Many teachings from Zen-Buddhism are told in short and delightful stories. They are usually designed to develop the mind by freeing it from distortions. They also connect life with our spirit. Some of them are really inspiring and enlightening. It is helpful to the mind to think about life and feel the deeper meaning. Even if it is not possible to grasp them fully, the beauty and simplicity of the message usually gets through to us one way or the other.
While Zen Stories often seem strange and absurd at first glance, give them more thought and you wil find meaning relevant to much of your everyday life, even if you don’t find enlightenment straight away. The beauty of these inspiring stories is that no interpretation is given. But I made comments at the end of each story in my own style. Enjoy the stories and think on these interpretations! And above all, create your own interpretations!
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. “It is overflowing. 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?”
• Yes… Open mind is necessary to learn anything new.
A hermit was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him. “Master, I wish to become your disciple,” said the man.
“Why?” replied the hermit. The young man thought for a moment. “Because I want to find God.”
The master jumped up, grabbed him by the centre of his neck, dragged him into the river and plunged his head under water.
After holding him there for a minute, with him kicking and struggling to free himself, the master finally pulled him up out of the river. The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his breath.
When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke. “Tell me, what you wanted most of all when you were under water?”
“Air!” answered the man.
“Very well,” said the master. “Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air.”
• Create burning fire within you to learn anything.
After ten years of apprenticeship, Tenno achieved the rank of Zen teacher.
One rainy day, he went to visit the famous master Nanin. 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.
• Keen observation is a great asset. (Can you tell which type of number is written on your watch?)
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 learn from 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. Once the opponent revealed his weakness, he 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 a 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 spat 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.
The monk was 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?”
• If you react to others’ insults, it means, you agreed. If you do not react, insults belong to them.
Two travelling monks reached a river where they met a beautiful young girl. Wary of the current, she asked if they could carry her across.
The younger monk hesitated but the elder monk quickly picked her upon his shoulders, transported her across the water and put her down on the other side. She thanked him and departed.
As the monks continued their journey, the younger one was brooding and preoccupied. Unable to hold his silence, he spoke out, “Sir, as monks, we cannot touch a woman?” The elder monk answered “Yes, brother”.
The younger one asked, “Brother, as you said, our spiritual training teaches us to avoid any contact with women but you picked that beautiful girl upon your shoulders and carried her!”
“Brother,” the second monk smiled and replied, “I set her down on the other side, while you are still carrying her.”
• Let’s control our mind too—for the mind can commit adultery.
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!”
• Good nature should be imbibed in us.
• Let’s help others even if it hurts us.
• Helping others gives us happiness and satisfaction.
A rich man asked a Zen master to write something down that could encourage the prosperity of his family for years to come. It would be something that the family could cherish for generations.
On a large piece of paper, the master wrote, “Father dies, son dies and grandson dies.”
The rich man became angry when he saw the master’s work. “I asked you to write something good that could bring happiness and prosperity to my family. Why do you give me something worst like this?”
“If your son dies before you,” the master answered, “that would bring unbearable grief to your family. If your grandson dies before your son, this also would bring great sorrow.“If your family, generation after generation, disappears in the order I have described, it will be the natural blessing for your family. This brings in true happiness and prosperity.”
• We cannot understand God’s blessings through our sufferings.
• Death should meet us in time.
A man travelling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled and the tiger chased after him. Coming to an edge of the cliff, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge.
The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to have lunch. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine.
The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
• Any prudent man may look for the escape route at that crucial juncture. But we humans are after worldly things even at the time of death.
• FROM ANOTHER ANGLE: He knows to live in the present forgetting all his worries and dangerous situation!
In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns were used with candles inside. A blind man, visiting a friend one night, was offered a lantern to carry home with him.
“I do not need a lantern,” he said. “Darkness or light is all the same to me.”
“I know you do not need a lantern to find your way,” his friend replied, “but if you don’t have one, someone else may run into you. So you must take it.”
The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him. “Look out where you are going!” he exclaimed to the stranger. “Can’t you see this lantern?”
“Your candle has burned out, brother,” replied the stranger.
• In traffic, we may follow rules but we should anticipate how others may break them.
• We should not judge others.
The above Zen stories would go a long way in preparing us ready to learn anything with extra zeal and lead a happy and peaceful life!
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