Zen Speaks is another marvelous modern collection of Zen stories and koans by the author and artist Tsai Chih Chung that I highly recommend which contains wonderful cartoon renderings of many of the koans and stories we’ve already covered.
You can watch the entire work as a cartoon in Cantonese with English subtitles:
The wrestler Onami (Great Wave in Japanese) was unbeatable in practice matches, throwing all of his teachers, but easily defeated in tournaments. He sought the help of a Zen master who lived in a temple in the mountains who told him to imagine he was a tidal wave sweeping away everything in his path. Onami meditated that night in the temple, and slowly he felt the roll of his breathing turn into waves. First they swept away the flowers in the offering vase in front of the Buddha statue, then they rose higher and swept away the vase, then swelled into a flood that swept the Buddha and bodhisattvas out of the temple. After that night, Onami was invincible. When we feel fear and anxiety interacting with others, it is useful to imagine that we and they are all the fluid, rolling motions of the larger situation that surrounds us, fearing neither they nor the situation as something external to ourselves.
Master Jingqing asked a monk about the sound outside the monastery, and the monk replied, “That is the sound of rain.” The master said, “All beings are upside-down, losing themselves as they chase things.” The monk asked, “Master, how should I feel?” and the master replied, “I am the sound of the rain!” Much as a tree falling in the forest with no one around doesn’t make a sound, and neither does a tree falling when someone is around but there is no air to serve as medium for it, every sound we hear is the entire circuit of karma and causation in the situation, including ourselves.
Huineng’s student Xiquan was asked what he gained from studying with Huineng, and Xiquan said, “I didn’t lack anything before I went.” Asked why he went to Huineng if nothing was lacking, he replied, “How would I have known I lack nothing if I hadn’t gone?”
A master posed his monks with a problem: “Two monks went walking in the rain. One didn’t get wet. Why?” The monks suggested that one had an umbrella, that the rain was scattered in places, that one walked under the cover of awnings, but the master said that the students were too focused on the words. When the monks finally gave up, the master told them that both got wet. “Two monks went walking in the rain. One didn’t get wet. Two got wet.”
The joke works just as well in ancient Chinese as it does in modern English because language has grey areas and ambiguities. When the master said, “One didn’t get wet”, he could mean that it is the case that one didn’t get wet, such that one remained dry, or he could mean that it isn’t the case that one got wet, rather two got wet. All of the solutions proposed by the monks assumed that one didn’t get wet, the first case, making them blind to the second. It isn’t that the first case is the literal meaning of the words and the second metaphorical or derivative, but rather that we do not expect to hear about one monk and not the other if both got wet or both stayed dry. The joke would also work if the master said both stayed dry, as one didn’t get wet, and the other didn’t get wet either.
When master Danxia was staying at Huilin temple, the winter cold was so bad that he broke and lit a wooden statue of the Buddha to keep warm. When the head monk saw what was happening he demanded to know why Danxia would do such a terrible thing, and Danxia said that he wanted to see if there were any sacred relics inside. The head monk said that it was stupid to think that there would be relics of the Buddha’s body hidden inside the statue, and Danxia said, “If there are no relics in them, let’s burn them all!” According to the legend, the head monk’s eyebrows fell out, a sign that he was falsely professing the dharma. A later master was asked if what Danxia did was wrong, and the master said, “When it’s cold, sit by the fire, and when it’s hot, sit in the shade.”
Once there was a snake whose tail spoke up and asked the head why it always gets to lead. The head replied that it has eyes to see where it is going. The tail protested that without its power they wouldn’t be able to move, and firmly circled a thick tree. The head strained and strived but it could not break away from the tail or break the tail’s grip on the tree, so finally the head agreed that the tail could have its turn. The proud tail charged ahead and then off of a cliff, with the head helplessly following after.