Tag Archives: zen stories

Why Do I Practice?

I ask this really just wondering what you think. Is there something in meditation, or something that comes out of meditation, that you think can/should/could help you focus on the things you want to achieve?

A friend of mine asked me this some time ago, and ever since I’ve really wanted to answer. Yet it’s not nearly as simple a question as it might seem; in fact, it’s both fundamental and impossible. Why do I practice? How do I know—or rather, how can I put into words what I but dimly sense (and which, besides, doesn’t lend itself to verbal expression)?

There is a custom in some corners of the Zen world called the way-seeking mind talk: an account of how we come to the practice. I suppose the Now and Zen page of this blog represents something like this for me. Without repeating too much of what I wrote there, I’d like to explore this notion of (to put it bluntly) “What’s in it for me?” when it comes to meditation (or practice in general). Continue reading

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What’s In Your Bag?

Another Monday, another very short Zen story. This one comes from The Great Heart Way, a truly remarkable book co-written by the teachers at Great Mountain Zen Center in Lafayette, Colorado, where I first sat.

There was a traveling monk who went from temple to temple carrying a big bag of horse manure over his shoulder. When he arrived at a new temple, he would set his bag down and exclaim, “This place smells like shit!” Then he’d pick up his bag and move on to the next temple and do the same thing, surprised every time.

I hesitated briefly when choosing to post this story: as pithy and humorous as I find it, it could come across as an obvious point rather coarsely expressed. In the end, I decided that this tale embodies quite well the frank earthiness of Zen—and as I mention on the homepage, if I’m not offending someone at some point, I’m probably not doing my job.

For me this story is pertinent not only because of my deepening interest in Zen, but even more, my ongoing quest to find a more fulfilling life situation, one that more fully approaches my magic mantra of Money, Mission, Mate, and Home. Continue reading


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Carrying On

It’s been quite a while since I posted a favorite Zen story: here’s one (or two…or a few) about the importance of letting go.

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido was astonished, but he didn’t say anything until their journey was over. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “Monks aren’t supposed to touch any member of the opposite sex,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left that girl way back there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

(compiled from http://mettarefuge.wordpress.com/2009/12/01/now-and-zen-are-you-still-carrying-her/) and http://www.adamlein.com/zen_stories.asp)

As with most such stories, there are any number of variations. Sometimes it’s a stream rather than a stretch of muddy road. Sometimes the woman is rude and dismissive to the first monk, and the second one later questions with irritation why she wasn’t grateful for the help she received.

I suppose there are a number of lessons that could be drawn from this parable. One is the cliché about not crying over spilled milk…or tea, as it were. Continue reading

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The Empty Boat

And now, the second in a cluster of posts on my favorite Zen stories. Here’s the version related by Pema Chodron in her book Start Where You Are:

A man is enjoying himself on a river at dusk. He sees another boat coming down the river toward him. At first it seems so nice to him that someone else is also enjoying the river on a nice summer evening. Then he realizes that the boat is coming right toward him, faster and faster. He begins to get upset and starts to yell, “Hey, hey, watch out! For Pete’s sake, turn aside!” But the boat just comes faster and faster, right toward him. By this time he’s standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it’s an empty boat.

This is the classic story of our whole life situation.

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I read this story (whatever version of it) or how well I internalize its lesson: I’m still prone to anger at the empty boats that smash into my daily life. And I suspect I’m not alone in this: whether it’s noisy neighbors or insane drivers, trash on the streets and in the woods, a slow line at the store—or in this season, those numbskulls of other political parties—it’s all too easy to lapse into irritation at a world that seems clearly against us.

I’m also reminded of the second of Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements: Don’t Take Anything Personally…”Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”

Indeed. What are the empty boats in your life? What if we could all let go of the boats brushing past us, doing instead whatever will do the most to minimize suffering? How much more peaceful would life be if we could simply avoid adding to our own (and others’) stress?

Namaste, everyone.

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Mr. Sei’s Horse

Here’s the first installment in what I hope will become a new series: my favorite Zen stories. As I mention on my Now And Zen page, one of the reasons I was originally drawn to Zen was its vast, rich repertoire of stories, parables, and koans. Even years after first reading them, some of these verbal sketches linger with a power inversely proportional to their length.

For example, here’s the tale of Mr. Sei’s Horse, as told by Gerry Shishin Wick of the Great Mountain Zen Center:

Mr. Sei lived in a small, poor village. He owned a horse and was one of the wealthiest members of the village. His neighbors used to come to him and tell him how lucky he was to have that horse because he could plow much more field and have a larger income and take better care of his family. Mr. Sei was a very wise man so he didn’t say anything. He just nodded his head. One day the horse ran away and his neighbors come and told him how unlucky he is that his horse had run away. Again Mr. Sei nodded his head. Then the horse returned and a second horse was following. Now Mr. Sei had two horses. The neighbors came and said, “How lucky he is that his horse ran away and came back with an extra horse. Now he has two horses.” Again Mr. Sei just nodded his head. Next the son was plowing the field with the second horse and had an accident and broke his leg. The neighbors rushed over again. “How unlucky he is that he had that second horse, otherwise his son never would have broken his leg and now he can’t help him in the fields.” Mr. Sei nodded. War erupted in the province and the lords were conscripting all of the young men to fight. Mr. Sei’s son had a broken leg, so he didn’t have to go into battle. The neighbors came again and told Mr. Sei how lucky he is that his son broke his leg. This story has no end and continues today.

I encourage you to follow the link above and read Shishin Wick’s commentary on this story. For me, it serves as a simple yet poignant reminder of the limits of categorizing what happens to us as “good” or “bad”—even those situations that would seem very easy to label.

As an example of the good thing that turns out not to be, when I got my first full-time teaching job I thought I was set for life. I’d had to wait a year and a half after graduating with my Education degree—a bad thing, right? Yet in the interim I substituted and tutored extensively, which proved to be very good training: and the job offer I finally received was, of my dozens of applications, at my first-choice school, where I’d done my student-teaching and much of my subbing. I was overjoyed, believing I’d never have to look for work again.

However, within a year I could tell that something was very wrong. Eventually, I realized that conventional schooling and I were a very poor fit, and I felt compelled to leave in order to save myself from unbearable stress and frustration. At that point I went back to grad school, where the plan was to get a PhD and teach at the college level. But then that quickly turned out to be not the path I wanted. Yet almost as quickly I found Sudbury schooling, which has indeed been a very good thing…with its own ups and downs, of course. As Shishin Wick says, “this story has no end.”

As for the bad thing that might not be what it seems, when I got divorced…well, that was clearly awful, right? I mean, short of a death or catastrophic accident or illness, what’s more obviously terrible than going through a divorce? Yet, while it was obviously accompanied by enormous, protracted unpleasantness,  I’m not about to claim that my divorce was either a tragedy or a blessing in disguise. In fact, that’s kind of the point: it wasn’t a good or a bad thing, just this thing that happened. I don’t know that I’m better or worse off for it (though I hope I learned from the experience), or both or neither. On the contrary,  thinking of “this thing that happened” as either positive or negative takes me out of the moment and gets me stuck in my head, as well as in the past and/or future. Not very Zen, you might say.

Where have you seen Mr. Sei’s Horse in your own life? I would love to hear more examples of the illusory nature of good and bad fortune. If you have a story you can share, please comment below!


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