Zen stories

1. A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

2. The Burden

Two monks were returning to the monastery in the evening. It had rained and there were puddles of water on the road sides. At one place a beautiful young woman was standing unable to walk accross because of a puddle of water. The elder of the two monks went up to a her lifted her and left her on the other side of the road, and continued his way to the monastery. In the evening the younger monk came to the elder monk and said, “Sir, as monks, we cannot touch a woman?” The elder monk answered “yes, brother”. Then the younger monk asks again, “but then Sir, how is that you lifted that woman on the roadside?” The elder monk smiled at him and told him ” I left her on the other side of the road, but you are still carrying her.”

3. Finding a Piece of the Truth

One day Mara, the Evil One, was travelling through the villages of India with his attendants. he saw a man doing walking meditation whose face was lit up on wonder. The man had just discovered something on the ground in front of him. Mara’s attendant asked what that was and Mara replied, “A piece of truth.” “Doesn’t this bother you when someone finds a piece of truth, O Evil One?” his attendant asked. “No,” Mara replied. “Right after this, they usually make a belief out of it.”

4. The Other Side

One day a young Buddhist on his journey home came to the banks of a wide river. Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle in front of him, he pondered for hours on just how to cross such a wide barrier. Just as he was about to give up his pursuit to continue his journey he saw a great teacher on the other side of the river. The young Buddhist yells over to the teacher, “Oh wise one, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river”? The teacher ponders for a moment looks up and down the river and yells back, “My son, you are on the other side”.

5. Is That So?

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life. A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child. This made her parents very angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin. In great anger the parents went to the master. “Is that so?” was all he would say. When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. “Is that so?” Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child. A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket. The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again. Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: “Is that so?”

6. Maybe

Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

7. Cliffhanger

One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice. As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious!

8. The Blind Men and the Elephant

Several citizens ran into a hot argument about God and different religions, and each one could not agree to a common answer. So they came to the Lord Buddha to find out what exactly God looks like. The Buddha asked his disciples to get a large magnificent elephant and four blind men. He then brought the four blind to the elephant and told them to find out what the elephant would “look” like. The first blind men touched the elephant leg and reported that it “looked” like a pillar. The second blind man touched the elephant tummy and said that an elephant was a wall. The third blind man touched the elephant ear and said that it was a piece of cloth. The fourth blind man hold on to the tail and described the elephant as a piece of rope. And all of them ran into a hot argument about the “appearance” of an elephant. The Buddha asked the citizens: “Each blind man had touched the elephant but each of them gives a different description of the animal. Which answer is right?”

9. Right and Wrong

When Bankei held his seclusion-weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled. Bankei ignored the case. Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again Bankei disregarded the matter. This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they would leave in a body.

When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. “You are wise brothers,” he told them. “You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave.” A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.

10. Nothing Exists

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku. Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry. “If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”

11. Teaching the Ultimate

In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns were used with candles inside. A blind man, visiting a friend one night, was offered a lantern to carry home with him. “I do not need a lantern,” he said. “Darkness or light is all the same to me.” “I know you do not need a lantern to find your way,” his friend replied, “but if you don’t have one, someone else may run into you. So you must take it.” The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him. “Look out where you are going!” he exclaimed to the stranger. “Can’t you see this lantern?” “Your candle has burned out, brother,” replied the stranger.

12. Empty Your Cup

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “You are like this cup,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.”

13. Wanting God

A hermit was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him. “Master, I wish to become your disciple,” said the man. “Why?” replied the hermit. The young man thought for a moment. “Because I want to find God.” The master jumped up, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, dragged him into the river, and plunged his head under water. After holding him there for a minute, with him kicking and struggling to free himself, the master finally pulled him up out of the river. The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his breath.

When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke. “Tell me, what did you want most of all when you were under water.” “Air!” answered the man. “Very well,” said the master. “Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air.”

14. Useless Life

A farmer got so old that he couldn’t work the fields anymore. So he would spend the day just sitting on the porch. His son, still working the farm, would look up from time to time and see his father sitting there. “He’s of no use any more,” the son thought to himself, “he doesn’t do anything!” One day the son got so frustrated by this, that he built a wooden coffin, dragged it over to the porch, and told his father to get in. Without saying anything, the father climbed inside. After closing the lid, the son dragged the coffin to the edge of the farm where there was a high cliff. As he approached the drop, he heard a light tapping on the lid from inside the coffin. He opened it up. Still lying there peacefully, the father looked up at his son. “I know you are going to throw me over the cliff, but before you do, may I suggest something?” “What is it?” replied the son. “Throw me over the cliff, if you like,” said the father, “but save this good wooden coffin. Your children might need to use it.”

15. Transient

A famous spiritual teacher came to the front door of the King’s palace. None of the guards tried to stop him as he entered and made his way to where the King himself was sitting on his throne. “What do you want?” asked the King, immediately recognizing the visitor.”I would like a place to sleep in this inn,” replied the teacher. “But this is not an inn,” said the King, “It is my palace.” “May I ask who owned this palace before you?” “My father. He is dead.” “And who owned it before him?” “My grandfather. He too is dead.” “And this place where people live for a short time and then move on, did I hear you say that it is not an inn?”

16. Without Blinking

During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived – everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger. “You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. “And do you realize,” the master replied calmly, “that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

17. Bicycle

A Zen Teacher saw five of his students return from the market, riding their bicycles. When they had dismounted, the teacher asked the students, “Why are you riding your bicycles?” The first student replied, “The bicycle is carrying this sack of potatoes. I am glad that I do not have to carry them on my back!” The teacher praised the student, saying, “You are a smart boy. When you grow old, you will not walk hunched over, as I do.” The second student replied, “I love to watch the trees and fields pass by as I roll down the path.” The teacher commended the student, “Your eyes are open and you see the world.” The third student replied, “When I ride my bicycle, I am content to chant, nam myoho renge kyo.” The teacher gave praise to the third student, “Your mind will roll with the ease of a newly trued wheel.” The fourth student answered, “Riding my bicycle, I live in harmony with all beings.” The teacher was pleased and said, “You are riding on the golden path of non-harming.” The fifth student replied, “I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle.” The teacher went and sat at the feet of the fifth student, and said, “I am your disciple.”

18. Egotism

The Prime Minister of the Tang Dynasty was a national hero for his success as both a statesman and military leader. But despite his fame, power, and wealth, he considered himself a humble and devout Buddhist. Often he visited his favorite Zen master to study under him, and they seemed to get along very well. The fact that he was prime minister apparently had no effect on their relationship, which seemed to be simply one of a revered master and respectful student.

One day, during his usual visit, the Prime Minister asked the master, “Your Reverence, what is egotism according to Buddhism?” The master’s face turned red, and in a very condescending and insulting tone of voice, he shot back, “What kind of stupid question is that!?” This unexpected response so shocked the Prime Minister that he became sullen and angry. The Zen master then smiled and said, “THIS, Your Excellency, is egotism.”

19. Desparate

The son of a master thief asked his father to teach him the secrets of the trade. The old thief agreed and that night took his son to burglarize a large house. While the family was asleep, he silently led his young apprentice into a room that contained a clothes closet. The father told his son to go into the closet to pick out some clothes. When he did, his father quickly shut the door and locked him in. Then he went back outside, knocked loudly on the front door, thereby waking the family, and quickly slipped away before anyone saw him. Hours later, his son returned home, bedraggled and exhausted. “Father,” he cried angrily, “Why did you lock me in that closet? If I hadn’t been made desperate by my fear of getting caught, I never would have escaped. It took all my ingenuity to get out!” The old thief smiled. “Son, you have had your first lesson in the art of burglary.”

20. Maybe

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

21. Holy Man

Word spread across the countryside about the wise Holy Man who lived in a small house atop the mountain. A man from the village decided to make the long and difficult journey to visit him. When he arrived at the house, he saw an old servant inside who greeting him at the door.“I would like to see the wise Holy Man,” he said to the servant. The servant smiled and led him inside. As they walked through the house, the man from the village looked eagerly around the house, anticipating his encounter with the Holy Man. Before he knew it, he had been led to the back door and escorted outside. He stopped and turned to the servant, “But I want to see the Holy Man!” “You already have,” said the old man. “Everyone you may meet in life, even if they appear plain and insignificant… see each of them as a wise Holy Man. If you do this, then whatever problem you brought here today will be solved.”

22. Fleeing the Tiger

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a lucious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

23. Just Two Words

There once was a monastery that was very strict. Following a vow of silence, no one was allowed to speak at all. But there was one exception to this rule. Every ten years, the monks were permitted to speak just two words. After spending his first ten years at the monastery, one monk went to the head monk. “It has been ten years,” said the head monk. “What are the two words you would like to speak?” “Bed… hard…” said the monk. “I see,” replied the head monk. Ten years later, the monk returned to the head monk’s office. “It has been ten more years,” said the head monk. “What are the two words you would like to speak?” “Food… stinks…” said the monk. “I see,” replied the head monk. Yet another ten years passed and the monk once again met with the head monk who asked, “What are your two words now, after these ten years?” “I… quit!” said the monk. “Well, I can see why,” replied the head monk. “All you ever do is complain.”

24. Real Prosperity

A rich man asked Sengai to write something for the continued prosperity of his family so that it might be treasured from generation to generation. Sengai obtained a large sheet of paper and wrote: “Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.” The rich man became angry. “I asked you to write something for the happiness of my family! Why do you make such a joke of this?” “No joke is intended,” explained Sengai. “If before you yourself die your son should die, this would grieve you greatly. If your grandson should pass away before your son, both of you would be broken-hearted. If your family, generation after generation, passes away in the order I have named, it will be the natural course of life. I call this real prosperity.”

25. Concentration

After winning several archery contests, the young and rather boastful champion challenged a Zen master who was renowned for his skill as an archer. The young man demonstrated remarkable technical proficiency when he hit a distant bull’s eye on his first try, and then split that arrow with his second shot. “There,” he said to the old man, “see if you can match that!” Undisturbed, the master did not draw his bow, but rather motioned for the young archer to follow him up the mountain. Curious about the old fellow’s intentions, the champion followed him high into the mountain until they reached a deep chasm spanned by a rather flimsy and shaky log. Calmly stepping out onto the middle of the unsteady and certainly perilous bridge, the old master picked a far away tree as a target, drew his bow, and fired a clean, direct hit. “Now it is your turn,” he said as he gracefully stepped back onto the safe ground. Staring with terror into the seemingly bottomless and beckoning abyss, the young man could not force himself to step out onto the log, no less shoot at a target. “You have much skill with your bow,” the master said, sensing his challenger’s predicament, “but you have little skill with the mind that lets loose the shot.” 

26. The Tunnel

Zenkai, the son of a samurai, journeyed to Edo and there became the retainer of a high official. He fell in love with the official’s wife and was discovered. In self-defence, he slew the official. Then he ran away with the wife. Both of them later became thieves. But the woman was so greedy that Zenkai grew disgusted. Finally, leaving her, he journeyed far away to the province of Buzen, where he became a wandering mendicant. To atone for his past, Zenkai resolved to accomplish some good deed in his lifetime. Knowing of a dangerous road over a cliff that had caused death and injury to many persons, he resolved to cut a tunnel through the mountain there. Begging food in the daytime, Zenkai worked at night digging his tunnel. When thirty years had gone by, the tunnel was 2,280 feet long, 20 feet high, and 30 feet wide. Two years before the work was completed, the son of the official he had slain, who was a skillful swordsman, found Zenkai out and came to kill him in revenge. “I will gived you my life willingly,” said Zenkai. “Only let me finish this work. On the day it is completed, then you may kill me.” So the son awaited the day. Several months passed and Zenkai kept digging. The son grew tired of doing nothing and began to help with the digging. After he had helped for more than a year, he came to admire Zenkai’s strong will and character. At last the tunnel was completed and the people could use it and travel safely. “Now cut off my head,” said Zenkai. “My work is done.” “How can I cut off my own teacher’s head?” asked the younger man with tears in his eyes.

27. Taste of Banzo’s Sword

Matajuro Yagyu was the son of a famous swordsman. His father, believing that his son’s work was too mediocre to anticipate mastership, disowned him. So Matajuro went to Mount Futara and there found the famous swordsman Banzo. But Banzo confirmed the father’s judgment. “You wish to learn swordsmanship under my guidance?” asked Banzo. “You cannot fulfill the requirements.” “But if I work hard, how many years will it take to become a master?” persisted the youth.“The rest of your life,” replied Banzo.“I cannot wait that long,” explained Matajuro. “I am willing to pass through any hardship if only you will teach me. If I become your devoted servant, how long might it be?” “Oh, maybe ten years,” Banzo relented. “My father is getting old, and soon I must take care of him,” continued Matajuro. “If I work far more intensively, how long would it take me?” “Oh, maybe thirty years,” said Banzo. “Why is that?” asked Matajuro. “First you say ten and now thirty years. I will undergo any hardship to master this art in the shortest time!” “Well,” said Banzo, “in that case you will have to remain with me for seventy years. A man in such a hurry as you are to get results seldom learns quickly.” “Very well,” declared the youth, understanding at last that he was being rebuked for impatience, “I agree.” Matajuro was told never to speak of fencing and never to touch a sword. He cooked for his master, washed the dishes, made his bed, cleaned the yard, cared for the garden, all without a word of swordmanship. Three years passed. Still Matajuro labored on. Thinking of his future, he was sad. He had not even begun to learn the art to which he had devoted his life. But one day Banzo crept up behind him and gave him a terrific blow with a wooden sword. The following day, when Matajuro was cooking rice, Banzo again sprang upon him unexpectedly. After that, day and night, Matajuro had to defend himself from unexpected thrusts. Not a moment passed in any day that he did not have to think of the taste of Banzo’s sword. He learned so rapidly he brought smiles to the face of his master. Matajuro became the greatest swordsman in the land.

28. Wash Your Bowl

A new monk came up to the master Joshu. “I have just entered the brotherhood and I am anxious to learn the first principle of Zen,” he said. “Will you please teach it to me?”Joshu said, “Have you eaten your supper?” The novice answered, “I have eaten.” Joshu said, “Now wash your bowl.”

29. Self-Control

One day there was an earthquake that shook the entire Zen temple. Parts of it even collapsed. Many of the monks were terrified. When the earthquake stopped the teacher said, “Now you have had the opportunity to see how a Zen man behaves in a crisis situation. You may have noticed that I did not panic. I was quite aware of what was happening and what to do. I led you all to the kitchen, the strongest part of the temple. It was a good decision, because you see we have all survived without any injuries. However, despite my self-control and composure, I did feel a little bit tense – which you may have deduced from the fact that I drank a large glass of water, something I never do under ordinary circumstances.” One of the monks smiled, but didn’t say anything. “What are you laughing at?” asked the teacher. “That wasn’t water,” the monk replied, “it was a large glass of soy sauce.”

30. Inviting the Robe

Wealthy patrons invited Ikkyu to a banquet. Ikkyu arrived dressed in his beggar’s robes. The host, not recognizing hin, chased him away. Ikkyu went home, changed into his ceremonial robe of purple brocade, and returned. With great respect, he was received into the banquet room. There, he put his robe on the cushion, saying, “I expect you invited the robe since you showed me away a little while ago,” and left.

31. The Most Valuable Thing in the World

Sozan, a Chinese Zen master, was asked by a student: “What is the most valuable thing in the world?” The master replied: “The head of a dead cat.” “Why is the head of a dead cat the most valuable thing in the world?” inquired the student. Sozan replied: “Because no one can name its price.”

32. If You Love, Love Openly

Twenty monks and one nun, who was named Eshun, were practicing meditation with a certain Zen master. Eshun was very pretty even though her head was shaved and her dress plain. Several monks secretly fell in love with her. One of them wrote her a love letter, insisting upon a private meeting. Eshun did not reply. The following day the master gave a lecture to the group, and when it was over, Eshun arose. Addressing the one who had written to her, she said: “If you really love me so much, come and embrace me now.”

33. Destiny

During a momentous battle, a Japanese general decided to attack even though his army was greatly outnumbered. He was confident they would win, but his men were filled with doubt. On the way to the battle, they stopped at a religious shrine. After praying with the men, the general took out a coin and said, “I shall now toss this coin. If it is heads, we shall win. If tails, we shall lose. Destiny will now reveal itself.” He threw the coin into the air and all watched intently as it landed. It was heads. The soldiers were so overjoyed and filled with confidence that they vigorously attacked the enemy and were victorious. After the battle, a lieutenant remarked to the general, “No one can change destiny.” “Quite right,” the general replied as he showed the lieutenant the coin, which had heads on both sides.

34. Bell Teacher

A new student approached the Zen master and asked how he should prepare himself for his training. “Think of me as a bell,” the master explained. “Give me a soft tap, and you will get a tiny ping. Strike hard, and you’ll receive a loud, resounding peal.”

35. Zen in a Beggar’s Life

Tosui was a well-known Zen teacher of his time. He had lived in several temples and taught in various provinces. The last temple he visited accumulated so many adherents that Tosui told them he was going to quit the lecture business entirely. He advised them to disperse and go wherever they desired. After that no one could find any trace of him. Three years later one of his disciples discovered him living with some beggars under a bridge in Kyoto. He at once implored Tosui to teach him. “If you can do as I do for even a couple days, I might,” Tosui replied. So the former disciple dressed as a beggar and spent the day with Tosui. The following day one of the beggars died. Tosui and his pupil carried the body off at midnight and buried it on a mountainside. After that they returned to their shelter under the bridge. Tosui slept soundly the remainder of the night, but the disciple could not sleep. When morning came Tosui said: “We do not have to beg food today. Our dead friend has left some over there.” But the disciple was unable to eat a single bite of it. “I have said you could not do as I,” concluded Tosui. “Get out of here and do not bother me again.” The wife of a man became very sick. On her deathbed, she said to him, “I love you so much! I don’t want to leave you, and I don’t want you to betray me. Promise that you will not see any other women once I die, or I will come back to haunt you.” For several months after her death, the husband did avoid other women, but then he met someone and fell in love. On the night that they were engaged to be married, the ghost of his former wife appeared to him. She blamed him for not keeping the promise, and every night thereafter she returned to taunt him. The ghost would remind him of everything that transpired between him and his fiancee that day, even to the point of repeating, word for word, their conversations. It upset him so badly that he couldn’t sleep at all. Desperate, he sought the advice of a Zen master who lived near the village. “This is a very clever ghost,” the master said upon hearing the man’s story. “It is!” replied the man. “She remembers every detail of what I say and do. It knows everything!” The master smiled, “You should admire such a ghost, but I will tell you what to do the next time you see it.” That night the ghost returned. The man responded just as the master had advised. “You are such a wise ghost,” the man said, “You know that I can hide nothing from you. If you can answer me one question, I will break off the engagement and remain single for the rest of my life.” “Ask your question,” the ghost replied. The man scooped up a handful of beans from a large bag on the floor, “Tell me exactly how many beans there are in my hand.” At that moment the ghost disappeared and never returned.

36. The Thief Who Became a Disciple

One evening as Shichiri Kojun was reciting sutras a thief with a sharp sword entered, demanding either money or his life. Shichiri told him: “Do not disturb me. You can find the money in that drawer.” Then he resumed his recitation. A little while afterwards he stopped and called: “Don’t take it all. I need some to pay taxes with tomorrow.” The intruder gathered up most of the money and started to leave. “Thank a person when you receive a gift,” Shichiri added. The man thanked him and made off. A few days afterwards the fellow was caught and confessed, among others, the offence against Shichiri. When Shichiri was called as a witness he said: “This man is no thief, at least as far as I am concerned. I gave him money and he thanked me for it.” After he had finished his prison term, the man went to Shichiri and became his disciple.

37. Zen Dialogue

Zen teachers train their young pupils to express themselves. Two Zen temples each had a child protege. One child, going to obtain vegetables each morning, would meet the other on the way. “Where are you going?” asked the one. “I am going wherever my feet go,” the other responded. This reply puzzled the first child who went to his teacher for help. “Tomorrow morning,” the teacher told him, “when you meet that little fellow, ask him the same question. He will give you the same answer, and then you ask him: ‘Suppose you have no feet, then where are you going?’ That will fix him.” The children met again the following morning. “Where are you going?” asked the first child. “I am going wherever the wind blows,” answered the other. This again nonplussed the youngster, who took his defeat to his teacher. “Ask him where he is going if there is no wind,” suggested the teacher. The next day the children met a third time. “Where are you going?” asked the first child. “I am going to the market to buy vegetables,” the other replied.

38. Mokusen’s Hand

Mokusen Hiki was living in a temple in the province of Tamba. One of his adherents complained of the stinginess of his wife. Mokusen visited the adherent’s wife and showed her his clenched fist before her face. “What do you mean by that?” asked the surprised woman. “Suppose my fist were always like that. What would you call it?” he asked. “Deformed,” replied the woman. The he opened his hand flat in her face and asked: “Suppose it were always like that. What then?” “Another kind of deformity,” said the wife. “If you understand that much,” finished Mokusen, “you are a good wife.” Then he left. After his visit, this wife helped her husband to distribute as well as to save.

39. Teacups

A student asked Suzuki Roshi why the Japanese make their teacups so thin and delicate that they break easily. “It’s not that they’re too delicate,” he answered, “but that you don’t know how to handle them. You must adjust yourself to the environment, and not vice versa.”

40. Why physical and mental pain is priceless

What is the purpose of pain? We spend our lives trying to avoid it, and yet we would be so much worse off without it. It is easy to see why physical pain is important. The sharp unpleasantness of this sensation is precisely what makes us remove our hand from a hot stove so quickly, saving us from being burnt. To see the alternative, we only need look to leprosy. In his autobiography Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, leprosy surgeon Dr. Paul Brand recounts his discovery that people with leprosy do not actually have unhealthy flesh – their problem is that they cannot feel pain. The fingers and toes of people with leprosy do not fall off of their own accord. Instead, Dr. Brand discovered that they were being gnawed off by rats during the night, while the victim – unable to feel the pain – slept on obliviously. Similarly, Dr. Brand linked leprosy to blindness through his observation that people with leprosy do not blink, which is once again a result of their inability to feel pain. After reading his book, you will never again doubt the importance of physical pain. So what about mental pain? Does this also serve as an important warning system in the same way as physical pain? I think that the analogy holds, with mental pain alerting us to the state of our thinking. As a general rule, when thinking becomes self-centred or anxious, mental pain will occur. When thinking is compassionate, positive and relaxed, our minds are light and at peace. Just as we should be grateful for physical pain for protecting our bodies, so we should also be grateful for mental pain, for providing important signals on the path to happiness and enlightenment. However, there is one important difference with mental pain: the responses are not hard-coded. In the case of physical pain, responses are generally inbuilt: When you cut your finger, it hurts – this is true for me, it is true for you, it is true for a newborn baby. With mental pain, the responses are not so set in stone. A good example is when we do something malicious to an enemy. Some people will take joy in this action, whereas some people will feel shame. The former response is wrong. Because malice is a harmful state both for ourselves and for others, it should generate mental pain. However, for some people, this is not the case. Nevertheless, as our level of understanding increases, we become more aware of the harm resulting from malice and this state will then become associated with mental pain. In fact, it is only a question of delay. Malicious actions cause pain for everyone, the only variable is the length of time that it takes to feel this pain. The higher our level of understanding, the faster we feel the pain, and thus the easier it is for us to learn from our mistakes. Hence, pain is essential for a healthy physical and mental life. Unpleasant though it may be, we should always be grateful for the experience. Furthermore, through introspection and experience, we can develop our understanding further and allow the system of mental pain to work more effectively.

41. Don’t be competitive!

Although competitiveness is often glorified, it is actually very harmful both to our spiritual development and also to our relationships. There are two fundamental problems with competitiveness: The first is that we give too much prominence to our ego, considering ourselves to be more important than others. The second is that we become overly attached to what are often very trivial matters. Both of these contradict the premises of spirituality and will cause conflict in our daily lives. Competitiveness comes in many forms. The classic one is to be obsessed with winning. Competitive people want to win in even the most trivial of matters, such as a game of tiddlywinks. Of course, there is nothing wrong with competing for fun, but only provided that we are not genuinely concerned with the result. If we find ourselves experiencing a sense of deflation when we lose, then we have a problem. In the first place there is the sheer absurdity of the situation. We are letting our self-worth be defined by our ability to play tiddlywinks. Second, we are failing to respect our opponent’s desire to also win the game. We are somehow considering ourselves to be more important, and thus considering our own success to be more desirable. We must counter these notions by recognizing the equality between all beings. We must recognize that this concept of ego, the concept of “I”, is nothing more than a mental fabrication, and should not be put up on a pedestal. We must learn to rejoice in the accomplishments of others, and understand that we can all succeed and be happy when we work together. This concept may initially be easiest to see with our friends (with whom, ironically, we often compete the most), and can then be extended to all beings. We can also counter competitiveness by keeping the bigger picture in mind and not becoming attached to one tiny area of our life. Our self-worth is not defined by our ability to play tiddlywinks, or tennis, or even by our ability to ace exams. We must put these qualities alongside qualities such as kindness to others, and see that they are not so important. Then we may be less obsessed with whatever we are competing about. Remember, competitiveness is not restricted to playing a game. It also manifests as a desire to be right in an argument, which can once again be over something trivial such as the definition of a word. It may arise as jealousy – perhaps that our friend is more popular than we are. It also arises as the desire to be the acknowledged expert on a subject: For example, we wish to be the one to demonstrate the correct golf swing – we do not want our equally accomplished friend to demonstrate it. Thus, we must be on the lookout for competitiveness in all areas of our life. We must constantly be on guard for jealousy and attachment. When we find that our pride is hurt, or that our relationships are burdened with conflict, competitiveness is probably present. In such situations, we must counter it in the way described.

42. Practice patience!

There are so many opportunities to practise patience in life: in a queue, while a web page loads, while we wait for our colleague to finish speaking. Most of us treat these moments as a hassle, a bother, a time to live through while we wait for something more interesting. We regret that queues exist, we wish computers were faster. We have this anxious, highly strung attitude, believing we are always in a rush. Our quality of life suffers as a result. We do not enjoy life to its fullest. aA good example is when walking. I find that I have two speeds at which I walk. The first is a purposeful stride, designed to get me to my destination as quickly as possible. The second is more of a casual saunter. At this second speed, I thoroughly enjoy my journey, almost oblivious to my destination. Although it is slower, I cherish every minute, and thus consider this speed to be more efficient. We must have this attitude with all of life. The fastest and most impatient way is not always the most efficient. It is worth relaxing and slowing down if our whole life gets more enjoyable as a result. Of course, it is also possible to be in a rush and still feel relaxed, but this takes practice. Furthermore, it is only possible to do if there is a genuine reason for our rush, rather than just a general sense of being highly-strung. The paradox of the modern age is that everything is so much more efficient, and yet we are more stressed and rushed than ever before. The problem lies in our attitudes. We are so focused on getting things done that we have forgotten how to enjoy what we are doing. We must learn to practise patience again, to forget the rush, and to let things happen at their own pace.

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