My 10 Favorite Zen Stories

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If these strike your fancy, here’s a site I just found that has a ton (101, to be exact) of zen

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On Learning and Unlearning – “Cup of Tea”

Nan-in, a Japanese master, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself.

“It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

On Fabricating Obstacles – “Other Side”

One day a young Buddhist on his journey home came to the banks of a wide river. Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle in front of him, he pondered for hours on just how to cross such a wide barrier. Just as he was about to give up his pursuit to continue his journey he saw a great teacher on the other side of the river.

The young Buddhist yells over to the teacher, “Oh wise one, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river”?

The teacher ponders for a moment looks up and down the river and yells back, “My son, you are on the other side”.

On Emotional Baggage – “The Burden”

Two monks were returning to the monastery in the evening. It had rained and there were puddles of water on the road sides. At one place a beautiful young woman was standing unable to walk accross because of a puddle of water. The elder of the two monks went up to a her lifted her and left her on the other side of the road, and continued his way to the monastery.

Hours later, the younger monk came to the elder monk and said, “Sir isn’t it true, as monks, we cannot touch a woman?”

The elder monk answered “yes, brother, that is true.”

Then the younger monk asks again, “but then, sir, how is that you lifted that woman on the roadside?”

The elder monk smiled at him and told him ” I left her on the other side of the road, but you are still carrying her.”

On Rest and Revitalization – “Sharpening your Saw”

A woman was walking through the forest when she came upon a man who was furiously sawing at a tree with a very thick trunk. He was covered in sweat, exhausted, and didn’t seem to be making much progress.

“Young man, you seem to be in quite the hurry to cut through that tree, but it appears your saw blade is dull.” She said. “Why don’t you take a moment to sharpen it?”

Barely looking up from sawing — sawing away — the young man said, “I have to fell this tree, and two after it, by the end of the day. I don’t time to sharpen my saw.”

On Knowing – “Maybe”

Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

On Faith and Religion – “Blind Men and the Elephant”

Several citizens ran into a hot argument about God and different religions, and each one could not agree to a common answer. So they came to the Lord Buddha to find out what exactly God looks like.

The Buddha asked his disciples to get a large magnificent elephant and four blind men. He then brought the four blind to the elephant and told them to find out what the elephant would “look” like.

The first blind man touched the elephant leg and reported that it “looked” like a pillar. The second blind man touched the elephant tummy and said that an elephant was a wall. The third blind man touched the elephant ear and said that it was a piece of cloth. The fourth blind man held the elephant by the tail and described the elephant as a piece of rope. And all of them ran into a hot argument about the “appearance” of an elephant.

The Buddha asked the citizens: “Each blind man had touched the elephant but each of them gives a different description of the animal. Which answer is right?”

On Anger Toward Others – The Driverless Boat

A zen teacher and student are rowing a boat through a narrow channel. An empty boat that had come untied from the shore crashes into theirs. The student steers their boat around it, and continues rowing unaffected.

A few moments later, another boat driver, who was rowing in the opposite direction, crashes into their boat, causing the student to be angry. “Watch where you are rowing! You aren’t the only boat on this channel” the student yells at the other boat driver.

The zen teacher turns to the student. “You weren’t angry at the first boat, but you were angry at the second?”

“The first boat didn’t have a driver. It was simply pushed into us by the current. There was no cause for anger.”

The zen teacher replied, “Until we are enlightened, we are all driverless boats, being pushed by the current.”

On Making Change – “Starfish Story”

An old man walks down to the beach and sees it is covered with tens of thousands of starfish, as far as the eye can see. Far down the beach he sees a young girl who is picking the starfish up, one by one, and tossing them back in the ocean.

Amused, he walks to the girl to speak with her. “Little girl,” the old man says, “What are you doing?”

“I’m saving these starfishes lives,” says the girl. “If I don’t throw them back in the water, they’ll drown. They need the water to live.”

The old man laughs to himself. Näive girl, he thinks. “But you are only one person. There are tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. How can you possibly make a difference?”

The girl bends down, picks up a star fish, looks at it, looks up at the man, tosses it into the surf, then says, “I made a difference for that one.”

On Integrity – “Burnt out Lantern”

In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns were used with candles inside. A blind man, visiting a friend one night, was offered a lantern to carry home with him. “I do not need a lantern,” he said. “Darkness or light is all the same to me.”

“I know you do not need a lantern to find your way,” his friend replied, “but if you don’t have one, someone else may run into you. So you must take it.”

The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him. “Look out where you are going!” he exclaimed to the stranger. “Can’t you see this lantern?”

“Your candle has burned out, brother,” replied the stranger.

On Perfection – “Cliffhanger”

One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice.

As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious!