This story draws on different versions of the tale, particularly from the book, Beyond the Pale of Vengeance, translated by Rev Jisho Perry (a monk of our Order) and Kimiko Vaga, and published in the USA by Shasta Abbey Press. A short version can also be found as ‘The Tunnel’ in Zen Flesh Zen Bones, published by Penguin / Tuttle.
Beyond the Pale of Vengeance
Ichikuro, the son of a samurai warrior, journeyed to Edo in Japan to become a samurai at the service of Lord Saburobei. But he became involved with the official’s wife. When the affair was discovered, though he didn’t intend to, he killed his master in self-defence. He was deeply ashamed. And fearful of the consequences, Ichikuro and the master’s wife took flight.
They took to thieving, and soon became deadly bandits. But his partner in crime grew so greedy that Ichikuro became completely sickened by everything. In the end he left and journeyed to a neighbouring province, reduced to wandering, aimless and distraught. Then one day, he came upon a Buddhist temple. He confessed his crimes and talked of giving himself up. But the priest there saw that Ichikuro was genuinely remorseful and wished to make amends. He knew that he would certainly be executed. He advised Ichikuro not to throw away his life, but to dedicate it to the benefit of all beings. Thus Ichikuro became a monk with the name Ryokai, and he went on pilgrimage to atone for his past.
And so Ichikuro, now Ryokai, resolved to help travellers in whatever way he could find. But his deeds felt completely trivial alongside the enormity of what he had done. The more he helped, the heavier his burden seemed to become. Then one day he came across a group of anguished people standing by a fragile walkway. Their friend had just slipped and fallen into a deep gorge. He was told the walkway was there because it was impossible to build a road through such sheer mountains. Many travellers had been injured or had died.
At once Ryokai realised the great deed he inwardly was being called to undertake. He resolved there and then to dig out a tunnel through the mountains to make the route safe.
Being a Buddhist monk, Ryokai begged for food alms by day and spent his nights digging the tunnel. The local villagers were convinced he was mad in attempting such an impossible task, and no-one offered to help him. So he worked on alone. And much time went by before, gradually, the villagers’ scorn began to turn to sympathy. They started to help him. And after 20 years, the tunnel was more than 2,000 feet long.
But before the tunnel was completed, the son of the official he had killed, found out where Ryokai was. By now he was himself a skilful swordsman and warrior, and he vowed to kill Ryokai in revenge, to defend his family’s honour. As the son approached, enraged, the villagers, and by now stonemasons who had joined them, realised what was about to happen. They surrounded Ryokai. They pleaded with the son to let Ryokai live until the tunnel was completed. They promised him he could then do what he wanted.
After much arguing, the son very reluctantly agreed, and he just waited. Time went by. Ryokai kept on digging. The son grew impatient of just waiting. To hasten the day he too began to dig, as he realised Ryokai would not try to escape. So the two enemies sat side by side, hammering and digging. Months and months went by, and the son continued to work alongside Ryokai. Despite himself, he came, at times, to respect the old monk’s intention, determination, and patient effort.
Then, at last, the tunnel was completed and people and opened up a safe route for travellers. ‘Now kill me’, said Ryokai. ‘My work is done. My great prayer has been answered. If you wait until tomorrow the villagers will surely stop you. Please kill me now’.
But the son could only sit motionless in front of Ryokai. Seeing the old monk infused with such inner calm and joy made the idea of killing him inconceivable. Crawling towards Ryokai, he took his hands into his own, all thoughts of revenge forgotten – how could he possibly kill someone from whom he had learnt so very much? Tears streamed down his cheeks.
(This text adapted by Paul Taylor (Lancaster) is from the book Beyond the Pale of Vengence, published in USA by a monk of our order.)
*The service included inviting representatives of different faith communities, each to read or tell a story from their own faith tradition. The guidance was that the stories needed to last no more than five minutes each – there were four stories. As part of the service the congregation was divided into four groups and each group went on a journey round the church to hear each story in turn. This was in keeping with the national theme for Holocaust week, of ‘Journeys’.