Zen Stories

When Zen master Hakuin was a young Zen student, he learned that hidden virtue is rewarded. He was traveling with two older monks; all three travelers were carrying baggage. While he walked, Hakuin meditated. One of the older Zen monks pleaded that he was ill and asked Hakuin to carry his baggage for him. Hakuin agreed. The other monk then decided to take advantage of Hakuin by claiming that he also was ill and asking Hakuin to carry his baggage, too. Heavily loaded, Hakuin meditated while carrying all the baggage until the three monks reached the boat on which they would travel. Exhausted, Hakuin slept for a long time. When he awoke, he was surprised that the boat had traveled through a storm. While the other monks had been terrified by the storm, become seasick, and vomited, Hakuin had slept peacefully. (Source: Thomas Cleary, translator, Zen Antics, pp. 21-22.)

Two monks were out walking, and they came to a river that they needed to cross. On the bank of the river was a woman who also needed to cross the river, so one of the monks offered to carry her, an act of kindness to which she agreed. The monks and the woman crossed the river, then the woman went in one direction and the monks in another. Long afterward, one of the monks told the monk who had carried the woman, “We have taken a vow to stay away from women. Why did you carry the woman across the river?” The other monk replied, “I set the woman down a long time ago. Why are you still carrying her?” (Source: Chih Chung Tsai, Zen Speaks, p. 26.)

The Zen master Mokusen Hiki visited a rich man, who was very miserly. Mokusen Hiki held out a closed hand to the miser, and he asked, “If my hand were always like this, what would you call it?” The miser answered, “Deformed.” Mokusen Hiki then held out a hand that was opened wide and asked, “If my hand were always like this, what would you call it?” The miser again answered, “Deformed.” Mokusen Hiki then said to the rich man, “If you understand this, you are a happy rich man.” The miser thought for a long time, and then he changed his ways. When there was a reason to be thrifty, he was thrifty. When there was a reason to be generous, he was generous. (Source: Chih Chung Tsai, Zen Speaks, p. 37.)

A thief went to Zen master Shichiri to rob him. Shichiri told the robber where his money was located, then as the robber was leaving, he told the robber, “It’s polite to say ‘Thank you.’” The robber was so startled that in fact he said, “Thank you.” A few days later, the robber was caught and taken to Shichiri, and the police asked Shichiri, “Did this man rob you?” Shichiri answered, “No. I gave him the money — he even thanked me for it.” The robber did serve a prison term — for his other crimes — but after getting out of prison, he became Shichiri’s disciple. (Source: Chih Chung Tsai, Zen Speaks, p. 37.)

Zen master Rinzai once told an assembly of monks, “I spent 20 years with Obaku. When three times I asked him about the cardinal principle of Buddhism, he gave me three blows with his stick. It was like being patted with a branch of mugwort. I’d love another taste of that stick now. Who can give it to me?” A monk said, “I can.” Rinzai then held out his stick toward the monk, but when the monk tried to take it from him, Rinzai used the stick to hit him. (Source: Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger, Crazy Clouds, p. 39.)

In 1693, Zen Master Bankei knew that he was dying. When one of his disciples asked him to compose a traditional death poem, he replied, “I’ve lived for 72 years. I’ve been teaching people for 45. What I’ve been telling you and others every day during that time is my death verse. I’m not going to make another one now, before I die, just because everyone else does it.” (Source: Sushila Blackman, compiler and editor, Graceful Exits, p. 82.)

Dasui Fazhen, a 10th-century Zen master, was once asked, “How are you at the time when life-death arrives?” He answered, “When served tea, I take tea; when served a meal, I take a meal.” (Source: Sushila Blackman, compiler and editor, Graceful Exits, p. 73.)

Zen Stories Bibliography

Besserman, Perle and Manfred Steger. Crazy Clouds: Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers. Boston, MA: Shambala, 1991.

Blackman, Sushila, compiler and editor. Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die. New York: Weatherhill, Inc., 1997.

Chung, Tsai Chih (editor and illustrator) and Kok Kok Kiang (translator). The Book of Zen. Singapore: Asiapac, 1990.

Cleary, Thomas, translator. Zen Antics: A Hundred Stories of Enlightenment. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1993.

Tsai, Chih-Chung. Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

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