zen stories


When Tired

A student once asked his teacher, “Master, what is enlightenment?
The master replied, “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.


The Real Miracle

When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through the repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.

Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.

The founder of our sect,” boasted the priest, “had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air. Can you do such a wonderful thing?

Bankei replied lightly: “Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.


Teaching the Ultimate

In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns wee 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.


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.


In the Hands of Destiny

A great Japanese warrior named Nobunaga decided to attack the enemy although he had only one tenth the number of men the opposition commanded. He knew that he would win, but his soldiers were in doubt.

On the way he stopped at a Shinto shrine and told his man, “After I visit the shrine I will toss a coin. If head comes we will win; if tails we will loose. Destiny holds us in her hand.

Nobunaga entered the shrine and offered a silent prayer. He came forth and tossed a coin. Heads appeared. His soldiers were so eager to fight that they won their battle easily.

No one can change the hand of destiny,” his attendant told him after the battle.

“Indeed not,” said Nobunaga, showing a coin, which had been doubled, with heads facing either way.


Moving Mind

Two men were arguing about a flag flapping in the wind.

It’s the wind that is really moving,” stated the first one.

No, it is the flag that is moving,” contended the second.

A Zen master, who happened to be walking by, overheard the debate and interrupted them.

Neither the flag nor the wind is moving,” he said, “It is MIND that moves.


No Water, No Moon

When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engarku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time.

At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free!
In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

in this way and that I tried to save the old pail,
since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break,
until at last the bottom fell out.
no more water in the pail!
no more moon in the water!


It Will Pass

A student went to his meditation teacher and said,

My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, or my legs ache, or I’m constantly falling asleep.
It’s just horrible!

It will pass,” the teacher said matter-of-factly.

A week later, the student came back to his teacher.

My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!

It will pass,” the teacher replied matter-of-factly.


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.


The Voice of Happiness

After Bankei had passed away, a blind man who lived near the master’s temple told a friend:

Since I am blind, I cannot watch a person’s face, so I must judge his character by the sound of his voice. Ordinarily when I hear someone congratulate another upon his happiness or success, I also hear a secret tone of envy. When condolence is expressed for the misfortune of another. I hear pleasure and satisfaction as if the one condoling was really glad there was something left to gain in his own world.

“In all my experience however, Bankei’s voice was always sincere. Whenever he expressed happiness, I heard nothing but happiness, and whenever he expressed sorrow, sorrow was all I heard.


I Don’t Know

The emperor, who was a devout Buddhist, invited a great Zen master to the Palace in order to ask him questions about Buddhism.

What is the highest truth of the holy Buddhist doctrine?” the emperor inquired.

Vast emptiness… and not a trace of holiness,” the master replied.

If there is no holiness,” the emperor said, “then who or what are you?

I do not know,” the master replied.


Is That So?

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.

For 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.


A Parable

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, mother 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!


The Giver Should be Thankful

While Seisetsu was the master of Engaku in Kamakura he required larger quarters, since those in which he was teaching were overcrowded. Umezu Seibei, a merchant of Edo, decided to donate five hundred pieces of gold called ryo toward the construction of a more commodious school. This money he brought to the teacher.

Seisetsu said: “All right. I will take it.

Umezu gave Seisetsu the sack of gold, but he was dissatisfied with the attitude of the teacher. One might live a whole year on three ryo, and the merchant had not even been thanked for five hundred.

In that sack are five hundred ryo,” hinted Umezu.

“You told me that before,” replied Seisetsu.

Even if I am a wealthy merchant, five hundred ryo is a lot of money,” said Umezu.

Do you want me to thank you for it?” asked Seisetsu.

You ought to,” replied Umezu.

Why should I?” inquired Seisetsu.The giver should be thankful.


Right and Wrong

When Bankei held his seclusion weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of the 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 the desire to steal had vanished.


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 an 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 the money and he thanked me for it.”

After he had finished his prison term, the men went to Shichiri and became his disciple.


Trading Dialogue

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 brothers 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 teaching. 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 strange 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, bur he ran out and that ended it.


Nature’s Beauty

A priest was in charge of the garden within a famous Zen temple. He had been given the job because he loved the flowers, shrubs, and trees. Next to the temple there was another, smaller temple where there lived a very old Zen master.

One day, when the priest was expecting some special guests, he took extra care in tending to the garden. He pulled the weeds, trimmed the shrubs, combed the moss, and spent a long time meticulously raking up and carefully arranging all the dry autumn leaves.

As he worked, the old master watched him with interest from across the wall that separated the temples.

When he had finished, the priest stood back to admire his work.

Isn’t it beautiful,” he called out to the old master.

Yes,” replied the old man, “but there is something missing. Help me over this wall and I’ll put it right for you.
After hesitating, the priest lifted the old fellow over and set him down.

Slowly, the master walked to the tree near the center of the garden, grabbed it by the trunk, and shook it. Leaves showered down all over the garden.

There,” said the old man, “you can put me back now.


We’ll See…

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.

“We’ll see,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.

“How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“We’ll see,” 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.

“We’ll see,” 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.

“We’ll see” said the farmer.


The Nature of Things

Two monks were washing their bowls in the river when they noticed a scorpion that was drowning. One monk immediately scooped it up and set it upon the bank. In the process he was stung. He went back to washing his bowl and again the scorpion fell in. The monk saved the scorpion and was again stung.

The other monk asked him,

Friend, why do you continue to save the scorpion when you know it’s nature is to sting?

Because,” the monk replied, “to save it is my nature.


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.


The 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 Fuhra 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 me to be come 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, and cleaned the yard, cared for the garden, all without a word of swordsmanship.

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.


The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

A Zen Master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal.

The Zen Master returned and found him.

You 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, but he took the clothes and ran away.

The Master sat naked, watching the moon.

Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.


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?


One Note of Zen

After Kakua visited the emperor he disappeared and no one knew what became of him. He was the first Japanese to study Zen in China, but since he showed nothing of it, save one note, he is not remembered for having brought Zen into his country.

Kakua visited China and accepted the true teaching. He did not travel while he was there. Meditating constantly, he lived on a remote part of a mountain. Whenever people found him and asked him to preach he would say a few words and then move to another part of the mountain where he could be found less easily.

The emperor heard about Kakua when he returned to Japan and asked him to preach Zen for his edification and that of his subjects.

Kakua stood before the emperor in silence. He then produced a flute from the folds of his robe and blew one short note.

Bowing politely, he disappeared.


Without Fear

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?


Surprising the Master

The students in the monastery were in total awe of the elder monk, not because he was strict, but because nothing ever seemed to upset or ruffle him. So they found him a bit unearthly and even frightening.

One day they decided to put him to a test. A bunch of them very quietly hid in a dark corner of one of the hallways, and waited for the monk to walk by. Within moments, the old man appeared, carrying a cup of hot tea. Just as he passed by, the students all rushed out at him screaming as loud as they could.

But the monk showed no reaction whatsoever. He peacefully made his way to a small table at the end of the hall, gently placed the cup down, and then, leaning against the wall, cried out with shock, “Ohhhhh!


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 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.


Knowing Fish

One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river.

Look at the fish swimming about,” said Chuang Tzu, “They are really enjoying themselves.

You are not a fish,” replied the friend, “So you can’t truly know that they are enjoying themselves.

You are not me,” said Chuang Tzu. “So how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?


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?


The Gates of Paradise

A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: “Is there really a paradise and a hell?

Who are you? ” Inquired Hakuin.

I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.

You, a soldier!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.

Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.

As Nohushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: “Here open the gates of hell!

At these words the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.

Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.


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,” muttered the fourth pupil.


No Work, No Food

Hyakujo, the Chinese Zen master, used to labor with his pupils even at the age of eighty, trimming the gardens, cleaning the grounds, and pruning the trees.

The pupils felt sorry to see the old teacher working so hard, but they knew he would not listen to their advice to stop, so they hid away his tools.

That day the master did not eat. The next day he did not eat, nor the next.

He may be angry because we have hidden his tools,” the pupils surmised. “We had better put than back.”

The day they did, the teacher worked and ate the same as before. In the evening he instructed them: “No work no food.”


The Stone Mind

Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves.

While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity.

He joined them and said: “There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?

One of the monks replied: “From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.

Your head must feel very heavy“, observed Hogen. “if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.


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 so long to live.

Ikkyu, producing the shattered cup, added: “It was time for your cup to die.


In Dreamland

Our schoolmaster used to take a nap every afternoon,” related a disciple of Soyen Shaku.

“We children asked him why he did it and he told us: ‘I go to dreamland to meet the old sages just as Confucius did.’ When Confucius slept, he would dream of ancient sages and later tell his followers about them.

“It was extremely hot one day so some of us took a nap. Our schoolmaster scolded us. ‘We went to dreamland to meet the ancient sages the same as Confucius did,’ we explained. ‘What was the message from those sages?’ our schoolmaster demanded. One of us replied:

“We went to dreamland and met the sages and asked than if our schoolmaster came there every afternoon, but they said they had never seen any such fellow.”


Fire-Poker Zen

Hakuin used to tell his pupils about an old woman who had a teashop, praising her understanding of Zen. The pupils refused to believe what he told them and would go to the teashop to find out for themselves.

Whenever the woman saw them coming she could tell it once whether they had come for tea or to look into her grasp of Zen. In the former case, she would serve them graciously. In the latter, she would beckon to the pupils to come behind her screen. The instant they obeyed, she would strike than with a fire-poker.

Nine out of ten of them could not escape her beating.


Buddha’s Zen

Buddha said:

I consider the positions of kings and rulers as that of dust motes. I observe treasure of gold and gems as so many bricks and pebbles. I look upon the finest silken robes as tattered rags. I see myriad worlds of the universe as small seeds of fruit, and the greatest lake in India as a drop of oil on my foot. I perceive the teachings of the world to be the illusion of, magicians. I discern the highest conception of emancipation as golden brocade in a dream, and view the holy path of the illuminated one as flowers appearing in one’s eyes. I see meditation as a pillar of a mountain, Nirvana as a nightmare of daytime. I look upon the judgment of right and wrong as the serpentine dance of a dragon, and the rise and fall of beliefs as but traces left by the four seasons.”


No Attachment to Dust

Zengetsu, a Chinese master of the T’ang dynasty, wrote the following advice for his pupils:

Living in the world yet not forming attachments to the dust of the world is the way of a true Zen student.

When witnessing the good action of another, encourage yourself to follow his example. Hearing of the mistaken action of another, advise yourself not to emulate it.

Even though alone in a dark room, be as if you were facing a noble guest. Express your feelings, but become no more expressive than your true nature.

Poverty is your treasure. Never exchange it for an easy life.

A person may appear a fool and yet not be one. He may only be guarding his wisdom carefully.

Virtues are the fruit of self-discipline and do not drop from heaven of themselves as does rain or snow.

Modesty is the foundation of all virtues. Let your neighbors discover you before you make yourself known to them.

A noble heart never forces itself forward. Its words are a rare gems seldom displayed and of great value.

To a sincere student, every day is a fortunate day. Time passes but he never lags behind. Neither glory nor shame can move him.

Censure yourself, never another. Do not discuss right and wrong.

Some things though right, were considered wrong for generations. Since the value of righteousness may be recognized after centuries, there is no need to crave an immediate appreciation.

Live with cause and leave results to the great law of the universe. Pass each day in peaceful contemplation.