Category: ☯ Zen Stories

Wise and short Zen stories

Zen Stories ☯

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-defense, 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 the death and injury of 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 give 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 on 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 in safety.

“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.

Zen Stories ☯

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 pupils 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.

Zen Stories ☯

“Tattoo inside your eyelids this reminder: ‘you are the messenger, not the message. You are just like everyone else.’ ” This was the advice given by a charismatic Zen teacher to a class of Zen teachers-in-training. “What do you mean?” they asked her. “I’ll begin with a story about a besieged town that was surrounded by enemies who would slaughter all the inhabitants if help didn’t arrive. Just when things looked hopeless, a messenger slipped through enemy lines with the message that the army of the Shogun would attack in the morning and drive off the invaders. “The townspeople were so enraptured with this news that they treated the messenger like a hero. And after the Shogun’s army left, they elected the messenger mayor. Though a pleasant fellow, the messenger turned out to be a thoroughly inept leader and was soon sent away in disgrace. “The lesson here is never confuse the message–which is the precious gift of Buddha–with the messenger. You are only a messenger. “When you stun an audience with the wisdom of a lecture, when your students cede to you the molding of their minds, when you are treated as someone special, focus on the message inside your eyelids: You are the messenger, not the message. You are just like everyone else.”

Zen Stories ☯

An old man walks down to the beach and sees it is covered with tens of thousands of starfish, as far as the eye can see. Far down the beach he sees a young girl who is picking the starfish up, one by one, and tossing them back in the ocean.

Amused, he walks to the girl to speak with her. “Little girl,” the old man says, “What are you doing?”

“I’m saving these starfishes lives,” says the girl. “If I don’t throw them back in the water, they’ll drown. They need the water to live.”

The old man laughs to himself. Näive girl, he thinks. “But you are only one person. There are tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. How can you possibly make a difference?”

The girl bends down, picks up a star fish, looks at it, looks up at the man, tosses it into the surf, then says, “I made a difference for that one.”

Zen Stories ☯

Daiju visited the master Baso in China. Baso asked: “What do you seek?”

“Enlightenment,” replied Daiju.

“You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?” Baso asked.

Daiju inquired: “Where is my treasure house?”

Baso answered: “What you are asking is your treasure house.”

Daiju was enlightened! Ever after he urged his friends: “Open your own treasure house and use those treasures.”

Zen Stories

Arresting the Stone Buddha

A merchant bearing fifty rolls of cotton goods on his shoulders stopped to rest from the heat of the day beneath a shelter where a large stone Buddha was standing. There he fell asleep, and when he awoke his goods had disappeared. He immediately reported the matter to the police.

A judge named O-oka opened court to investigate. “That stone Buddha must have stolen the goods,” concluded the judge. “He is supposed to care for the welfare of the people, but he has failed to perform his holy duty. Arrest him.”

The police arrested the stone Buddha and carried it into the court. A noisy crowd followed the statue, curious to learn what kind of sentence the judge was about to impose.

When O-oka appeared on the bench he rebuked the boisterous audience. “What right have you people to appear before the court laughing and joking in this manner? You are in contempt of court and subject to a fine and imprisonment.”

The people hastened to apologize. “I shall have to impose a fine on you,” said the judge, “but I will remit it provided each one of you brings one roll of cotton goods to the court within three days. Anyone failing to do this will be arrested.”

One of the rolls of cloth which the people brought was quickly recognised by the merchant as his own, and thus the thief was easily discovered. The merchant recovered his goods, and the cotton rolls were returned to the people.

Zen Stories ☯

A university student while visiting Gasan asked him: “Have you even read the Christian Bible?”

“No, read it to me,” said Gasan.

The student opened the Bible and read from St. Matthew: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto 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 shall take thought for the things of itself.”

Gasan said: “Whoever uttered those words I consider and enlightened man.”

The student continued reading: “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh, is shall be opened.”

Gasan remarked: “That is excellent. Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood.”

Zen Stories ☯

Sen No Rikyu, a tea-master, wished to hang a flower basket on a column. He asked a carpenter to help him, directing the man to place it a little higher or lower, to the right or left, until he had found exactly the right spot. “That’s the place,” said Sen no Rikya finally.

The carpenter, to test the master, marked the spot and then pretended he had forgotten. Was this the place? “Was this the place, perhaps?” the carpenter kept asking, pointing to various places on the column.

But so accurate was the tea-master’s sense of proportion that it was not until the carpenter reached the identical spot again that its location was approved.

Zen Stories ☯

The Last Poem of Hoshin

The Zen master Hoshin lived in China many years. Then he returned to the northeastern part of Japan, where he taught his disciples. When he was getting very old, he told them a story he had heard in China. This is the story:

One year on the twenty-fifth of December, Tokufu, who was very old, said to his disciples: “I am not going to be alive next year so you fellows should treat me well this year.”

The pupils thought he was joking, but since he was a great-hearted teacher each of them in turn treated him to a feast on succeeding days of the departing year.

On the eve of the new year, Tokufu concluded: “You have been good to me. I shall leave you tomorrow afternoon when the snow has stopped.”

The disciples laughed, thinking he was aging and talking nonsense since the night was clear and without snow. But at midnight snow began to fall, and the next day they did not find their teacher about. They went to the meditation hall. There he had passed on.

Hoshin, who related this story, told his disciples: “It is not necessary for a Zen master to predict his passing, but if he really wishes to do so, he can.”

“Can you?” someone asked.

“Yes,” answered Hoshin. “I will show you what I can do seven days from now.”

None of the disciples believed him, and most of them had even forgotten the conversation when Hoshin next called them together.

“Seven days ago,” he remarked, “I said I was going to leave you. It is customary to write a farewell poem, but I am neither poet nor calligrapher. Let one of you inscribe my last words.”

His followers thought he was joking, but one of them started to write.

“Are you ready?” Hoshin asked.

“Yes, sir,” replied the writer.

Then Hoshin dictated:

I came from brilliancy.
And return to brilliancy.
What is this?

The poem was one line short of the customary four, so the disciple said: “Master, we are one line short.”

Hoshin, with the roar of a conquoring lion, shouted “Kaa!” and was gone.

Zen Stories ☯

 Zen teachers train their young pupils to express themselves. Two Zen temples each had a child protégé. 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.