10 Zen stories to wake up

by Mia Fischer May 31, 2019 6 min read

zen

10 Zen stories to wake up

"Stories help children sleep but also to wake up adults." (Jorge Bucay)

In Zen Buddhism, there is a very special kind of short story, which the Zen masters tell their students – the so-called Koans. The Zen masters teach their disciples wisdom about which they then meditate to understand their deeper meaning. Let's take a look at 10 Zen stories written by Buddhist Zen masters, which convey profound insights and wisdom.

  1. A tense situation (anonymous)

One day a man encountered a wild tiger on his way through the jungle. He ran away as fast as he could, but soon reached a cliff. Desperate to escape the tiger, he climbed onto a vine and finally dangled over the deadly abyss. As he hung there, two mice slipped out of a hole in the cliff and started nibbling on the vine. All of a sudden, he saw a few grapes on the vine. He picked them and put them in his mouth. They tasted amazingly delicious!

  1. The general and his relic (anonymous)

Once upon a time, there was a general admiring his precious collection of antiques in his home, when a beautiful vase almost slipped from his hand and he got a fright. He thought, "I have led thousands of soldiers, have had different situations of life and death, and never have I been afraid. And now the possible loss of this vase scares me like that?"

Finally, he realised that the cause of his fright was in his head, his attachment and fear of loss. Then let the precious jar fall on the ground where it broke.

  1. The tea ceremony (anonymous)

One day Master Rikyu held a tea ceremony and Hideyoshi, the Kampaku who ruled the country at that time, made the following remark to his generals: "Watch closely as Rikyu prepares tea and see that his body is full of Qi (life energy), that his precise and gentle gestures are like those of a great warrior, they offer no space for attack. His concentration is perfect."

That's when Kato Kiyomasa, a famous general, came up with an idea. To check whether the observations of the Kampaku were as accurate as he claimed, he decided to touch Rikyu with his fan as soon as he found a gap in his concentration.

Thus, he started observing Rikyu who was right next to him. After a few minutes, when the general thought he saw a mistake, he touched him with his fan. At the same moment, the tea master looked him straight in the eyes and smiled.

  1. The angry monk (anonymous)

Two Zen monks were about to cross a river when they met a very young and beautiful woman who also wanted to cross the river but was afraid of the water. One of the two monks quickly took her on his shoulders and carried her over the river. The other monk was angry. He did not say anything, but inside he was boiling with rage. A Buddhist monk was forbidden to touch a woman, and this monk had not only touched her but also carried her on his shoulders. Silently they went their way. When they arrived at the monastery, the angry monk finally turned to the other and yelled, "I'll report that to our Master. I will have to report this. This is forbidden!"

"What are you talking about? What is forbidden?“ replied the other monk in surprise.

"Did you forget? You carried this beautiful woman on your shoulders," the angry monk revolted.

The other monk laughed and then said, "Yes, I carried her. But I left her by the river. You still carry her with you."

  1. The Samurai and the three cats – Taisen Deshimaru (1914-1982)

A samurai was struggling with a mouse who had decided to share his room. He was advised to get a cat. He searched in the neighbourhood and finally found one. It was an impressive cat, beautiful and strong. Yet the mouse was smarter than the cat and just mocked her. The samurai adopted another very clever cat. The mouse became suspicious and appeared only when the cat was asleep.

Then the samurai got a cat from a Zen temple. She seemed inattentive, lazy and sleepy. The samurai thought, "This cat will not free me from the mouse."

The cat was laying around sleepy and indifferent in the room, ignoring the mouse. The mouse got used to the situation and became inattentive. Carelessly she passed the cat without weighing herself into danger. Then, one day a claw suddenly caught her.

  1. The goal (anonymous)

During a battle, a Japanese general decided to attack even if his army consisted of much less soldiers. He was confident that he would win, but his men were full of doubt. On the way to the battlefield, they stopped at a chapel. After praying with his men, the general took out a coin and said, "Now I'll flip this coin. Head means we will win, tails means we lose. May fate decide."

He threw the coin in the air and everyone watched intently as it landed. Head! The soldiers were so happy and confident that they energetically attacked and defeated the enemy. After the fight, a soldier told the general, "Nobody can change fate." "That's right," the general replied, showing him the coin that had a head on both sides.

  1. The broken jug or useless wisdom of this world – Mumon Ekai (1183-1260)

Hyakujo called his monks together because he wanted to transfer the responsibility for their new monastery to one of them. He put a glass of water on the floor and asked, "Who can say what that is without naming it?"

One of the monks said, "You cannot say it's a slipper." "It's not a pond, because it can be transported," said another monk.

Isan, a monk and cook of the monastery, came by, knocked over the jug and went on.

Hyakujo smiled and said, "The cook will be the Master of the new monastery."

  1. The Satori – Taisen Deshimaru (1914-1982)

A lumberjack chopped wood in the forest. He had heard of a fabulous animal, the animal "Satori". Since then it has been his dearest desire to own one. One day he saw a "Satori" scurrying by in the forest. The lumberjack ran after him and was not surprised when he heard a voice saying, "You will not own me because you desire me."

The lumberjack returned to work. He had long forgotten the incident when the animal "Satori" appeared one day at an unexpected moment when he was concentrated on chopping wood. And the animal fell over, right in front of him.

  1. The moon cannot be stolen (anonymous)

Zen master Ryokan lived a very simple life in a small hut at the foot of a mountain. One night a thief broke into the hut, only to find that there was nothing there that he could have stolen.

Ryokan returned to his home in that very moment and stopped him. "You probably came from far away to visit me," he told the burglar, "and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift."

The thief was visibly confused. He took the clothes and quickly sneaked away.

Ryokan was sitting naked in front of his hut watching the moon. "Such a poor guy," he thought, "I wish I could give him this beautiful moon."

  1. True wealth – Anonymous

A very wealthy man once asked the monk Sengai if he could write down something for the continuous prosperity of his family so that his fortune could persist from generation to generation.

Sengai took a long sheet of rice paper and wrote, "Father dies, son dies, grandson dies."

The rich man was offended and outraged: "I asked you to write something for the happiness of my family. Why do you allow yourself such a joke? "

Sengai replied calmly, "That was no joke. If your son died before you, it would hurt you very much. If your grandson died before you and your son, you would both be devastated. However, if in your family, generation after generation, everyone dies in the order which I wrote down, that's the natural course of life. That's what I call true wealth. "

Zen stories are stories to wake up! In meditating on the contents of these oftentimes confusing anecdotes lies the key to a higher state of consciousness. Koans are often not rationally explainable. Thus, these short stories allow you to see beyond the superficiality of the world and to discern the deeper truth, which hides behind the veil of illusion.

Mia Fischer
Mia Fischer


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