaps he would realize that his family is better off without him. Either way, something needed to be changed.