A Collection of Zen Stories

zen enlightenment

“We gain enlightenment like the moon reflecting in the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew in the grass.”
– Dōgen Zenji

Man and His Horse

There is a story in zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”

A Beautiful Goose

A Zen monk saw a beautiful goose fly by and he wanted to share this joy with his elder brother who was walking beside him. But at that moment, the other monk had bent down to remove a pebble from his sandle. By the time he looked up, the goose had already flown by. He asked, “What did you want me to see?” but the younger monk could only remain silent.

Zen Tea

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

Zen Dialogue

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.

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Zen Story: The Taste of Banzo’s Sword

zen sword fightMatajuro Yagyu was the son of a famous swordsman. His father, believing that his son’s work was too mediocre to anticipate mastership, disowned him. So Matajuro went to Mount Futara and there found the famous swordsman Banzo. But Banzo confirmed the father’s judgment. “You wish to learn swordsmanship under my guidance?” asked Banzo. “You cannot fulfill the requirements.”
“But if I work hard, how many years will it take to become a master?” persisted the youth.
“The rest of your life,” replied Banzo.
“I cannot wait that long,” explained Matajuro. “I am willing to pass through any hardship if only you will teach me. If I become your devoted servant, how long might it be?”
“Oh, maybe ten years,” Banzo relented.
“My father is getting old, and soon I must take care of him,” continued Matajuro. “If I work far more intensively, how long would it take me?”
“Oh, maybe thirty years,” said Banzo.
“Why is that?” asked Matajuro. “First you say ten and now thirty years. I will undergo any hardship to master this art in the shortest time!”
“Well,” said Banzo, “in that case you will have to remain with me for seventy years. A man in such a hurry as you are to get results seldom learns quickly.”
“Very well,” declared the youth, understanding at last that he was being rebuked for impatience, “I agree.”

Matajuro was told never to speak of fencing and never to touch a sword. He cooked for his master, washed the dishes, made his bed, cleaned the yard, cared for the garden, all without a word of 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.

Zen Story: The One-Eyed Argument

zen argumentProvided 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 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 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 got ready to punch him, but he ran out and that ended it!”

Sufi Story: The Impermanent Ring

kings ringThere once was a king who was going to put to death many people, but before doing so he offered a challenge. If any of them could come up with something which would make him happy when he was sad, and sad when he was happy, he would spare their lives. All night the wise men meditated on the matter. In the morning they brought the king a ring. The king said that he did not see how the ring would serve to make him happy when he was sad and sad when he was happy. The wise men pointed to the inscription. When the king read it, he was so delighted that he spared them all.

And the inscription? “This too shall pass.

Hindu Story: Tat Tvam Asi

atmanOnce a seeker went to a great master. Bowing reverentially in the traditional manner he said: “O master, I seek enlightenment, please initiate and teach me so that I may attain That!” The master replied in a kindly manner: “Certainly my son, tat tvam asi, you are That, the divine Self lives within you. Meditate on that Self, know that Self, merge in that Self, realise that Self!” The seeker was disappointed. “O master, I know all that already. Why, that very teaching was featured in this month’s Yoga Journal. Please give me the secret teachings, I want the real stuff!” The master said: That is all I know. That is my entire teaching I have no secrets. There is nothing that I have not given you. However, if you are not satisfied, you can go down the road to the next swami’s ashram and see if he has something more suitable for you.”

The seeker approached the other guru and said: “O master, I seek enlightenment, please give me the initiation and your most secret teaching so that I may attain That!” The guru said: “I do not give my teachings so easily. You must earn them. You must do sadhana, spiritual practice. If you are sincere then you can stay here and work for 12 years. Only in this way will you earn my initiation.” The seeker was delighted: “That’s just what I wanted. That is real spiritual life, real sadhana. I’ll begin at once.” The guru assigned him the job of shovelling buffalo dung in the back paddock. The years went by. Each day as he shovelled the dung the seeker dreamt of his future enlightenment. He ticked the passing days and months off his calendar.

Finally 12 years were up; the great day arrived. He approached the guru with hands folded palm to palm. “O my guru, I have served you faithfully for 12 years. I request your teachings and initiation as you have promised. Please bestow your grace upon me.” The guru said: “My son, you have served me well. You truly deserve my teaching. Here it is: “Tat tvam asi. You are That, the divine Self lives within you. Meditate on that Self, know that Self, merge in that Self, realise that Self!” The seeker became enraged. “What! Is that all? The guru up the road gave me that the first time I met him and I didn’t have to shovel buffalo dung for him for 12 years!”
“Well,” said the guru. “The truth hasn’t changed in 12 years.”

Hindu Story: The Ten Pilgrims

riverThe following story – originally told in a Upanishad (collection of philosophical texts which underline the Hindu religion) – is about ten men who went on an arduous pilgrimage to a faraway holy city. At one point on their journey they had to carefully make their way across a roaring river, which was surrounded by jagged rocks. When they finally reached the other side of the river, the leader of the group decided to count everyone to make sure they had all crossed safely, and so he lined each of the pilgrims up and started to count.

When the leader counted the last head, he discovered with horror that only nine men had made it across. He then asked each of the pilgrims to count. Sure enough each one only counted nine. A wise stranger came upon the scene and discreetly asked what had happened to elicit such an outpouring of grief. “We are pilgrims,” said the leader. “There were ten of us when we began our journey, but now one of our brothers has been lost in the river.” The stranger quickly noticed that by his count there were ten pilgrims. He asked: “Sir, would you please count everyone again just to make sure?”
“Yes,” replied the leader who began counting aloud, “one, two, three… eight, and nine! Oh alas, one is gone!”
“But sir,” said the stranger, “you have forgotten to count yourself!” And so, the tenth man was found.