Green Koan Case 54: Nichiren’s One-Eyed Turtle

Clark Strand

CASE #54:    Nichiren’s One-Eyed Turtle

Nichiren Daishonin wrote: “This is as rare as the one-eyed turtle finding a suitable hollow in a floating sandalwood log, or a thread lowered from the heavens passing through the eye of a needle on earth. How wondrous!”

Nichiren Daishonin     Nichiren (1222 – 1282) is the founder of the sect of Japanese Buddhism that bears his name. Nichiren Buddhists believe it is possible to attain Buddhahood in this lifetime by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (the title of the Lotus Sutra) with an attitude of intense devotion and faith. Daishonin is an honorific, meaning “Great Saint” or “Great Sage.”

The one-eyed turtle     Sometimes also referred to in the Mahayana sutras as a “blind turtle.” The most famous reference occurs in the “King Wonderful Adornment” chapter of the Lotus Sutra, in which Shakyamuni says that encountering a Buddha is as rare as a one-eyed turtle finding a floating sandalwood log with a hollow in it just the right size to shelter him. The Agama Sutra speaks of a blind sea turtle with a lifespan of immeasurable kalpas who lives at the bottom of the sea. Once every hundred years he rises to the surface in search of the one log in the ocean that can shelter him. Naturally, the likelihood of his finding that one log is very slight. The image of a thread in the heavens lowered through the eye of a needle on earth has essentially the same meaning.

Think of it another way. What are the chances of a thread being lowered down from deep time through the hundred million needle’s eyes of successive DNA molecules to the bumblebee you see resting on a blossom…or, for that matter, to the blossom itself? There are so many ways it could not have happened—and only one way that it could.

The dharma is precious because everything is precious. What are the chances of waking up to this Great Reality that Nichiren called Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the ultimate reality that pervades all phenomena in the universe? Pretty slim, until we realize that—for this moment, at least—there are bees and blossoms everywhere.


The oceans may rage,
But underneath the waters
The Leviathans
Frisk and frolick together
In the Land of Tranquil Light.

Find all the Green Koans here.

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Teara's picture

The message is so clear from the example that was stated here. Yeah, finding a Buddha or encountering one is hotels on catalina island very rare scenario. And I think there is no better example that could be given to draw out the difficulty in that.

Dominic Gomez's picture

In 1952, the chances were one out of 2.635 billion (estimated population of human beings on Earth at the time) that I would have been born to a Mr. and Mrs. Gomez in San Francisco, California. Luck of the draw? good karma? Some would say it would've been easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a one-eyed loggerhead like me to swim up to the surface of the phenomenal world and come across the one set of circumstances that would turn out to be the perfect fit.