Jordan Bates • • 7 min read
7 Zen Stories That Might Just Give You a Glimpse of Enlightenment
Zen stories are the ancient words and deeds of Zen masters, which have been passed through the ages, crossing the dynasties and cultures of forgotten peoples, originating with the Buddha himself.
The insights that these stories seeded, as time rolled on, flowered into invaluable instructions for those wanting to reach liberation.
Zen stories tend to be humorous, paradoxical, multi-layered, enigmatic, and written in a kind of rascally spirit. They’re tantalizing riddles that are sure to puzzle and captivate most anyone.
Zen can transform your sense of identity, resulting in far less stress and anxiety, a near-inability to be bored, and a distinct tendency to never take life all that seriously.
One might say that the essence of Zen consists in the realization that life is something of a great silly dream, and that accepting all aspects of the dream precisely as they are, at any given moment, is the only way to liberate oneself from the unnecessary suffering that most of us inflict upon ourselves by resisting various attributes of reality or calling them “wrong.”
To study Zen is to embark on a path of learning to stop resisting reality, and in doing so to free oneself from superfluous drama and the ceaseless ebb and flow of mental states.
To help you get there, we dug through old dusty books, half forgotten. We sniffed ancient scrolls, in search for wisdom. We gathered the very best Zen stories from the Far East. Savor these 7 parables that point to the ultimate non-insight.
Zen Story #1: The Pointer
The Zen teacher’s dog loved his evening romp with his master. The dog would bound ahead to fetch a stick, then run back, wag his tail, and wait for the next game. On this particular evening, the teacher invited one of his brightest students to join him – a boy so intelligent that he became troubled by the contradictions in Buddhist doctrine.
“You must understand,” said the teacher, “that words are only guideposts. Never let the words or symbols get in the way of truth. Here, I’ll show you.”
With that the teacher called his happy dog.
“Fetch me the moon,” he said to his dog and pointed to the full moon.
“Where is my dog looking?” asked the teacher of the bright pupil.
“He’s looking at your finger.”
“Exactly. Don’t be like my dog. Don’t confuse the pointing finger with the thing that is being pointed at. All our Buddhist words are only guideposts. Every man fights his way through other men’s words to find his own truth.”
Zen Story #2: Flow Like a River
There is the story of a young martial arts student who was under the tutelage of a famous master.
One day, the master was watching a practice session in the courtyard. He realized that the presence of the other students was interfering with the young man’s attempts to perfect his technique.
The master could sense the young man’s frustration. He went up to the young man and tapped him on his shoulder.
“What’s the problem?” he inquired.
“I don’t know”, said the youth, with a strained expression.
“No matter how much I try, I am unable to execute the moves properly”.
“Before you can master technique, you must understand harmony. Come with me, I will explain”, replied the master.
The teacher and student left the building and walked some distance into the woods until they came upon a stream. The master stood silently on the bank for several moments. Then he spoke.
“Look at the stream,” he said. “There are rocks in its way. Does it slam into them out of frustration? It simply flows over and around them and moves on! Be like the water and you will know what harmony is.”
The young man took the master’s advice to heart. Soon, he was barely noticing the other students around him. Nothing could come in his way of executing the most perfect moves.
Zen Story #3: No Objective World
Once there was a monk who specialized in the Buddhist precepts, and he kept to them all his life. Once when he was walking at night, he stepped on something. It made a squishing sound, and he imagined he had stepped on an egg-bearing frog.
This caused him no end of alarm and regret, in view of the Buddhist precept against taking life, and when he finally went to sleep that night he dreamed that hundreds of frogs came demanding his life.
The monk was terribly upset, but when morning came he looked and found that what he stepped on was an overripe eggplant. At that moment his feeling of uncertainty suddenly stopped, and for the first time he realized the meaning of the saying that “there is no objective world.” Then he finally knew how to practice Zen.
Zen Story #4: Moderation
An aged monk, who had lived a long and active life, was assigned a chaplain’s role at an academy for girls. In discussion groups he often found that the subject of love became a central topic. This comprised his warning to the young women:
“Understand the danger of anything-too-much in your lives. Too much anger in combat can lead to recklessness and death. Too much ardor in religious beliefs can lead to close-mindedness and persecution.
Too much passion in love creates dream images of the beloved – images that ultimately prove false and generate anger. To love too much is to lick honey from the point of a knife.”
“But as a celibate monk,” asked one young woman, “how can you know of love between a man and a woman?”
“Sometime, dear children,” replied the old teacher, “I will tell you why I became a monk.”
Zen Story #5: Buddhism & Christianity
A university student while visiting Gasan asked him: “Have you ever read the Christian Bible?”
“No, read it to me,” said Gasan.
The student opened the Bible and read from St. Matthew: “And why take ye thought for rainment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these… Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”
Gasan said: “Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened man.”
The student continued reading: “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.”
Gasan remarked: “That is excellent. Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood.”
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Zen Story #6: The Hangover
A certain Zen teacher celebrated with his students, drinking sake and whiskey until after midnight, then rose next morning before dawn. Peevish, he expressed annoyance that his American students had not risen in time to do zazen [Zen meditation] before morning service.
When they murmured that their sluggishness might be accounted for by all the drink, the teacher snapped, “Sake is one thing, and zazen is another! They have nothing to do with each other!”
Zen Story #7: God & Air
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 scruff 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 did you want 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.”
For more Zen stories, we recommend One Hand Clapping: Zen Stories for All Ages, a beautiful collection of Zen fables, simplified so as to be accessible for Zen students of all ages.
For more on Zen, I recommend checking out any of these 8 books on Zen and its close cousin Taoism, this essay on Aeon, this introduction to Zen, and the website The Daily Zen.
Thanks to The Daily Zen for their help with this post.