17 Zen & Taoist Stories
Relating effectively in our marriages, as parents and with ourselves requires the greatest discipline and mental and emotional mindsets. How do we develop these? Like any skill or ability, we study the masters. Here are a few examples from the rich Zen and Toaist traditions. Consider how you might apply these ancient examples in your real-life today relationships.
The Gift of Insults
There once lived a great warrior. Though quite old, he still was able to defeat any challenger. His reputation extended far and wide throughout the land and many students gathered to study under him.
One day an infamous young warrior arrived at the village. He was determined to be the first man to defeat the great master. Along with his strength, he had an uncanny ability to spot and exploit any weakness in an opponent. He would wait for his opponent to make the first move, thus revealing a weakness, and then would strike with merciless force and lightning speed. No one had ever lasted with him in a match beyond the first move.
Much against the advice of his concerned students, the old master gladly accepted the young warrior's challenge. As the two squared off for battle, the young warrior began to hurl insults at the old master. He threw dirt and spit in his face. For hours he verbally assaulted him with every curse and insult known to mankind. But the old warrior merely stood there motionless and calm. Finally, the young warrior exhausted himself. Knowing he was defeated, he left feeling shamed.
Somewhat disappointed that he did not fight the insolent youth, the students gathered around the old master and questioned him. "How could you endure such an indignity? How did you drive him away?"
"If someone comes to give you a gift and you do not receive it," the master replied, "to whom does the gift belong?"
Two traveling monks reached a river where they met a young woman. Wary of the current, she asked if they could carry her across. One of the monks hesitated, but the other quickly picked her up onto his shoulders, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other bank. She thanked him and departed.
As the monks continued on their way, the one was brooding and preoccupied. Unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. "Brother, our spiritual training teaches us to avoid any contact with women, but you picked that one up on your shoulders and carried her!"
"Brother," the second monk replied, "I set her down on the other side, while you are still carrying her."
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
"Come on, girl," said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. "We monks don't go near females," he told Tanzan, "especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"
"I left the girl there," said Tanzan. "Are you still carrying her?"
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."
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."
The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there. In the dream he had no awareness of his individuality as a person. He was only a butterfly. Suddenly, he awoke and found himself laying there, a person once again. But then he thought to himself, "Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?"
After ten years of apprenticeship, Tenno achieved the rank of Zen teacher. One rainy day, he went to visit the famous master Nan-in. When he walked in, the master greeted him with a question, "Did you leave your wooden clogs and umbrella on the porch?"
"Yes," Tenno replied.
"Tell me," the master continued, "did you place your umbrella to the left of your shoes, or to the right?"
Tenno did not know the answer, and realized that he had not yet attained full awareness. So he became Nan-in's apprentice and studied under him for ten more years.
A new student approached the Zen master and asked how he should prepare himself for his training. "Think of me 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."
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. "May be," 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. "May be," 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. " May be ," said the farmer.
More Is Not Enough: The Stone Cutter
There was once a stone cutter who was dissatisfied with himself and with his position in life.
To his great surprise, he suddenly became the merchant, enjoying more luxuries and power than he had ever imagined, but envied and detested by those less wealthy than himself. Soon a high official passed by, carried in a sedan chair, accompanied by attendants and escorted by soldiers beating gongs. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, had to bow low before the procession. "How powerful that official is!" he thought. "I wish that I could be a high official!"One day he passed a wealthy merchant's house. Through the open gateway, he saw many fine possessions and important visitors. "How powerful that merchant must be!" thought the stone cutter. He became very envious and wished that he could be like the merchant.
Then he became the high official, carried everywhere in his embroidered sedan chair, feared and hated by the people all around. It was a hot summer day, so the official felt very uncomfortable in the sticky sedan chair. He looked up at the sun. It shone proudly in the sky, unaffected by his presence. "How powerful the sun is!" he thought. "I wish that I could be the sun!"
Then he became the sun, shining fiercely down on everyone, scorching the fields, cursed by the farmers and laborers. But a huge black cloud moved between him and the earth, so that his light could no longer shine on everything below. "How powerful that storm cloud is!" he thought. "I wish that I could be a cloud!"
Then he became the cloud, flooding the fields and villages, shouted at by everyone. But soon he found that he was being pushed away by some great force, and realized that it was the wind. "How powerful it is!" he thought. "I wish that I could be the wind!"
Then he became the wind, blowing tiles off the roofs of houses, uprooting trees, feared and hated by all below him. But after a while, he ran up against something that would not move, no matter how forcefully he blew against it - a huge, towering rock. "How powerful that rock is!" he thought. "I wish that I could be a rock!"
Then he became the rock, more powerful than anything else on earth. But as he stood there, he heard the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into the hard surface, and felt himself being changed. "What could be more powerful than I, the rock?" he thought.
He looked down and saw far below him the figure of a stone cutter.
No More Questions
Upon meeting a Zen master at a social event, a psychiatrist decided to ask him a question that had been on his mind. "Exactly how do you help people?" he inquired.
"I get them where they can't ask any more questions," the Master answered.
A student once asked his teacher, "Master, what is enlightenment?"
The master replied, "When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep."
(Interesting note: During a Stress-Busting seminar, while I was explaining the concept that our children are Little Zen Masters a participant asked me to elaborate as she didn't understand what I meant. I explained that Zen masters rarely give the answer straight out, but that it must be sought after. I asked her what her children do differently from adults. She listed several aspects of how unconcerned they are with the many trappings of life and then she ended with the statement: "When they're hungry, they eat and when they are tired they sleep." I then told her the above story, and that through her observation of her children she had learned a great truth of the power of living in the present moment and of mindfulness. Her task now was to apply it. —Jonathan Sherman)
A master of the tea ceremony in old Japan once accidentally slighted a soldier. He quickly apologized, but the rather impetuous soldier demanded that the matter be settled in a sword duel. The tea master, who had no experience with swords, asked the advice of a fellow Zen master who did possess such skill. As he was served by his friend, the Zen swordsman could not help but notice how the tea master performed his art with perfect concentration and tranquility. "Tomorrow," the Zen swordsman said, "when you duel the soldier, hold your weapon above your head, as if ready to strike, and face him with the same concentration and tranquility with which you perform the tea ceremony." The next day, at the appointed time and place for the duel, the tea master followed this advice. The soldier, readying himself to strike, stared for a long time into the fully attentive but calm face of the tea master. Finally, the soldier lowered his sword, apologized for his arrogance, and left without a blow being struck.
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."
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?"
Working Very Hard
A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, "I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it." The teacher's reply was casual, "Ten years." Impatiently, the student answered, "But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?" The teacher thought for a moment, "20 years."
Salt & Water
An aging master grew tired of his apprentice’s complaints. One morning, he sent him to get some salt. When the apprentice returned, the master told him to mix a handful of salt in a glass of water and then drink it.
“How does it taste?” the master asked.
“Bitter,” said the apprentice.
The master chuckled and then asked the young man to take another handful of salt and put it in the lake. The two walked in silence to the nearby lake and once the apprentice swirled his handful of salt in the water, the old man said, “Now drink from the lake.”
As the water dripped down the young man’s chin, the master asked, “How does it taste?”
“Fresh,” remarked the apprentice.
“Do you taste the salt?” asked the master.
“No,” said the young man.
At this the master sat beside this serious young man, and explained softly, “The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains exactly the same. However, the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become a lake.”
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.
alternate version: A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone previously revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter's accusation, he simply replied "Is that so?"
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 fish market. 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?”
alternate version: or many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened. "Is that so?" Hakuin said as he handed them the child.
That was my first 17 stories I collected.... Here are a whole bunch more...
A 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 wood 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 wood coffin. Your children might need to use it."
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."
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 greeted 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."
The great Zen teacher, Benzei had many pupils. One day, one of them was caught stealing by his fellow-students and they reported him to Benzei. But he took no action against the boy.
A few days later the same boy was again caught stealing. And again Benzei did nothing. This angered the other students who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief. They threatened to leave en masse if the boy was allowed to stay.
The teacher called a meeting of the students. When they had assembled he said to them: “You are good boys who know what is right and what is wrong. If you leave you will have no trouble in joining some other school. But what about your brother who does not even know the difference between right and wrong? Who will teach him if I don’t? No, I cannot ask him to go even if it means losing all of you.”
Tears coursed down the cheeks of the boy who had stolen. He never stole again and in later life became renowned for his integrity.
Making A Difference
Ryokan was a Zen teacher of repute. One day a fisherman saw him walking on the beach soon after a storm. The storm had washed up thousands of starfish on the shore, and they were beginning to dry up. Soon all of them would be dead. Ryokan was picking up starfish and throwing them into the sea.
The fisherman caught up with the teacher and said, “Surely, you cannot hope to throw all these starfish back into the sea? They will die in their thousands here. I’ve seen it happen before. Your effort will make no difference.”
“It will to this one,” said Ryokan, throwing back another starfish into the sea.
A Zen student said to his teacher, “ Master, I have an ungovernable temper. Help me get rid of it.”
“ You have something very strange,” said the teacher.
“Show it to me.”
“ Right now I cannot show it to you.”
“ It arises suddenly.”
“ Then it cannot be your own true nature,” said the teacher, “if it were, you would be able to show it to me at any time. Why are you allowing something that is not yours to trouble your life?”
Thereafter whenever the student felt his temper rising he remembered his teacher’s words and checked his anger. In time, he developed a calm and placid temperament.
Let It Be
Once Buddha was walking from one town to another town with a few of his followers. This was in the initial days. While they were traveling, they happened to pass a lake. They stopped there and Buddha told one of his disciples, “I am thirsty. Do get me some water from that lake there.”
The disciple walked up to the lake. When he reached it, he noticed that right at that moment, a bullock cart started crossing through the lake. As a result, the water became very muddy, very turbid. The disciple thought, “How can I give this muddy water to Buddha to drink!”
So he came back and told Buddha, “The water in there is very muddy. I don’t think it is fit to drink.” After about half an hour, again Buddha asked the same disciple to go back to the lake and get him some water to drink. The disciple obediently went back to the lake.
This time too he found that the lake was muddy. He returned and informed Buddha about the same. After sometime, again Buddha asked the same disciple to go back. The disciple reached the lake to find the lake absolutely clean and clear with pure water in it. The mud had settled down and the water above it looked fit to be had. So he collected some water in a pot and brought it to Buddha.
Buddha looked at the water, and then he looked up at the disciple and said,” See what you did to make the water clean. You let it be…. and the mud settled down on its own – and you got clear water. Your mind is also like that! When it is disturbed, just let it be. Give it a little time. It will settle down on its own. You don’t have to put in any effort to calm it down. It will happen. It is effortless.
Alan Watts said that he once gave a book of Zen stories to a friend who was ill. When the friend recovered, Alan asked him what he thought about the book. The friend said that he did not understand it but after reading it, he felt better.
The master Bankei's talks were attended not only by Zen students but by persons of all ranks and sects. He never quoted sutras nor indulged in scholastic dissertations. Instead, his words were spoken directly from his heart to the hearts of his listeners.
His large audiences angered a priest of the Nichiren sect because the adherents had left to hear about Zen. The self-centered Nichiren priest came to the temple, determined to debate with Bankei.
"Hey, Zen teacher!" he called out. "Wait a minute. Whoever respects you will obey what you say, but a man like myself does not respect you. Can you make me obey you?"
"Come up beside me and I will show you," said Bankei.
Proudly the priest pushed his way through the crowd to the teacher.
Bankei smiled. "Come over to my left side."
The priest obeyed.
"No," said Bankei, "we may talk better if you are one the right side. Step over here."
The priest proudly stepped over to the right.
"You see," observed Bankei, "you are obeying me and I think you are a very gentle person. Now sit down and listen."
The Moon Cannot be Stolen
Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. "You may have come a long way to visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift."
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow,' he mused, "I wish I could give him this beautiful moon."
Anyone walking about Chinatowns in America will observe statues of a stout fellow carrying a linen sack. Chinese merchants call him Happy Chinaman or Laughing Buddha.
This Hotei lived in the T'ang dynasty. He had no desire to call himself a Zen master or to gather many disciples about him. Instead he walked the streets with a big sack into which he would put gifts of candy, fruit, or doughnuts. These he would give to children who gathered around him in play. He established a kindergarten of the streets.
Whenever he met a Zen devotee he would extend his hand and say: "Give me one penny." And if anyone asked him to return to a temple to teach others, again he would reply: "Give me one penny."
Once as he was about his play-work another Zen master happened along and inquired: "What is the significance of Zen?"
Hotei immediately plopped his sack down on the ground in silent answer. "Then," asked the other, "what is the actualization of Zen?"
At once the Happy Chinaman swung the sack over his shoulder and continued on his way.
A university student while visiting Gasan asked him: "Have you ever read the Christian bible?"
"No read it to me," said Gasan.
The student opened the Bible and read from Matthew: "And why concern yourself with clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these...Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow will take thought for the things of itself."
Gasan said: "Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened man."
The student continued reading: "Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone that asks receives, and he that seeds finds, and to him that knocks, it shall be opened."
Gasan remarked: "That is excellent. Whoever said that is a Buddha."
Buddha told a parable in a sutra: 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 luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
When Eshun, the Zen nun, was past sixty and about to leave this world, she asked some monks to pile up wood in the yard. Seating herself firmly in the center of the funeral pyre, she had it set fire around the edges.
"O nun!" shouted one monk, "is it hot in there?"
"Such a matter would concern only a stupid person like yourself," answered Eshun.
The flames arose, and she passed away.
Three Day's More
Suiwo, the disciple of Hakuin, was a good teacher. During one summer seclusion period, a pupil came to him from a southern island of Japan. Suiwo gave him the problem: "Hear the sound of one hand."
The pupil remained three years but could not pass this test. One night he came in tears to Suiwo. "I must return south in shame and embarrassment," he said, "for I cannot solve my problem."
"Wait one week more and meditate constantly," advised Suiwo. Still no enlightenment came to the pupil. "Try for another week," said Suiwo. The pupil obeyed, but in vain.
"Still another week." Yet this was of no avail. In despair the student begged to be released, but Suiwo requested another meditation of five days. They were without result. Then he said: "Meditate for three days longer, then if you fail to attain enlightenment, you had better kill yourself."
On the second day the pupil was enlightened.
Understanding ≠ Understanding
Provided he makes and wins an argument about Buddhism with those who live there, any wandering monk can remain in a Zen temple. If he is defeated, he has to move on.
In a temple in the northern part of Japan two brother monks were dwelling together. The elder one was learned, but the younger one was stupid and had but one eye.
A wandering monk came and asked for lodging, properly challenging them to a debate about the sublime teachings. The elder brother, tired that day from much studying, told the younger one to take his place. "Go and request the dialogue in silence," he cautioned.
So the young monk and the stranger went to the shrine and sat down.
Shortly afterwards the traveler rose and went in to the elder brother and said: "Your young brother is a wonderful fellow. He defeated me."
"Relate the dialogue to me," said the elder one.
"Well," explained the traveler, "first I held up one finger, representing Buddha, the enlightened one. So he held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teaching. I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teaching, and his followers, living the harmonious life. Then he shook his clenched fist in my face, indicating that all three come from one realization. Thus he won and so I have no right to remain here." With this, the traveler left.
"Where is that fellow?" asked the younger one, running in to his elder brother.
"I understand you won the debate."
"Won nothing. I'm going to beat him up."
"Tell me the subject of the debate," asked the elder one.
"Why, the minute he saw me he held up one finger, insulting me by insinuating that I have only one eye. Since he was a stranger I thought I would be polite to him, so I held up two fingers, congratulating him that he has two eyes. Then the impolite wretch held up three fingers, suggesting that between us we only have three eyes. So I got mad and started to punch him, but he ran out and that ended it!"
Publishing the Sutras
Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, which at that time were available only in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.
Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.
It happened that at that time the Uji Rive overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.
Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people. For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing blocks which produced the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.
The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.
A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, "I am devoted to studying your system. How long will it take me to master it." The teacher's reply was casual, "Ten years." Impatiently, the student answered, "But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?" The teacher thought for a moment, "20 years."
Elephant and Flea
Roshi Kapleau agreed to educate a group of psychoanalysts about Zen. After being introduced to the group by the director of the analytic institute, the Roshi quietly sat down upon a cushion placed on the floor. A student entered, prostrated before the master, and then seated himself on another cushion a few feet away, facing his teacher.
"What is Zen?" the student asked.
The Roshi produced a banana, peeled it, and started eating.
"Is that all? Can't you show me anything else?" the student said.
"Come closer, please," the master replied.
The student moved in and the Roshi waved the remaining portion of the banana before the student's face. The student prostrated, and left.
A second student rose to address the audience. "Do you all understand?"
When there was no response, the student added, "You have just witnessed a first-rate demonstration of Zen. Are there any questions?"
After a long silence, someone spoke up. "Roshi, I am not satisfied with your demonstration. You have shown us something that I am not sure I understand. It must be possible to TELL us what Zen is." "If you must insist on words," the Roshi replied, "then Zen is an elephant copulating with a flea."
Destiny or Choice?
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 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.
A Tibetan story tells of a meditation student who, while meditating in his room, believed he saw a spider descending in front of him. Each day the menacing creature returned, growing larger and larger each time. So frightened was the student, that he went to his teacher to report his dilemma. He said he planned to place a knife in his lap during meditation, so when the spider appeared he would kill it.
The teacher advised him against this plan. Instead, he suggested, bring a piece of chalk to meditation, and when the spider appeared, mark an "X" on its belly. Then report back.
The student returned to his meditation. When the spider again appeared, he resisted the urge to attack it, and instead did just what the master suggested.
When he later reported back to the master, the teacher told him to lift up his shirt and look at his own belly. There was the "X".
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?"
The Old Woman and the Tea Shop
The Zen master Hakuin used to tell his students about an old woman who owned a tea shop in the village. She was skilled in the tea ceremony, Hakuin said, and her understanding of Zen was superb. Many students wondered about this and went to the village themselves to check her out. Whenever the old woman saw them coming, she could tell immediately whether they had come to experience the tea, or to probe her grasp of Zen. Those wanting tea she served graciously. For the others wanting to learn about her Zen knowledge, she hid until they approached her door and then attacked them with a fire poker. Only one out of ten managed to escape her beating.
The Old Man on the Mountain
One day a child goes to his mother and asks her, "Ma, who is that old man sitting on the mountain? " Mother answers, "Don't call him an old man, for he is Lord Buddha, who knows the answer to every question in this universe." "Really, he knows answers to all questions?" asks the child. "Yes my dear" replies the mother. The child goes to the mountain where Buddha is meditating, catches a butterfly in from the garden, and cupping the butterfly gently in his hands, he aproaches Buddha. Keeping his hand behind his back, he asks Buddha? " Is the thing in my hand alive or dead?" The child thinks that if Buddha answers that the thing is alive, he will crush the butterfly in his hand and show the dead butterfly proving Buddha wrong. And if Buddha answers that the thing is dead, he will open his gently cupped hand, allowing the butterfly to fly away showing that the butterfly was alive and again proving Buddha wrong. Thus Buddha did not know the answer to all questions. " Is the thing in my hand alive or dead?" repeats the eager child. The Buddha opens his eyes, nods his head and replies, "My dear son, the answer lies in your hands!"
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 piece 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 as 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."
In the early days of the Meiji era there lived a well-known wrestler called O-nami, Great Waves. O-nami was immensely strong and knew the art of wrestling. In his private bouts he defeated even his teacher, but in public he was so bashful that his own pupils threw him. O-nami felt he should go to a Zen master for help. Hakuju, a wandering teacher, was stopping in a little temple nearby, so O-nami went to see him and told him of his trouble. "Great Waves is your name," the teacher advised, "so stay in this temple tonight, Imagine that you are those billows. You are no longer a wrestler who is afraid. You are those huge waves sweeping everything before them, swallowing in all their path. Do this and you will be the greatest wrestler in the land." The teacher retired. O-nami sat in meditation trying to imagine himself as waves. He thought of many different things. Then gradually he turned more and more to the feeling of the waves. As the night advanced the waves became larger and larger. They swept away the flowers in their vases. Even the Buddha in the shrine was inundated. Before dawn the temple was nothing but the ebb and flow of an immense sea. In the morning the teacher found O-nami meditating, a faint smile on his face. He patted the wrestler's shoulder. "Now nothing can disturb you," he said. "You are those waves. You will sweep everything before you." The same day O-nami entered the wrestling contests and won. After that, no one in Japan was able to defeat him.
What am I
In Tokyo in the Meiji era there lived two prominent teachers of opposite characteristics. One, Unsho, an instructor in Shingon, kept Buddha's precepts scrupulously. He never drank intoxicants, nor did he eat after eleven o'clock in the morning. The other teacher, Tanzan, a professor of philosophy at the Imperial University, never observed the precepts. Whenever he felt like eating, he ate, and when he felt like sleeping in the daytime he slept. One day Unsho visited Tanzan, who was drinking wine at the time, not even a drop of which is suppposed to touch the tongue of a Buddhist. "Hello, brother," Tanzan greeted him. "Won't you have a drink?" "I never drink!" exclaimed Unsho solemnly "One who does not drink is not even human," said Tanzan. "Do you mean to call me inhumam just because I do not indulge in intoxicating liquids!" exclaimed Unsho in anger. "Then if I am not human, what am I?" "A Buddha," answered Tanzan.
A farmer came into town and asked the owner of a restaurant if he could use a million frog legs. The restaurant owner was shocked and asked the man where he could get so many frog legs! The farmer replied, "There is a pond near my house that is full of frogs - millions of them. They all croak all night long and they are about to make me crazy!" So the restaurant owner and the farmer made an agreement that the farmer would deliver frogs to the restaurant, five hundred at a time for the next several weeks. The first week, the farmer returned to the restaurant looking rather sheepish, with two scrawny little frogs. The restaurant owner said, "Well... where are all the frogs?" The farmer said, "I was mistaken. There were only these two frogs in the pond. But they sure were making a lot of noise!"
Going for salt
A turtle family decided to go on a picnic. Turtles, being naturally slow about things, took seven years to prepare for their outing. Finally the turtle family left home looking for a suitable place. During the second year of their journey they found a place ideal for them at last! For about six months they cleaned the area, unpacked the picnic basket, and completed the arrangements. Then they discovered they had forgotten the salt. A picnic without salt would be a disaster, they all agreed. After a lengthy discussion, the youngest turtle was chosen to retrieve the salt from home. Although he was the fastest of the slow moving turtles, the little turtle whined, cried, and wobbled in his shell. He agreed to go on one condition: that no one would eat until he returned. The family consented and the little turtle left. Three years passed and the little turtle had not returned. Five years... six years...then on the seventh year of his absence, the oldest turtle could no longer contain his hunger. He announced that he was going to eat and begun to unwrap a sandwich. At that point the little turtle suddenly popped out from behind a tree shouting, "See! I knew you wouldn't wait. Now I am not going to go get the salt."
I think you're right
Nasrudin was asked to be the judge in a dispute between two neighbors. The first presented his case and Nasrudin said, "I think you're right." Then the second presented his case and Nasrudin said, "I think you're right." A bystander protested. "But, Nasrudin, they cannot both be right." And Nasrudin said, "I think you're right."
When the Tesshu, a master of Zen, calligraphy and swordsmanship, was a young man he called on the Zen master Dokuon. Wishing to impress Dokuon he said, “The mind, the Buddha, and all sentient beings after all do not exist. The true nature of phenomenon is emptiness. There is no realisation, no delusion, no sagacity, no mediocrity, nothing to give and nothing to receive." Dokuon promptly hit him with a bamboo stick. Tesshu became quite furious. Dokuon said quietly: “If nothing exists, where did this anger come from?”
A Flexible Grip
Tesshu once met a street fighter nicknamed ‘The terror of Edo,’ who had had more than thirty sword fights without once being defeated. Tesshu asked him where he had learned his skill. The street fighter replied that he was entirely self taught.“Then how did you succeed?” asked Tesshu.“As soon as the fight began I would get close enough to touch the tip of my enemy’s sword with my own. If he held his sword stiffly I knew I could win easily, but if he held his sword in a flexible grip with a strong projection of ki, I didn’t take the risk of a fight. If I meet such a man I throw my sword at him and run away, and thus remain undefeated.”
The Assembly of the Cats
Once there was a sword master called Shoken, who lived in a house infested with a large rat. This rat was truly ferocious, and no matter how hard Shoken chased it with his bokuto he could not kill it. Fortunately, one of Shoken’s neighbours was a cat breeder who specialised in training his cats to kill rats. Shoken asked if he might borrow a cat to catch the rat.The cat trainer gave Shoken a viscous ginger alley cat, a real street fighter with sharp claws. But when the cat came to face the rat, the rat stood it’s ground and the cat was afraid. Shoken returned the cat to the cat master.“Must be some rat,” said the breeder, and gave Shoken a lean black and white cat. “This cat has had years of training, and is highly skilled.” The second cat fought with the rat, but the rat was able to beat it easily.Shoken went back to the cat breeder, and retuned with a jet black cat. The black cat had a very strong presence, projecting a quiet confidence. “This cat has mastered flawless technique, and has developed his mind through meditation. His zanshin is truly powerful. This cat will get the rat,” the master had said. But this cat also was defeated.When Shoken returned to the cat master, the master said. “Very well, this time I will give you the master of the cats. This cat was old and grey, and did not look so impressive. Shoken took the cat home and brought it to face the rat. The rat moved to attack the old cat, but the old cat sat quietly unconcerned. Suddenly the rat felt a slight tinge of fear. The rat hesitated, and suddenly the old cat reached out a claw and killed the rat with a single strike.When Shoken brought the cat back to the breeder he asked him how it was that the old cat could kill the rat while the younger ones had such a hard time. “Come with me,” said the breeder, “I’m sure the cats will discuss this, and since cats know a great deal about martial arts I’m sure you will find their conversation interesting.” They listened in to the cats’ discussion.The ginger cat stood up and said, “I am very tough.”“Then why couldn’t you beat the rat? Because toughness is itself not enough. There will always be a tougher rat somewhere.” Said the old grey cat.The black and white cat spoke. “I have had years of training and impeccable technique, why could I not beat the rat?” “Because, although your waza is brilliant, and although you have had many years in the dojo, this is not enough in a real fight.“But I have perfected my body through training and my mind through meditation,” said the black cat, “I have flawless technique, and also have achieved enlightenment. Why did the rat defeat me?”“Because, Kuroi-san, although your skill is indeed great, and you have both spiritual and physical power you are not without desire. When you faced the rat you had an object in your mind, you did not have mushin. The rat sensed this, and his intuition was better than yours. Because you did not have mushin you were unable to harmonise your strength, your technique and you consciousness. I was able to use all these three elements naturally and unconsciously to defeat the rat. This is why I was successful.“But I know of another cat, in a village not far from here. His fur is snow white with age, and he’s not very strong looking. He doesn’t eat meat, but lives on vegetables and rice gruel, although he is known to take a little sake occasionally. He hasn’t caught a rat in years because the rats are all terrified of him! As soon as he walks into a house all the rats leave at once. Even in his sleep he chases away rats! We must all learn to be like him, beyond violence, beyond technique, beyond even the desire for skill.”
One Finger Zen
Gutei was a Zen teacher who had a habit of answering questions by simply raising a single finger. One day Gutei noticed a young boy imitating him. Someone had asked the boy what the master had taught that day, and the boy cheekily raised his finger. Gutei grabbed the boy suddenly and cut of his finger.The boy yelped and ran away, but Gutei called out to the boy. The boy stopped and looked back. As he did so Gutei raised his finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.
What Are You Saying?
When Munan was getting old he called his senior pupil, Shoju in to see him.“Shoju,” he said, “I am getting old. This book was handed to me by my teacher, to him from his teacher for seven generations. You will succeed me, and I am now passing the book to you.”Shoju declined to accept the book. “I have received your teaching without writing and am satisfied. I have no need for the book. Perhaps you should keep it.”“Even so,” said Munan, “you should take the book as a symbol of my teaching. This has been so for seven generations.” And he passed the book to Shoju.Shoju threw it into the fire.“What are you doing!” Shouted Munan.“What are you saying!” Shouted Shoju back.
Emperor Meiji’s Wrestling
Tesshu served in the household of the Emperor Meiji as Japan transformed from a feudal to a modern society. Meiji enjoyed Sumo wrestling and often wrestled with his aids. Since he was the Emperor his opponents always let him win, giving Meiji a false impression of his own abilities. One evening Tesshu was drinking sake with the emperor and some of the other aids when the emperor challenged Tesshu to a sumo match.Since he did wanted neither to humiliate the emperor nor fake a loss, Tesshu politely declined to wrestle the emperor. Meiji insisted and, having drunk a lot of sake, became angry at Tesshu’s continued refusal. Meiji began to shove Tesshu but found him to be solidly grounded. He threw a punch at Tesshu, but Tesshu moved slightly to the side, causing the emperor to lose his balance and tumble to the floor. Tesshu then pinned him to the ground while the other aids shouted at him to be appropriately respectful. Eventually Tesshu released the emperor and went to another room.Everyone demanded that Tesshu immediately apologise for causing such humiliation to the emperor, but Tesshu only said “If I deliberately let him throw me I would be nothing better than a lackey, whereas I have pledged my life to him. He must learn not to lose his temper and not to be a bully. If he does not learn defeat in a wrestling match he will become a tyrant. Tell him what I have said and if he orders me to commit suicide I will do so immediately.The emperor sent Tesshu a message to say that he would henceforth abstain from both sake and sumo.
A Test of Good Health
Matsuka, one of Tesshu’s students heard he was dying, but because Tesshu was only in his early 50s and always apparently in good health he did not believe it. Creeping into Tesshu’s room late at night he saw his teacher sitting zazen and jumped on him. Tesshu quickly pinned him to the ground, and seeing who it was demanded an explanation. The student however saw that his teacher was still strong and quickly ran away to tell the other students that there was nothing wrong with Tesshu. The following week Tesshu died of stomach cancer.
Pot Lid Zen
Yagyu Matajuro was a young member of the Yagyu family, famous for the family tradition of swordsmanship. However Matajuro’s father was disappointed in his son’s tendency towards laziness and banished him from the dojo. Matajuro, his pride stung resolved to seek out a master and return as a great swordsman. Matajuro journeyed to the Kumano shrine in the province of Kii, where he had heard of a great teacher called Banzo. The monks at the shrine told him that Banzo lived as a hermit in the nearby mountains, and showed him the trail to follow. Eventually he found Banzo asked to be accepted as a student.“How long will it take me to learn swordsmanship?” he asked.“The rest of your life,” was the reply.“I can’t wait that long. I will accept any hardship, and will devote myself completely to the study of swordsmanship.”“In that case, ten years.”“What if I train twice as hard?” tried Matajuro.“In that case, thirty years.”“Why is that? First you say ten then thirty years. I will do anything to learn, but I don’t have that much time.”“In that case, seventy years.”Sensing the direction of the conversation, Matajuro capitulated and agreed to work as long as it took, and do anything he was told. However, for the first year all Banzo had Matajuro do was to perform simple physical tasks such as chopping wood. After a year of this Matajuro was disappointed and demanded that Banzo teach him some swordsmanship. Banzo merely insisted that he chop wood.Matajuro went to the woodpile and was chopping, but inwardly he was furious. He resolved to leave Banzo the next day. But while he was chopping Banzo crept up behind him and struck him painfully with a wooden sword. “You want to learn swordsmanship, but you can’t even dodge a stick,” he said.From that day on Banzo would creep up on Matajuro and attack him with a wooden sword. Eventually Matajuro’s senses became heightened, and Banzo had to change tactics. Now Banzo would attack repeatedly, even when Matajuro was asleep. For the next four years Matajuro had not a moment’s rest from the fear of unexpected attack.One day, when Matajuro was stirring some food on the fire, Banzo crept up and attacked him by surprise. Without thinking Matajuro fended off the blow with the lid of the pot without taking his mind off stirring the food. That night Banzo wrote out a certificate of mastery for Matajuro.
When it is Possible to Break Study
One of Tesshu’s former students, Ogura Tetsuju, had undertaken a three year Zen retreat when he heard that Tesshu was on his death bed. He asked for, and was given, permission to visit his teacher one last time. However, when he arrived Tesshu refused to see him, saying only “Tell him the three years are not up yet.The day before he died Tesshu noticed that there were no sounds of training to be heard from the dojo. He was told that the students had decided to cancel training to be with him in his last hours. “Training is the only way to honour me!” he thundered, and ordered them back to training.
Carry It Out
A monk once asked Joshu “If I have nothing in my mind, what should I do?”“Throw it out.” Replied Joshu.“But if there is nothing in my mind how can I throw it out?”“Then,” said Joshu, “you will have to carry it out.”
Ryokan was a Zen master who lived a very simple life in the countryside. One summer evening, Ryokan returned home to find a thief in his house. The thief was looking for something to steal but could find nothing. “You have come a long way to visit,” said Ryokan, “I cannot let you return empty handed. Please accept my clothes as a gift.” The thief was so confused he grabbed the clothes and ran away. Later Ryokan sat outside watching the moon. To himself he said, “What a shame I could not give him this beautiful moon.”
Time to die
Ikkyu, the Zen master, was very clever even as a boy. His teacher had a precious teacup, a rare antique. Ikkyu happened to break this cup and was greatly perplexed. Hearing the footsteps of his teacher, he held the pieces of the cup behind him. When the master appeared, Ikkyu asked: "Why do people have to die?"
"This is natural," explained the older man. "Everything has to die and has just as long to live." Ikkyu, producing the shattered cup, added: "It was time for your cup to die."
Learning To Be Silent
The pupils of the Tendai school used to study meditation before Zen entered Japan. Four of them who were intimate friends promised one another to observe seven days of silence. On the first day all were silent. Their meditation had begun auspiciously, but when night came and the oil lamps were growing dim one of the pupils could not help exclaiming to a servant: "Fix those lamps." The second pupil was surprised to hear the first one talk. "We are not supposed to say a word," he remarked. "You two are stupid. Why did you talk?" asked the third. "I am the only one who has not talked," concluded the fourth pupil.
The Thief Who Became a Disciple
One evening as Shichiri Kojun was reciting sutras a thief with a sharp sword entered, demanding either his 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 stooped 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 offense 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 the money and he thanked me for it." After he had finished his prison term, the man went to Shichiri and became his disciple.
Huangbo's Dreg Slurpers
Huangbo once said to the community, "You're all slurpers of dregs. Running around looking for teachings, how will you ever arrive where you are? You keep searching for an enlightened master who is going to give you something you don't have. Don't you know that in all of China there isn't a single teacher of zen?" A monk came forward and said, "Then what about all those monasteries and their eminant abbots?" Huangbo replied, "I didn't say there's no zen—just that there aren't any teachers."
Zhaozho's Not Landing Anywhere
Zhaozho once said, "The truth is easy to find—just avoid making distinctions and be pure. But as soon as you say or do anything at all you make a distinction, and even purity depends on impurity to be pure. As for me, I don't land anywhere and I'm not pure. What do you say?" A monk responded, "Since you don't land anywhere, can you say anything?" Zhaozho said, "I don't know." The monk shot back, "If you don't know how can you say you don't land anywhere?" Zhaozho said, "Asking the question is enough. Just bow and go."
Face to Face with Linji
In a formal zen questioning ceremony Elder Ting asked the tough teacher Linji, "What's the essential truth?" Linji got up off his ceremonial chair, grabbed Ting by the lapels of his robe, and hit him three or four times. Ting stood there speechless until one of the other students said, "Why don't you bow?" As Ting, still in a daze, started to make his formal leaving bows he suddenly had an insight into the truth.