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 Ghost and the Beans

japanese womanA young wife fell sick and was about to die. “I love you so much,” she told her husband, “I do not want to leave you. Do not go from me to any other woman. If you do, I will return as a ghost and cause you endless trouble.” Soon the wife passed away. The husband respected her last wish for the first three months, but then he met another woman and fell in love with her. They became engaged to be married. Immediately after the engagement a ghost appeared every night to the man, blaming him for not keeping his promise. The ghost was clever too. She told him exactly what has transpired between himself and his new sweetheart. Whenever he gave his fiancee a present, the ghost would describe it in detail. She would even repeat conversations, and it so annoyed the man that he could not sleep.

Someone advised him to take his problem to a Zen master who lived close to the village. At length, in despair, the poor man went to him for help. “Your former wife became a ghost and knows everything you do,” commented the master. “Whatever you do or say, whatever you give you beloved, she knows. She must be a very wise ghost. Really you should admire such a ghost. The next time she appears, bargain with her. Tell her that she knows so much you can hide nothing from her, and that if she will answer you one question, you promise to break your engagement and remain single.”
“What is the question I must ask her?” inquired the man.
The master replied: “Take a large handful of soy beans and ask her exactly how many beans you hold in your hand. If she cannot tell you, you will know she is only a figment of your imagination and will trouble you no longer.” The next night, when the ghost appeared the man flattered her and told her that she knew everything. “Indeed,” replied the ghost, “and I know you went to see that Zen master today.”
“And since you know so much,” demanded the man, “tell me how many beans I hold in this hand!” There was no longer any ghost to answer the question.

Zen Story: The Stingy Artist

zenGessen was an artist monk. Before he would start a drawing or painting he always insisted upon being paid in advance, and his fees were high. He was known as the “Stingy Artist.” A geisha once gave him a commission for a painting. “How much can you pay?” inquired Gessen. “‘Whatever you charge,” replied the girl, “but I want you to do the work in front of me.”
So on a certain day Gessen was called by the geisha. She was holding a feast for her patron. Gessen with fine brush work did the paining. When it was completed he asked the highest sum of his time. He received his pay. Then the geisha turned to her patron saying: “All this artist wants is money. His paintings are fine but his mind is dirty; money has caused it to become muddy. Drawn by such a filthy mind, his work is not fit to exhibit. It is just about good enough for one of my petticoats.” Removing her skirt, she then asked Gessen to do another picture on the back of her petticoat. “How much will you pay?” asked Gessen.
“Oh, any amount,” answered the girl. Gessen named a fancy price, painted the picture in the manner requested, and went away. It was learned later that Gessen had these reasons for desiring money: A ravaging famine often visited his province. The rich would not help the poor, so Gessen had a secret warehouse, unknown to anyone, which he kept filled with grain, prepared for these emergencies. From his village to the National Shrine the road was in very poor condition and many travelers suffered while traversing it. He desired to build a better road. His teacher had passed away without realizing his wish to build a temple, and Gessen wished to complete this temple for him. After Gessen had accomplished his three wishes he threw away his brushes and artist’s materials and, retiring to the mountains, never painted again.

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.

Anapana-sati Meditation

buddha anapanasatiThe following simple meditation is drawn from the well of Theravada Buddhism, which is the oldest surviving form of Buddhism. The meditation is called Anapanasati: Anapana means inhalation/exhalation, while sati means mindfulness, and so the meditation is no more than mindfulness of the breath. Seeing as we all share the breath in common it is a meditation that can be performed by anyone, at anytime, and anywhere. You don’t need to go to the shop to buy anything and you don’t need to find a teacher, you are the only instrument you need. The Buddha promised his devotees that mindfulness of the breath, “developed and repeatedly practiced, is of great fruit, great benefit.” Anapanasati is the meditation that Buddha practiced as he sat underneath the Bodhi tree and realised his own enlightenment, and so it is the method that he stressed the most to his followers, and is the core meditation practice in Theravada Buddhism.

The Buddha’s teachings of this meditation can be found in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (The Greater Discourse on Foundations of Mindfulness). In it he says: “A monk, having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty hut, sits down. Having folded his legs cross-wise, straightened his body, and set up mindfulness in front of him, at the tip of his nose, just mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in long, he knows: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he knows: ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he knows: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he knows: ‘I breathe out short.’; thus he trains himself.”

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The Dalai Lama Kills a Mosquito

This short video of a conversation between The Dalai Lama and journalist Bill Moyers, shows two sides to The Dalai Lama. The first side is that he is a fairly patient man who shows compassion to all living beings – evidenced by his allowing a mosquito to drink some of his blood. While the second side is that he is a cold blooded murderer, who behind the scenes, kills mosquitoes for fun. Seriously, The Dalai Lama is ruthless, don’t let his playful exterior fool you. This is one man that is not to be messed with.

Nah, the Dalai Lama’s a good guy, not that I know him or anything, I’ve just been fooled by his playful exterior. Check out this video of him not getting a joke – it’s very funny!

Mandala Meditation

mandalaMandalas (meaning “circle” in Sanskrit) are an important element in Buddhist and Hindu spirituality; they are symbolic diagrams, which are used extensively in sacred rites and as an instrument of meditation. A typical mandala is of a circle enclosed within a square, which has four gates – one on each side. The gates are often depicted as being guarded by demons or deities, while a bodhisattva is usually found in the center circle. The famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, through his exploration of Eastern mysticism, came to the conclusion that mandalas are a snapshot of the unconscious mind – he believed that drawing mandalas had psychological importance due to their ability to identify fractures in personality and work towards psychic wholeness.

“Mandalas… usually appear in situations of psychic confusion and disorientation. The archetype thereby constellated represents a pattern of order which, like a psychological ‘view-finder’ marked with a cross or circle divided into four, is superimposed on the psychic chaos so that each content falls into place and the weltering confusion is held together by the protective circle… At the same time they are yantras, instruments with whose help the order is brought into being.” – Carl Jung (Civilisation in Transition, Collected Works, Vol. 10, par. 803.)

Tibetan Sand Mandala

Tibetan monks creating a mandala out of sand, as a meditation on impermanence.

Mandalas are used widely as tools for entering meditative states of higher consciousness, simply drawing one is a meditation in itself, but actually meditating on the completed image is where all the power is. Ram Dass speaks about mandalas in a lecture he gave to a group of psychotherapists at the Menninger Foundation in 1970, he says:

“In Tibet, for example, they use what are called tonkas. If you go to a doctor in TIbet, instead of giving you a prescription like, “Pick these herbs by a damp rock” or “Go to your local pharmacy and get…” Instead of doing that, he often may give you a tonka, a mandala, to take home and put up on your wall and meditate upon. Now this is really far out, you see, because here’s your doctor, you go to him because you’ve got headaches, or because you’re depressed, or because you’ve got fear… and he gives you a piece of paper to stick up on your wall and meditate on. Now you’d say, ‘Well, that’s pretty primitive.” But wait a moment, just assume, for example, that they’re not all nuts, see, and they’re not all naive. And you go and sort of sit down in front of this paper and figure out what it’s about.

After a while you learn that the way these are designed is such that you put your focal attention on the entire mandala, which is a circle within a square and the square has gates, four gates. And then pretty soon your attention – you just let yourself be with that thing, let all other thoughts go and just stay with it – pretty soon, your attention is drawn in through the gates and in and in to the inner circle and into the innermost circle where there is a specific design or being or something and when you come in and in and in, you then experience the inner circle as something like a long tube. It takes on a depth, and as you stay with that inner circle you get drawn, literally drawn, your awareness gets drawn through that tube and you get drawn from that tube into, literally another frequency of vibration.

It is as though that model in the center of that little circle changes your consciousness because you have brought your consciousness down to just that circle. It’s like, if you go into the Fillmore Auditorium and there are huge rock and roll bands and twenty-five slide projectors and an overloading of the stimulus field, that will take your consciousness into another place.Now, you can struggle against it, and say, “Oh, I’m getting a headache and I’ve got to get out of here. I mean, they’re not feeding me linear information.” [laughs] Or you can say, “Well, here goes,” and just sort of surrender into this and then there is a new level of consciousness where you are experiencing all these things… in a Gestalt form, rather than in linear separate components. You’ve given up one type of analytic thought because it’s not adaptive at that moment. Well, a mandala, very much like what’s called faith healing, is based on the idea that “mind manifests in matter” and that if you change the nature of the vibrations or the nature of the level of consciousness, you’ll find certain levels of consciousness where certain illnesses don’t exist. What a faith healer does is use his own vibrational rate to bring you to another vibrational rate. That’s the way that process works.

deathBuddhist monks often meditate on the mandala, and the teachings that are contained within it until they can conjure up the mandala in their mind’s eye without needing to physically see it. As all mandalas have a center point, looking at it can also be used as a method of centering the self, and one’s place in the universe. Tibetan Buddhists use mandalas as a method of meditating on the impermanent nature of reality, one of the Buddhas main teachings. They do this by creating large and intricate mandalas out of coloured sand, a process which can take days, and then destroying it upon completion, usually by brushing it up and depositing it’s remains into the sea.

vishnu

Hindu mandala which contains an image of Vishnu in it’s center circle.

Drawing mandalas is very simple, and is a very relaxing form of meditation. Simply draw a dot on a page: this will become the center of the mandala, or the bindu point as they call it in India. From there you may draw a circle around that dot. From that point on it is completely up to you what you do with it, as long as the pattern is fairly symmetric. You can draw more circles, a square or two, maybe even a triangle, and then you can fill it with patterns and colour it to your hearts content. Generally no two mandalas are the same, and each time you draw one it will reflect your current mental state; it will take a snapshot of your unconscious in a similar way as writing down a dream you just had upon awakening. By meditating on your mandalas, you can center your unconscious mind without ever needing to become conscious of it. Therefore it is more powerful than dream analysis, and takes less effort. It is a good idea to date your mandalas, so that you may look back on them, and see the progression of your psyche. If you want to know more about the history of mandalas, or are curious to know the symbolism of various shapes, patterns and colours found in mandalas, then I highly recommend this book – it is the book I personally use. If you would like to see some of the mandalas I have drawn, you can check them out at the following link – my mandala collection.

bindu to ojas be here now

This mandala (illustration from Be Here Now) is an overhead view of the Borobodur temple in East Java, Indonesia. The ancient Buddhist temple was purposefully constructed to resemble a mandala; I have been, and it is amazing, even more amazing than Angkor Wat. I strongly recommend you plan to take a visit one day.

We Are All One Family: Religion and its Role in Society.

Peace

“The ocean of suffering is immense, but if you turn around, you can see land” - Thich Nhat Hanh

There are something like eighteen billion cells in the brain alone. There are no two brains alike; there are no two hands alike; there are no two human beings alike. You can take your guidance and instruction from others, but you must find your own path.” – Joseph Campbell – Pathways to Bliss

Social stratification is an important term in Sociology; it refers to the universal process of ranking people into categories based on a social hierarchy of traits such as economic status, age, gender and race (Macionis & Plummer  2008, p. 232). Religion is a form of stratification which doesn’t get much attention; however, it is a topic that Weber, Durkheim and Marx saw as an important theme within the sociology of culture. Social stratification centers itself on the topic of inequality and division; this essay will explore the inequalities present in modern day religion and argue the possibility that religion can overcome these inequalities and instead replace them with peace and unity; it will also determine the extent that religion influences society on a personal and collective level. This essay does not focus on any particular religion; instead it deals with modern day religion as a single philosophy which transcends social labels.

Macionis & Plummer (2008, p. 610) define religion as a social institution which is grounded in faith rather than scientific evidence. This makes it very difficult for sociologists to dissect religious beliefs and explain how billions of people across the earth can structure their lives based on profoundly different belief systems. This prompts the question of the importance in having so many religions, which William James’ attempts to answer in his book Varieties of Religious Experience. In this classic text James (1902, p. 487) argues that due to the immense differences between each individual, it makes sense that there are a variety of religions available to accommodate to these differences. He asserts that because no two people have identical difficulties, we shouldn’t be expected to work out identical solutions or beliefs. Brunelli (2001, p. 227) agrees that ‘every human being should be allowed to freely choose the system of values governing [their] life’ and therefore choose a religion that suits their personal values and cultural norms and abandon the ones that don’t.  Brunelli (2001, p. 227) also holds the belief that there is only one truth which is evident in all world religions, a statement which has the power to cause either great religious conflict or create strong unity. In Aldous Huxley’s introduction to the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred text of the Hindu religion, he comments that its message is timeless and its words belong to no language, race or period of time (Huxley, in Prabhavanananda & Isherwood, p.10). With this statement Huxley is outlining the perennial philosophy, a concept which states that all of the world religions share a single universal truth, hidden beneath a narrative of symbolism and culture. This truth is the soil from which all religions have bloomed, with Hinduism being the first to emerge; Huxley asserts that different religions sprouted after Hinduism to accommodate the social and spiritual needs of each respective epoch and culture. Whether the religion is Hinduism, Islam, Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity or Taoism, all of them ‘were attempting to describe the same essentially indescribable fact’ (Huxley, in Prabhavanananda & Isherwood, p.12) thus making all the differences between religions superficial. Huxley inspires one to look beyond the differences of religion and instead notice the similarities in order to find and adopt the deeper spiritual message.

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