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.