The Dark Art of Teaching: A Koan, Almost


Ikkyū and Sōgi rake the garden. Afternoon wanes.

Ikkyū picks up a small piece of … rolled paper, charred? “What is this?”

Sōgi looks. “Oh. Hmm. Nothing, Master. Probably just a piece of rubbish that blew over the wall. It was windy last night.”

“I didn’t hear any wind.”

“Your snoring perhaps drowned it out.”

“I do not snore.”

“No? Then I maybe I heard one of the bears I’m told sometimes roam the halls at night. Here, I’ll get rid of that.”

He snatches the roll of paper from Ikkyū’s fingers and pulls up his robe, depositing the bit of refuse in the pocket of the shorts he’s wearing underneath.

Ikkyū shakes his head. “I hear sometimes those bears wander the gardens, too.”

* * *

Master Dōken hands Sōgi a set of chopsticks.

“Thank you, Master. But … we have chopsticks. Are these special?”

“Yes, young Sōgi. They’re useful for pulling weeds and picking up trash. Take them when you meet the gardener each morning this month.”

Sōgi slumps. He stands, bows, and turns for the door.

Once the student is gone Master Dōken falls into a spasm of laughter.

* * *

“You knew.”

Ikkyū sits on the bank of the water garden. “A young man thinks he invented youth. A koan, almost.”

Sōgi takes some bread from his shorts, smooths his robe and and sits beside the master. “You didn’t have to rat me out.”

Ikkyū smiles. “How will you learn if you don’t suffer the pettiness of old men?”

“Aren’t you supposed to teach us by … I don’t know, teaching us? You have experience and wisdom, according to the web site.”

“It can be difficult to teach those who think you are wise.”

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