Nine Zen Stories



Zen is a very 'present moment' experience. Alongside classical koans there are many simple yet thought-provoking stories to complement the classical koans. Here are just a few of these stories including some well-known and some less well known.

1. A cup of tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868 - 1912), received a university professor who came to enquire 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. "What are you doing?!? It is so full it is overflowing!"

"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?"

2. 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 and sleep for the night.

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 the mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind."

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

3. The Muddy Road

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain had just abated and the world around them was very wet.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl crying her heart out. She was dressed in a beautifully embroidered silk kimono with matching sash and was standing on the bank of an overflowing little stream.

"Why are you crying?" immediately asked Tanzan.

In between her tears the girl replied "There is a wedding in the village, and these clothes are the only fine clothes I have - and if they get wet they will be ruined!" with which a further deluge of tears ensured.

"Come on girl" said Tanzan at once. He hoisted her up, stepped into the stream, waded across and deposited her dry and safely on the other side. Her tears quickly evaporated into smiles of joy, she gave thanks and skipped off to the village.

Ekido never spoke a word for the rest of the day - until they reached a Temple to sleep for the night. There, he could no longer contain himself. "We monks are not supposed to have any dealings with females! Especially not young and pretty ones like her. Why did you do that?"

"Put her down," said Tanzan "I put her down hours ago."

4. Temper

A Zen student came to Bankei and complained: "Master, I have a totally uncontrollable temper. How can I cure this?"

"Hmmmm."replied Bankei. "You have something highly unusual. Let me see what you have."

"Err I can't show you it right now." answered the student.

"So when will you be able to show it to me?" Bankei asked.

"It happens unpredictably, " replied the student.

"Then it must not be your true nature." concluded Bankei "If it were you would be able to show it at any time. When you were born you did not have it, and your parents did not give it to you. Think that over."

5. Eating and Dressing

A monk one asked Master Bokuju "We have to dress and eat every day. How can we escape from all that?"

The master replied "We dress, we eat."

The monk was puzzled and said he did not understand. The master replied: "If you do not understand, put on your clothes and eat your food."

6. The lost key

One night a neighbor of Mullah Nasrudin was walking home and found Mullah squatting on the ground beside a lamppost evidently looking for something.

"What's the matter mullah?" asked the concerned neighbor.

"I have lost my keys" replied mullah

"Oh! Here let me help you." and the kindly neighbor got down on his knees and started searching for Mullah's keys as well. After some time spent looking the neighbor straightened up and quite puzzled asked "are you sure you dropped your key's here?"

"Oh, I didn't drop them here." replied Mullah.

"Where did you drop them ?!?" exclaimed the now bewildered neighbor.

"Over there" and Mullah pointed to the front of his house that was in darkness.

"So why are you looking for them here ??!!??" exclaimed the now exasperated neighbor.

"Because the light is over here." replied mullah.

7. About Trying

Roshi Anshin placed a small box in his palm. "TRY to take it out of my hand." he said.

She reached out for the box and picked it up.

"No . . . no." Anshin stopped her, "You didn't listen carefully. I said . . . TRY to take it out."

She looked confused. She reached out for the box and slowly picked it up again..

"No. . . I said TRY." Anshin smiled.

She was even more confused . . . she reached out for the box and couldn't decide whether to take it out or not.

A broad grin appeared on Anshin's face.

"You see . . . it is impossible. There is no such thing as TRY . . . there is only DO or NOT DO."

8. Buddha and Cow Dung

The famous Chinese poet Su Tung-po (1036-1100) in the Song Dynasty wrote very simple Chinese Poems based on Buddhist Philosophy, as he himself is a very religious person. He was appointed to the official position of the Director of Literature in the Imperial Court.

One day he visited a Buddhist Temple and meditated with a buddhist monk. After a little while, Su asked the Monk: "Look at me, Venerable. I am sitting here meditating. What do I look like?"

the buddhist monk examined Su closely for a while and said, "Official, you are very solemn, radiant and gentle. You look like a Buddha Stature." Su was very pleased and elated with the answer.

After a while, the buddhist monk asked Su, "Officer, I am sitting here meditating also. What do I look like?"

Mr. Su thought for sometine, this monk is always in the upperhand whenever we debated on any subjects. Now, I got the opportunity to beat him. So, he replied, "You look like a heap of cow dung, Venerable." On hearing this, the monk simply smiled and did not argue with him at all.

Thinking that he had won the debate, Mr. Su went about telling everybody in town how he triumph over the monk, until his younger sister heard of it and enlightened him, "My dear brother, you had lost the debate completely."

"What!? I am very sure the monk was fooled this time. Why do you say so?"

"Dear brother," said Miss Su, "the Monk's heart was filled with Buddha nature, therefore he saw you as a Buddha. But your heart was filled with cow dung, and therefore you saw him as a heap of cow dung."

9. Back to basics

A zen nun became very famous in Japan for her ability to help people. Many people went to see her with their problems and ask her advice. Most of these people only needed to see her once - rarely did they have to come back a second time.

She was asked what was her secret - what it was that she told these people that came to her for help.

She replied, "I don't understand what all this fuss is about - it is very simple. The first time someone comes to me I ask them 'Have you cleaned your house?' and if they come a second time I ask them 'Have you done your washing?'"

These details are compiled from various sources.

Living Karate - Sydney Matsubayashi Ryu