Zen has a rich tradition of storytelling. Actually, just about the entire human race has a rich history of storytelling. Why do we like stories so much? Because we can identify with them. Stories, whether real or not, pull and tug at our emotions. We connect personally with stories.
Whereas someone can tell us that it’s important for us to appreciate and care for our parents, another person can tell us a story about the life of a daughter and her mother, and about how neither could ever see eye-to-eye all the way up until the day that the mother passed away.
Even if you aren’t a daughter, but a son, or if it was your father whom you had that type of relationship with, or even if you just feel like you don’t appreciate your mother or father (or both) enough, regardless, a story like that can touch you in a way that someone simply telling you, “hey, it’s important that you appreciate your parents”, could never do.
We need to experience something directly in order to really learn what it’s about. This is wisdom, as opposed to knowledge much like you’d acquire in a class at school, a parrot-like type of learning that serves as a nice basis for establishing the necessary foundation for certain larger tasks, but which can serve little real use elsewhere particularly in advancing your well-being.
I love Zen stories. Not just because I find them fun, because I do (most Zen Buddhist short stories require some level of meditative contemplation to figure out), I love them because their purpose is to teach a lesson. Also, Zen short stories go beyond just Zen. They’re really just stories about life. So keep in mind I only say Zen stories because they originated from the Zen Buddhist tradition. They speak of truths which everyone can learn from, though (as does all of Zen).
The lesson can be anything- any undeniable life truth which can be discovered through a life devoted to looking within yourself. This is the life of any Buddhist, many non-Buddhists, and should be the life of anyone who cares to find the path to true peace and happiness.
These stories only seek to point the way. Don’t take any of them for the truth without investigating them for yourself. The point isn’t to believe blindly, it’s to develop confidence in your life and in the way. By the way, I mean the way to live our best life and ultimately find peace within ourselves and with others. Here’s some of my favorite Zen stories:
1. Everything changes
“Suzuki Roshi, I’ve been listening to your lectures for years,” a student said during the question and answer time following a lecture, “but I just don’t understand. Could you just please put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?”
Everyone laughed. Suzuki laughed.
“Everything changes,” he said. Then he asked for another question.
Explanation: One of the foremost teachings in Buddhism is that everything in life is impermanent. Suzuki Roshi (Shunryu Suzuki of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind) is referring to this impermanence by saying “everything changes”. This is a very deep teaching, but I’ll attempt to sum it up in a way that can be understood and immediately helpful in a few words.
Because it encompasses everything, you can contemplate for hours on end and not realize the full magnitude of the principle of impermanence. You are impermanent, your loved ones are impermanent, your home is impermanent, even our planet is impermanent.
Why is this important? Because it teaches us that grasping onto things is one of the major reasons as to why we suffer. We need to live being aware of the ever-changing nature of reality and appreciate the present moment. It’s not about letting go, it’s really about not grasping in the first place. If we can learn to live in this way, we can find peace in everyday life.
2. Empty your cup
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?”
Explanation: The story tells it how it is, so I’ll leave it at that.
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.
Explanation: The farmer is practicing non-judgment. He understands the true nature of life, that you can’t judge any event as an “end” in a way. Our life doesn’t play out like a work of fiction. There aren’t definite breaks that separate one moment versus another, and there isn’t a perfectly formulated end which everything builds to.
There’s always tomorrow. And whether the day was good or bad, there are a million effects which can arise from one event. Good and bad are interconnected. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. If things seem perfect, they aren’t. If it seems like it’s Armageddon in your corner of the world, it’s not. Things can change in an instant, at all times. And they will at some point or another.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t be happy. On the contrary, it means that we need to realize this truth and live in a way that we’re constantly aware of it in order to find peace and happiness. Don’t let this change the way you live too much just yet, though. For now, just think on it, observe your life through the lens of this infinitely co-arising universe. This act in itself can bring you a great sense of peace.
4. Right and Wrong
When Bankei held his seclusion-weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled. Bankei ignored the case.
Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again Bankei disregarded the matter. This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they would leave in a body.
When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. “You are wise brothers,” he told them. “You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave.”
A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.
Explanation: This story is pretty straightforward, but it certainly doesn’t make you think any less than the rest. How quickly would most people turn their back on those who commit a crime like stealing, just as the pupils did. But look deeper and you might just see another human being. Someone that simply needs to be shown the path.
Don’t write people off so easily. Expressing compassion isn’t always easy, but we’re all together in this life, so we can’t just help those that keep good behavior. Those people who commit such crimes are often some of the people that need help with the most basic spiritual and human principles, such as right and wrong.
If you have a loved one who’s committed a crime before you’ll know exactly what I mean. You know they can be better and they shouldn’t be thrown out just because they did something wrong at some point. Sure, we need to keep order, so they should be disciplined for their behavior, but we also need to take the time to teach them right and wrong. We should strive to lift them up just as we strive to lift ourselves and those we love up despite their own flaws.
5. Be the boss
A horse suddenly came galloping quickly down the road. It seemed as though the man had somewhere important to go.
Another man, who was standing alongside the road, shouted, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse replied,
“I don’t know! Ask the horse!”
Explanation: This is a short but well-known Zen story with a powerful meaning behind it. The horse symbolizes our habit energy. The story explains the way we usually live, at the mercy of our old habit energies which have been established not by our intentional actions, but by our surroundings and mindless activity.
The horse is pulling us along, making us run here and there and hurry everywhere and we don’t even know why. If you stopped to ask yourself from time to time why exactly you’re running around so much, sometimes you might have an answer, but it’s never a very good one. You’re just used to it, it’s how we’re taught to live.
But as much as we run, it gets us nowhere. We need to learn how to take back the reigns and let the horse know who’s boss.
You’re the boss, you’ve always been the boss, so start acting like it.
6. Watch yourself
There was once a pair of acrobats. The teacher was a poor widower and the student was a young girl by the name of Meda. These acrobats performed each day on the streets in order to earn enough to eat.
Their act consisted of the teacher balancing a tall bamboo pole on his head while the little girl climbed slowly to the top. Once to the top, she remained there while the teacher walked along the ground.
Both performers had to maintain complete focus and balance in order to prevent any injury from occurring and to complete the performance. One day, the teacher said to the pupil:
‘Listen Meda, I will watch you and you watch me, so that we can help each other maintain concentration and balance and prevent an accident. Then we’ll surely earn enough to eat.’
But the little girl was wise, she answered, ‘Dear master, I think it would be better for each of us to watch ourself. To look after oneself means to look after both of us. That way I am sure we will avoid any accidents and earn enough to eat.’
Explanation: This one isn’t a specifically Zen story, but it’s said to have been told by the Buddha himself. This story is meant to illustrate that taking care of yourself is the most important thing you can do to take care of others.
By learning how to nourish your mind and body you’ll naturally begin to treat those around you with more compassion, love, and kindness and create a more positive impact on the world around you as a whole. There is no division, taking care of yourself (in a spiritual sense, not in a material “buy myself things” kind of sense) equals taking care of others.
Specifically, by taking care of yourself, the Buddha was referring to mindfulness. The Buddha also said that by taking care of others, by showing them compassion and loving-kindness, we take care of ourselves.