Matsuo Basho wrote:
Seek not the paths of the ancients;
Seek that which the ancients sought.
Since time immemorial, man has searched for the Ultimate Truth to this world; and for as long as there has been the written word, this search has been recorded. The true jewels of this collection are those stories that are at once real and graspable because they speak in analogy and metaphor, which is intuited by the heart rather than understood by the mind.
I have long collected such stories in my own search, and I have created this collection in order to bequeath those fruits to others. Except where otherwise noted, I have retold each of the stories contained herein for purposes of my own study, and have placed them into the public domain.
May these “teaching tales” be a guide for you to that which the ancients sought, so that you too may find it.
One day, Nasreddin Hodja was resting beneath a tree when some children came to him with a dispute. “Hodja,” they said, “We have all these walnuts, but we were having trouble dividing them between us. Could you do so, please?”
“Of course,” Hodja replied, “Would you like me to divide them God’s way or man’s way?”
“God’s way,” they agreed.
So Hodja gave two handfuls of walnuts to the first child, one handful to the second child, a single walnut to the third, and nothing at all to the fourth. After he was done, the children were upset and said, “Hey! That wasn’t fair at all! Why didn’t you give each of us the same amount?”
Hodja replied, “Because dividing evenly is man’s way. You asked for God’s way, and he gives much to some and little to others.”
One day, Nasreddin Hodja was coming from a vineyard with several basketfuls of grapes. The neighborhood children saw this, ran up to him, and asked him to give them some grapes. Hodja gave them each a single grape. Hoping for more, the children said, “You have so many grapes, but you gave us so little!”
“Oh!” said Hodja, “Don’t worry, they all taste the same.”
A man in a small village once found a coin on the road and, picking it up, said, “It is fun to find money left on the ground!”
Saint Ryokan, living a hermit life and utterly destitute, overheard him and thought to try it: he threw his own few coins on the ground and picked them back up. “That wasn’t very fun,” he thought, but he persisted in throwing his coins and picking them back up, over and over again, thinking that he had been deceived. Eventually, he had lost them.
Alarmed, Ryokan searched and searched until, at some length, he finally found them again. He was overjoyed, and as he retrieved them, he said to himself, “I guess that man wasn’t lying after all!”
Once, there lived a mother whose son was addicted to eating large quantities of sugar. She was worried about his health and tried many times to break him of his addiction without success. Finally, in desperation, she decided to bring her son to the great leader, Mahatma Gandhi, and ask him for help. When she had finally met with Gandhi and explained the situation, he said to the mother and her son, “Come back to me in two weeks, and I will speak to your son then.”
In two weeks the mother and her son returned, and Gandhi took the boy and gravely told him, “Do not eat sugar. It is bad for your health.”
The mother was upset, and asked, “If that is all you were going to say, why did you not say it two weeks ago?”
Gandhi explained, “Two weeks ago, I was still eating sugar myself.”
Zen master Ryokan was in town begging for food, when it was discovered that one of the homes he had visited had something stolen from it. The villagers believed that Ryokan had committed the crime, bound him, and began digging a pit in order to bury him alive as punishment.
As they were about to throw him in, a man who recognized Ryokan happened by. He stopped the villagers, saying, “What are you all doing? Don’t you know that this is the famous saint Ryokan? You should all be learning from him, not trying to bury him! Stop this nonsense at once and apologize!“
After Ryokan was set free, the man asked him, “Why did you not protest your innocence?”
Ryokan answered, “Because that’s what a guilty man would have done!”
A certain farmer owned a ram, and had it tied to a post while he rested nearby. While he slept, a thief crept up, cut the halter, and stole the ram. When the farmer awoke, he was distraught over his loss, and began to search for his property.
Not far away, he found the thief sitting beside a well in tears. Being a kindly man, he asked the thief what the matter was. The thief replied that he had dropped his purse into the well and couldn’t retrieve it; but that if the man would get it for him, he would reward him from its contents. “How wonderful!” thought the farmer. “When God closes one door, He opens another!” Thinking that the reward would cover his losses and more, he removed his clothing and jumped into the well.
While he was searching, the thief stole his clothes as well.
There was once a certain conceited scholar who was travelling across the sea by boat. One day, while they were out to see, the scholar, by way of making conversation, asked the captain of the boat, “Tell me, have you ever learned of languages?” When the captain answered that he had not, the scholar carelessly replied, “A pity — your life is wasted without such knowledge!” This comment hurt the captain, but he held his tongue and continued sailing.
That night, a terrible storm overtook the boat, which was tossed about in the rough seas and began to take on water. The scholar, roused from his sleep by the commotion, came up on deck to inquire what was going on. The captain answered him by asking, “Tell me, have you ever learned to swim?” When the scholar answered that he had not, the captain carelessly replied, “A pity — your life is wasted without such knowledge!”
A man invited two of his friends over to his home to present them each gifts: to the first, he gave a fine woolen robe; and to the second, a fine hat. They were both quite pleased with their gifts, but the first cast an envious eye upon the other’s gift, thinking how nicely it would go with his. The second noticed this and, once they had thanked their friend and taken their leave, he invited the first to join him at his own house. When they arrived, he asked for him to please remove his robe and, after also removing his own hat, cast both into the fireplace and burned them.
A monk, travelling beside a river, stumbled and fell into it. A bystander, upon seeing that the monk could not swim, shouted, “Do you wish for me to go get help?”
“No,” the monk replied.
“Do you wish, then, to be drowned?”
The bystander, bewildered, asked, “What do you wish for, then?”
The monk answered, “God will do as He pleases! What good will wishing do?”
Meng Chih-fan was a soldier whose army was routed in battle. In order to protect his fellow soldiers, he courageously fell behind and took up the rearguard, sacrificing himself so that they could safely return to their stronghold. As luck would have it, though, he survived and returned to the castle some hours later.
As he was entering the castle gate, the guard asked him, “I bet you think you’re pretty great, don’t you?”
Chih-fan replied, “I wasn’t trying to be the last in: my horse just became tired.”
A farmer lived in the country, alone but for his baby son and his dog. He rose early to tend the fields, and found upon his return the baby’s cradle overturned and bloody, and his dog beside it, also covered in blood. Thinking that the dog had destroyed his son, and distraught over the betrayal, the farmer killed the dog without hesitation. Afterwards, as he was cleaning the mess, he righted the cradle and found his child unharmed beneath, and beside the child was an enormous serpent obviously slain by his dog. The farmer ever after lamented his hasty actions, because he could not restore his faithful pet to life.
A student came to the office of Louis Agassiz (the preeminent naturalist), and asked him for instruction in natural history. After a brief examination, Agassiz agreed and produced a preserved fish from a large jar of alcohol on the shelf. “Take this fish, and look at it; by and by I will ask what you have seen.” After so saying, he left the office.
In ten minutes, the student had seen everything there was to see in that fish, but Agassiz was nowhere to be found; so he returned to looking at his fish. Half an hour passes, then an hour, then another; the student began to despair.
At some length, Agassiz returned, and asked, “Well, what is it like?” The student expounded upon the structure of the parts of the fish: the head, the gills, the scales, the fins; having completed this short speech, Agassiz said disappointedly, “You have not looked very carefully. Look again, look again!” and left the student to his misery.
The student was both piqued and mortified — still more of that wretched fish! But he set about it with a will, and when Agassiz returned at the end of the day and asked, “Do you see it yet?” he answered, “I am certain I do not, but I see how little I did before.”
It seems that one day in 1881, while Robert Louis Stevenson was out for a walk, he came across a man beating a dog. “Stop that immediately!” he shouted, interposing himself between the dog and its owner.
The man replied, “How dare you, sir! It is my dog, and I can treat it as I wish!”
“No, sir!” Stevenson shouted, “It is God’s dog, and I am here to protect it!”
The Cheshire Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good‐natured, she thought: still, it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.
“Cheshire Puss,” she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. “Come, it’s pleased so far,” thought Alice, and she went on. “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where —” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“— so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question. “What sort of people live about here?”
“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
A man once went to the master swordsman Yagyu Munenori and asked to become his pupil. The master said to him, “I would teach you, but you already appear to have mastered the sword. Who was it that you studied under?” When the man answered that he had never studied fencing, the master said, “I have trained many over the years, even the Shogun himself! You cannot fool me.” But the man persisted, and so the master sat in thought for a time before saying, “If you say it is so, then I will believe you; but I am certain you are a master of something, if not the sword. What is it?”
The man answered, “If you insist, there is one thing that I would consider myself master of. When I was a boy, I wanted to be a samurai when I grew up; but I was also terrified of death, which is not becoming of a warrior. I spent many years contemplating mortality, and eventually it was no longer a concern to me. Could this be what you’re referring to?”
The master shouted, “That’s it! I knew I hadn’t made a mistake: you see, in order to master the sword, you must also master death. No matter how well they swung a sword, none of my students have ever understood this. I have nothing to teach you: you are already a master.”
An old hermit lived in a small hut in the mountains. As a reminder to himself, he labelled the door, the window, and the wall of the hut with the word “mind.” As time passed, the hermit died, and another came to take up residence in the hut, but he was dissatisfied with the labels he found. He replaced them such that the door read “door,” the window read “window,” and the wall read “wall.” As time passed, this hermit also died and another came to take up residence in the hut. He, also, was dissatisfied with the labels, and he simply erased each one. As time passed, this third hermit also died and a fourth came to take up residence in the hut. As with the two before him, he found the situation unsatisfactory, and labelled the door “window,” the window “wall,” and the wall “door.”
There was once a burglar whose son said to himself, “My father is not as young as he once was, and if he should die, who would provide for the family? I must learn the trade from him just in case.” The son went to his father and told him of this, and the father agreed to teach him the art of burglary.
That night, the burglar and his son broke into a house and found a great chest. The burglar picked the lock, opened it up, and asked his son to look inside for anything valuable. As soon as the son had done so, the burglar locked the chest with the son still inside, pounded on the front door until the residents were awake, and then ran off. Finding nobody at the door and nothing out of place, the owner of the house was greatly mystified.
As for the son, he was heartbroken at the cruelty of his father, but he still needed to escape. He made noise from within the chest to invite investigation and once the owner of the house had opened it, the son quickly put out the man’s candle and ran. The residents of the house gave chase, but the son threw a rock into a nearby well and escaped while they investigated the sound.
It wasn’t long before the son reached home, found his father, and asked him, “How could you be so cruel to me?”
The father answered, “Please don’t be angry with me, my son. Tell me what happened.” The son related the evening’s ordeal to his father, who smiled and said, “Very good. You have learned the art!”
One day, old man Yu became ill, and his friend Ssu came to visit him, asking how he was. Yu answered, “Amazing! Look how crooked I am becoming! My back sticks up like a hunchback, my intestines are over my head, my chin digs into my belly, and my bottom points up to the sky!” He hobbled over to the well and, looking at his reflection, remarked, “My, how the Creator is changing my shape!”
Ssu was surprised at how at ease his friend seemed, and asked, “Are you really not upset at all?”
Yu answered, “Not a bit: what is there to be upset about? Maybe tomorrow I’ll awake and my left arm will be changed into a rooster, and I’ll announce the dawn; or, perhaps, the Creator will make my right arm into a crossbow and I’ll go out and hunt for dinner. Maybe my buttocks will be transformed into cartwheels, and I’ll climb up onto myself and go for a ride! I’ll never need a carriage again!
“I was born when the time came, and I will similarly die at the appointed hour. When you fight against reality, you lose: that’s just the way things have always been. So, instead, I am content with whatever life presents to me and therefore immune to both sorrow and joy. That’s why I’m not upset.”
Pooh and Piglet walked home thoughtfully together in the golden evening, and for a long time they were silent. “When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?”
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.
A certain woman possessed a necklace precious to her that she always wore about her neck. One day she forgot the necklace and became anxious, believing it lost. She searched her home for it, but it was not there. She asked her neighbors if they had seen it, but none of them had. Eventually, she asked a friend about it, who told her to check that she wasn’t wearing it. When the woman felt about her neck, she discovered that she hadn’t misplaced the necklace after all, but had been wearing it the whole time! Relief came over her, and she felt as if she had recovered a valuable jewel.
The woman, of course, hadn’t ever lost the necklace, but judge her by her feelings: in the end, she was happy as if she had gained something valuable. In the same way, we humans tend to forget our true nature and seek after it as if we lost something. In reality, we have never lost anything but we are still made happy when we realize it.
A certain Bedouin eked out a lean living in the desert with his wife, pitching his tent wherever they could find a few date palms or some brackish water. In this way they had lived their whole lives, so they knew no other existence and were quite content despite their hardship.
One day, the Bedouin came across a newly‐formed spring. While the water would be generally regarded as terribly salty, he thought it to be the very water of Paradise itself, for it was the best he had ever tasted. Being a generous man, he felt that he must bring some of the water to one who could appreciate the divine, so he filled a waterskin with the water and traveled to Baghdad to give it to the Caliph.
When he arrived at the palace, the guards listened to his story and believed him insane. He was only shown inside because the Caliph made a rule of seeing each and every visitor. Once in the his presence, the Bedouin presented the Caliph with the waterskin and said, “Commander of the Faithful! I am but a poor Bedouin; I know little of the world, but I do know of the waters of the desert. I recently came upon the water of Paradise, and have come here to present it to you as an offering.”
Now, the Caliph was wise. Once he tasted the water, he told the guards to detain the Bedouin until he had decided what to do with him. Then, calling the captain of the guard to him, he said, “Even though this water is poor, it is everything to this man. Tonight, escort him back to his home, but be careful not to let him see the Tigris River or taste clean water. Once there, give him one thousand gold pieces and my gratitude for his service. Tell him that I have made him the guardian of the water of Paradise, and that he should give it freely to any traveler in my name.”
There was once a certain man who was having great difficulty in life, and he made an oath before God that if his problems would be solved, then he would sell his house and give all the proceeds to the poor. Naturally, the time came for the man to redeem his oath, but he did not wish to part with so much, so he devised a scheme: he would put the house on sale for a trifling sum, but his cat, which must come with the house, would be sold for the full value of the building. The house was soon sold, and the man gave the price of the house to the poor, but kept the price of the cat for himself.
Was this man living by the spirit of his oath? Of course not, but many, like him, seek to live according to a teaching but warp it to their advantage. Such as he have not understood the teaching they sought to live by, and will not reap the benefits that living by it would confer.
A monk on a pilgrimage came to the Zen priest Ma Tzu and asked him, “What is the ultimate message of the Buddha?” The master replied, “I will tell you, but when discussing such solemn matters, it is proper to make a bow to the Buddha first.” The monk turned to the nearby statue of the Buddha and bowed. While he was doing so, Ma Tzu gave him a swift kick in the behind, bowling the monk over! Momentarily stunned, the monk was soon in hysterics: his religious preconceptions were dissolved and he was immediately enlightened. He would later tell everyone he met, “Ever since Ma Tzu kicked me, I havn’t been able to stop laughing!”
Once, a young woman and her four‐year‐old‐son were standing outside of a prison, where they waited to be allowed inside to visit the boy’s imprisoned father. He noticed a bug on the sidewalk, and squatted down to watch it. After a moment, he looked up at his mother and said, “Mama, look at the bug!” She coldly commanded, “Step’um.” The little boy manfully squashed it with his foot, likely learning thereby a lesson similar to the ones his father learned at that age.
There was a man whose family had, for generations, made their money by bleaching silk. The process left their hands awfully chapped, but they had developed a healing balm that protected them. A traveler was passing through town one day, and, hearing about the balm, offered the man one hundred pieces of gold for the recipe. The man gathered his family together and said to them, “For generations we have been bleaching silk, and we’ve always barely made enough to feed ourselves. A man has offered us a small fortune for this recipe of ours; I suggest we take it and improve our living thereby.“ His family agreed, and they sold the recipe to the traveler.
As it so happened, the king was troubled by a war he was waging: it was winter, and the hands of his soldiers were so raw from exposure that they had difficulty handling their weapons. As soon as he had obtained the recipe, the traveler went straight to the king and presented it to him. The balm proved instrumental to the king’s victory, and the traveler was awarded a fief in the conquered territory as a reward.
The balm had the power of preventing chapped hands in either case, but one man never got beyond bleaching silk while the other ended up with fief, simply because they used it in different ways. Do not let yourself be trapped by a certain way of thinking: an alternate perspective may end up the more profitable.
Two monks were watching a nearby flag when the wind suddenly picked up and caused it to flutter. “Look,” the first said, “the flag is moving.” The second monk replied, “No, it is not the flag that moves, but the wind that moves it.” Huineng, who had overheard them, came over and said to them, “It is neither the flag nor the wind that moves, but your mind that moves them both.” The two monks were thereby enlightened.
Once you have grasped that, consider this:
Many years later, several other monks were on a pilgrimage to meet with the priest of a certain monastery. When they arrived, they were welcomed by the nun Miaoxin, who arranged lodging for them for the night. That evening, the monks talked amongst themselves of how they might test the insight of the priest, when one of the monks suggested the above parable and they began to debate its meaning. Miaoxin overheard them and reproached them, saying, “You idiots! The flag isn’t moving, the wind isn’t moving, and the mind isn’t moving, either!” At this, the monks realized their foolishness and, the next morning, returned home without even seeing the priest.
Ting, the personal chef of the king, was butchering an ox. Every move of his hands, arms, legs, and feet were in perfect harmony: his knife slipped through the ox as if through water, and all was done with such grace as to resemble a dance.
The king was much impressed by this. “How marvelous!” he said. “How did you become so skilled?”
“Your majesty,” replied Ting, “I merely follow the Tao, which goes beyond skill. When I first began to butcher, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years of it, I began to look beyond the ox. Now, I no longer use my eyes or my own understanding, but instead allow my whole being to move in its own way. My knife glides along the natural lines, never hitting a ligament, let alone a joint.
“A poor cook, who hacks at the ox, will have to change his knife once a month. A good cook, who cuts at the ox, will change knives once a year. This knife of mine has lasted nineteen years, cutting thousands of oxen, and its blade is still as good as new. There are spaces in between every joint, and a blade really has no thickness, so there is more than enough room for it to avoid every bone. And when I come to a difficult part, I focus myself and slow down until the blade barely moves, and eventually the whole thing falls apart on its own. I stand there, holding my knife and allowing contentment with the work to wash over me, before wiping the blade clean and putting it away.”
“Wonderful!” replied the king. “Your words have taught me how I should live my life!”
Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were walking together, when Hui Tzu pointed to a tree by the side of the road and said, “Here, look at this tree: it’s so twisted that you couldn’t cut a straight board from it, and so knotted that it would be impossible to work with. No carpenter would even give it a second look. Your teachings are like that tree: big and useless. That’s why everybody ignores them.”
Chuang Tzu replied, “What sort of things would you consider useful? How about a wildcat: brutally efficient at stalking its prey, leaping this way and that; but for all the ground it covers, it’s that much more likely to get caught in a trap and die. Perhaps a mighty yak, then: big and strong as a thundercloud, no trap wouldn’t even affect it; but if your house was infested with mice, you’d be wishing for the wildcat!
“As for that tree, it might not be useful to a carpenter, but I’d love to relax beside it and take a nap in it’s shade. Besides, no axe will ever shorten it’s life. If it’s ‘useless,’ then what can cause it harm?”
Lady Li was the daughter of a border guard. When the duke of a neighboring state sacked her hometown and brought her to his palace, she wept until her robe was drenched in tears. But as time went on and she experienced palace life, eating fine food and sharing the duke’s bed, she came to love her new life and wondered why she had ever wept.
In the same way, how do we know that loving life isn’t a delusion? How do we know that by hating death we’re not like someone who left home as a child and forgot the way back? What if the dead, like Lady Li, wonder why they ever longed for life?
A tigress gave birth to a cub but died while it was still young. A flock of goats took compassion on the cub and adopted it, teaching it to bleat and graze like a goat. Time passed and the tiger grew up believing it was a goat; though, since the grass isn’t very nourishing to a tiger, it was weak and sickly.
One day, an old tiger pounced upon the flock of goats, and they scattered, but the little tiger, for some reason, felt no fear and remained where it was. The old tiger, upon seeing this pathetic being, demanded, “What are you doing here, living with these goats?” The little tiger, self‐conscious and embarrassed, bleated feebly and nibbled on the grass and did its best to ignore the old tiger. Incensed, he picked up the little one by the scruff of its neck and carried it to a nearby lake. Setting it down, he demanded that the little tiger look at its reflection in the water. “Is that the face of a tiger, or a goat?” he asked.
At length, the old tiger carried the little one to its den and forced a chunk of juicy, red meat into its mouth. The young tiger gagged on the meat, but as the juices ran into its belly and it received the nourishment its body craved, and it finally realized that it was a tiger and not a goat. It gave a little roar and shook its body from side to side. The old tiger said, “Now you finally know who you are. Go, and live as such.”
A traveler once came to a river, its near bank dangerous and uncertain and its far bank calm and safe. The man collects sticks and vines and fashions a raft from these materials and, using it, crosses over from the dangerous side of the river to the safe side.
Suppose that traveler, after reaching the far bank of the river, said to himself, “This raft has served me well; I shall now carry it around on my back wherever I go.” Would he be using the raft in the appropriate manner? Of course not! A more reasonable person would say to himself, “This raft has served me well, but is of no further use for crossing land, so I shall leave it here by the river and continue on without it.”
Similarly, all teachings should be used for crossing over and not for holding on to. You should let go of even the most profound teachings, and all the more so unwholesome ones!
One day an ass, upon hearing some grasshoppers chirping, was enchanted by their song and desired to possess the ability to sing as they did. He went to them and asked what sort of food they lived on that gave them such beautiful voices. The grasshoppers replied, “We live on the dew.” The ass resolved that from that moment forward he would live only upon dew, and soon died of hunger.
So it is that the laws of nature cannot be changed.
There was once, in ancient times, a king who was greatly troubled about the injury caused to his subjects’ feet by sharp stones and thorns on the ground, and he thought that if he could do something about it then the wealth of his kingdom might increase. So, he called together his advisors and told them of his plan: that all of the cows in the country would be killed, their hides tanned, and the leather stretched out upon the entire earth to protect the people’s feet.
One of the advisors, feeling that the scale of the king’s plan was simply ludicrous, made a suggestion: what if, instead of killing a large number of cows to cover the world, they killed a small number of cows and covered the people’s feet?
Naturally, the king followed the advisor’s advice, and his kingdom profited thereby.
Those who wish to “change the world” are like that king, trying to cover the world with leather. It is much more practical to wear shoes.
A hard‐working and generous farmer lived with his three lazy, greedy sons. He was elderly, and just before he died, he called them to him and told them that their inheritance was buried in his fields, and that they would have to dig it up in order to receive it. No sooner than his spirit left him than his sons went out and tore apart the fields looking for the buried treasure. Having dug up the entire farm and found nothing, however, they began to wonder if it was a trick, and if their father, in his generosity, had already given all his money away to the poor. One of the sons said, “Well, we’ve already dug the fields, we might as well sow a crop to take advantage of it.” His brothers agreed, and they planted wheat in the fields, took in a good harvest, and sold it for a large sum.
After the harvest, the sons wondered if they might have just missed the treasure when digging for it, so they dug up the fields once again just in case; having found no treasure, they once again planted a crop and sold it. This continued for a few years, until the sons had at last become accustomed to the labor and realized the lesson that their father had left them with on their deathbed. They became honest and content, and lived their lives in peace.
Tanzan and Ekido were traveling together along a muddy road during a heavy rainstorm. As they turned a bend in the road, they met a beautiful young woman in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection for fear of ruining them.
“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan as he lifted the girl in his arms and carried her across the road. She thanked him and the two continued on.
Ekido did not speak to Tanzan until that night when they reached an inn; at that point, he could no longer restrain himself. “Tanzan, we monks are forbidden from going near females, especially young and lovely ones. It’s dangerous! How could you pick that girl up earlier?”
Tanzan replied, “I left the girl by the side of the road. Why are you still carrying her?”
A number of blind men, who had never before experienced an elephant, came upon one and wished to understand what it was like; so they surrounded it and touched it. One man, who had touched the leg, said, “It is like a pillar!” Another, who had touched the body, said “No, it is like a wall!” Another, who had touched the trunk, said, “No, it is like a snake!” And the last, who had touched the tail, said, “No, it is like a rope!”
In the same way, everyone who has experienced the divine speaks of it in terms of their experience, and believes that it cannot be anything else. Like the elephant, the reality is larger than any one person’s experience.
Early one morning, while Jesus of Nazareth was teaching in the temple, the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery. Having set her in front of everyone, they told him, “Teacher, we found this woman in adultery, in the very act. In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women to death. What do you say about it?”
But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with his finger. After a moment of this, they pressed the question, and Jesus looked up and said to them, “Very well, do as the law commands, but let those who are without sin throw the first stones at her.” He then continued to write.
When they heard this they were convicted by their conscience, and they left the temple one by one until at last Jesus was left alone with the woman. Standing up, Jesus saw her and said, “Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?”
She said, “No one, sir.”
Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go, and sin no more.”
Once, an expedition of Duke Mu Kung lost one of his favorite horses, which fled to the hills and was captured by rustics and eaten. When the Duke found them out, he went and said to them, “You ate my horse, but I fear that you will become sick from it since you drank no wine with it. Please, take some, which will protect you from any ill effects.”
A year later, King Kung of Tsin pressed the Duke hard in the battle at Han. The soldiers of his enemies surrounded him and were about to capture his carriage, when three hundred local people rushed to his rescue and saved his life. As it turned out, these were the very same people who had eaten his horse and who he had regaled with his wine.
This is what is meant when it is said, “Discretion in giving brings about beneficial results.”
It seems that there lived an ill‐tempered village priest, nicknamed “Bishop Nettle” after the large nettle tree outside of his temple. Angered by the nickname, he had the tree felled so that he might no longer be called by it, but, as the roots remained, the villagers instead called him “Bishop Stump.” Incensed even further, he had the stump uprooted and thrown away; but, since this left a big hole in the yard which soon filled with water, he came to be known as “Bishop Pond.”
Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly: he fluttered here and there, carefree and unselfconscious. Suddenly he awoke! and there he was again: Chuang Tzu the human, beyond a doubt. But… was he the Chuang Tzu who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or was he a butterfly now dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu?
David Rokeby, the Canadian artist, once recalled a day spent in an art school class: the professor required that the class spend the period staring out of the classroom windows. He was angered by this, and thought, “Some of these art classes have been quite unusual, but staring out a window for three hours is ridiculous.”
Nonetheless, he went to his assigned window and began to watch what was outside; he saw a person walking on a sidewalk, a car or two driving in the road beyond that, and a building across the way beyond that. Eventually another person came by, and another car. The leaves of a maple tree shifted in the breeze. He continued fuming to himself for a quarter of an hour before something strange happened: the flow of traffic down the street began to resemble a river, with each car seemingly connected to the next and drawing it along after it. The shifting colors and shapes of objects became apparent. Everything gave off a certain electricity, and David sat mesmerized for the remainder of the class. He had stopped recognizing things by their names, and began to experience the actual sensation of sight.
He reasoned afterward, “It seems that we only become aware of something after it has passed through the filters of our perceptual system. Once our mind has been able to identify something and place a name to it, we stop truly seeing or hearing it, and as a result live in a world of pre‐digested memories. But these flashes of raw experience are the basis of paradigm shifts: when our traditional method of processing a scenario breaks down, that is when we must learn a new way of experiencing things.”
Late one night, a man knocked on his friend’s door and asked, “My friend, please lend me three loaves of bread: another friend of mine has come to me while traveling, and I have no food to set before him.” His friend answered, “Come back tomorrow. My door is shut and my family and I are all in bed: I cannot get up to give you anything right now.” Even though he received no aid on account of their friendship, if the man persists in knocking, his friend will eventually get up and give him as much as he needs.
Therefore, keep asking and you will be answered; keep seeking and you will find; keep knocking and the door will be opened to you: for all who ask, receive; all who seek, find; and all who knock will have the door opened to them.
One night, as Shichiri Kojun was praying, a thief broke into his house and demanded either money or his life. Shichiri said, “Do not disturb me. My money is in the drawer, but don’t take it all: I need a little to pay taxes with tomorrow.” The thief gathered up most of the money, and as he was about to leave, Shichiri said, “You should thank someone when they give you a gift.” The thief sheepishly thanked Shichiri and left.
Several days later, the thief was caught and confessed, among others, the offense against Shichiri. When called as a witness, Shichiri said, “This man is no thief as far as I am concerned. I gave him money and he thanked me for it.”
At the end of his prison term, the man went to Shichiri and became his disciple.
One day while Jesus of Nazareth was teaching, a man came to him and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “What does the law say?”
He answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind;’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Jesus said to him, “That’s right. Do so and you will live.”
Then the man asked, “But who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answered, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among bandits, who stripped him, beat him, and left him for dead by the side of the road. By chance a certain priest was going down that way, and when he saw the man, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. Similarly, a Levite also, was traveling by and, when he saw the man, also passed by him on the other side of the road. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came to where the man was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, went to him, and bound up his wounds using oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two pieces of silver, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of this man. If it costs more than what I have given you, I will reimburse you when I return.’
“Now which of these three do you think was a neighbor to that man?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go, and do likewise.”
The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life. A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, her parents discovered she was pregnant, and were made very angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin. In fury the parents went to the master and confronted him with the accusation.
“Is that so?” was all he would say.
After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.
A year later the girl‐mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth — that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket. The mother and father of the girl went at once to Hakuin to beg his forgiveness and to get the child back again.
Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: “Is that so?”
A disciple of the Zen master Tsui Wei once asked him, “What is Buddhism really about?” Since they were in a lecture hall with other monks nearby, Tsui Wei responded, “I’ll tell you later, when nobody is around.”
Later in the day, when the monk was finally alone with Tsui Wei, he said, “We’re alone now; what is the secret?” Tsui Wei led the monk out to the garden and pointed at the bamboo growing there. At length, when it was clear that the monk still didn’t understand, Tsui Wei said, “Look, there is a tall bamboo! And over there, a short one!”
i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires
why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense
plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves
and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself
In the age when life on earth was full, no one paid any special attention to worthy men, nor did they single out the talented. Rulers were like the highest branches on a tree and the people were like deer in the woods. They were honest and righteous without realizing they were “doing their duty.” They cared for each other and did not know that this was “loving thy neighbor.” They deceived no one yet did not know that they were “men of their word.” They were reliable and did not know that this was “good faith.” They lived freely together giving and taking, and did not know that they were generous. This is why their path left no trail behind. This is why they made no history.
A dispute arose between the North Wind and the Sun, each claiming that he was stronger than the other. At last they agreed to try their powers upon a traveler, to see which could soonest strip him of his cloak. The North Wind had the first try; and, gathering up all his force for the attack, he came whirling furiously down upon the man, and caught up his cloak as though he would wrest it from him by one single effort: but the harder he blew, the more closely the man wrapped it round himself. Then came the turn of the Sun. At first he beamed gently upon the traveler, who soon unclasped his cloak and walked on with it hanging loosely about his shoulders: then he shone forth in his full strength, and the man, before he had gone many steps, was glad to throw his cloak right off and complete his journey more lightly clad.
Thus does kindness effect more than force.
The master Bankei’s talks were attended not only by Zen students but by persons of all ranks and sects. He never quoted sutras nor indulged in scholastic dissertations. Instead, his words were spoken directly from his heart to the hearts of his listeners. His large audiences angered a priest of the Nichiren sect because the adherents had left to hear about Zen. The self‐centered Nichiren priest came to the temple, determined to debate with Bankei.
“Hey, Zen teacher!” he called out. “Wait a minute. Whoever respects you will obey what you say, but a man like myself does not respect you. Can you make me obey you?”
“Come up beside me and I will show you,” said Bankei. Proudly the priest pushed his way through the crowd to the teacher. Bankei smiled. “Come over to my left side.” The priest did so. “No,” said Bankei, “we may talk better if you are on the right side. Step over here.” The priest proudly stepped over to the right.
“You see,” observed Bankei, “you are obeying me and I think you are a very gentle person. Now sit down and listen.”
A certain man once asked the reverend priest Honen, “I always find myself falling asleep while praying, and this is preventing me from fulfilling my religious duties. What can I do to be free from this hindrance?”
Honen answered, “Pray harder!”
A certain man had two sons. The younger of them said to him, “Father, give me my share of the inheritance.” So, the father divided his livelihood between his sons. Not many days after, the younger son gathered his share together and traveled into a far country, and there he wasted his money on riotous living. When he had spent it all, there arose a severe famine in that country, and he was hard pressed. He went and hired himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he was sent into the fields to feed pigs. He was so hungry that he longed to fill his belly with the husks that the pigs ate, but no one would give him any food. Finally, he came to his senses and said, “How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough to spare, and I’m dying with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will tell him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.’”
He arose, and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion; he ran, and fell on the neck of his son, and kissed him. The son began to say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…”
But the father stopped him and said to his servants, “Bring out the best robe, and put it on him. Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat, and celebrate; for my son was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.” So they began to celebrate.
Now the elder son was in the field. As he came near to the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants to him, and asked what was going on. He said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has returned, safe and sound.” But the elder son became angry, and would not go in. Therefore his father came out, and begged him. But he answered his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, and you never even gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when that son of yours returns, who has squandered your money on whores, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
The father said to him, “My son, you are always with me, and everything that I have is yours. But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for your brother was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found!”
Off in the countryside, near the border of the empire, there lived a farmer who was known for being a righteous man. One day, without warning, his only horse ran off into barbarian territory. His neighbors all pitied him for his loss, but he said, “How do you know that this isn’t a blessing?”
Several months later, while working his fields, the farmer found that his horse had wandered back to him, accompanied by a beautiful barbarian stallion. His neighbors all congratulated him for his good fortune, but he said, “How do you know that this isn’t a curse?”
The farmer’s family found itself a fine horse richer, and his son took to riding the stallion in the fields. One day, while doing so, he was thrown from the horse and broke his hip. Once again, the farmer’s neighbors all pitied him, but he said, “How do you know that this isn’t a blessing?”
A year later, the barbarians invaded the frontier, and every able‐bodied young man was conscripted for the war effort: nine‐tenths of them died. Due to his injury, however, the farmer’s son was spared.
Thus can blessings become curses and curses become blessings; one cannot predict how events might be transformed.
One day, Chuang Tzu was fishing on the riverbank when two of the king’s officials came up to him and proclaimed: “Sir, the king has requested that you come to his court and serve as his prime minister.”
Without even looking up, Chuang Tzu answered, “I have heard that there is a sacred tortoise that has been dead for three thousand years, and that the king keeps its shell in the temple, wrapped in silk and resting in a golden box. Now, if you were that tortoise, would you rather be honored in this way or would you rather be alive again, crawling around in the mud?”
The officials replied, “The latter, of course.”
Chuang Tzu said to them, “Go, and tell the king that I’m happy here, crawling around in the mud.”
Ikkyu, the Zen master, was very clever even as a boy. His teacher had a precious teacup, a rare antique. Ikkyu happened to break this cup and was greatly perplexed. Hearing the footsteps of his teacher, he held the pieces of the cup behind him. When the master appeared, Ikkyu asked: “Why do people have to die?”
“This is natural,” explained the older man. “Everything goes in cycles, and so every person has their appointed time to live and to die.”
Ikkyu, producing the shattered cup, added: “It was time for your cup to die.”
Chi Hsing Tzu was training a gamecock for the king. After a week, the king came and asked if it was ready to fight. Chi said, “Not yet, your majesty. He’s still arrogant, and he relies on his own strength.”
After another week, the king came and asked again. Chi said, “Not yet, your majesty. He still becomes excited when fighting.”
After another week, the king came and asked again. Chi said, “Not yet, your majesty. He still has a fierce look in his eye.”
After another week, the king came and asked again. Chi said, “Yes, he’s ready. When another bird crows, he doesn’t react. He stands so still that he looks like a block of wood. His focus is within himself. Other birds will take one look at him and run.”
One day, while Bankei (a noted Zen priest) was preaching, a priest from a rival Buddhist sect came to debate with him, boasting, “Our teacher can perform magic; for example, he can stand on one bank of a river and, writing in the air, make words appear upon a canvas on the opposite bank. Since he can do such wondrous things, we believe he must know the secrets of the universe. What magic can you perform?”
Bankei replied, “Any cheap sorcerer can do such things. Here, I practice true magic: when I feel hungry, I eat; when I feel thirsty, I drink.”
Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu (philosphers, friends) were strolling along the riverbank, enjoying the scenery, when Chuang Tzu said, “Look at the minnows, darting about where they please — that’s what fish love to do!”
Hui Tzu asked, “You’re not a fish, so how do you know what they love?”
Chuang Tzu countered, “You’re not me, so how do you know what I do or don’t know?”
Hui Tzu thought for a moment and said, “That’s true: I am not you, so I can’t be sure of what you know or don’t know. However, you’re certainly not a fish, so I stand by my original statement!”
Chuang Tzu answered, “Okay, then let’s go back to it. You said, ‘How do I know what fish love to do,’ which presupposes that I do, in fact, know what they love to do; and how I know it is by standing here by the river.”
I have endeavored to make as many stories as possible available on this site, but there are some that I have been unable to for reasons of either copyright status or length. Below are several of those works that are in the same spirit as this website and that I recommend highly.
I should like to briefly thank the following people for their aid in bringing this website to fruition: