Zen stories

Zen story about the nature of things

  • Two monks were washing their bowls in the river when they noticed a scorpion that was drowning. One monk immediately scooped it up and set it upon the bank. In the process he was stung.  He went back to washing his bowl and again the scorpion fell in.  The monk saved the scorpion and was again stung.  The other monk asked him, “Friend, why do you continue to save the scorpion when you know its nature is to sting?” “Because,” the monk replied, “to save it is my nature.”

Zen stories about beginner’s mind

  • At the age of 30, an extremely successful Wall Street trader decided to go to Tibet, enter the monastery and unertake rigorous financial studies. On his first day, while his fellow trainees were hanging back, the ex trader marched right up to the Zen master an asked, “How long does it normally take to become enlightened?” “Seven years” the Zen master replied. “But I was top of my class at Harvard Business School, I made $10 million at Goldman Sachs, and in preparation for joining the monastery I’ve taken all the best time management courses. How long will it take if I study intensively and try extremely hard to cut the time?” The Zen master smiled and said, “Fourteen years.”
  • 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?”
  • Beginner’s mind

Zen stories about attention and awareness

  • There’s an old Zen story: a student said to Master Ichu, ‘Please write for me something of great wisdom.’
    Master Ichu picked up his brush and wrote one word: ‘Attention.’
    The student said, ‘Is that all?’
    The master wrote, ‘Attention. Attention.’
    The student became irritable. ‘That doesn’t seem profound or subtle to me.’
    In response, Master Ichu wrote simply, ‘Attention. Attention. Attention.’
    In frustration, the student demanded, ‘What does this word attention mean?’
    Master Ichu replied, ‘Attention means attention.’
  • After ten years of apprenticeship, Tenno achieved the rank of Zen teacher. One rainy day, he went to visit the famous master Nan-in. When he walked in, the master greeted him with a question, “Did you leave your wooden clogs and umbrella on the porch?”
    “Yes,” Tenno replied.
    “Tell me,” the master continued, “did you place your umbrella to the left of your shoes, or to the right?”
    Tenno did not know the answer, and realized that he had not yet attained full awareness. So he became Nan-in’s apprentice and studied under him for ten more years.

  • As tradition dictates, upon entering his Zen master’s house, the disciple left his shoes and umbrella outside.
    “I saw through the window that you were arriving,” said the master. “Did you leave your shoes to the right or the left of the umbrella?”
    “I haven’t the least idea. But what does that matter? I was thinking of the secret of Zen!”
    “If you don’t pay attention in life, you will never learn anything. Communicate with life, pay each moment the attention it deserves – that is the only secret of Zen.”

  • AttentionAwareness

Zen story about not judging a situation as good or bad

  • Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
    “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
    The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
    “Maybe,” replied the old man.
    The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
    “Maybe,” answered the farmer.
    The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
    “Maybe,” said the farmer.
  • Judgement

Zen story about God

  • Several citizens ran into a hot argument about God and different religions, and each one could not agree to a common answer. So they came to the Lord Buddha to find out what exactly God looks like.
    The Buddha asked his disciples to get a large magnificent elephant and four blind men. He then brought the four blind to the elephant and told them to find out what the elephant would “look” like.
    The first blind men touched the elephant leg and reported that it “looked” like a pillar. The second blind man touched the elephant tummy and said that an elephant was a wall. The third blind man touched the elephant ear and said that it was a piece of cloth. The fourth blind man hold on to the tail and described the elephant as a piece of rope. And all of them ran into a hot argument about the “appearance” of an elephant.
    The Buddha asked the citizens: “Each blind man had touched the elephant but each of them gives a different description of the animal. Which answer is right?”
  • God

Zen story about letting things go   

  • Two Zen monks, Tanzan and Ekido, were walking along a country road that had become extremely muddy after heavy rains. Near a village, they came upon a young woman who was trying to cross the road, but the mud was so deep it would have ruined the silk kimono she was wearing. Tanzan at once picked her up and carried her to the other side.
    The monks walked on in silence. Five hours later, as they were approaching the lodging temple, Ekido couldn’t restrain himself any longer. “Why did you carry that girl across the road?” he asked. “We monks are not supposed to do things like that.”
    “I put the girl down hours ago,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”
  • Letting go

Zen story about loving-kindness   

  • Two monks were washing their bowls in the river when they noticed a scorpion that was drowning. One monk immediately scooped it up and set it upon the bank. In the process he was stung.  He went back to washing his bowl and again the scorpion fell in.  The monk saved the scorpion and was again stung.  The other monk asked him, “Friend, why do you continue to save the scorpion when you know its nature is to sting?” “Because,” the monk replied, “to save it is my nature.”
  • LoveKindness

Zen story about freeing the mind from intellectual conceptualisation  

  • 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. 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 mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.” “Your head must feel very heavy,” observed Hogen, “if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.”
  • Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, “The flag moves.” The other said, “The wind moves.”  They argued back and forth but could not agree. Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch, said:  “Gentlemen!  It is not the flag that moves.  It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.”  The two monks were struck with awe.

Zen story about practicing equanimity and accepting the moment as it is   

  • The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.
    A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.
    This made her parents very angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.
    In great anger the parents went to the master. “Is that so?” was all he would say.
    When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. “Is that so?” Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.
    A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.
    The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.
    Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: “Is that so?”
  • EquanimityAccept this moment as it is

Zen story about enjoying life   

  • There once were two monks who lived in a woods. One was committed to sitting under a particular tree forever until he achieved enlightenment.  He sat there under the tree eating only the bugs and spiders and lizards that happened to wander close enough.  He drank only the water that fell when it rained.  There were cob-webs hanging off of him and he was dirty and smelly and not a pleasant, aesthetic experience.
    There was a second monk who lived in that same woods, who traveled around the woods and had a lot of fun, who occasionally went into town and got himself in a little bit of difficulty now and then—he did have a weakness for the rice wine.
    As chance would have it, a messenger of Brahma happened to be passing through.  Now the tradition was that, if you recognized the messenger of Brahma, you got to ask the messenger a question.  The old man under the tree recognized the messenger, and he said, “Hah there.  I see you, messenger of Brahma.  I claim the answer to my question.”
    The messenger said, “Oh, all right.  What’s your question?”
    “How many more life-times must I sit under this tree, meditating, before I experience enlightenment?”
    “Well,” said the messenger, “I’ll go ask Brahma and come back when I’m next this way and give you the answer.”
    Overhearing this, the second monk said, “Hey, I’d kind of like the answer to that, too.  That’d be interesting to know.”
    Years passed.  As chance would have it, the messenger again came back through and the old man recognized him.  The old man said, “Hah, I recognize you, messenger.  Have you brought my answer from Brahma.”
    The messenger says, “Yes, Brahma says you’ve got four more lifetimes before you finally achieve enlightenment.”  The old man under the tree said, “Ah, dung.  Four more lifetimes of sitting under this damn tree, amongst the spiders and the lizards and the muck and the rain.  Yuck!  Phew!”
    The second monk said, “How about me?”
    The messenger said, “Brahma said you have ten thousand more lifetimes before you finally ‘get it.’”
    The monk said, “Ten thousand more lifetimes?  Incredible!  Ten thousand more lifetimes enjoying this incredible world we live in?  Enjoying these woods, enjoying being alive!”
    The messenger said, “No, no, you’re there already.”
  • EnjoymentSavouring

Zen story about stilling the mind

  • A Zen Master was walking in silence with one of his disciples along a mountain trail. When they came to an ancient cedar tree, they sat down under it for a simple meal of some rice and vegetables. After the meal, the disciple, a young monk who had not yet found the key to the mystery of Zen, broke the silence by asking the Master, “Master, how do I enter Zen?”
    He was, of course, inquiring how to enter the state of consciousness which is Zen.
    The Master remained silent. Almost five minutes passed while the disciple anxiously waited for an answer. He was about to ask another question when the Master suddenly spoke. “Do you hear the sound of that mountain stream?” The disciple had not been aware of any mountain stream. He had been too busy thinking about the meaning of Zen. Now, as he began to listen for the sound, his noisy mind subsided. At first he heard nothing. Then, his thinking gave way to heightened alertness, and suddenly he did hear the hardly perceptible murmur of a small stream in the far distance.
    “Yes, I can hear it now,” he said.
    The Master raised his finger and, with a look in his eyes that in some way was both fierce and gentle, said, “Enter Zen from there.”
    The disciple was stunned. It was his first satori—a flash of enlightenment. He knew what Zen was without knowing what it was that he knew!
    They continued on their journey in silence. The disciple was amazed at the aliveness of the world around him. He experienced everything as if for the first time. Gradually, however, he started thinking again. The alert stillness became covered up again by mental noise, and before long he had another question. “Master,” he said, “I have been thinking. What would you have said if I hadn’t been able to hear the mountain stream?” The Master stopped, looked at him, raised his finger and said, “Enter Zen from there.”
    Source: A New Earth (Eckhart Tolle)
  • StillnessMeditation

Zen story about mastery of the mind

  • After winning several archery contests, the young and rather boastful champion challenged a Zen master who was renowned for his skill as an archer. The young man demonstrated remarkable technical proficiency when he hit a distant bull’s eye on his first try, and then split that arrow with his second shot. “There,” he said to the old man, “see if you can match that!” Undisturbed, the master did not draw his bow, but rather motioned for the young archer to follow him up the mountain. Curious about the old fellow’s intentions, the champion followed him high into the mountain until they reached a deep chasm spanned by a rather flimsy and shaky log. Calmly stepping out onto the middle of the unsteady and certainly perilous bridge, the old master picked a far away tree as a target, drew his bow, and fired a clean, direct hit. “Now it is your turn,” he said as he gracefully stepped back onto the safe ground. Staring with terror into the seemingly bottomless and beckoning abyss, the young man could not force himself to step out onto the log, no less shoot at a target. “You have much skill with your bow,” the master said, sensing his challenger’s predicament, “but you have little skill with the mind that lets loose the shot.”

Zen story about the ineffable nature of Zen

  • Roshi Kapleau agreed to educate a group of psychoanalysts about Zen. After being introduced to the group by the director of the analytic institute, the Roshi quietly sat down upon a cushion placed on the floor. A student entered, prostrated before the master, and then seated himself on another cushion a few feet away, facing his teacher. “What is Zen?” the student asked. The Roshi produced a banana, peeled it, and started eating. “Is that all? Can’t you show me anything else?” the student said. “Come closer, please,” the master replied. The student moved in and the Roshi waved the remaining portion of the banana before the student’s face. The student prostrated, and left.
    A second student rose to address the audience. “Do you all understand?” When there was no response, the student added, “You have just witnessed a first-rate demonstration of Zen. Are there any questions?”
    After a long silence, someone spoke up. “Roshi, I am not satisfied with your demonstration. You have shown us something that I am not sure I understand. It must be possible to TELL us what Zen is.”
    “If you must insist on words,” the Roshi replied, “then Zen is an elephant copulating with a flea.”


Zen story about the ineffable nature of self

  • The emperor, who was a devout Buddhist, invited a great Zen master to the Palace in order to ask him questions about Buddhism. “What is the highest truth of the holy Buddhist doctrine?” the emperor inquired.
    “Vast emptiness… and not a trace of holiness,” the master replied.
    “If there is no holiness,” the emperor said, “then who or what are you?”
    “I do not know,” the master replied.

More Zen stories   

  • A carpenter and his apprentice were walking together through a large forest. And when they came across a tall, huge, gnarled, old, beautiful oak tree, the carpenter asked his apprentice:  “Do you know why this tree is so tall, so huge, so gnarled, so old and beautiful?”  The apprentice looked at his master and said:  “No. . . why?”  “Well,” the carpenter said, “because it is useless.  If it had been useful it would have been cut long ago and made into tables and chairs, but because it is useless it could grow so tall and so beautiful that you can sit in its shade and relax.  .
  • One day a young Buddhist on his journey home came to the banks of a wide river. Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle in front of him, he pondered for hours on just how to cross such a wide barrier. Just as he was about to give up his pursuit to continue his journey he saw a great teacher on the other side of the river. The young Buddhist yells over to the teacher, “Oh wise one, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river”?
    The teacher ponders for a moment looks up and down the river and yells back, “My son, you are on the other side”.
  • A new student approached the Zen master and asked how he should prepare himself for his training. “Think of me a bell,” the master explained. “Give me a soft tap, and you will get a tiny ping. Strike hard, and you’ll receive a loud, resounding peal.”
  • Word spread across the countryside about the wise Holy Man who lived in a small house atop the mountain. A man from the village decided to make the long and difficult journey to visit him. When he arrived at the house, he saw an old servant inside who greeted him at the door. “I would like to see the wise Holy Man,” he said to the servant. The servant smiled and led him inside. As they walked through the house, the man from the village looked eagerly around the house, anticipating his encounter with the Holy Man. Before he knew it, he had been led to the back door and escorted outside. He stopped and turned to the servant, “But I want to see the Holy Man!”
    “You already have,” said the old man. “Everyone you may meet in life, even if they appear plain and insignificant… see each of them as a wise Holy Man. If you do this, then whatever problem you brought here today will be solved.”

  • One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river. “Look at the fish swimming about,” said Chuang Tzu, “They are really enjoying themselves.”
    “You are not a fish,” replied the friend, “So you can’t truly know that they are enjoying themselves.”
    “You are not me,” said Chuang Tzu. “So how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?”

  • A master calligrapher was writing some characters onto a piece of paper. One of his especially perceptive students was watching him. When the calligrapher was finished, he asked for the student’s opinion – who immediately told him that it wasn’t any good. The master tried again, but the student criticized the work again. Over and over, the calligrapher carefully redrew the same characters, and each time the student rejected it. Finally, when the student had turned his attention away to something else and wasn’t watching, the master seized the opportunity to quickly dash off the characters. “There! How’s that?,” he asked the student. The student turned to look. “THAT…. is a masterpiece!” he exclaimed.
  • A Zen Master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
  • A renowned Zen master said that his greatest teaching was this: Buddha is your own mind. So impressed by how profound this idea was, one monk decided to leave the monastery and retreat to the wilderness to meditate on this insight. There he spent 20 years as a hermit probing the great teaching.  One day he met another monk who was traveling through the forest. Quickly the hermit monk learned that the traveler also had studied under the same Zen master. “Please, tell me what you know of the master’s greatest teaching.” The traveler’s eyes lit up, “Ah, the master has been very clear about this. He says that his greatest teaching is this: Buddha is NOT your own mind.”
  • Upon meeting a Zen master at a social event, a psychiatrist decided to ask him a question that had been on his mind. “Exactly how do you help people?” he inquired.
    “I get them where they can’t ask any more questions,” the Master answered.

  • The students in the monastery were in total awe of the elder monk, not because he was strict, but because nothing ever seemed to upset or ruffle him. So they found him a bit unearthly and even frightening. One day they decided to put him to a test. A bunch of them very quietly hid in a dark corner of one of the hallways, and waited for the monk to walk by. Within moments, the old man appeared, carrying a cup of hot tea. Just as he passed by, the students all rushed out at him screaming as loud as they could. But the monk showed no reaction whatsoever. He peacefully made his way to a small table at the end of the hall, gently placed the cup down, and then, leaning against the wall, cried out with shock, “Ohhhhh!”