Gudo was the teacher of the Emperor of Japan. Nevertheless, he used to travel alone as a wandering beggar. Once, he approached a little village called Takenaka while he was on his way to the Eastern capital. That evening, a heavy rain thoroughly soaked Gudo. While passing a farmhouse near Takenaka, he noticed four or five pairs of sandals in the window. His straw sandals being in pieces, he decided to buy some dry ones.
The woman who offered him the sandals noticed he was wet and invited him to remain for the night in her home. Gudo accepted, thanking her. He entered and recited a sutra before the family shrine. He then was introduced to the woman’s mother and her children. Observing that the entire family was depressed, Gudo 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. Buy a gallon of fine wine and something good to eat. Then you may retire. I will meditate before the shrine.”
When the husband returned about midnight, quite drunk, he bellowed: “Wife, I am home. Have you something for me to eat?”
"I have something for you," said Gudo. “I found myself caught in the rain. Your wife kindly asked me to remain here for the night. In return, I have bought some wine and fish. You might as well have them.”
The man was delighted. He drank the wine at once and laid himself down on the floor. Gudo 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 still was meditating.
“I am Gudo of Kyoto. I am traveling 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 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 walking. After they had gone three miles, Gudo 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, after they traveled ten miles.
“I am going to follow you all the rest of my life,” declared the man.
Modern Zen teachers 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.
This koan makes it clear that there is no nobility or high priesthood of Zen. The best of teachers can come from the worst of circumstances. All that is required is to awaken our perception of the truth of reality. In this story, Mu-nan woke up to the realization that we wanted more out of life than drinking and gambling.
Naturally, Mu-nan would never have changed if not for the concern and generosity of his wife. If she did not welcome this man, apparently a wet beggar, into her home, then she would not have been spared the torments and abuses of her husband. As a Zen Buddhist, Gudo would naturally want to help Mu-nan out of a desire for the betterment of all sentient beings, but he would not have thought to help Mu-nan without the intervention by Mu-nan's wife. Gudo did not only save Mu-nan but Mu-nan's wife as well.
I still have unanswered questions about this koan that I will continue to explore. For example, I don't understand the purpose of giving Mu-nan fine wine and fish. Gudo's gift did not directly aid in Mu-nan's salvation, as he did not recall it the next day. Perhaps it illustrates to the reader that fine things such as wine and fish are soon forgotten; only enlightenment permanently helps us. Leave a comment below if you have any thoughts.