For centuries, Zen masters have used Zen stories, tales, koans, and paradoxical riddles, to help students understand Zen principles, expand their consciousness, and become more mindful and self-aware.
Zen stories provide enlightening perspectives on a variety of topics and help you to find your own ways on how to deal with the problems of daily living, how to handle this or that situation, and how to create balance in your everyday life.
The powerful thing about Zen stories is that they don’t give you straight instructions or clear answers to your questions. Instead, zen stories expand your consciousness in a way that you become capable of finding the answers yourself or rather, how zen Buddhists say: “In Zen, we don’t find the answers. We lose the questions”.
In this article, we have collected 10 powerful zen stories that will help you to lose your questions by expanding your consciousness.
10 Zen Stories
#1 The Move
Two men visit a Zen master.
The first man says: “I’m thinking of moving to this town. What’s it like?”
The Zen master asks: “What was your old town like?”
The first man responds: “It was dreadful. Everyone was hateful. I hated it.”
The Zen master says: “This town is very much the same. I don’t think you should move here.”
The first man leaves and the second man comes in.
The second man says: “I’m thinking of moving to this town. What’s it like?”
The Zen master asks: “What was your old town like?”
The second man responds: “It was wonderful. Everyone was friendly and I was happy. Just interested in a change now.”
The Zen master says: “This town is very much the same. I think you will like it here.”
#2 A Cup Of Tea
A learned man once went to visit a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher talked, the learned man frequently interrupted to express his own opinion about this or that. Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, then kept pouring until the cup overflowed.
“Stop,” said the learned man. “The cup is full, no more can be poured in.”
“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions,” replied the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?
#3 The Moon Cannot Be Stolen
Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.”
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow, ” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
#4 The Girl At The River
A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.
The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman. Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his journey.
The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.
Two more hours passed, then three. Finally, the younger monk could not contain himself any longer and blurted out: “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”
The older monk looked at him and replied: “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”
#5 A Useless Life
A farmer got so old that he couldn’t work the fields anymore. So he would spend the day just sitting on the porch. His son, still working the farm, would look up from time to time and see his father sitting there.
“He’s of no use anymore,” the son thought to himself, “he doesn’t do anything!” One day the son got so frustrated by this, that he built a wood coffin, dragged it over to the porch, and told his father to get in.
Without saying anything, the father climbed inside. After closing the lid, the son dragged the coffin to the edge of the farm where there was a high cliff.
As he approached the drop, he heard a light tapping on the lid from inside the coffin. He opened it up. Still lying there peacefully, the father looked up at his son and said “I know you are going to throw me over the cliff, but before you do, may I suggest something?”
“What is it?” replied the son.
“Throw me over the cliff, if you like,” said the father, “but save this good wood coffin. Your children might need to use it.”
#6 Working Very Hard
A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”
The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.”
Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice every day, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”
The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”
#7 It Will Pass
A student went to his meditation teacher and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, or my legs ache, or I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s just horrible!”
“It will pass,” the teacher said matter-of-factly.
A week later, the student came back to his teacher. “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!“
“It will pass,” the teacher replied matter-of-factly.
#8 The Man Who Said Yes
A man went to a Buddhist monastery for a silent retreat. After he finished, he felt better, calmer, stronger, but something was missing. The teacher said he could talk to one of the monks before he left.
The man thought for a while, then asked: “How do you find peace?”
The monk said: “I say yes. To everything that happens, I say yes.”
When the man returned home, he was enlightened.
Most of our pain, most of our suffering comes from resistance to what is. Life is. And when we resist what life is, we suffer. When you can say yes to life, surrender to life, and say: “Okay, what should I be now?” That’s where power comes from.
#9 The Crystal Cup
A Zen master was given a beautifully crafted crystal cup. It was a gift from a former student.
He was very grateful. Every day, he enjoyed drinking out of his glass. He would show it to visitors and tell them about the kindness of his student.
But every morning, he held the cup in his hand for a few seconds and reminded himself: “This glass is already broken.”
One day, a clumsy visitor toppled the glass on its shelf. The cup fell down. When it hit the floor, it was smashed into thousands of pieces.
The other visitors gasped in shock, but the Zen master remained calm. Looking at the mess in front of his feet, he said: “Ah. Yes. Let’s begin.”
He picked up a broom and started sweeping.
Half of the happiness is made of being okay with what you don’t get and the other half is being okay with losing what you have.
#10 Wash Your Bowl
A monk told Joshu: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked: “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”
The monk replied: “I have eaten.”
Joshu said: “Then you had better wash your bowl.”
At that moment the monk was enlightened.
Don’t get your head caught up in all this thinking about the meaning of life. Instead, just do. Just wash your bowl. And in the washing, you will find all you need.