The Unicorn in the Garden: A Zen Story Retold

The Unicorn in the Garden: A Zen Story Retold July 9, 2019



So, my old friend in the dharma, the Zen teacher Dosho Port send me a note saying how he enjoyed my retelling the koan like parable of the laborers in the Vineyard, noting how it reminded him of the traditional koan “Sushan’s Memorial Tower.” And. Well. One thing leads to another. And. Here’s a retelling of that one…


The Unicorn in the Garden

A Traditional koan retold

James Myoun Ford

Once upon a time long ago and far away there was a priest of the intimate way. He lived in a small house adjacent to an ancient temple dedicated to the goddess of compassion. His name was Clear of Obstructions.

Clear of Obstructions’ wife had died three years before. And their children had grown and moved on to their own lives. He was secretly proud that his middle daughter had become a priest herself. And she was currently leading a major training temple just outside the capital. He, himself, had always been content being a simple country priest.

But he was aging. And, decided to order a memorial marker for his grace. He’d picked out a nice spot in the graveyard attached to the temple, it stood in the shade of a large apple tree. And so he asked his assistant priest, a sincere student of the way, to arrange for the carving of the stone.

Later his assistant came to him and informed Clear of Obstructions that the monument had been carved. Clear of Obstructions asked, “And what will you pay him?”

His assistant demurred, saying, “Master, I think that’s for you to decide.”

Clear of Obstructions said, “Well. Should we give the artisan three silver coins, two, or one?” He paused and looked at his assistant. “If you can respond to that correctly, it would be a vastly greater monument than any carved by the finest artisan.”

His assistant simply had no idea how to respond.

Sometime after that a wandering monastic visited with Master Bird Net at his hermitage deep into the mountains, and told him about this conversation. Hearing this, he smiled a small smile. “And,” he inquired, “Has anyone answered that question?”

“No,” replied the monastic.

“Then,” said the hermit, “Please go to Master Clear of Obstruction and tell him this for me. Tell him that if he pays the artisan three silver coins, he will never have a monument in his lifetime. Should he pay two silver coins, he’ll be entering into conspiracies with the artisan. And, if he gives a single silver coin, the damage will be so terrible, that everyone will see through his machinations, and he will be revealed as an old fraud.”

Not sure what to make of this, the monastic immediately took off down the mountain path and made his way to Master Clear of Obstruction’s temple. There he bowed, embarrassed, and told the master what the hermit had said to say.

The old master heard this, stood and turned toward the mountains and made a deep bow. He said, “I thought there was no one in the entire country.” And then he sighed. “But that generous teacher Bird Net, as true as any ancient master of our intimate way, sent out a healing light. It warms my heart. He is like a blade of grass breaking through a concrete sidewalk.” He paused, and decided it was long past time to write a letter to his daughter.

Later, when the monastic returned to Bird Net and told him about the encounter, the hermit muttered, “I may have said those words. But at this point it’s like a unicorn wandering into my garden.”

With this, he turned and walked back into his hermitage.

(Entangling Vines, Case 132)

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