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101 Zen Stories


Introduction To This New Edition

Introduction To This New Edition

Some of these 101 Zen Stories were gathered together by a Japanese Zen teacher named Muju in the late 13th Century. That collection was titled Shasekishū - “Sand and Pebbles”. Each story (or “koan”) is an anecdote recounting the actual experiences of certain Chinese and Japanese Zen teachers from the preceding five centuries. Allegedly.

In the early 20th Century, the Japanese Zen master Nyogen Senzaki translated these stories into English, adding more along the way, and those versions have been circulated widely since then - especially since Paul Reps compiled them in a collection called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, first published in 1957.

Having re-read them many times since I first encountered them, I have always felt the truth in their bones is too often obscured by dated translation and the accidental addition of outdated ideas. Then one day travelling in Asia, I found a cartoon book called Zen Speaks: Shouts Of Nothingness by the Taiwanese artist Tsai Chih Chung. Here were the same stories, but casually stirred about and topped up with babbling rivers and cloud-topped mountains and cartoon-ish monks. Much more graphic, much more vibrant! It seems there are many ways to tell the same stories. Even just a few changes can make the same stories more appealing and insightful for the 21st Century reader. Time for a rewrite, or at least a fresh edit.

Time and re-telling inevitably move things on from their original source, much as sand and pebbles are moved and shaped by the sea. I hope the stories you find here still contain much to like about the most wordless branch of Buddhist practice. Are they the same stories that were told almost a thousand years ago? No, I am certain they are not. But do they point the reader to an understanding that goes beyond all of those years? I hope so, but that is not for me to say.

Richard Neville
London, 2021

The One With Too Much Tea

(originally, A Cup of Tea)

An elderly zen master named Nan-in received a learned university professor, visiting to discuss Zen teachings.

Nan-in served tea while the bespectacled professor watched. He poured until the younger man’s cup was brim-full, and continued to pour some more.

The professor watched the hot tea overflow onto the table between them until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop! Stop! The cup is overfull. No more will go in!”

Nan-in stopped, and smiled. He said, “We are all like this cup, filled with opinions and speculations. How can we see Zen unless we find some space in our cup?”

The One With The Unfortunate Drunkard

(originally, Finding a Diamond on a Muddy Road)

On a dark and rainy night, Gudo, the great Zen teacher of the Japanese Emperor, wandered into a village. Gudo was wet through, and his worn out sandals blistered his tired feet. Despite his discomfort, he preferred to travel this way - a humble mendicant monk, unencumbered by riches or the expectations of others, carrying only a few simple possessions.

A villager saw him and invited him to shelter in her home. Gudo noticed the neat row of dry sandals stacked by the doorway, and accepted the woman’s kind offer. He entered the little family home, and recited a sutra before the family shrine, before sharing a meal with the woman, her mother, and her children.

Noticing that they seemed depressed, he asked what was wrong.

“My husband is a drunkard and a gambler,” the woman told him. “When he wins, he drinks and his boisterousness disturbs the whole village. When he loses, he becomes abusive, and our family falls deeper into debt. Oftentimes he does not come home for days on end - but it feels bad that we prefer it that way.”

Gudo considered this. “I will help him,” he said, “Use my money to buy a pitcher of wine and some good food. Then you may retire, and I will meditate until your husband returns.”

The drunken husband returned after midnight, hungry and desperate for more to drink.

“Your wife kindly allowed me to shelter from the rain,” said Gudo, “and in return I have provided wine and food. You might as well have them.”

The man was delighted, and drank and ate until he fell asleep on the floor, while Gudo sat in quiet meditation beside him.

In the morning, the man had forgotten what had happened the previous night. “Who are you?” he said to the stranger seated beside him.

“I am Gudo of Kyoto, passing by on my way to the Emperor’s palace in Edo,” said Gudo.

The man remembered the night before, and was filled with shame upon learning how he had behaved in such illustrious company. He apologised to the teacher of his country’s Emperor.

Gudo forgave him, saying, “Everything in life is impermanent. There is no value in wasting your self in worthless pursuits.”

The man felt as if he was awaking from a drunken dream. “You are right,” he said, hanging his head in shame. “Please let me walk with you, and carry your belongings, if only for a mile.”

Gudo allowed the man to do so. When he tried to send him back home, the man said, “Just five miles more, that I may learn a little more of your way.”

After five more miles, Gudo suggested, “You should return now.” The man replied, “After ten more miles.”

Ten miles closer to Edo, Gudo told the man to go home. The man shook his head, saying, “My life has taken a new course. I will follow you for as long as I am able.”

Modern Zen teachers pay homage to a famous Zen master, who was the successor to the monk Gudo. His name was Mu-nan - and he was known as the man who never turned back.

The One Where The Master Says “Is That So?”

(originally, Is That So?)

The Zen master Hakuin was esteemed by all that knew him for his purity and plain-speaking nature.

When a local girl became pregnant, she eventually named Hakuin as the father. The girl’s furious parents confronted Hakuin, hurling abuse at him and lamenting their daughter’s predicament. He listened calmly, and responded only, “Is that so?”

When the child was born, the girl’s parents took it to Hakuin and demanded he care for it, since the mother was too young, and too busy working at the local market. By this time, Hakuin had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him for he could still beg milk and a little food from his neighbours. He worked carefully to ensure the child had all that was needed.

A year passed before the child’s mother confessed that the real father was a young man who worked nearby on the fish stall.

Her parents insisted that she and the young man went at once to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, and to take the child on as their own.

Hakuin listened carefully, and yielded the child to the young couple, saying “Is that so?”

The One With The Obedient Priest

(originally, Obedience)

Master Bankei’s talks were attended by a wide range of visitors, not only Zen students. The master never quoted sutras, or indulged in scholarly discourse. He spoke directly from his heart, in order to reach out to the hearts of his listeners.

His approach angered a priest from the Nichiren sect, since the audience for Master Bankei’s talks far exceeded the attendees at the Nichiren temple. The priest came to see Master Bankei, determined to debate with him and convert some followers.

“Hey Zen teacher,” he called out from the crowd, “You don’t own my respect, and I will not follow your words like an unthinking fool. What can you teach a man like me?”

“Join me up here before this audience, and I will show you,” said Master Bankei generously.

The priest pushed his way through the crowd, delighted to have such an opportunity.

“Come sit on my left side, and let us talk together,” said Master Bankei.

As the priest sat down, Master Bankei changed his mind. “Perhaps it would be better for you here on my right side,” he said.

The priest was flattered and moved to Master Bankei’s right.

“I can see that you are not an unthinking fool, but I thank you for following my words so well,” said Master Bankei, “Now let us discuss the nature of the world we share together.”

In a flash, the priest realised how important it is to truly listen.

The One With The Nun Who Loves Openness

(originally, If You Love, Love Openly)

Eshun carried out her duties as the only nun among twenty young monks at a Zen temple. Although she shaved her head and dressed as plainly as the others, several monks fell in love with her.

One day, she received a secret love letter, insisting upon a private meeting. Eshun did not reply.

The following day the master gave a lecture to the group, and when it was over, Eshun stood up. She turned to face the monk who had written to her and said, “If you really do love me, come and embrace me now.”

The One Where The Monk Behaves Coldly

(originally, No Loving-Kindness)

For twenty years, an old woman supported a young monk’s efforts at self-cultivation. She built him a straw hut where he could live and meditate, and she provided his meals every day.

She began to wonder if the monk was truly progressing towards a state of self-mastery, and decided to test him. She sent an attractive young woman to visit him, instructing her to give him a hug and see how he might respond.

The girl called upon the monk and carried out their plan, hugging the monk warmly to her, and asking “How does that make you feel?”

The monk said, “It feels like a withered tree leaning against a frigid cliff, like a winter’s day from which I glean no warmth.” The girl blushed and returned to the old woman to relate what had been said.

“To think I spent twenty years helping that scoundrel!” the woman exclaimed, and she set fire to the monk’s hut vowing her support for him was ended. “He need not have responded with passion, but it seems he lacked all compassion too!”

The One About The Timely Postcard

(originally, Announcement)

The monk Tanzan wrote sixty postcards on the last day of his life. He asked an attendant to mail them. Then he passed away. The cards read:

I am departing from this world.
This is my last announcement.


27 July 1892.

The One Where The Wrestler Becomes A Wave

(originally, Great Waves)

There was once a wrestler called O-nami, whose name means “Great Waves”.

During practice bouts he was a master of his sport and was able to defeat anyone who tried him, even his teachers. But whenever he fought in public, he was defeated by even the weakest opponent.

Not knowing what else to do, he climbed high into the hills in search of a Zen master.

At a remote temple, a monk tutored him: “Be true to your name, O-nami. Do not think of yourself as a wrestler suffering from stage fright. Instead, imagine those great waves. Feel their mighty rhythm. Let them wash around you, surging and swallowing all that stands in their path.”

O-nami remained in the temple meditating into the night. At first he felt nothing but the difficulty of developing true concentration. But then waves started to roll around the temple, knocking over vases, carrying away items of worship, and spraying and smashing against the temple walls. By morning the hillside was nothing but the ebb and flow of an immense sea, roaring in O-nami’s ears.

His teacher placed a hand on O-nami’s powerful shoulder, raising him from his deep meditation. “You are ready,” he said. “Now nothing can disturb you. You have become the waves, and you will sweep through everything in your path.”

Sure enough, O-nami returned to the ring with newfound strength. His abilities were limitless. Every time he wrestled, no-one could defeat him.

The One Where The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

(originally, The Moon cannot be Stolen)

A Zen master known as Ryokan lived the simplest life in a little hut at the foot of a great mountain. One evening a thief entered his hut only to find it contained nothing worth stealing.

Ryokan returned to find the thief in his home. “You have come a long way,” he said, “and you should not leave disappointed. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away into the night.

Ryokan sat naked outside his hut, under the light of a summer moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “If only I could give him this beautiful moon.”

The One Where The Last Line Of The Poem Is An Action

(originally, The Last Poem of Hoshin)

When the Zen master Hoshin was very old, he told his disciples this story:

“On the twenty-fifth day of December, an elderly monk named Tokufu announced that he would not be alive the following year, and asked that his fellow monks should treat him well for the remaining days of the month.

“The monks thought he was joking, but since he was much-loved, each in turn treated him to a feast on succeeding days of the departing year. On New Year’s Eve, Tokufu thanked them, and said, ‘I shall leave you tomorrow, when the snow has stopped.’

“The monks wondered if Tokufu had become confused in his dotage, since that evening was clear and without snow. But at midnight, snow indeed began to fall, and the next day when the temple was shrouded with silence and the bamboo forest was boughed with snow, they found that Tokufu had passed away.”

Hoshin’s disciples considered the story carefully. “Is it necessary for a Zen master to predict their passing?” they asked.

“No,” replied Tokufu, “But if they wish to do so, they can.”

“Can you?” asked a junior monk.

“Perhaps you will know in seven days,” replied Tokufu.

The disciples were not sure what to make of their master’s comments, and most had forgotten about the conversation when Tokufu brought it up again.

“Seven days ago,” he said, “I told you I would leave you, so would one of you please inscribe my farewell poem?”

One of the monks took up a quill and ink, still uncertain of their master’s meaning.

Hoshin dictated:

“I came from brilliancy,
And I return to brilliancy.
What is this?”

The poem was one line short of the customary four, so the disciple said, “Master, we are one line short.”

With the roar of a conquering lion, Hoshin cried “Kaaa!” and was gone.

The One About The Woman People Loved

(originally, The Story of Shunkai)

To know Shunkai was to fall in love with her, but that does not mean her life was filled with love. At an early age, she was compelled to marry against her wishes, and when this marriage broke down, she left home to study philosophy at university.

Her studies did not satisfy her, so she found her way to a temple to learn about Zen. Even here, the students of Zen fell in love with her, as she herself fell in love with some of them in return. As her commitment to Zen deepened, she moved to Kyoto where she was not known. She shaved her head and wore modest monkish robes to study Zen in earnest.

The priests at this temple seemed to have lost some zeal for Buddhism, and gained more for taking wives. The abbott, Mokurai, chased lovers from the monastery every week, but the more he swept away, the more they seemed to come back. Shunkai remained chaste and modest. One of the priests’ wives became jealous of her combination of physical beauty and seeming purity, and spread rumours about her. So it came to be that Shunkai was expelled along with a friend accused of being her lover.

“I may have made the mistake of love,” thought Shunkai, “but I cannot tolerate the injustice that that has been brought upon my friend.” That night she set fire to the temple, and it burned to the ground. She soon found herself in the hands of the police.

During her trial, a young lawyer saw goodness in her heart and petitioned to make her sentence lighter. “Do not help me,” she said, “I may find myself doing something else which will only imprison me again.”

She completed a seven year jail sentence, during which even the prison warden became enamoured with her. But when she was released, she was seen as a “jailbird”, and no-one would associate with her. Even the Zen monks turned her away, despite their commitment to enlightenment beyond all material concerns. Shunkai found that belief was one thing while behaviour was quite another. She was poor and alone, and soon she became sick and weak.

In time, she met a Shinshu Buddhist priest who taught her about the Buddha of Love, and in this she found some solace. She passed away still an exquisitely beautiful woman, and barely thirty years old.

During her last years, she wrote her story in a futile attempt to support herself. After her death, her story found its way into the hearts of the Japanese people. All those who rejected her, who slandered and hated her, now read about her life shedding tears of love and remorse.

The One About The Laughing Buddha

(originally, Happy Chinaman)

There was once a man who became known as Hotei, or “cloth sack” - for this he carried wherever he went. The sack contained all the possessions he owned in the world - nothing much - but he sometimes surprised children he met by finding sweet fruits or breads in there, which he gave away liberally as if his wealth would never end. He was much loved wherever he went, and despite his great poverty and greater generosity he had a big round belly, a broad smile and a rich laugh.

Some even said he was able to predict fortunes, as well as being immune to the bitter cold of winter. He is still celebrated today, known throughout Asia as the Happy Chinaman, or the Laughing Buddha.

Hotei had no desire to call himself a Zen master, preferring the company of children and ordinary people. But whenever he met Zen devotees, he would extend his hand and say, “Give me one penny.” And when asked if he would return to the temple to teach others his joyful way of life, he would laugh and say again, “Give me one penny.”

Once, another Zen master encountered him on the road, and questioned him about the Way. The Master asked Hotei the formal question: “What is the true significance of Zen?” In response, Hotai dropped his sack at his feet.

“Then,” asked the other, “What is the actualisation of Zen?”

At once Hotei lifted his sack, swung it over his shoulder and continued on his way.

The One About Whether Buddhas Are Humans

(originally, A Buddha)

In Tokyo during the Meiji era there lived two prominent Buddhist teachers with opposite views.

One was an instructor in Shingon Buddhism named Unsho, who maintained the five precepts scrupulously. He never drank intoxicants, and nor would he eat after eleven o’clock each morning.

The other was a professor of philosophy at the Imperial University named Tanzan, who never observed the precepts. He ate when he felt like eating, just as he slept whenever he felt like sleeping.

One day Unsho visited Tanzan, who was drinking wine - an intoxicant forbidden by the fifth precept.

“Hello my friend,” said Tanzan, “Will you have a drink with me?”

“I never drink,” said Unsho solemnly.

“Drinking wine makes me feel human,” said Tanzan jovially.

“Do you call me inhuman for not drinking intoxicants?” exclaimed Unsho. “If I am not human, what do you think I am?”

“Why you are a Buddha,” answered Tanzan.

The One About Carrying The Girl

(originally, Muddy Road)

Tanzan and his disciple Ekido were travelling together on a muddy road when the sky above them burst open. Heavy rain hammered their bald monkish heads, soaked their robes, and drummed loudly upon the leaves of the surrounding forest.

Coming around a bend, they encountered a young woman wearing a beautiful silk kimono and sash, albeit soaked through to her skin. The river had broken its banks and a deep muddy torrent now flowed across the road so the poor girl was unable to get home.

“Come,” said Tanzan, and he lifted the girl high in his arms, carrying her carefully across the mud.

Ekido did not speak until that night when they reached a lodging temple, whereupon he could restrain himself no longer. “We monks are not allowed to engage with women,” he said, “especially not such youthful and beautiful ones as the girl we met today. It is dangerous for us - so why did you allow that to happen?”

Tanzan looked at him. “I left the girl there,” he said, “Are you still carrying her?”

The One About The Monk And His Mother

(originally, Shoun and His Mother)

Shoun became a teacher of Soto Zen. During his training his father passed away, leaving him to care for his elderly mother.

His mother went with him everywhere. When Shoun visited monasteries, he had to build a camp nearby for the pair to sleep in, because his mother was not permitted to sleep alongside other monks. Shoun got up extra early each day so that he could fully participate in monastic life, receiving his customary few coins for food.

When Shoun spent the money on fish for his mother, people would scoff at him because monks are supposed to be vegetarian. Shoun did not mind. His mother, however, was hurt by this. “I can become a nun,” she said, “And then we can be vegetarian together.”

This also meant that Shoun and his mother could study together. They were both fond of music, and sometimes they would play beautiful music together, melodies intertwining beneath a full moon.

One such night, a woman heard their song and invited them to visit her and play some more. Shoun and his mother accepted the invitation, and enjoyed playing for the woman and her friends. A few days later, they noticed certain townspeople were laughing at them, and Shoun learned that they did so because he and his mother had entertained a woman of the streets.

There came a time when Shoun had to travel alone to a distant temple. He returned after a few months to find that his mother had died, and her funeral was in progress.

Shoun approached the coffin and tapped it with his staff. “Mother, your son has returned,” he said.

In his mother’s voice he replied, “I am glad you are back, my son.”

“I am glad too,” said Shoun. Then he announced to the people around him, “The funeral ceremony is over now. It is time to bury the body.”

When Shoun himself was as old as his mother, he asked his disciples to gather in the morning, telling them he would die at noontime. Burning incense before a picture of his mother and his old teacher, he wrote this poem:

For fifty-six years I lived as best I could,
Making my way in this world.
Now the rain has ended, the clouds are clearing,
The blue sky has a full moon.

As his disciples recited sutras around him, Shoun quietly passed away.

The One About The Bible

(originally, Not Far from Buddahood)

A university student visited the Zen master Gasan, and asked him: “Have you ever read the Christian Bible?”

“No,” said Gasan, “read it to me.” The student opened the Bible and read from St Matthew:

“And why take ye thought for raiment?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.
They toil not, neither do they spin,
and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.
Take therefore no thought for the morrow,
for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”

Gasan said: “Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened person.”

The student continued reading:

“Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find,
knock and it shall be opened unto you.
For everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth,
and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.”

Gasan remarked: “That is excellent. Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood.”

The One About Fearing Death And Nothing

(originally, Stingy in Teaching)

Kusuda was a young doctor at a busy Tokyo hospital. His work was demanding, and he wondered whether he had chosen the right path in life.

He met up with a friend from college who had been studying Zen. “What is Zen anyway?” asked the busy physician.

His friend replied, “I cannot tell you that… but I can tell you this: if you understand Zen, you will not be afraid to die.” Kusuda was curious. Was Zen some sort of magic? Or was it fakery? He wanted to learn more, so his college friend recommended that he visit the Zen master Nan-in.

Kusuda decided to test his friend’s claim that those who understood Zen never fear death. He hid a nine inch knife in his coat when he went to see Nan-in, and he was about to pull it out when Nan-in greeted him, saying, “Hello friend! It’s been such a long time.” Kusuda felt oddly disarmed, saying, “But we’ve never met before.”

“That’s right,” said Nan-in, “I mistook you for another doctor I’ve been teaching. Come in.”

Over tea, Nan-in explained, “Zen is not difficult or magical. When you are a physician, give your patients your full attention; treat people with kindness. That is Zen.”

Kusuda visited Nan-in three times, and each time Nan-in told him the same thing. “Now go and take care of your patients.”

Kusuda did not see how this teaching could remove the fear of death. So on the fourth visit he said, “My friend told me that when one learns Zen, one loses their fear of death. But you only ever tell me to take care of my patients. If you have nothing more to teach me, I will stop coming here.”

Nan-in smiled. “I do not mean to be stingy. Let me give you a koan,” he said, and presented Kusuda with “Jōshū’s Mu”, which is the first enlightening challenge in the classic Zen text, “The Gateless Gate”.

(“Jōshū’s Mu” is seemingly simple question with a seemingly simple answer. The question goes like this: A monk asked Jōshū, “Has a dog the Buddha Nature?” Jōshū’s response to this question is succinct and direct. It conceals nothing, though it may take years of consideration and meditation to recognise its meaning. Jōshū’s answer is this: “Mu” - which, in Chinese, means “Nothingness.”)

Kusuda pondered the meaning of “Mu” for two years, and continued to see his Zen teacher Nan-in. At length, he believed he had found certainty of mind, but his teacher told him he must go further.

He continued his deep concentration for another year and a half. His mind became calm. Problems dissolved. He started to see the truth of “Mu”. He served his patients well, and without realising it, he started to see beyond the concerns of life and death.

At this point, when he visited Nan-in, his old teacher said nothing to him, and smiled.

The One About The Tiger And The Strawberry

(originally, A Parable)

Buddha told a parable in a sutra:

On a beautiful day beneath a beautiful sun, a man crossed a field and encountered a tiger. The man fled, and the tiger pursued. The man ran as fast as he could... and came to a precipice above a deep ravine. Far below, white water smashed against sharp rocks. He fell! As he fell he caught hold of the root of a wild vine. He dangled over the cliff edge. The tiger sniffed and growled above him. The water rushed and roared below him. His whole life hung from that single stretched-tight vine.

Two mice, one pure white, the other deep black, emerged from their hole and began to gnaw at the vine. The man saw a strawberry growing from the crumbly earth beside him, just out of reach. He wrapped the vine tightly around one arm, and with the other he reached, he stretched, he leaned, and he plucked that red juicy strawberry. How beautifully sweet it tasted!

The One About Drawing “The First Principle”

(originally, The First Principle)

The words set above the gateway to a temple are intended to set a tone for all visitors. Perhaps they are a thought worth thinking, or a reminder of what we know to be important. At the awesome Obaku temple in Kyoto, those words are unusually large, and are noted as a masterpiece of calligraphy. They say: “The First Principle”.

They were drawn by the humble Zen master Kosen. He inked them on paper, from which workmen created the larger carving in wood.

Kosen worked with one of his students on the project, so he could share his artistic process.

“What do you think?” the master asked the student after creating a first draft.

“I think you could do better,” replied the student.

The master tore his paper in half and started again. “How about this one?”

“Worse! Please don’t use that one.”

The master created a new draft, and to this the student responded, “Perhaps the first one was better after all?” The master did not agree, because the first one had been thrown away.

Kosen created eighty-four drafts of “The First Principle” all under the watchful eye of his student.

The young man stepped outside for a moment. “Now is my chance to escape his keen eye,” Kosen thought, and he wrote the same words again, hurriedly and without thinking. Then he stepped away.

The student returned. “A masterpiece,” he pronounced to the empty room.

The One About The Mother’s Advice

(originally, A Mother’s Advice)

The Shingon Buddhist monk named Jiun became a reputed scholar of linguistics. Even as a young student, his lectures were respected by the younger monks and the older masters alike.

His mother heard about his growing fame, and wrote him a letter:

“Son, is this what you want? It seems that the more expertise you show, the more your reputation grows. Both of these things seem endless, limitless. You could go on like this, but is that why you chose to study Buddhism? Your striving suggests you have not found your true purpose. Take yourself to a remote temple in the mountains. Devote your time to meditation and find deeper realisation within.”

The One About One Hand Clapping

(originally, The Sound of One Hand)

At twelve years old, Toyo was the youngest monk at Kennin temple. Every morning, he would watch the disciples visit the master’s quarters for their sanzen personal guidance sessions.

“Master,” he said, “Please can I do sanzen too?”

“If you wish,” said Mokurai, the master, “Come back to me in the evening, and I will give you a koan - a Zen puzzle - but be prepared that you may not be able to solve it.”

That evening, Toyo stood at the threshold of master Mokurai’s sanzen room. He struck the gong to announce his presence, bowed three times, entered, and seated himself before the imposing figure of the master in respectful silence.

For a few moments, the master said nothing. And then he spoke: “We know the sound of two hands clapping. Teach me the sound of one hand.”

Toho bowed and returned to his quarters to consider the problem. He wanted to prove himself, and did not want to fail his challenge. As his mind wandered, music drifted in through his window. Far away the geishas were singing.

The next evening, he tried to sing a fragment of their song to the master. “No,” said the master, “You have missed the mark. Try again.”

Toho moved to a hut in the forest to meditate upon the problem away from distractions.

The more he thought about it, the more he felt confused. But each evening, he brought a new answer back to the master.

“Dripping water?” “No, that is clearly not the sound of one hand.”

“The cry of a bird?” “No.”

“The sighing of the wind?” “The rustle of a tree?” “The chirp of the crickets?” “All wrong, keep going.”

Toho meditated on the problem for almost a year. One evening he realised he had tried everything he could think of - he had run out of sounds. There was nothing left for him to bring to his master.

Years later Toho realised he had learned the sound of one hand by reaching the soundless sound.

The One About Habits For Daily Life

(originally, My Heart Burns Like Fire)

When the first Zen teacher came to America, he surprised people with the way he distinguished between how things seem and how they truly are. He said: “My heart burns like fire but my eyes are cool as ashes.”

His name was Soyen Shaku, and he wrote the following rules based on his own habits for daily life:

In the morning before dressing, light incense and meditate.

Retire at a regular hour.

Take food at regular intervals.

Eat with moderation, do not eat to the point of satiation.

Receive guests with the same attitude you have when alone.

When alone, maintain the same attitude you have with guests.

Listen to what you say, and whatever you say, practice it.

Grasp the opportunities that come to you, but allow your thoughts to settle before acting.

Never regret what has already happened. Always consider the future.

Be as fearless as a hero, and as loving as a child.

Sleep as if it may be your last sleep.

When you awake, leave your bed instantly as if you are casting away old shoes.

The One About The Burning Nun

(originally, Eshun’s Departure)

When Eshun, a Zen monk, was past sixty years old she knew her time to leave the world had come. She asked some monks to pile up wood in the grounds near her monastery. She climbed into the middle of her funeral pyre and asked for it to be set fire around the edges.

One of the monks called out to her, “Is it hot in there?”

“That is no longer my concern,” answered Eshun, “And it should not concern you either.” The flames rose around her, and she passed away.

The One About Sutras For Almost Everyone

(originally, Reciting Sutras)

When his wife died, her grieving husband requested that a Tendai priest recite sutras in her honour.

“Will my wife gain merit from this?” he asked the priest.

“She will,” answered the priest, “All sentient beings benefit from sutras being spoken aloud.”

The man considered this. He said, “But my wife may be weaker than other sentient beings, on account of her being dead, so her situation will not be improved in comparison with others. I would prefer you to recite sutras just for her.”

“I cannot do that,” said the priest, “as a Buddhist, I wish merit for every living being.”

“That is a fine teaching,” said the man, “and I do appreciate it. But can we make one exception? I have a neighbour who has been mean to me. My wife asks that you exclude him from your list of sentient beings.”

The One With The Deadly Deadline

(originally, Three Days More)

Suiwo became an excellent teacher, under the tutelage of Hakuin. He took on a pupil from the hot southern islands of Japan.

His pupil seemed to have brought the heat and humidity with him. Hakuin considered him carefully, as sweat ran down his cheek and mosquitos whirled around them both.

He wafted the insects away, careful not to harm them, and he set his pupil this challenge: “Hear the sound of one hand clapping.”

The pupil stayed for three years but could not pass the test. “I must return home in shame,” he said tearfully.

“One week more you must try,” said Suiwo, “Meditate constantly and you will prevail.”

A week passed. No progress.

“Five days more,” Suiwo insisted, “I know you can do this.”

The five days were hard - but nothing happened.

The pupil was upset. The mosquitos whined, closing in on his distress.

“Three days longer,” said Suiwo, and he added with a shrug, “If you fail to attain enlightenment, perhaps you should kill yourself.”

On the second day, the pupil from the South was enlightened.

The One With The One-Eyed Debater

(originally, Trading Dialogue for Lodging)

At certain temples, newly arrived monks are challenged to a debate about Buddhism. If they win the challenge, they are allowed to stay. If they are defeated, they have to move on.

In the foothills of a lonely Northern mountain, two brothers lived together in one such temple. It was not a popular place and nor were the brothers particularly welcoming. The older brother was slight and smart, and the younger brother was big and clumsy having lost an eye.

A wandering monk arrived, requesting lodging. “You deal with this,” said the older brother to the younger, “Challenge him, but insist that your dialogue is silent.”

So the younger monk and the stranger faced each other in the shrine, beside an icy stream that ran down from the mountain.

A few gallons of cold water later, the stranger left the shrine, passing the older brother on his way out of the temple. “What happened?” asked the brother.

“Your brother is a wonderful fellow, and he defeated me in sublime debate,” puffed the stranger.

That sounds unlikely, thought the brother, and asked that the stranger relate their dialogue.

“First I held up one finger,” said the stranger, “representing Buddha, the enlightened one who showed us the way. So he held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teachings, without which we could not have learned the way. In response, I held up three fingers, to indicate that Buddha and his teachings are nothing without followers to receive his teachings about the harmonious life. Then he shook his clenched fist in my face, indicating that all three come from the same singular realisation. He won, he defeated me, and I will gladly leave this place.” This he did most hurriedly.

Barely moments later, the younger brother arrived, saying “Where is he?”

“He left, because you defeated him,” said the older.

“Defeated him? I want to punch him,” said the younger, and explained what had happened.

“First he held up one finger, mocking me for having one eye. I figured I should be polite, so I held up two fingers, congratulating him on his two eyes. I could barely believe it when he held up three fingers, meaning we had three good eyes between us. So I lost my temper and threatened him and he ran off.”

The One About The Voice Of Happiness

(originally, The Voice of Happiness)

When the Zen master Bankei died, a blind man who lived nearby told their friend: “Since I am blind, I cannot watch a person’s face or body, so I must judge their meaning only by the sound of their voice. Often when I listen carefully I hear more than words. When I hear ‘congratulations’ it often comes with a secret tone of envy. And when I hear ‘condolences’ it often comes with a secret portion of self-satisfaction. We may not mean to be so, but many of us have become expert at hiding our unpopular inner thoughts.”

“In all my experience of master Bankei, though, I heard nothing but happiness in his happiness, and nothing but sorrow in his sorrow. When he spoke, every part of him said the same thing.”

The One With The Open Treasure Chest

(originally, Open Your Own Treasure Chest)

Daiju travelled for many miles to see the master Baso in China.

“What are you seeking?” asked Baso.

“Enlightenment,” replied Daiju.

“You have come a long way, but you already have your treasure chest. Why do you look for it elsewhere?”

“I don’t understand,” said Daiju, “Where is my treasure chest?”

Baso answered: “Your question is your treasure, and it comes straight from your chest.”

Daiju felt the clarity of enlightenment spread through his body, dissolving confusion and division.

From that moment on, he urged his friends, “Open up your treasure chest, and share your unique treasure.”

The One With The Moon In The Pail

(originally, No Water, No Moon)

On a moonlit night, Chiyono walked to the river to fetch water. She had been a Buddhist nun for several years, but still she felt like a novice - no closer to enlightenment than when she first joined the monastery. She sighed. “What must I do? Do I need to work harder? Am I doing something wrong?” The fireflies gave no answers. The river gave no answer.

She filled her pail with water and plopped it on the riverbank beside her. “Home then,” she said to the reflection of the moon that shimmered in her pail. She heaved the twine strap to her shoulder, straightened her back, and began to walk.

With no warning, a strip of bamboo binding the pail snapped and the bottom fell out. As Chiyono was drenched with river water, she also experienced the freeing wave of enlightenment. She wrote a poem:

In this way and that
I tried to save the old pail.
Its binds were weakening,
About to fail.
At last the bottom fell out.
No more water in that pail!
No more moon in that water!

The One About The Calling Card

(originally, Calling Card)

Keichu, the great Zen teacher of the Meiji era, was the head of Tofuku temple in the city of Kyoto. One day the governor of Kyoto visited him.

An attendant monk presented the governor’s official card to Keichu. It read:

Governor Of Kyoto

“No I don’t think so,” said the great Zen teacher, “I have no business with such a fellow.” The attendant returned this message to the governor, who was waiting patiently at the temple gates.

“My mistake,” said the governor, taking his card. He scratched out the words ‘Governor Of Kyoto’, and handed the card back to the attendant monk. “Please show this to your teacher again.”


“Ah, Kitagaki,” exclaimed the Zen master, “Show him in, show him in.”

The One With The Best Meat

(originally, Everything is Best)

In a bustling market, the Zen monk Banzan overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

“I’d like the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher spreading his hands wide. “There is not a single thing here that is not the best.” When he heard these words Banzan became enlightened.

The One Called Inch Time Foot Gem

(originally, Inch Time Foot Gem)

The lord was bored. Every day he attended his stately office, and formally received the homage of his countrymen. Between times he rested and drank and ate and waited. He asked Takuan, a Zen master, how he might pass the time more profitably.

Takuan wrote some simple Chinese characters and gave them to the man:

Never twice, each moment,
An inch of time, a foot of gems.
Each day passes then is gone -
Each minute priceless then.

The One With Both Kinds Of Hand

(originally, Mokusen’s Hand)

Mokusen lived in a temple with his wife in the province of Tamba. They were kind-hearted gentle people, who lived a simple, frugal life. They took no more than they needed, and they promised no more than they had.

One day a local villager grumbled that whenever he asked to borrow firewood, Mokusen’s wife always said no.

Mokusen wondered about this. He knew they did not have much, but he also knew they could be equally content with less. He spoke to his wife.

“If my fist were always clenched, would you worry about me?” he asked.

“Of course,” she replied.

“And if it were always open, would you worry then?”

“Indeed I would.”

“I knew it. We are good people,” he said. His wife thought about this, and the next time she was asked for firewood, she happily gave it away.

The One With The Dying Master

(originally, A Smile in His Lifetime)

Some Zen masters are difficult. Mokugen was one of the most severe. He was well known among the monks as the master who never smiles.

Lying on his deathbed late at night, staving off death with small doses of medicine, he summoned his favourite disciples. “You have studied under me for ten years,” he said, “Show me how you see Zen before I leave you. Whoever expresses this most clearly will be my successor and receive my robe and bowl.”

No-one said a word. Nothing moved except the guttering candle flame.

A disciple named Encho stepped forward, and moved the medicine cup towards his master.

“That’s it?” said Mokugen, and his expression became even more severe. The other monks cowered.

Encho calmly moved the medicine cup back to its original position.

A smile broke across Mokugen’s face. “You rascal, you know me so well, though you had not seen all of me. Take my robe and bowl. They are yours now.”

The One With The Umbrella Of Distraction

(originally, Every-Minute Zen)

“Tenno! Nan-in would like to see you! He must want to congratulate you upon becoming a Zen teacher!”

Tenno could not help feeling pride at the summons, though he knew Zen masters should not be swayed by such self-centred concerns. He strapped on his wooden clogs and bustled out of the monastery. Such melodious rain! He relished the fizz and crackle of it upon his umbrella as he hurried to Nan-in’s house.

“Thank you for coming to see me so quickly, master Tenno. I wanted to see that you are truly ready for your new role as a Zen teacher.” Nan-in’s eyes twinkled. Is this a test? wondered Tenno.

“I hope so,” said the younger man, bowing low and shaking the droplets from his umbrella.

“Then tell me,” said Nan-in, “Was your umbrella on the right side or the left side of your clogs when you picked it up?”

Tenno felt confusion, which gave way to realisation. It was clear he was unable to maintain Zen every minute. Although he had trained for ten years, he gratefully became Nan-in’s student for six more, to accomplish every-minute Zen.

The One With A Shower Of Flowers

(originally, Flower Shower)

Not everyone who followed the Buddha was able to understand the true and extraordinary relationship between being and nothingness. But for some, emptiness spoke in vivid colours.

One of the Buddha’s first disciples, Subhuti, walked steadily to a tree he had not thought about, and seated himself with no idea for sitting. The sun warmed his face and the wind wafted his clothes. He closed his eyes, and flowers began to fall around him.

The gods whispered in his ear, “We praise you for your wise discourse on emptiness.”

“I have not spoken about emptiness,” said Subhuti.

“And we have not heard about emptiness,” replied the gods, “And that is true emptiness.”

The blossoms showered upon Subhuti like warm rain.

The One With Three Sutras

(originally, Publishing the Sutras)

The communication of Zen is beyond words, as the water of a river abides beneath its surface. Sutras and other teachings indicate the way, but they cannot tread the path for you—though many find stories and sutras to be useful pointers.

Tetsugen, an early devotee of Zen, wished to publish the sutras in Japanese for the first time. The books were to be translated from the original Chinese, and printed from hand-carved wooden blocks in an edition of seven thousand hand-printed copies. A tremendous undertaking.

Tetsugen devoted himself to travelling the country and collecting donations. A few sympathisers gave him a hundred pieces of gold, but most gave only a few small coins. He thanked all with equal gratitude, and continued to do so for ten years until he had sufficient money for his task.

At this time the Uji River flooded, causing widespread damage and famine. Tetsugen took the funds he collected and spent them to save others from starvation. Once the money had gone, he began collecting again.

Ten years later, when he had built up sufficient funds, he learned of an epidemic spreading across the country. Without hesitation Tetsugen poured the money into helping his country folk.

A third time he began again, and thirty years after the project started, the sutras were printed in Japanese. The exquisite wooden printing blocks can still be seen in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto. Japanese Buddhists tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.

The One About The Humble Nun

(originally, Gisho’s Work)

Fewer girls are taken on as Zen students than boys. Young Gisho was determined not to allow her gender to influence her training. She studied three years with the clear-eyed master Unzan, and six years with quiet master Gukei, yet was still unable to awaken her Zen nature.

She eventually found her way to master Inzan, who showed her no distinction whatsoever. He was a hard teacher, who scolded like a thunderstorm and was not afraid to strike his students to shock them into wakefulness.

After thirteen years, Gisho was liberated into enlightenment. In her honour, Inzan wrote a poem:

Thirteen years of guidance for one nun
Evenings contemplating koans
Mornings wrapped in sutras
She surpassed all before her -
There are none so genuine as humble Gisho.
Yet she has more gates to pass through
And my anger will not spare her.

In time Gisho settled in the province of Banshu, starting her own Zen temple, and teaching two hundred nuns. She died on a windless night in August.

The One About Sleeping Or Not

(originally, Sleeping in the Daytime)

The master Soya Shaku passed from this world when he was sixty-one years old. He left a wealth of teaching, far richer than most Zen masters. He never wasted a minute, though some of his pupils used to sleep through the hot midsummer afternoons at his monastery.

One monk, Little Soyen, found his mind wandering from his texts on Tendai philosophy. Through a doorway, he watched the summer air vibrating among distant trees. Insects whirled in and out of the shadows. The stone flagstones of his classroom floor felt invitingly cool.

Some hours later, Little Soyen awoke to find his master stepping over him as he lay sprawled in the doorway. “I beg your pardon,” whispered master Shaku, as if he were speaking to an esteemed guest. From that moment forward the young monk never again slept in his master’s classroom.

The One About Visiting Dreamland

(originally, In Dreamland)

Two monks were discussing their teacher, Soyen Shaku.

“So we said to him, ‘why do you sleep every afternoon, master?’”

“You didn’t! What did he say?”

“He said he goes to dreamland to consult with the old sages, like Confucius did.”

“Ah, that old chestnut.”

“I know. So the other day he caught us napping in the afternoon.”

“Uh oh.”

“I know. So we told him we were visiting dreamland to learn from the old sages.”


“He said, ‘Perhaps you might share their wisdom.’”


“We said, ‘We asked if our teacher visited them every afternoon. They told us they had never heard of him.’”

The One About Jōshū Carrying Out Nothing

(originally, Jōshū’s Zen)

Jōshū began studying Zen at the age of sixty. At the age of eighty, he became enlightened. He went on to live forty more years to the age of one hundred and twenty.

A student once asked him, “When I see nothing in my mind, what should I do?”

Jōshū considered his question carefully and then replied, “You should throw it out.”

“But if I don’t have anything how can I throw it out?”

“I see,” said Jōshū, nodding sympathetically, “In that case perhaps you could carry it out.”

The One Where Playing Dead Doesn’t Help

(originally, The Dead Man’s Answer)

When Mamiya went to a teacher for guidance, he was set the famous Zen challenge: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Mamiya concentrated hard upon the problem for many weeks. “Still you are not working hard enough,” said his teacher, “Your attachments hold you back. You think too much of food, and wealth, and the world. You might solve the problem if you were dead.”

The next time Mamiya was asked about his progress, he fell on the floor as if he were dead.

“Not bad,” said the teacher, “Now tell me what you think.”

“Truthfully I’m still not sure,” replied Mamiya, opening one eye.

“And nor can a dead man speak,” replied his teacher.

The One Where The Master Becomes A Beggar

(originally, Zen in a Beggar’s Life)

Tosui was an inspiring Zen teacher. He travelled from temple to temple around Japan, welcomed by disciples wherever he went. He spent so much time tending his success that he forgot how to be himself.

After a particularly successful lecture in the dappled shade of a cherry blossom grove, Tosui announced that he was leaving, and advised his disciples to do so also. Within a few days, the master was gone, leaving no trace.

Three years later one of his disciples noticed a familiar-looking beggar sheltering from the rain beneath a bridge in Kyoto. “Tosui, is that you?” he asked. It was! The monk implored his old master to teach him, even if only for a few days.

So the young man joined Tosui among his rag-tag group of fellow beggars. The next day one of the group died. Tosui and his pupil carried the body into the woods and burned it in a secluded grove at midnight. Then they returned to their shabby camp under the bridge. Tosui fell fast asleep, but the disciple remained awake all night. When morning came, Tosui said, “We do not have to beg today, we can eat the food our dead friend left behind.” But the disciple was unable to eat a single mouthful.

Tosui placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “It seems you are not ready to leave behind the life of a student,” said his ex-master.

The One Where The Thief Says Thanks

(originally, The Thief Who Became a Disciple)

Shichiri Kojun sat cross-legged on the floor in silent contemplation. As his breath drew in and flowed gently out, he became aware of a person creeping around the outside of his house. He continued to absorb the soft night air, in and out, in and out.

When the thief entered his room brandishing a sharp-bladed sword, Shichiri told him, “Please do not disturb me. You will find my money in a box over there.” The thief was shocked, but sure enough noticed a box in a corner of the room.

“Don’t take it all. I need some to pay taxes tomorrow,” said Shichiri. The intruder put a few coins back and pocketed the rest.

“You should thank a person when you receive a gift,” said Shichiri. Somewhat confused, the man thanked him then slunk away into the night.

A few days afterwards the thief was caught and confessed to his crimes, including the offence against Shichiri. When Shichiri was called as a witness, he said, “No, this man did not steal from me. I gave him some money and he thanked me for it.”

Once he had completed his prison term, the man returned to Shichiri and begged to become his disciple.

The One With The Petition Against The Thief

(originally, Right and Wrong)

When Bankei held meditation retreats in a remote temple beside a shallow river, students and Zen devotees from all parts of Japan came to attend. During one gathering, a young man was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled.

Bankei nodded, but took no action.

A few days later, the pupil stole again, and again Bankei disregarded the matter. A group of students drew up a petition stating they would leave if the thief was not expelled.

Bankei read the petition and addressed his disciples. “You are wise my friends,” he said, “This petition shows you understand what is right and what is wrong. You are free to leave and study elsewhere, but I cannot abandon a brother who does not know right from wrong. Who else might teach him? He may stay even if the rest of you decide you must leave.”

The thief shed a single tear, and with that drop of water all desire to steal left him also.

The One About An Important Question

(originally, How Grass and Trees Become Enlightened)

Shinkan became a masterful teacher, respected for his academic knowledge and his directness. He studied many schools of Buddhism, but held the greatest affinity with Zen, which he studied for seven years in Japan and a further thirteen years in China.

When he eventually returned to Japan, many desired to interview him but he seldom chose to respond.

One day, a fifty-year-old student came to him and said, “I have studied Tendai Buddhism since I was a young boy, but I still do not understand the Tendai belief that even grass and trees will become enlightened. Can you explain this to me?”

Shinkan nodded. “You will resolve this question only when you have resolved another question, much closer to home,” he said.

“Tell me,” said the questioner, eager for an answer.

“The question,” said Shinkan, “is how you yourself will become so.”

The One About The Stingy Artist

(originally, The Stingy Artist)

Gessen was a Zen monk known for his artistic skills. Despite his monastic pledge to eschew wealth and possessions, he took commissions for paintings, always insisting on a high fee paid in advance. His work was respected, but he was known as ‘The Stingy Artist’.

A wealthy geisha girl commissioned him for a portrait, asking him to name his price once the work was complete. Gessen visited the geisha at her patron’s house and worked for hours with extraordinary skill. Upon completion he asked for an eye-watering fee. The geisha nodded, and said to her patron, “All this artist wants is money. His brushwork is pure but his mind is dirty. His work does not deserve to be exhibited. It is barely worthy to be displayed on my underwear.” The patron laughed, and commissioned Gessen to paint another picture on the geisha’s petticoat.

This he gladly did, and named an even higher price upon completion. The patron and the geisha were staggered by the monk’s strange behaviour, but paid his fees and watched him walk back toward his temple in his humble monk’s robes.

Upon his return, Gessen divided the money between the three projects that were his life’s work.

One was a warehouse filled with grain and other stores, used to feed the poor in times of famine.

The second was the creation of a road linking his village to a beautiful shrine in a secluded place in the mountains.

And the third was the construction of a temple begun by Gessen’s teacher, but still incomplete at the time of that teacher’s death.

Once Gessen accomplished these three great works, he gave his brushes to a young student and never painted again.

The One About Accurate Proportion

(originally, Accurate Proportion)

Sen no Rikyu, a Zen tea master, wished to hang a flower basket on a post outside his tea house. He asked a carpenter to help.

“A little higher please,” he said, and then: “No that is too high, a little lower now.”

“A touch to the right please… No, too far, slightly to the left.”

Sen no Rikyu directed the carpenter up and down, left and right, until eventually he said, “That’s the place - perfection.”

The carpenter decided to test the so-called master. He secretly marked the indicated spot, dropped his tools and recommenced work on a slightly different place. “No,” said Sen no Rikyu, “A small amount higher please.” And so the routine began again.

So accurate was the master’s sense of proportion that he identified the exact same spot to within the breadth of a single hair.

The One About The Blackened Buddha

(originally, Black-Nosed Buddha)

A nun became fixated on her personal quest for enlightenment. She made a small statue of Buddha and covered it with gold leaf. She carried her Golden Buddha with her everywhere she went.

Years passed and the nun moved to a small temple where many Buddha statues were worshipped in a shrine beside a lotus-filled pond. The nun placed her Buddha on a raised stone and lit incense in its honour.

She noticed the incense drifted around the other statues in the grove. This will never do, she thought, and surrounded her smouldering incense with branches and lotus leaves, directing the smoke only to her statue.

The smoke blackened the nose of her Golden Buddha, and no amount of polishing would restore it.

The One With The Poetic Nun

(originally, Ryonen’s Clear Realisation)

The granddaughter of a great warrior became well known for her poetic way of speaking and extraordinary beauty. The Empress of Japan summoned the young girl to serve in court - and it was said that great things would come to this special child.

However, the Emperor died suddenly and the girl’s life took a different course. This early experience developed her awareness of the impermanency of all things, and she desired to study Zen.

Her family were not happy. They did not want her to become a nun, and so they forced her into marriage, promising she might devote herself to Zen after she had given them three children. Before she was twenty-five, the young woman had accomplished this condition and could no longer be dissuaded.

She shaved her head and took on the name Ryonen, meaning ‘Clear Realisation’. She travelled to one of the great temples in the city of Edo and asked to become a disciple there. The master rejected her at first sight because her beauty would be a distraction.

Ryonen visited another temple, and asked the Zen master Hakuo to take her on. Hakuo shook his head, saying that her beauty would only make trouble. Ryonen took a hot iron and placed it against her face. In a moment, her beauty was gone forever, and Hakuo accepted her as a disciple.

Commemorating this event, Ryonen wrote a poem on the back of a mirror:

In the service of my Empress
I burn incense to perfume my exquisite clothes,
Now as a homeless mendicant
I burn my face to enter a Zen temple.

Many years later, she wrote another poem on her deathbed:

Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing scenes of Autumn.
My eyes have filled enough times with moonlight,
And now I ask no more.
Listen only to the call of pines and cedars when no wind stirs.

The One With Special Miso

(originally, Sour Miso)

The cook Dairyo stirred a pinch of yeast into the bowl of soya beans and wheat. In a few months, he would have a batch of delicious fresh miso to honour his master, the great teacher Bankei. He sealed the pot and set it aside, returning to his main task: preparing huge vats of food for his fellow monks.

A few months later, Bankei called for the cook. “Today why did you serve me different food to the other monks?” he asked.

Dairyo bowed. “With your ill health, master, it is better this way.”

“This way I should not eat at all,” replied Bankei, and retired to his quarters. Dairyo realised his error, and seated himself outside Bankei’s room, begging pardon. Bankei remained inside for seven days, and Dairyo waited outside the whole time.

Finally a young monk called out, “Please master, you may not need food but we do!”

At this, Bankei opened the door. He patted Dairyo on the arm and said, “There is the sustenance I need. Same for you, same for me. How else might we teach and learn? When you become teacher, I hope you will remember this.”

The One With The Light Of Understanding

(originally, Your Light may go out)

A student of Tendai visited the temple where Gasan lived as a Zen monk. They discussed Tendai philosophy at great length, debating the sutras about nature and truth and existence. The student learned a great deal, and Gasan encouraged her to stay for several years to develop her awareness through Zen. “Studying the truth is a useful way to collect teaching material,” he said, “But unless you practise wordless contemplation through meditation, your own light of truth may go out.”

The One With An Ungrateful Giver

(originally, The Giver Should be Thankful)

So many people came to study with master Seisetsu at Engaku temple that there was no longer enough space to accommodate them. They would overflow from the main hall - some sitting on the long flight of temple steps, or even climbing into the surrounding trees in order to learn from their teacher.

A wealthy merchant saw this and decided to donate five hundred gold coins toward the construction of a larger teaching space. He presented his donation to the teacher with great pride and ceremony.

Seisetsu nodded, “Good, I will take this money.”

The merchant was surprised “Perhaps you do not realise how much this is,” he said.

“You told me: it is five hundred gold coins.”

The merchant frowned. “Even for a wealthy man such as myself, that is a lot of money! You have not even thanked me for receiving it.”

Seisetsu nodded again, “This exchange affects us both. I will be grateful when you are too.”

The One With The Last Will And Testament

(originally, Last Will and Testament)

Prince Ikkyu’s mother left the royal palace to study Zen in a forest temple. She took her young son with her, and Ikkyu grew up to be a great Zen master.

When his mother died, she left him a letter.


I have finished my work in this life and return to eternity. I wish you to be a good student and realise your Buddha-nature.

If you come to understand that Buddha and his follower Bodhidharma are truly your servants, then your studies are complete and you may work for humanity. The Buddha preached for forty-nine years but never needed to speak a single word. This is great thing to understand. Avoid fruitless thoughts.

Your mother,
Neither born nor dead
1 September

P.S. Buddha taught to enlighten others. Following his methods will be worthless if you miss his meaning. Thousands of books have been written about Buddhism, but a person could read them all and still not see their own nature. I trust you to understand. This is my last will and testament.

The One With Tea On The Fire

(originally, The Tea-Master and the Assassin)

The warrior Taiko bowed deeply to Sen no Rikyu, the Zen master of the tea ceremony. Outside the tea house, Taiko’s attendant warrior Kato watched. Taiko is learning too much about calm and contentment, he thought, what will happen to the state if our warriors are unwilling to fight? He resolved to assassinate the elderly Zen master.

One evening he visited Sen no Rikyu alone. “I wonder if I might partake of your tea?” he asked.

The master saw through Kato’s intention at once. “Certainly,” he said, “But please leave your sword outside. Cha-no-yu, the tea ceremony, represents peacefulness itself.”

“I am a warrior,” replied Kato. “Whatever I do, I do with my sword by my side.”

“Then you are both welcome,” said Sen no Rikyu. “Place your sword beside you as we sit together and have some tea.”

When the kettle was boiling on the charcoal fire, Kato decided his moment had come. At the same instant, Sen no Rikyu tipped the kettle over and the room filled with steam and ashes and hissing. The startled warrior ran outside.

The tea master followed in his unmistakably calm manner. “I am sorry,” he said, “Come back inside and have some tea. Your sword is covered with ashes, but I will clean it for you and give it back.”

Somehow it seemed impossible for Kato to assassinate the master now.

The One Where The Path Has No Coming Or Going

(originally, The True Path)

When Ninakawa was dying, the Zen master Ikkyu visited him. “Shall I help guide your way?” asked the master.

Ninakawa replied, “I came here alone, and I go alone. What help can you be now?”

Ikkyu answered, “Coming and going is an illusion. Look beyond and see the path with no coming or going.”

With these words Ninakawa saw through the confusion of experience and time. As he passed away, he left a smile on his lips.

The One About Heaven And Hell

(originally, The Gates of Paradise)

A samurai warrior named Nobushige asked the Zen master Hakuin, “Do Heaven and Hell truly exist?”

“What do you think?” asked Hakuin.

“I think we tell ourselves stories, but perhaps those stories are not true,” said the soldier.

Hakuin laughed and said, “That’s ridiculous. Typical samurai! Your mind is as dull as your sword!”

Nobushige was furious. What right had this monk to insult him? He gripped his sword handle.

“Oh dear,” said Hakuin, “Will you solve your problem with a weapon?”

Nobushige could barely control himself, and drew out his gleaming blade.

“Behold the Pathway to Hell,” said Hakuin.

At these words, Nobushige felt a flush of realisation. He sheathed his sword and bowed.

“And here are the Gates of Paradise,” said Hakuin.

The One Where The Buddha Brings Justice

(originally, Arresting the Stone Buddha)

His load was heavy and the sun beat down upon him, drawing sweat from every pore. In a shady grove beside a large stone Buddha, the merchant heaved his fifty rolls of cotton onto the ground beside him, lay down to rest among sweet-smelling grasses, and soon fell asleep.

When he awoke, his goods had disappeared, and he was compelled to report the matter to the police.

A judge named O-oka presided over the case. “If the stone Buddha did not steal the goods, he certainly failed to look out for the welfare of our people,” he said, “Arrest him and bring him to court.”

When the police carried the stone Buddha through the town to the courthouse, a noisy crowd gathered, curious to see what sentence the judge might impose. Many thought this situation was hilarious. O-oka rebuked them, “This is a serious matter, and you are now all in contempt of court. I hereby impose a fine upon every one of you…” - the crowd groaned - “… unless you each bring me a roll of cotton within three days.”

With little choice, the townspeople brought rolls and rolls of cotton to the court. The merchant recognised one from his stolen batch, and from this the thief was easily discovered. The merchant recovered his goods, the townspeople took back their cotton, and the stone Buddha returned to his shady grove.

The One About Soldiers Of Humanity

(originally, Soldiers of Humanity)

When a division of the Japanese army was engaged in battle, the officers made their headquarters in Gasan’s temple.

Gasan welcomed them, but insisted the soldiers were given only the same simple food as the monks.

This angered the officers, as they expected more deferential treatment. “Who do you think we are?” they said, “We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country. You should treat us accordingly.”

“Who do you think we are?” replied Gasan, “We are soldiers of humanity, working to save all sentient beings. We treat everyone equally.”

The One With Light At The End Of A Tunnel

(originally, The Tunnel)

Zenkai’s life kept changing directions. His samurai father trained him for the military but Zenkai took an office job. His boss tried to encourage him towards promotion but Zenkai fell in love with the poor man’s wife. When the boss discovered their affair, he attacked Zenkai, but Zenkai’s samurai training led to the boss’s untimely death.

The pair ran away into the hills. After discovering that foraging for themselves was not a romantic way of life, they became thieves, praying on travellers and passing merchants. The woman became greedy, and their crimes became ever more ambitious. Feeling deeply unfulfilled with his life, Zenkai left the woman and became a wandering mendicant, learning about Zen in isolated temples and lonely mountaintops.

Zenkai resolved to accomplish a single lasting act of goodness in his lifetime. Near the town where he grew up there was a dangerous road that wound around a vertiginous mountain pass. It was the cause of many deaths, especially during the icy months of winter. Zenkai began work on a tunnel to cut a safer route directly through the mountain.

After thirty years of work, the tunnel was 2,280 feet long, 20 feet high and 30 feet wide. Zenkai had become a very different person.

It was strange he was recognised so easily and after so many years - by a man returning from thirty years as an elite samurai in the Japanese army. The man was the son of a murdered boss, the child of a mother Zenkai turned into a homeless thief. “I have waited many years to kill you,” said the samurai.

Zenkai bowed. “I give you my life willingly,” he said, “But I beg you to wait a while longer only for the sake of our townspeople. Let me complete this tunnel. The day it is complete will be the day you kill me.”

The samurai agreed and Zenkai worked harder than ever before. He made worthy progress but the samurai tired of waiting. Day by day he came to check Zenkai’s work, and soon came to help him with the digging. Two years passed and two opponents became allies in their shared task. The samurai learned the story of Zenkai’s life, and came to admire his exceptional will to make amends.

At last they broke through the rocks and light burst into the tunnel. Zenkai knelt before the samurai. “Cut off my head, my work is done,” he said. The samurai knelt beside Zenkai. “What would I learn from cutting off my teacher’s head?” he said.

The One Where The Only Answer Is Reality

(originally, Gudo and the Emperor)

The Emperor Goyozei studied Zen under a teacher named Gudo. From all his other subjects the Emperor received easy answers. Not so from Gudo.

“Zen teaches that my own mind is the mind of the Buddha,” said the Emperor, “Is this true?”

“If I tell you yes, you will understand without understanding,” answered Gudo, “And if I say no, I will contradict what I understand to be true.”

“Where does an enlightened person go when they die?” asked the Emperor.

“I cannot tell,” said Gudo.

“Why not?”

“I have not died yet,” said the teacher.

The Emperor opened his mouth, but could not think what to ask next. Who does this so-called teacher think he is? Why will he not give me the answers I require? At this moment, Gudo beat the floor with his hand, startling the Emperor from his thoughts. He looked around him and saw only reality. This was no answer - and the Emperor felt a flush of pure truth in his heart.

From this moment on, the Emperor had nothing but respect for Gudo. Courtiers might see the old teacher wandering freely around the palace, perhaps wearing the Emperor’s robes in winter to keep warm, or sleeping on the floor in the Great Hall. There were no boundaries the Zen master was not allowed to cross.

The One With The Coin Toss

(originally, In the Hands of Destiny)

The warrior Nobunaga gazed across the great plain that would be tomorrow’s field of battle. He knew he would be victorious, despite having one tenth of the soldiers commanded by his enemy.

His troops were on the brink of surrender, retreat, or mutiny. He addressed them: “In all of life, destiny is dictated by fate. Have confidence, for all things are connected, and all things are already written. A mere coin toss can reveal the universal picture.”

He held up a single coin. “See my officers, this coin is a sign. If it lands tails, we will fail. If it shows heads, know we shall prevail.”

Nobunaga threw the coin high into the air, and it glinted in the fading sunlight. It landed: heads.

The next morning, his troops fought with exceptional confidence and bravery, outwitting their larger opponent. His attendant reported victory to Nobunaga, saying, “No-one can change the hand of destiny.”

“Indeed not,” said Nobunaga, and handed him the coin he had used, which showed heads on both sides.

The One About Killing

(originally, Killing)

Gasan instructed his disciples: “Those who speak against killing are right. No good can come from wasting the life of even the most humble creature. But what about those who kill time, consume more than they need, wasting wealth or opportunity. We should not overlook them. And what of the person who preaches without enlightenment? He is killing our spirits, killing Buddhism.”

The One Where The Teacher Sweats

(originally, Kasan Sweated)

The honoured teacher Kasan was asked to preside over the funeral of a provincial lord. He had never presented himself before lords and nobles, and he was nervous.

At the ceremony, he began to sweat.

When he returned to his monastery, he gathered his pupils together. “I have learned that I am not qualified to be your teacher in the way of Zen,” he announced, “for I lack sameness of bearing. I am one person here and another person there, so I cannot see the world as one.” He resigned, and became the pupil of another teacher, returning eight years later as an enlightened Zen master.

The One With The Knowing Ghost

(originally, The Subjugation of a Ghost)

On her deathbed, a young wife told her husband, “I love you so much, I cannot bear to leave you. Never marry another woman, or I will be compelled to return to haunt you.” Broken-hearted, the man watched her last breath pass from her body.

The poor man respected his wife’s dying wish, but as lonely months turned into long years, he met another woman and fell in love. In time and with a conflicted heart, he became engaged to remarry.

That very night, he saw a ghost. “Never forget me,” it howled, though no-one else heard a noise.

Every night the man was visited by the ghost, and the ghost seemed to know everything about his situation. Was the ghost watching his every move? Every conversation, every gift, every private moment was wailed about by the ghost in those terrifying dark hours. No-one else could see the spectre, let alone hear its awful voice. Close to despair, the man took his problem to a Zen master.

The master took the man at his word. “This ghost must be very clever,” he said upon hearing the story, “You should admire such an apparition. Since you can hide nothing from her, perhaps you could strike a deal. Tell her if she will answer one simple question, you will break your engagement and remain single.”

“What question might I ask a ghost who knows everything,” asked the haunted man.

“Take a handful of soybeans from a sack and ask her how many you hold in your hand. If she is truly an all-knowing spirit she will have no trouble in answering, thereby claiming your life for her own.”

That night the ghost appeared as usual. “I know you visited a Zen master,” it moaned.

“Then you also know I have a question for you,” replied the man, and he picked up a handful of soybeans and asked his question.

The ghost had no answer, and the man understood what he had not understood before. The ghost could not know what he did not know himself. The man was afraid only of his own thoughts. As he stared into the darkness, he saw the ghost had vanished.

The One About Children Of Your Majesty

(originally, Children of Your Majesty)

Yamaoka Tesshu was a tutor to the Emperor, and a devoted student of Zen. He shared his home with the town’s poor and downtrodden. It was not unusual for him to return home to find his door left open and his few possessions stolen or missing.

The Emperor, observing his shabby attire, gave his tutor more money to buy new clothing. But the next time Yamaoka arrived at the palace, he wore the same old outfit.

“Did you not purchase new clothes?” asked the Emperor.

“I did,” explained the humble tutor. “With your gift, I provided clothing for the children of Your Majesty.”

The One Where They Shout “What are you doing? What are you saying?”

(originally, What Are You Doing! What Are You Saying!)

In Zen stories, there is often talk of teachers and disciples, and the passing of Zen wisdom from one generation to the next. In reality there are no rules for such things. It is no certainty that a student will master Zen with the help of a teacher, or that a teacher’s understanding of Zen will exceed that of their student. True Zen teaching happens wordlessly, in a moment, and from heart to heart.

There was once a Zen teacher named Mu-nan, and he had just one favoured pupil, named Shoju.

When Mu-nan was very old, he called Shoju to his room. They sat cross-legged beside a roaring fire, as hard rain drummed on the roof of their temple lodging. “The honour of teaching falls to you now, my disciple,” said the older man, “and so I would like you to take this book. It has been passed down from master to master for seven generations, and I have added many notes according to my own understanding. I give this valuable book to you now, as a symbol of your succession.”

Shoju shook his head. “This book is important to you master. You should keep it. I have received your Zen without words, and I am satisfied with your teaching.”

“Take it,” said Mu-nan, “You are the master now.”

Shoju took the ancient book and looked at it in the firelight. Both men smiled.

After a few moments quiet contemplation, Shoju threw the book into the flames.

“What are you doing?” shouted Mu-nan.

“What are you saying?” Shoju shouted back.

The One With A Single Note Of Zen

(originally, One Note of Zen)

After a while, no-one thought any more about Kakua, and he is rarely remembered though he was one of the first people to bring Zen from China to Japan. He wrote nothing down, and he sought no audience for his teachings.

Upon returning from China, he moved into a humble hut on a hillside beside a waterfall where he meditated and played strange music on his simple flute. A few students sought him out, hoping to learn about Zen. Kakua would say a few words, pass on a few teachings, and then ask the students to leave.

Word spread, and the Emperor heard about the mystical teacher in the mountains. He summoned Kakua, for the edification of his courtiers.

Kakua stood before the Emperor in silence. The Emperor shifted on his throne. Kakua drew his flute out from his robe and played a single note. When the sound had faded, he bowed politely, and disappeared.

The One Where The Cook Eats The Blame

(originally, Eating the Blame)

No, no, no, no, no, this will never do, thought the cook as she hurried outside. For one reason or another, the banquet for master Fugai was running late. She dashed around the kitchen garden with her razor-sharp knife, gathering herbs and chopping down vegetables. In her haste, she did not notice that she had decapitated a snake and boiled it up with the soup.

The Sate Zen monks following master Fugai had never tasted such rich and delicious soup. When the master himself found a snake’s head in his bowl, he summoned the chef.

He pointed at the offending morsel, and gave her a questioning look.

“You are too kind,” replied the cook, dipping in her spoon and eating the evidence.

The One About The Most Valuable Thing In The World

(originally, The Most Valuable Thing in the World)

Sozan, a Chinese Zen master, was often surprised by the questions she was asked by her students in their search for enlightenment. One day, she was asked, “What is the most valuable thing in the world?”

The master replied, “The head of a dead cat.”

The student was shocked. “How can this be?” she said.

“No price on earth can buy one,” replied the master.

The One About Learning To Be Silent

(originally, Learning to be Silent)

Four Tendai pupils promised each another to observe seven days of silent meditation.

On the first day all were silent - an auspicious start.

But on the first night, the oil lamps grew dim, and the first pupil instructed a passing attendant, “Fix those lamps for us please.”

The second was surprised. “We are not supposed to speak,” he whispered.

The third sighed. “Now you’ve spoken too,” he said.

“At least one of us stayed silent,” muttered the fourth.

The One With The Blockhead Lord

(originally, The Blockhead Lord)

Two Zen teachers were invited to meet a provincial lord, who was searching for a Zen master.

The first, named Gudo, ingratiated himself immediately. “I can see you are wise by nature, so you will have an inborn ability to learn Zen.”

The second, named Daigu, said, “Why flatter this blockhead? He may be a lord, but he knows little of Zen.”

The lord considered this, and chose to study Zen under the guidance of Daigu.

The One About The Master With Ten Successors

(originally, Ten Successors)

Survival is not the only thing that matters in life. To remind them of the greater importance of progress towards enlightenment, Zen students vow to pursue Zen at the expense of physical comfort, and even at the expense of their own life. When they commit to a new master, students cut their finger to seal this resolution with a drop of blood.

This ceremony is often seen as a formality, but it was not always this way.

On a hot afternoon in Ekido’s temple, a monk was charged with striking the gong to mark the time - a simple task, important for the regulation of the whole community. The student did so inattentively, missing a beat. The master Ekido was standing behind him, and struck him suddenly with his staff. The shock simultaneously woke the student from his inattentiveness… and stopped the poor man’s heart.

Ekido was discredited for the event, but the student’s guardian thanked him for his uncompromising teaching. Ekido continued to teach, producing ten enlightened successors - an unusually high number.

The One Where Reformation Does Not Require Reproach

(originally, True Reformation)

Ryokan had not seen his nephew for many years, but the family begged him to do so. “He will ruin us,” they said, “he is frittering away the family estate on courtesans and transient pleasures. Please use your knowledge of Zen to teach him not to be so foolish.”

Ryokan arrived in the evening, having travelled many miles on foot. He greeted his nephew warmly, and was invited to stay the night. Ryokan seated himself on the floor and meditated until morning. The young man wondered whether his uncle would lecture him on his behaviour. Instead, the older man shared breakfast with him and prepared to leave. “I must be getting old,” he said, “see my hand is shaking so. Will you help me tie the strings of my sandals?”

The nephew did as he was asked. “Thank you,” said Ryokan, “as a man becomes older his abilities diminish. Take good care of yourself.” Then Ryokan began his long walk home, without having mentioned a word about his nephew’s conduct.

The family thanked Ryokan profusely. For after that day, the nephew was a reformed character.

The One About Temper

(originally, Temper)

A Zen student came to Bankei for guidance. He asked the master, “How do I cure my ungovernable temper?”

“This is a strange condition,” replied Bankei, “Show me this temper of yours.”

“I cannot show it to you right now,” said the student.

“When can I see it then?” asked Bankei.

“It arises unexpectedly,” said the student.

Bankei nodded. “In that case it cannot be yours,” he said. “If it were, you could show it to me when I ask. It was not yours at birth, and you will not carry it with you when you die. It is no more your temper than it is mine. Think that over.”

The One With Stones In Their Minds

(originally, The Stone Mind)

The Chinese Zen teacher Hogen lived in a small temple beside a bridge across a shallow river where the fireflies danced every summer night. One day four travelling monks asked if they might stay with him overnight.

Hogen welcomed them and they spent the evening sitting around a fire discussing philosophy. “Without mind there is no reality,” said one monk. “Without reality there is no mind,” countered another. “Ah, the dichotomy of subjectivity and objectivity,” nodded a third.

“From a Buddhist perspective, all experience is a creation of mind: even this conversation and these stones we sit upon,” said the fourth monk.

“You must have heavy heads indeed,” observed Hogen, “to carry such stones in your mind.”

The One With Advice About Non-Attachment

(originally, No Attachment to Dust)

Zengetsu, a Chinese master of the T’ang dynasty, wrote some advice for his pupils:

The true Zen student lives in the world without forming attachments to the dust of the world.

Look for the good actions of others, and learn from their example. Watch for the mistaken actions of others, and consider how to avoid such repetition.

Even when alone, behave as if in the presence of a noble guest.

Express your feelings, but be no more expressive than your true nature.

Poverty is a treasure. Never exchange it for the promise of an easy life.

Do not judge people as fools, for we may all guard our wisdom carefully.

Virtue develops from self-discipline. It does not drop upon us like rain or snow from the sky.

Modesty is the seed of all virtues. Let your neighbours discover you before you tell them about yourself.

A noble heart never insists on recognition. Its words are gems: rare, and highly valued.

For the true student, every day is a fortunate day. She never lags behind the present moment. She is never distracted by glory or shame.

You may censure yourself, but not another. Right and wrong are not yours to distribute.

Some things previously seen as right are now judged to be wrong; some things thought to be wrong will in time be judged right. The pursuit of righteousness is rightly valued, but do not expect immediate appreciation.

Cause good things, and leave reaction to the greater laws of the universe. Pass each day in peace and contemplation.

The One About Real Prosperity

(originally, Real Prosperity)

A wealthy lord asked a Zen master to write a poem blessing his family with continual happiness and prosperity.

The master Sengai accepted the commission, and in due course presented a large scroll to the rich dignitary.

The poem was exceptionally simple:

Parent dies;
Child dies;
Grandchild dies.

The lord became angry, asking “Are you insulting us? What do you mean by this?”

Sengai explained, “It is better to acknowledge death than to ignore it. But if your children died before you, you would be broken-hearted, and if your grand-children died before your children, you would be doubly so. If all happens in the order I have written, your family may appreciate true prosperity and happiness during their lives.”

The One About The Incense Burner

(originally, Incense Burner)

Japan is known the world over for its exquisite ceramics. From the selection of an inarticulate lump of clay to the finishing touches of iridescent glaze, each hand-crafted item is unique - a ‘perfection in imperfection’ - the true expression of an artist channeling their world into their work.

Few artists were esteemed as much as Kame from Nagasaki. She was a difficult woman, hard-drinking, chain-smoking and loose in her morals. Whenever she made any money from her work, she spent it on a feast to which she invited artists, poets, carpenters, builders and fellow creators of all kinds. Through these chaotic gatherings she evolved her subtle and complex designs.

Despite the raucous nature of her lifestyle, her work was revered by the most restrained and refined of people.

The mayor of Nagasaki commissioned her to create an incense burner for his state mansion. Kame took the commission but produced no work for the most part of a year, waiting for inspiration. The mayor received a promotion and moved to a distant city, but wrote to her, urging her to begin work.

Kame finally began crafting the piece. Once it was complete she placed in on a table in her home. She sat with it, smoked with it, drank with it, looked at it from all angles, and treated it like a revered guest in her home. On the day she was supposed to present it to the nobleman who commissioned it, she took a hammer and smashed it into dust. It simply was not the creation her heart demanded.

The One About Real Miracles

(originally, The Real Miracle)

“Your Zen is nothing compared to what we can achieve in our Shinshu religion.”

Heads turned. People began to whisper. Who would disturb a meditation session with master Bankei?

A tall man in white robes advanced to the stage. He picked his way between hundreds of disciples - monks and townspeople intermingled to learn tranquility and contemplation from their esteemed master.

Bankei welcomed the newcomer, for the disturbance was already made.

The robed priest of Shinshu boasted, “The founder of our sect could work miracles. It is written! One day he held a brush on one side of a river, while his attendant held up paper on the far bank, and the holy name ‘Amida’ was written through the air. Can your Zen do such a thing?”

Bankei waited for the Shinshu priest to finish and then explained, “I cannot perform any such trick. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.”

The One With Too Many Questions

(originally, Just Go to Sleep)

“I am dying,” said Tekisui.

“I know master,” said Gasan.

“You are master now.”

“I know.” Lamplight flickered around the bare room. Wood creaked against wood. Outside the birds fluffed feathers and huddled together for another night.

Tekisui looked at Gasan with rheumy eyes. “What will you do when the temple is rebuilt?”

“Perhaps you will be well enough to address the students there.”

Tekisui nodded. “What if I do not live until then?”

“Then someone else will have to do it.”

With great effort, Tekisui turned to face Gasan. “What if you cannot find someone?”

Gasan did not meet Tekisui’s eye. “You have asked enough questions. Just go to sleep.”

The One With Flawed Wisdom

(originally, Nothing Exists)

A young student of Zen spent time with many masters, learning everything he could and moving on.

To each new master he wished to demonstrate his attainment, to show how far he had come.

He visited Dokuon of Shokoku, an elderly master who sat cross-legged at the top of the temple steps smoking a long curved pipe.

They sat in silence for some time, until the young student said: “All colour is a diffraction of colourless light, and so are all things a diffraction of nothingness. The mind is nothing, and sentient beings are nothing. The Buddha is nothing. The true nature of all phenomena is emptiness. There is no realisation, nor delusion, nor wisdom, nor ignorance. There is no giving, for there is nothing to be received.”

Dokuon continued to smoke, smoke curling and spreading around him.

Suddenly he whacked the young student on the head with the bowl of his pipe. The student glared at him.

“So tell me where this anger came from,” said the master.

The One About Work And Food

(originally, No Work, No Food)

At the age of eighty, the Chinese Zen master Hyakujo was often seem working in the monastery gardens, sweeping leaves, planting bulbs and pruning trees.

His disciples thought the work too much for their teacher, but they knew he would not listen to their advice to stop. So they hid his tools.

That day, the master did not eat. And neither did he eat the following day. That evening, the students quietly put the tools back where they had found them.

The following morning, Hyakujo trimmed branches from the cherry trees and weeded the herb garden.

After they ate their midday meal together, the teacher instructed them: “Without work, there is no food.”

The One With Two Friends Making Music

(originally, True Friends)

A long time ago in China there were two friends, one who played the harp with great skill, and one who listened with great skill.

When the harpist played a song about a mountain, the other would close her eyes and imagine the crisp clean air at the peak, and highland streams tumbling over rocks and churning into rivers at the foothills.

When the harpist played a song about a river, the listener would exclaim, “How life thrives on the motion of water upon bare stones and earth.”

The listener fell sick and died. The harpist was overcome. She cut the strings of her harp and never played again. Since that time, the cutting of harp strings has symbolised irreplaceable friendship.

The One With A Broken Cup

(originally, Time to Die)

Even as a young boy, Ikkyu was a clever one. One day he broke a precious antique cup while playing in his teacher’s quarters. Hearing approaching footsteps, he hid the pieces of broken porcelain behind his back.

When the master entered, Ikkyu asked, “Why must all things die?”

The master smiled. He placed a hand on the child’s shoulder and told him, “Birth and death give life meaning. All things are here for a while, and then are gone. With acceptance of this cycle comes wisdom.”

Ikkyu nodded, absorbing his master’s words.

He took the shattered cup from behind his back, and said, “It was time for your cup to die.”

The One About The Tubmaker

(originally, The Living Buddha and the Tubmaker)

Master Mokurai enjoyed speaking with all sorts of people, from farmers to shopkeepers, town planners to roadsweepers. Many Zen masters gave private guidance to their own students only, but Mokurai welcomed all visitors to his secluded room at the Kennin temple.

One such visitor was a tubmaker from Kyoto. He was a jovial fellow, who would often drop by for a chat over a cup of tea before returning to his work.

During such a visit, a monk came to Mokurai requesting personal guidance. “Will you excuse us,” Mokurai asked.

The tubmaker frowned. “I understand you are a living Buddha,” he said, “But even the stone Buddhas in the temple don’t turn me away. I’d prefer to stay if you don’t mind.”

The monk was about to say something, but Mokurai bowed. “Of course,” he said, and he gave his disciple guidance as they walked around the temple garden.

The One With Three Kinds Of Disciple

(originally, Three Kinds of Disciples)

Two Zen teachers were discussing their students. “There are three kinds,” said one. “Those who share as much Zen as they receive, those who can maintain the temples and shrines, and those who store rice in their stomachs and balance clothes on their shoulders.”

In another century in another country, the Zen teacher Gasan also divided his disciples into three. “A poor student relies on a teacher’s influence; a better student admires a teacher for their kindness; but a good student develops strength in response to their teacher’s discipline.”

The One About How To Write A Chinese Poem

(originally, How to Write a Chinese Poem)

A Japanese poet was asked how to compose a Chinese poem. He explained, “These kind of poems are four lines long. The first line establishes a subject, and the second line develops it. The third line injects a new idea, and the fourth brings it all together.” He shared a popular Japanese song to illustrate his point:

Two daughters of a silk merchant live in Kyoto,
The elder is twenty, the younger just eighteen.
Far away, soldiers kill with their swords,
Within city walls, these girls slay with their eyes.

The One With A Dialogue

(originally, Zen Dialogue)

The first day: “Tell me what you saw today.”

“I saw a girl who looked like me on the way to the village. I asked her, ‘Where are you going?’ She said, ‘Wherever my feet take me.’”

“Good. She is the pupil from the other temple.”

“But why wouldn’t she say where she was going?”

“Perhaps you could ask her something different if you see her again.”

“Thank you teacher.”

The second day: “Tell me what you saw today.”

“I saw that girl again. I said, ‘Where would you go if you didn’t have feet?’ She said, ‘Wherever the wind blows.’”

“And what do you make of this?”

“She’s not very forthcoming.”

“Perhaps you could try a different tack.”

“Thank you teacher.”

The third day: “Tell me what you saw today.”

“I saw a girl I didn’t want to talk to.”

“Did she say anything to you?”

“She said, ‘Hello’.”


The fourth day: “Tell me what you saw today.”

“I saw a girl I don’t understand.”

“Did you ask her a question?”

“I said, ‘Where are you going?’ I am sorry master, I didn’t know what else to say.”

“And what did she say?”

“She said, ‘I am going to the market to buy vegetables.’”

The One With One Last Rap

(originally, The Last Rap)

Tangen grew up studying Zen with master Sengai. When he was twenty he had an urge to visit other teachers. He asked Sengai if he might be allowed to do so, promising he would return once he had learned all he could. But every time he brought up the subject, Sengai would rap him on the head with his bamboo staff. It seemed the master thought the pupil was not ready.

Tangen asked his elder brother to coax permission from Sengai. With some trepidation, the brother visited the teacher. A few minutes later he reported back, “Your teacher is most understanding. You may start on your pilgrimage at once.”

Tangen - delighted - went to see Sengai to thank him. The master responded by rapping him on the head.

Confused, the young man decided to leave anyway. The elder brother asked the teacher, “What is the matter? Why did you change your mind again?”

The teacher replied, “I owed him one last rap on the head, that is all. For when he returns he will be an enlightened man, and I will not be able to reprimand him again.”

The One About Banzo’s Sword

(originally, The Taste of Banzo’s Sword)

“Hold the sword up! No! Not like that useless child!” Young Matajuro was close to tears again. He could not learn the skills to follow in his samurai father’s footsteps.

Deeply ashamed and drained of hope Matajuro left home, heading for the foothills of Mount Fuhra and the house of the famous swordsman Banzo.

“Could I learn swordsmanship from you, master Banzo?” he asked.

“Maybe,” replied Banzo, “but it will take you a lifetime.”

“I will endure any hardship if only you would teach me,” replied the boy, “If I become your devoted servant, how long might it take?”

“In that case maybe ten years,” replied Banzo.

“But I need to return home before my father is too old,” said Matajuro. “If I work harder, how long might it take.”

“In that case thirty years,” replied Banzo.

“But I will stop at nothing. I will never rest. I must learn in the shortest possible time.”

“Seventy years then! A person in such a hurry seldom learns quickly.”

Reluctantly, Matajuro agreed to Banzo’s tutelage. His new master told him never to touch a sword and gave him no lessons. Matajuro cooked, cleaned, gardened and ran errands, all without a thought of swordsmanship. Three years passed.

One day as Matajuro was sweeping leaves, Banzo leapt from a bush and struck him with a wooden sword.

The following day, while Matajuro was cooking rice, Banzo sprang upon him unexpectedly. This pattern continued. Day and night, Matajuro had to deflect attacks without time to think. His life was dominated by the taste of Banzo’s sword.

He quickly came to understand the sword of his master as if it were his own. He dodged beyond reach of its point; he ducked beneath the arc of its swing; he knew its weight without ever having lifted it.

Learning swordplay accidentally, he swiftly became one of the greatest swordsmen in the land.

The One Where The Lady Has A Fire-Poker

(originally, Fire-Poker Zen)

Master Hakuin taught his pupils to find Zen in unexpected places. He told them about an elderly woman who ran a teashop, praising her deep Zen intuition. “To understand, you must see for yourself,” he said.

Over the next few days, Hakuin’s pupils visited the teashop one by one. The first entered and asked the kindly woman to demonstrate her understanding of Zen. “Come here behind this screen,” she said, and when the pupil did so, she bashed him with a fire-poker.

The second entered, said nothing, and received the same treatment.

The third quizzed the teashop owner about her understanding of Buddha’s teachings, and left the shop with a substantial bruise.

The fourth tried a different tactic, but with a similar result. As did the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth.

Only the tenth pupil escaped the fire-poker Zen. She did so by asking the teashop owner for a cup of tea. It was delicious!

The One About Storyteller’s Zen

(originally, Storyteller’s Zen)

The storyteller sat back, relishing the looks on the faces around the fire. He could see it in the eyes of each of his listeners: they were still there on the battlefield with the hero and his horse and the setting sun. “Then what happened?” asked one. “Then it was time for bed,” said the storyteller yawning.

No-one could tell a story better than Encho.

One day Encho met an elderly student of Zen named Yamaoka. “You have a gift,” said Yamaoka. “Can you tell me the story of Momotarō the Peach Baby, like my mother did when I was a child? I loved that story so much, and I used to fall asleep before the ending every time she told it to me.”

Encho considered this challenge. “I can,” he said, “but I must practice my art for several months first.”

“Take your time,” shrugged Yamaoka, and several months passed.

“I am ready,” said Encho.

“I am not,” said Yamaoka. “Come back some other day.”

“How about now?” said Encho.

“That is not what my mother would say,” said Yamaoka.

It took five years before Encho was able to tell the story to Yamaoka, and many tellings before Yamaoka happened to fall asleep in the middle of the legend. In this way, Encho learned storyteller’s Zen.

The One About The Midnight Excursion

(originally, Midnight Excursion)

On a moonlit night, a shadowy figure darted through the temple garden. From inside a clump of bamboo, the figure lifted out a hidden kitchen stool and balanced it beside the wall. A quick look back towards the nuns’ dormitory, and the figure clambered onto the stool and over the wall for a night on the town.

Some time later master Sengai walked through the garden, removed the stool from the wall and stood in its place. The wanderer returned in the darkest hour of the night. An exploratory foot stretched down from the top of the wall and found a stable place on the master’s head. It was only when she had lowered her full body weight onto the head of her master that she realised he was not a kitchen stool.

“Good morning,” said master Sengai, “It is chilly is it not? We must be careful not to catch a cold.”

That was the last time the pupil left the temple without permission.

The One With A Letter To A Dying Man

(originally, A Letter to a Dying Man)

Bassui wrote a letter to his dying disciple:

Dear student,

Beyond all that is transient, the essence of your mind will never die. It is not an existence, so it cannot perish. It is not an emptiness, for it lacks nothing. It has no colour, it has no shape. It enjoys no pleasures, it suffers no pain.

I know you are ill. Like a good Zen student, you face your situation directly. You may be aware of suffering, but you do not know who is suffering. That is not the true essence of your mind. Think only this: soon you will need no more. Covet nothing. Your end which is endless is as a snowflake melting upon the air.

The One About A Drop Of Water

(originally, A Drop of Water)

On a frosty morning a young student brought a pail of water to cool her master’s bath.

“Thank you, that is just right for me,” said master Gisan, scrubbing his back among the suds.

The student absent-mindedly tipped away the remaining water.

“That water might have fed the plants,” scolded the master, “Who would choose to waste even a drop of water in this temple?”

Clarity washed over the young student in an instant. She had taken another step closer to true understanding. She changed her name to Tekisui, which means Drop of Water.

The One About The Blind Man’s Lantern

(originally, Teaching the Ultimate)

A blind man visited a friend in the evening and was offered a paper lantern to carry home with him.

“I do not need a lantern,” he said, “darkness and light are all the same to me.”

“You may not need it,” his friend replied, “but without it someone may bump into you in the dark.”

The blind man shrugged and took the lantern. He had not been walking long when someone ran straight into him.

“Look where you are going,” exclaimed the blind man, “Can’t you see I have a lantern?”

“It is not enough to carry a lantern, brother,” replied the stranger, “when your candle has burned out.”

The One About Non-Attachment

(originally, Non-Attachment)

Zen master Gempo died in 1933 at the age of ninety-two. All his life he endeavoured not to be attached to anything.

As a young mendicant, he made friends with a traveller and they shared companionable times smoking together. When the traveller moved on, he gifted Gempo his pipe and tobacco.

“How pleasant this is,” he thought. “Before it goes too far, I will stop now.” So he threw the smoking equipment away.

When he was a student monk, he studied the I-Ching - the most profound text in the universe. He learned how to divine the future from the most simple signs in the present, and he saw how every situation is intimately connected to every other. People started to come to him with their problems, knowing that he would perceive the route to a solution in every circumstance.

“By spending so much time divining the future, I risk neglecting meditation in the here and now,” he said. So he gave up using the marvellous I-Ching, and never resorted to its powers again.

When he was an older monk, he became adept at calligraphy - the subtle art of writing with brush and ink. He grew so skilful that his works were admired by even the most unappreciative layperson.

“If I am not careful, I will end up a poet instead of a Zen master,” he mused. So he never wrote another poem.

The One About Making Vinegar

(originally, Tosui’s Vinegar)

Zen master Tosui left the temple, choosing to live among beggars in the arch beneath a bridge across a shallow river.

When he was very old, a friend showed him how to make rice vinegar to earn a few coins for food. Tosui built a small hut beside the river and used it for the slow and careful process of fermenting his sharp, sour vinegar.

A beggar friend gave him a picture of the Amida Buddha - the icon of Pure Land Buddhism. This branch of Buddhism teaches that the world will never be free of corruption, and therefore the goal of life is to be reborn on another plane, known as the Pure Land.

Tosui placed a hand-written sign beside the picture. It said:

Dear Mr Buddha,

This room is small, but you are welcome as my visitor. But please do not think I wish to be reborn anywhere else.”

The One About Vision And Silence

(originally, The Silent Temple)

There was once a Zen teacher who had lost an eye. How he lost it, he would not say, but his remaining eye sparkled with humour, life and joy. Instead of holding discourse with his students, he created beautiful scrolls, with messages such as this one:

“Only one eye is needed
to see a whole world.”

He lived in Tofuku temple, and insisted on silence day and night. Even the reciting of sutras was abolished. Formal lessons were also abandoned. His students spent their days in meditation and vision.

One morning, the nearby townspeople heard the ringing of bells and the chanting of sutras. From this they knew that master Shochi had passed away.

The One With The Buddha’s Zen

(originally, Buddha’s Zen)

Buddha once said:

“I consider that kings and rulers own no more significance than dust motes. Treasure and gold have no more value than pebbles and bricks. Fine robes are no more worthy than tattered rags.

“I see all the myriad worlds in the universe as seeds of so many fruits, and the greatest lakes on this earth are a drop of oil upon my feet. All the teachings of all the teachers are as the illusions of magicians. Your desires for emancipation are golden threads in a dream, and your visions of the path to heaven are flowers in your eyes.

“I see meditation as the pillar of a mountain, and Nirvana as a waking in the daytime. Right and wrong are the serpentine dance of an imagined dragon, and the rise and fall of beliefs are merely the changing settings of the seasons.”

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