101 Zen Stories

Talking and Listening

Gettan used to say to his companions, "When you have a talking
mouth, you have no listening ears. When you have listening ears,
you have no talking mouth. Think about this carefully."

Source: Zen Antics
A computer genius was playing chess with a robot that
he had created to oppose him in his nightly chess game.
"I win again," said the inventor
"It's not fair," said the robot.
"What's not fair?"
"You always win!"
"Of course, I always win. That's why I created you."
"Isn't it a little presumptuous to play God?"
"Listen, my mechanical friend, I'm only doing to you what
life did to me."
"It's still not fair."
"Those are my sentiments exactly. Now let's play."

Source: Zen Fables For Today

The Most Valuable Thing in the World

Sozan, a Chinese Zen master, was asked by a student:
"What is the most valuable thing in the world?"
The master replied: "The head of a dead cat."
"Why is the head of a dead cat the most valuable thing
in the world?" inquired the student.
Sozan replied: "Because no one can name its price."

Source: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
Wise man say, "You don't realize how much your hair weighs until you shave it all off. You don't realize how much your fears weigh until you release them."
Notere Bisera was walking down the sidewalk in a business district when he encountered a little boy who was spinning around in circles and dancing very goofy and laughing. Notere smiled at him as he walked past, and the boy laughed with delight as he continued his dancing.

Later on down the same sidewalk, Notere came upon a middle-aged man who was spinning around in circles and dancing very goofy and laughing. Notere frowned at him, saying, "You look stupid and foolish doing that. You're not acting like you should." The dancer just continued dancing and laughing, and Notere walked on -- shaking his head and not understanding. And as he turned his back, he didn't see the other's reflection in the store window they were in front of -- it was of a little boy, spinning in circles and laughing.
While others strive for wealth, the enlightened, being content with what they have, possess it without striving. Being well content with little, they are rich as Kings. A King himself is a pauper when his kingdom does not suffice him.

A Quaker had this sign put up on a vacant piece of land next to his home: THIS LAND WILL BE GIVEN TO ANYONE WHO IS TRULY SATISFIED.

A wealthy farmer who was riding by stopped to read the sign and said to himself, "Since our friend the Quaker is so ready to part with this plot, I might as well claim it before someone else does. I am a rich man and have all I need, so I certainly qualify."

With that he went up to the door and explained what he was there for. "And are you truly satisfied?" the Quaker asked.

"I am indeed, for I have everything I need."

"Friend," said the Quaker, "if you are satisfied, what do you want the land for?"
The Buddhist nun called Ryonen was born in the year 1779. The famous Japanese warrior, Shingen, was her grandfather. She was considered one of the loveliest women in the whole of Japan and a poetess of no mean talent, so already at the age of seventeen she was chosen to serve at the royal court, where she developed a great fondness for Her Imperial Majesty the Empress. Now the Empress died a sudden death and Ryonen underwent a profound spiritual experience: she became acutely aware of the passing nature of all things. That was when she made up her mind to study Zen.

But her family wouldn't hear of it. They practically forced her into marriage but not before she had extracted from them and from her future husband the promise that after she had borne him three children she would be free to become a nun. This condition was fulfilled when she was twenty-five. Then neither the pleas of her husband nor anything else in the world could dissuade her from the task she had set her heart on. She shaved her head, took the name of Ryonen (which means "to understand clearly"), and set out on her quest.

She came to the city of Edo and asked the Master Tetsu-gyu to accept her as his disciple. He took one look at her and rejected her because she was too beautiful. So she went to another master, Hakuo. He rejected her for the same reason: her beauty, he said, would only be a source of trouble. So Ryonen branded her face with a red-hot iron, thereby destroying her physical beauty forever. When she came back into Hakuo's presence, he accepted her as a disciple.

Ryonen wrote a poem on the reverse side of a little mirror to commemorate the occasion:

As a handmaid of my Empress
I burnt incense
to give fragrance to my lovely clothes.
Now as a homeless beggar
I burn my face
to enter the world of Zen.

When she knew her time had come to depart this world, she wrote another poem:

Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld
the loveliness of Autumn...
Ask no more.
Only listen to the sound of the pines
when no wind stirs.
The great Buddhist saint Nagarjuna moved around naked except for a loincloth and, incongruously, a golden begging bowl gifted to him by the King, who was his disciple.

One night he was about to lie down to sleep among the ruins of an ancient monastery when he noticed a thief lurking behind one of the columns. "Here, take this," said Nagarjuna, holding out the begging bowl. "That way you won't disturb me once I have fallen asleep."

The thief eagerly grabbed the bowl and made off -- only to return next morning with the bowl and a request. He said, "When you gave away this bowl so freely last night, you made me feel very poor. Teach me how to acquire the riches that make this kind of light-hearted detachment possible."
Meeting a Zen Master on the Road

Goso said: "When you meet a Zen master on the road you
cannot talk to him, you cannot face him with silence. What
are you going to do?"

Mumon's comment: In such a case, if you can answer him
intimately, your realization will be beautiful, but if you
cannot, you should look about without seeing anything.

Meeting a Zen master on the road,
Face him neither with words nor silence.
Give him an uppercut
And you will be called one who
understands Zen.

Source: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
"Oh boy! Oh boy!" cried the monk-on-probation who had just
cracked the Zen Master's favorite (and valuable) drinking cup.

The frightened youngster went to the Zen Master and asked,
"Why must there be death?"
The Master answered, "Death is natural. It comes to all persons
and things. We should not greet it with fear or meet death with
anger. Why do you ask?"
"Because, Master, death has come upon your cup."

Source: Zen Fables For Today
Better than Flowers

One spring the haiku poet Basho decided to take a trip to see the flowers in a
certain place famed for its scenery. Along the way he heard of a poor peasant
girl noted for devotion to her parents. Intrigued, Basho went looking for the girl.
When he found her, he gave her all the money he had brought for his travel
expenses. Then he returned home, without having seen the flowers. He said,
"This year I have seen something better than flowers."

Source: Zen Antics
One day Hasan of Basra saw Rabi'a al Adawiya near the riverside. Casting his prayer mat on the water, he stepped on to it and said, "O Rabi'a, come let us pray together."

Rabi'a said, "O Hasan, why have you set yourself up like a salesman in the bazaar of this world? You do this because of your weakness."

With that she threw her prayer mat into the air, flew up on it, and said, "Come up here, Hasan, so that people may see us."

But that was more than Hasan could accomplish, so he was silent. Rabi'a, wishing to gain his heart, said, "O Hasan, a fish can do what you did and a fly can do what I did. The real work lies beyond both of these; that is what we must occupy ourselves with."
Buddha was once threatened with death by a bandit called Angulimal.

"Then be good enough to fulfill my dying wish," said Buddha. "Cut off the branch of that tree."

One slash of the sword, and it was done! "What now?" asked the bandit.

"Put it back again," said Buddha.

The bandit laughed. "You must be crazy to think that anyone can do that."

"On the contrary, it is you who are crazy to think that you are mighty because you can wound and destroy. That is the task of children. The mighty know how to create and heal."
The Gift of Insults

There once lived a great warrior. Though quite old, he still was able to defeat any challenger. His reputation extended far and wide throughout the land and many students gathered to study under him.

One day an infamous young warrior arrived at the village. He was determined to be the first man to defeat the great master. Along with his strength, he had an uncanny ability to spot and exploit any weakness in an opponent. He would wait for his opponent to make the first move, thus revealing a weakness, and then would strike with merciless force and lightning speed. No one had ever lasted with him in a match beyond the first move.

Much against the advice of his concerned students, the old master gladly accepted the young warrior's challenge. As the two squared off for battle, the young warrior began to hurl insults at the old master. He threw dirt and spit in his face. For hours he verbally assaulted him with every curse and insult known to mankind. But the old warrior merely stood there motionless and calm. Finally, the young warrior exhausted himself. Knowing he was defeated, he left feeling shamed.

Somewhat disappointed that he did not fight the insolent youth, the students gathered around the old master and questioned him. "How could you endure such an indignity? How did you drive him away?"

"If someone comes to give you a gift and you do not receive it," the master replied, "to whom does the gift belong?"

Source: Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors
"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."

Source: Zen Fables For Today
A farmer whose corn always took the first prize at the state fair had a habit of sharing his best corn seed with all the farmers in the neighborhood.

When asked why, he said, "It is really a matter of self-interest. The wind picks up the pollen and carries it from field to field. So if my neighbors grow inferior corn, the cross-pollination brings down the quality of my own corn. That is why I am concerned that they plant only the very best."


A Zen student came to Bankei and complained: "Master, I have
an ungovernable temper. How can I cure it?"

"You have something very strange," replied Bankei. "Let me see
what you have."

"Just now I cannot show it to you," replied the other.

"When can you show it to me?" asked Bankei.

"It arises unexpectedly," replied the student.

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

Source: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
A Philosopher Asks Buddha

A philosopher asked Buddha: "Without words,
without the wordless, will you tell me truth?"

The Buddha kept silence.

The philosopher bowed and thanked the Buddha,
saying: "With your loving kindness I have cleared
away my delusions and entered the true path."

After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked the
Buddha what he had attained.

The Buddha replied, "A good horse runs even at the
shadow of the whip."

Mumon's Comment: Ananda was the disciple of the
Buddha. Even so, his opinion did not surpass that of
outsiders. I want to ask you monks: How much
difference is there between disciples and outsiders?

To tread the sharp edge of a sword
To run on smooth-frozen ice,
One needs no footsteps to follow.
Walk over the cliffs with hands free.

Source: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
Once upon a time the members of the body were very annoyed with the stomach. They were resentful that they had to procure food and bring it to the stomach while the stomach itself did nothing but devour the fruit of their labor.

So they decided they would no longer bring the stomach food. The hands would not lift it to the mouth. The teeth would not chew it. The throat would not swallow it. That would force the stomach to do something.

But all they succeeded in doing was make the body weak to the point that they were all threatened with death. So it was finally they who learned the lesson that in helping one another they were really working for their own welfare.
The master at the school for archery was known to be a master of life just as much as of archery.

One day his brightest pupil scored three bull's-eyes in a row at a local contest. Everyone went wild with applause. Congratulations poured in for pupil -- and master.

The master, however, seemed unimpressed -- almost critical even.

When the pupil later asked him why, he said, "You have yet to learn that the target is not the target."

"Then what *is* the target?" the pupil demanded to know.

But the master would not say. This was something the boy would have to learn on his own someday, for it could not be communicated in words.