10 Zen Stories
Of all the pursuits open to men, the search for wisdom is more perfect, more sublime, more profitable, and more full of joy.—Thomas Aquinas (~ 1260)
Dear reader, I have a simple question for you:
If there was one trait that would give you instant inner peace, joyful relationships, success at work, adoration of your peers and respect from your superiors, would you try to acquire it?
What if history had shown it to be the one thing that can win wars and save entire nations? The one thing that is guaranteed to give you lasting happiness?
If you are saying to yourself “Yeah, such a thing doesn’t exist”, you’d be wrong.
It exists and it’s called WISDOM.
Sadly, in our modern, fast paced world, we have forgotten how to study it or acquire it. It sounds like a foreign word to us, something we don’t understand or recognize.
But it doesn’t have to be.
If you have wanted to gain wisdom, but are lost as to what it really is and how to go about becoming wise, then this post is for you.
So, what exactly is wisdom?
It is a combination of:
- The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.
- The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of such experience, knowledge, and good judgment.
Said simply, Wisdom is the judicious study and application of knowledge.
Notice here that you need both; study alone will not make you wise; but neither will doing the same things over and over again without taking time to learn.
A simple path to studying wisdom is through Zen stories or Koans, because they are short, usually in the form of a question which makes you think, and apply universal principles. Plus, it’s way more fun to learn through stories right?
So, here are my top 10 Zen parables that help awaken wisdom.
1. A Cup of Tea:
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who had come 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?”
Wisdom Pearls: Wisdom comes from learning new things and challenging your own assumptions. And just like the cup, a mind that overflows with thoughts is not open to fresh ideas.
One powerful way to “empty your cup” is to practice approaching things with a “beginner’s mind.”
For example, let’s say you are looking at an apple. In a beginners mind, there are no preconceived notions, so you don’t know that it’s an apple. All you can tell is that it’s a round, red and shiny object with some twig like thing sticking out of one end. Maybe you would smell it or taste it gingerly. Maybe you would try using it as a ball, or a wheel.
When your mind is open, all kinds of new possibilities emerge.
And this is true of physical things like apple, or emotional things, such as a conflict with a loved one. A beginner’s mind is the first step to new ways of thinking.
2. Muddy road:
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks are not allowed to go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?
Wisdom Pearls: Live in the moment, taking events as they come. Experience them in that moment and then let go. Holding on to thoughts and memories causes misery.
Rules that are followed in spirit are more powerful than those followed in word.
We project our own weaknesses onto others. In this story, Ekido himself was struggling with passion and attachment, which he projected onto Tanzan, convincing himself that it was Tanzan who was at fault. Whenever I get angry at someone, I recall this story and look within myself to see why I’m so disturbed by that particular thing. Often, it has more to do with me than with the other person.
3. Not the wind, not the flag:
Two monks were standing in the Temple grounds, arguing about a flag that was flapping wildly in the strong winds that were blowing that day. One said, ” The flag is moving. ”
The other replied, “No, it is the wind that is moving.”
Just then Hui Neng happened to pass by. He told them, ”Not the wind, not the flag. Mind is moving.”
Wisdom Pearls: Our entire world view and life experience is a creation of the mind. Which is why, when two people are faced with the exact same event, they may react very differently. What happens to us cannot be changed, but how we choose to interpret it is within our control.
Next time something happy or sad happens to you, remind yourself that it is your mind that has chosen to see it this way. And that you have the power to change that if you wish to.
4. Going with the flow:
A Taoist story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids which led to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive.
“I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived.”
Wisdom Pearls: In this story, the river is a metaphor for life. The best way to go through life is with minimal expectations, letting life shape your moments as they occur. Does this mean we should have no goals or plans? No. It just means that we should try not get too attached to the outcome of those plans, and instead learn to go with the flow.
For example, let’s say you helped your son prepare for a science project and you are hoping that the hard work will pay off. Be happy with his understanding of the subject and for the time spent together. But don’t get attached to him winning a prize. Such desires set you up for possible disappointment and misery, which will negate the wonder of the whole experience. Do your part, and then go with the flow of life.
5. Chasing two rabbits:
A martial arts student approached his teacher with a question. “I’d like to improve my knowledge of the martial arts. In addition to learning from you, I’d like to study with another teacher in order to learn another style. What do you think of this idea?”
“The hunter who chases two rabbits,” answered the master, “catches neither one.”
Wisdom Pearls: Imagine yourself chasing two rabbits down the yard for a moment. You run back and forth between both as they dart in and out of shrubs and plants, one disappearing every time you chase the other, until you are hot, tired, sweaty and frustrated, with no rabbit to show for your troubles.
Not much fun right?
This is what happens when we divide our attention between multiple things, such as texting while at the movies, or watching TV while working, etc.
When you divide your attention between two important tasks–you end up not being able to accomplish either one well!
As much as possible, give all your awareness to the task at hand, whether it’s playing, eating, lazing, reading or being with a loved one. This rabbit is the only one that matters.
6. The stone cutter:
There was once a stone cutter who was dissatisfied with himself and with his position in life. One day he passed a wealthy merchant’s house. Through the open gateway, he saw many fine possessions and important visitors. “How powerful that merchant must be!” thought the stone cutter. He became very envious and wished that he could be like the merchant. To his great surprise, he suddenly became the merchant, enjoying more luxuries and power than he had ever imagined.
Soon a high official passed by, carried in a sedan chair, accompanied by attendants and escorted by soldiers beating gongs. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, had to bow low before the procession. “How powerful that official is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a high official!” Then he became the high official, carried everywhere in his embroidered sedan chair, feared and hated by the people all around.
It was a hot summer day, so the official felt very uncomfortable in the sticky sedan chair. He looked up at the sun. It shone proudly in the sky, unaffected by his presence. “How powerful the sun is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be the sun!” Then he became the sun, shining fiercely down on everyone, scorching the fields, cursed by the farmers and laborers.
But a huge black cloud moved between him and the earth, so that his light could no longer shine on everything below. “How powerful that storm cloud is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a cloud!” Then he became the cloud, flooding the fields and villages, shouted at by everyone.
But soon he found that he was being pushed away by some great force, and realized that it was the wind. “How powerful it is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be the wind!” Then he became the wind, blowing tiles off the roofs of houses, uprooting trees, feared and hated by all below him.
But after a while, he ran up against something that would not move, no matter how forcefully he blew against it – a huge, towering rock. “How powerful that rock is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a rock!” Then he became the rock, more powerful than anything else on earth.
But as he stood there, he heard the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into the hard surface, and felt himself being changed. “What could be more powerful than I, the rock?” he thought. He looked down and saw far below him the figure of a stone cutter.
Wisdom Pearls: Such a beautiful illustration of the “the grass is always greener on the other side” concept!
Whatever your life circumstances are, there is someone out there who desperately wishes he/she could have YOUR life.
Happiness is relative. Recognize your blessings and practice genuine gratitude every day. For both the big things like a safe home or food or health; and for the little things, like flowers, your morning cup of coffee or a joke shared with a colleague.
Every day, there are so many things to be grateful for. Don’t wait until it’s gone; enjoy and appreciate it while you have the chance.
7. If you love, love openly:
Twenty monks and one nun, who was named Eshun, were practicing meditation with a certain Zen master. Eshun was very pretty even though her head was shaved and her dress plain. Several monks secretly fell in love with her. One of them wrote her a love letter, insisting upon a private meeting.
Eshun did not reply. The following day the master gave a lecture to the group, and when it was over, Eshun arose. Addressing the one who had written to her, she said: “If you really love me so much, come and embrace me now.”
Wisdom Pearls: True love is open, free and unconditional.
True love is also brave and will stand up for you even when nothing or no one else does. Let your love be free and brave too. And if you have such love in your life, in whatever shape or form, protect it and cherish it deeply.
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger chasing after him. Coming to a precipice, 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 eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. At that moment, the man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other and bit into it. How sweet it tasted!
Wisdom Pearls: One of my all time favorite stories. The two tigers chasing the man represent life and death. The vine he holds on to is this material life, and the two mice represent the passage of time (the white one is day and black is night).
- He can only reach for the strawberry by letting go of the vine with one hand. (i.e) to experience the full wisdom of this moment, you need to partly let go of your tight hold on this material life.
- Even though he is caught between the two tigers and death is inevitable, he manages to focus on the moment and enjoy the juicy strawberry.
Life and death are inevitable. But the beauty lies in fully experiencing this moment. If you can do that, you will get to taste the lusciousness of it.
9. The Blind Men and the Elephant:
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?”
Wisdom Pearls: We each feel our unique world view is right and those who disagree just have it all wrong.
But the universe, like the elephant in the story, is too vast for any one person to know everything. We all are privy to our small corner of the world, and what we see is limited by the lens with which we are raised to view life.
Perspective changes everything.
Wise people recognize their own limitations and genuinely try to understand another person’s point of view, even when it is opposite to their own.
10. It will Pass:
A student went to his meditation teacher and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, or my legs ache, or I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s just horrible!”
“It will pass,” the teacher said matter-of-factly.
A week later, the student came back to his teacher. “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!’
“It will pass,” the teacher replied matter-of-factly.
Wisdom Pearls: Change is the only constant. Life will always have ups and downs – happy and sad moments; night and day; rain and sun, illness and health, laughter and tears – Nothing bad will last forever. Nothing good will last forever either. Understanding this will help you stay calm and stable in both good times and in bad.
It’s not only the philosophers and Buddha’s of the world that are wise, mortal being like you and me can learn and practice wisdom too.
And when we do, we can almost touch greatness.
Do you dare to be great?