101 Zen Stories

Proceed From The Top Of The Pole

Sekiso asked: "How can you proceed on from the top of a hundred-foot pole?" Another Zen Teacher said: "One who sits on the top of a hundred-foot pole has attained a certain height but still is not handling Zen freely. He should proceed on from there and appear with his whole body in the ten parts of the world."

Mumon's comment: One can continue his steps or turn his body freely about on the top of the pole. In either case he should be respected. I want to ask you monks, however: How will you proceed from the top of that pole? Look out!

The man who lacks the third eye of
Will cling to the measure of the
hundred feet.
Such a man will jump from there and
kill himself.
Like a blind man misleading other blind

Source: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
Mind and World

Once there was a monk who specialized in the Buddhist precepts, and he kept to them all his life. Once when he was wlaking at night, he stepped on something. It made a squishing sound, and he imagined he had stepped on an egg-bearing frog.

This caused him no end of alarm and regret, in view of the Buddhist precept against taking life, and when he finally went to sleep that night he dreamed that hundreds of frogs came demanding his life.

The monk was terribly upset, but when morning came he looked and found that what he stepped on was a overripe eggplant. At that moment his feeling of uncertainty suddenly stopped, and for the first time he realized the meaning of the saying that there is no objective world. Then he finally knew how to practice Zen.

Source: Zen Essence
What's an objective world?

One that is not influenced by emotions or personal prejudices.
Labels and Objective Truth

"Because you grasp labels and slogans, you are hindered
by those labels and slogans, both those used in ordinary
life and those considered sacred. Thus they obstruct your
perception of objective truth and you cannot understand
clearly." -Zen Master Linji, Zen Essence
Re: What's an objective world?

Originally posted by EvilPoet
One that is not influenced by emotions or personal prejudices.
Hmm. Could you explain why the story shows this?
Self and No Self

"In the realm of fundamental activity there is no self; there is no world. Self and world arise from this foundation and return to this foundation. If we are clear in the arising and disappearing of self, then we can find our way home in any situation. When we willingly dissolve ourselves into relating, then the subsequent arising of self can be free from desire and attachment. Peace and completeness are not distant promises, but the natural condition from which we arise and to which we return.

The personal self that we identify with is an ephemeral appearance in the activity of life. Clinging to an "I am" self perpetuates the belief in a separate, objective world around us. It can create distance in our intimate relationships and diminish the vitality of experience. When we believe we are separate from our experience, alone in our relationships, then dropping our attachments is a long and difficult process. As we continue to learn that our foundation is relationship, that from the beginning self and separation are an illusion, we can step free in a heartbeat. Then the primacy of relationship is relating and the vividness of experience is experiencing. Many teachings emphasize that dissolving our illusion of an "I am" self is the essential practice of Buddhism. We will return to this insight again and again and again."

Source: AZC Dharma Talk - Self and No Self
Abraham Lincoln once asked one of his secretaries, "If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a horse have?".

"Five," replied the secretary.

"No," said the President, "The answer is four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."
"When we live our life contrary to the inner guidance of our Soul, our actions often have a disharmonious effect upon ourselves, others and the Earth. This is why the evolution of individual human consciousness is intimately linked with the future of this planet. In light of this, the crisis of all physical illness, emotional imbalance and planetary upheaval has but one ultimate purpose: to provide an opportunity that will motivate us to realign our body, mind and emotions with the infinite love, wisdom and healing of our Soul. Therefore, whenever we gather the courage to do whatever it takes to end the war within, we contribute directly and immediately to our own healing and transformation as well as to the peace that our world cries out for." - John-Michael

"You must be the change you want to see in the world." - Mohandas Gandhi


One morning, a young man came to the Master saying, "Master, I wish to understand my path on earth better. I wish to know why it is that I seem to carry my past and re-live it again and again. Why is it that I cannot get past my past?"

The Master smiled at the young man who seemed to be earnestness itself. "Go forward into the Maze in the garden. But carry this backpack as you walk the maze. It will help you stay focused and balanced. Be careful as it is quite heavy though," the Master said.

The young man took the backpack from the Master who handed it over quite easily. But when the young man had it firmly in his grasp he was astonished at how heavy it really was! Placing the shoulder straps over his arms and bent over from the sheer weight of the pack, he strode towards the Maze. He was surprised to see it was not a garden maze, but was built of silk panels that were nearly translucent.

The young man paused before entering the maze and then stood and walked into it. Immediately he found himself facing a solid wall of silk. However, he could see just enough through the silk to other areas of the maze to make out others there at the same time. He could "see" them and hear them but they were not part of his path.

The weight upon his shoulders reminded him of why he was there, so he put the thoughts of the others out of his head. Walking forward, he found himself hopelessly trapped. It seemed that no matter which direction he walked, there was no way to proceed forward. Baffled, the young man sat down and pondered his situation.

'The Master told me to walk the maze but it seems unwalk-able. Yet, there are others here who are obviously ahead of me. They must have figured out a way to get through this section. How did they do that? Are they smarter than I am? Did they cheat? Did they crawl under the silk, as that would be really a simple matter and who would ever know?'

The young man weighed his options and then rose, deciding to not sneak under the silk. As he stood and turned, an opening appeared before him as though by magic and he moved forward.

Soon, he faced another series of solid silk panels and could see no opening or direction to walk other than the one he had come from. Again he sat down and thought of his situation. He had gotten through the first test he felt, by reflecting upon his options and then choosing to take the one that was for his highest good. Stating again his affirmation that he would desire to walk the maze only with positive intent he stood, ready to face his opening. But none was there. He still faced a blank series of panels.

The young man was baffled. He had felt that surely he would be rewarded as before for his desire to proceed only within his highest good.

The weight of his backpack cut into his shoulders, bringing him sharply back to reality. What was it that weighed so much? What had the Master placed in it to weigh it down? Rocks? Bricks? It did not feel hard and unforgiving like those items, it felt soft yet heavy. What could possibly be soft and yielding yet heavy enough to weigh him down like this?

Pulling the backpack off of his shoulders, he opened it and peaked inside. 'The Master did not tell to not look,' he reasoned. It was EMPTY! Yet it had weight!

'How could this be', he wondered. Picking it back up, he again felt how heavy it was yet it was empty! Again he glanced inside and this time felt with his hands. Empty!

But the weight!!!

Placing it upon his shoulders he stood. He asked himself what it was that he had just learned from this experience. He heard a voice clearly say, 'Look inside of you, young man, for the weight lies there,' he was told.

As he walked he looked at his life and his path. He thought of his childhood and the friends and enemies who had caused him harm. He thought of how stuck he had been by their feelings of him, their attitudes towards him. He remembered how angry he was with one particular boy who had taunted him unmercifully. This boy was hated to this day by the young man. The pack became even heavier as the student re-created and re-lived the experience within his mind and heart.

'Ahhhh. I understand now. I carry the weight of that which burdens me. I am the weight! I therefore have it within me to unburden myself as well.' The student was joyous with this insight and then saw and walked his way through a series of panels of silk.

He thought of how he could unburden the weight of those he still despised and resented for their treatment of him. He knew that they were not there with him in the maze so he could not expect them to say, 'I am sorry" and thus lessen the weight and allow him to go forward easily.

"I forgive you, wherever you are,' he found himself saying to his own amazement. The weight of the pack lessened immediately and he was able to walk without bending forward at the waist.

'Ah ha!' the young one exclaimed. 'Through my intent to forgive, I unburden myself of this weight which hinders my journey. But how can this be? For they were the ones who wronged me. Yet my forgiving of them unweights me?' The young one's head swum with the implications. And another series of openings appeared before him in the panels of silk. His pack was considerably lighter, but still weighed enough for his mind to stay focused upon it.

'Oh, Great Spirit, I ask you to help me see what it is that you are showing me here. How do I make my way through this maze? How do I release myself of the full weight that I carry with me?' It was at that moment that a beam of sunlight hit him squarely in the face, warming him.

He suddenly realized that his pack had lightened again with the warmth of the sun! 'What does this mean, God? Why do you lighten my pack with sunlight? What are you showing me?'

It was then that he found himself remembering a "woman" that he had kissed when he was thirteen. It was his first kiss of adulthood and he remembered her clearly. His heart raced with the remembrance of her taste upon his lips and his love for her. His pack lightened considerably this time.

'Thank you God for your considerable wisdom in this. I see now how I am to unburden myself completely. It is through my loving AND forgiving those who have been in my way and have wronged me previously. It is not their wronging of me that has hindered me. It is my holding on to that wronging that has stopped me. By seeing myself as one who has been wronged, I could not go forward in the maze. And by seeing myself as one who was without love, I could not lessen the weight of the pack. As I forgive and bring love within me, I make my journey easier.'

The young man felt his heart swell in size as he felt these insights. He felt his heart race with joy, as it knew its lesson to him was being heard.

The pack weighed nothing now and the young man took it off and held it lightly in his hands. He stood before a solid silk wall now and could see neither an opening nor his way to where he had just come from. He was surrounded by solid silk!

However, instead of panicking, he sat and breathed in this mantra:

"I Am the light and the Way. I carry within me all manner of healing and knowing. It is through this healing and knowing that I make my way through this earthly maze. I am able to carry forth of the journey through this maze and I am able to release my entrapment. I alone have the ability to solve this riddle and I ask now to have it done. I breathe in full acceptance of my path and its possibilities, God. I recognize that I was the impediment, not anyone or anything else. I am LIGHT and I am LOVE. Thus being so FREES me and allows me to soar above the physical realm. In this I re-discover myself which is my True Self, God. Thank you for helping me to see this. I so love you."

At this, the young man felt his feet rise slightly above the earth! He floated above the silk panels and could clearly see the others stuck within the maze. Their darknesses were carried around in their own packs and held them stuck. His head swum with the implications of what was happening to him at that moment. But he focused not on that, but on the fact that he was flying! He was soaring! He was above the earth in his lightness! He was outside of the Maze!

Spying the ground around the maze, he thought of being there and staying outside of the maze. And at once, he was. By thinking it and seeing it, it became.

The Master was at his side as he touched down.

"Master, thank you for placing my weight so severely upon my shoulders as you did. Were it not so heavy, I would have gladly carried it longer and longer for it would have not hindered me all that much. But as it weighed me down so greatly, I had to get rid of the weight first before I could do anything else."

"How did you free yourself of your weight?" the Master asked. His face was alight with joy and love as he did so.

"I found myself forgiving those who had wronged me, Master. It was my pain in response to their actions that made me hold on to the pain inside of myself. When I let it go, Master, I watched it soar away from me and felt myself growing lighter." The student's face shone with love as he spoke.

"Ah," said the Master. "And what of the maze itself? That is impossible to walk through. There is no way out."

"Oh, Master. The most beautiful thing happened. I began to fly after losing the weight. I saw myself as light and love itself as I found it within me to forgive and forget those that had harmed me, had wronged me. It was my darkness that had caused my weight and it was my lightness that freed me to fly. By BEING light and love I floated, Master, and found myself outside of the maze. I was freed from its confines; above its entrapments. Master, I see now that I cause my own weight, that I hold me down. That I keep me trapped in my past. That I, alone, am responsible for the manner in which I walk this maze. By releasing those entrapping thoughts, those weighting down feelings and allowing me to feel love and light, I soared above it all. Did I do wrong by getting out of the maze in this way, Master?" The young man was earnestness itself as he awaited the Master's answer.

"What do YOU feel, young one?" the Master answered with a smile. "Do YOU feel freed from the Maze?"

With that, the Master strode away before hearing the other's reply. He knew that whatever the young one answered would give him further insight into his own journey.
Thorough Cooking

Once three scholars on the way to the civil service examination stopped to buy refreshments from a woman who sold pastries by the wayside. One man was calm and quiet, while the other two argued over literature. The woman asked where they were going. The latter two told her they were going to take the civil service examination. She said, "You two scholars won't pass the exam: that other man will." The two men swore at her and left.

When the results of the examination turned out as the woman had predicted, the two scholars who had failed went back to find out how she had known they would not pass, while the third man would. They asked her if she knew physiognomy. "No," she said, "all I know is that when a pastry is thoroughly cooked, it sits there quietly, but before it's finished it keeps on making noise."

Source: Teachings of Zen
Demons in the Desert

Once upon a time there were two merchants, who were friends. Both of them were getting ready for business trips to sell their merchandise, so they had to decide whether to travel together. They agreed that, since each had about 500 carts, and they were going to the same place along the same road, it would be too crowded to go at the same time.

One decided that it would be much better to go first. He thought, "The road will not be rutted by the carts, the bullocks will be able to choose the best of all the grass, we will find the best fruits and vegetables to eat, my people will appreciate my leadership and, in the end, I will be able to bargain for the best prices."

The other merchant considered carefully and realized there were advantages to going second. He thought, "My friend's carts will level the ground so we won't have to do any road work, his bullocks will eat the old rough grass and new tender shoots will spring up for mine to eat. In the same way, they will pick the old fruits and vegetables and fresh ones will grow for us to enjoy. I won't have to waste my time bargaining when I can take the price already set and make my profit." So he agreed to let his friend go first. This friend was sure he'd fooled him and gotten the best of him - so he set out first on the journey.

The merchant who went first had a troublesome time of it. They came to a wilderness called the 'Waterless Desert', which the local people said was haunted by demons. When the caravan reached the middle of it, they met a large group coming from the opposite direction. They had carts that were mud smeared and dripping with water. They had lotuses and water lilies in their hands and in the carts. The head man, who had a know-it-all attitude, said to the merchant, "Why are you carrying these heavy loads of water? In a short time you will reach that oasis on the horizon with plenty of water to drink and dates to eat. Your bullocks are tired from pulling those heavy carts filled with extra water - so throw away the water and be kind to your overworked animals!"

Even though the local people had warned them, the merchant did not realize that these were not real people, but demons in disguise. They were even in danger of being eaten by them. Being confident that they were helpful people, he followed their advice and had all his water emptied onto the ground.

As they continued on their way they found no oasis or any water at all. Some realized they'd been fooled by beings that might have been demons, and started to grumble and accuse the merchant. At the end of the day, all the people were tired out. The bullocks were too weak from lack of water to pull their heavy carts. All the people and animals lay down in a haphazard manner and fell into a deep sleep. Lo and behold, during the night the demons came in their true frightening forms and gobbled up all the weak defenseless beings. When they were done there were only bones lying scattered around - not one human or animal was left alive.

After several months, the second merchant began his journey along the same way. When he arrived at the wilderness, he assembled all his people and advised them - "This is called the 'Waterless Desert' and I have heard that it is haunted by demons and ghosts. Therefore we should be careful. Since there may be poison plants and foul water, don't drink any local water without asking me." In this way they started into the desert.

After getting about halfway through, in the same way as with the first caravan, they were met by the water soaked demons in disguise. They told them the oasis was near and they should throw away their water. But the wise merchant saw through them right away. He knew it didn't make sense to have an oasis in a place called 'Waterless Desert'. And besides, these people had bulging red eyes and an aggressive and pushy attitude, so he suspected they might be demons. He told them to leave them alone saying, "We are business men who don't throw away good water before we know where the next is coming from."

Then seeing that his own people had doubts, the merchant said to them, "Don't believe these people, who may be demons, until we actually find water. The oasis they point to may be just an illusion or a mirage. Have you ever heard of water in this 'Waterless Desert'? Do you feel any rain-wind or see any storm clouds?" They all said, "No", and he continued, "If we believe these strangers and throw away our water, then later we may not have any to drink or cook with - then we will be weak and thirsty and it would be easy for demons to come and rob us, or even eat us up! Therefore, until we really find water, do not waste even a drop!"

The caravan continued on its way and, that evening, reached the place where the first caravan's people and bullocks had been killed and eaten by the demons. They found the carts and human and animal bones lying all around. They recognized that the fully loaded carts and the scattered bones belonged to the former caravan. The wise merchant told certain people to stand watch around the camp during the night.

The next morning the people ate breakfast, and fed their bullocks well. They added to their goods the most valuable things left from the first caravan. So they finished their journey very successfully, and returned home safely so that they and their families could enjoy their profits.

The moral is: One must always be wise enough not to be fooled by tricky talk and false appearances.

Source: Buddhist Tales - Jataka Stories

Once when Zen master Bankei was about to leave a temple in the capital where he taught from time to time, a certain gentleman came requesting that the master pospone his departure. A certain baron had a question and wanted to see the Zen master in person on the morrow to resolve it. Bankei assented and put off leaving.

The next day, however, the gentleman came again, this time with a message that the baron has some urget business to take care of and could not come and see the master. The baron had asked the gentleman to relay his question to Bankei, then report the Zen maste's answer back to him.

When he heard the gentleman out, Bankei said, "This matter of Zen is difficult to convey even by direct question and direct answer; it is all the more difficult to convey by messenger."

The Zen master said nothing more. Speechless, the gentleman withdrew and departed.

Source: Zen Antics
A Buffalo Passes Through The Enclosure

Goso said: "When a buffalo goes out of his enclosure to the edge of the abyss, his horns and his head and his hoofs all pass through, but why can't the tail also pass?"

Mumon's comment: If anyone can open one eye at this point and say a word of Zen, he is qualified to repay the four gratifications, and, not only that, he can save all sentient beings under him. But if he cannot say such a word of true Zen, he should turn back to his tail.

If the buffalo runs, he will fall into the
If he returns, he will be butchered.
That little tail
Is a very strange thing.

Source: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
So much for the buffalo!

And Mumon! Mumon's comment is too limited to be accepted. In it he fails to see that there are myriad possibilities of any given circumstance. There is rarely one correct answer that just points to what IS right. The answers point in the right direction rarely at the answer.

Dave the Druid
Hi Dave

I have a couple of questions - in what way do you find Mumon's comment too limiting? and what do you think Mumon means when he says: "he should turn back to his tail"?

I thought these definitions might be of interest. They are taken from the glossary of Straight to the Heart of Zen by Philip Kapleau. :)

Mumonkan (Jap.; Ch.; Wu-men-kuan) : The Gateless Barrier. This book of fourty-eight koans, with comments in prose and verse by the compiler, Zen master Wu-men Hui-kai (Jap., Mumon Ekai), is the best-known collection of Chinese koans next to the HEKIGANROKU. The verse accompanying each koan is usually treated as a separate koan.

Koan (Jap.) : in the original Chinese, a case that establishes a legal precedent. In Zen, a koan is a formulation, in baffling language, pointing to ultimate truth. Koans cannot be solved by recourse to logical reasoning but only by awakening a deeper level of the mind beyond the discursive intellect. Koans are constructed from the questions of disciples of old together with the responses of their masters, from portions of the masters' sermons or discourses, from lines of the SUTRAS, and from other teachings. The word or phrase into which the koan resolves itself when grappled with as a spiritual exercise is called in Japanese the wato (Chin., hua t'ou). Thus, "Has a dog the Buddha-nature?" together with Joshu's answer, "Mu!" constitutes the koan; "Mu!" itself is the wato. Altogether there are said to be 1,700 koans. Of these, Japanese Zen masters use a core of about 500, since many are repetitive and others less valuable for practice. Masters have their own preferences, but invariably they employ (if they employ koans at all) the MUMONKAN and HEKIGANROKU compilations of koans. A disciple who completes his or her training under Yasutani-roshi must pass the following number of koans and other types of problems in this order: miscellaneous koans, 50; Mumonkan (with verses), 96; Hekiganroku, 100; Shoyoroku, 100; Denkoroku (with verses), 110; Jujukinkai and others, 90---a total of 546.
Some answers

Hi Evilpoet ;)

Mumon asserts that " If anyone can open one eye at this point and say a word of Zen,..." implisedly 'I have the answer and there can be no other.' Limits other view points on the issue and immediately becomes dogma rather than a path to find he way.

To turn back to ones tail, is to say, look behind you for the way has been there all along. :)The way is always closer than we can imagine.

Dave the Druid

In my opinion, it is not what I think that matters.
What do you think of your answers? Do you think
they are good? ;)
Being without being

Hi Evilpoet ;)
One of the greatest conumdrums is how to teach without being a teacher. I am not trying to teach but I am trying show the way.
Assertion of correctness isn't always the way to determine the best path.
Make sense?

Dave the Druid