Chinese Philosophy – Zen Stories

One of the mediums employed for teaching Zen monks and common folks alike is the short anecdote, the story with a lesson that is often a koan-like shift of focus.  Zen Flesh Zen Bones (1957) is now a classic, a book compiled by the American author Paul Reps as beatniks and others were getting into Zen, and it was one of the first I encountered in grade school.  After reading some of these stories, particularly the two monks and the girl in the kimono, I knew that there was something quite extraordinary in Zen, wisdom that sounded similar to things Jesus and others considered wise have said.  In this short and inexpensive book Reps has collected some of the most striking stories and koans from over 700 years of the tradition to make them available to the modern English reader.  Here are some of my favorites.

Two monks were traveling in the rain down a muddy town road.  Around a bend, they found a beautiful girl in a kimono unable to cross.  One offered his help, picked her up and carried her over the mud.  After the monks had reached an inn later, the second turned to him and scolded him for dangerously becoming involved with the girl, and the first replied, “I left the girl back there.  Why are you still carrying her with you?”

An old woman in China had supported a monk in a hut in her yard for over twenty years.  She decided to test his progress.  She told a young girl to embrace and caress him.  When she did, the monk replied, “An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter.  Nowhere is there any warmth.”  When she heard this, the woman was outraged that, while he had done nothing passionate, he had done nothing compassionate towards the girl either, and she promptly burned down the hut.

Mokusen visited a wealthy miser who hated spending money.  Mokusen clenched his hand in a fist and asked him, “What if my hand were always like this?”  The miser replied that it would be deformed.  Mokusen stretched out his hand and asked the same question, and the miser again said it would be deformed.  Mokusen nodded and left.  From that day on, the miser was both generous and frugal, helpfully giving but wise in spending.

One night Shichiri was meditating when a thief broke in and demanded money.  Shichiri replied that the money was in the drawer and he was not to be disturbed.  As the thief was taking the money, Shichiri asked that some be left, as he had taxes to pay.  As the thief went to leave, Shichiri added that he should be thanked for the gift.  Later, after the thief was caught, Shichiri told the officials, “This man is no thief.  I gave him the money and he thanked me.”  After getting out of prison, the thief became Shichiri’s devoted student.

Hogen was visited by traveling monks who were arguing about subjectivity and objectivity.  He asked them about a large stone in the yard, and whether it was inside or outside the mind.  One said that from a Buddhist viewpoint the stone was inside the mind.  Hogen replied that his head must be very heavy to carry around a stone like that around in his mind.

Sengai was asked to write calligraphy for the prosperity of a rich man’s family.  On a large sheet of paper, he wrote, “Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.”  The rich man became angry, but Sengai explained that if each generation passes away in the proper order, it would be the happiest course for the entire family.


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.

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