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Zen Koan Matsu Drowning Monk


It is sunrise in the temple courtyard. As the day’s first flowers bloom, Old Master Matsu takes his morning walk leaving no footprints and then settles in for life, death, or a deep meditation.  However, as of late a monk has been bothering The Venerable One in the middle of his meditation.

“Master, what is the secret of Zen?” this foolish monk asks every morning.

The Ancient One breathes deep and once again settles in. Master Matsu does not suffer fools easily and will not be disturbed.

“Master, what is the secret of Zen?” this foolish monk continues to ask Old Matsu at every sunrise. Matsu breathes finding his seat.

One morning, even the birds in the trees have quieted out of profound awareness for the Great Master Matsu’s meditation. Too soon the inevitable arrives. “Master, what is the secret of Zen?”

The Venerable One, overtaken by a sense of duty and compassion towards his charge, swiftly rises grabbing the fool by his neck and dragging him over to the water trough where he forces the monk’s head under three feet of ice-cold rainwater.  He holds it under, filled with respect for the struggling monk, knowing the fool is just on the edge of a meaningful discovery.

After some time, Master Matsu in a show of his well-known benevolence, allows the monk to surface. “While you were drowning, what was the one thing you desired more than anything else?” Matsu asked.

The choking monk answered without thinking, “To breathe!” and Matsu dropped hold of the monk.

“Good,” The Master softly spoke, for he was very old.  “Now, you go breathe and let me meditate.”


While sitting in meditation thoughts come and go.  It is best to treat them as just coming – just going, and continue meditation.

Enlightenment is to be found in the midst of samsara, the mundane life experience.


The secret of Zen is in the direct living experience of what would otherwise be only an academic philosophical statement. You can’t hand a hungry man a note that says “sandwich,” because nothing less than the solid reality will suffice.

If Master Matsu were to answer this monk’s query using only words, would they satisfy? While fighting for his life this monk realizes that breathing in the moment is everything. The Great Master, The Venerable One, the compassionate Matsu, by first near drowning the monk, and then speaking to him is gifting him directly with Zen as an experience taking all of one’s attention at each moment.

Matsu’s asking what the monk desired more than anything at that moment is the Master’s teaching on how to meditate in the zazen fashion, the intensity and focus that are to be practiced. It also serves as a reminder that zazen, harmony as a moment to moment flow, to be meaningful, must be practiced both on and off the meditation pillow – only then does one walk  the Zen path.

“Now, you go breathe…” is only the first opportunity this monk will have to practice Zen.


In the autumn of that year, Master Matsu asked the monk who was meditating, “What is the secret of Zen?” Matsu waited a long time for an answer before striking the monk with his bamboo staff. “Why do you not answer me, you foolish monk?”

“No footprints,” was all the monk said.

Matsu handed the monk his bamboo staff and was on his way.