What is Zen?

It is said that the Budai (laughing Buddha) travelled around giving candy to poor children, only asking a penny from Zen monks or lay practitioners he meets. One day a monk walked up to him and asked, “What is the meaning of Zen?”.

Budai dropped his bag.

The monk then asked, “How does one realize Zen?”.

Budai then took up his bag and continued on his way.

– Unknown Author, Zen Tradition

Simile of the Lute

“Suppose there were a king or king’s minister who had never heard the sound of a lute before. He might hear the sound of a lute and say, ‘What, my good men, is that sound — so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling?’ They would say, ‘That, sire, is called a lute, whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.’

Then he would say, ‘Go & fetch me that lute.’ They would fetch the lute and say, ‘Here, sire, is the lute whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.’

He would say, ‘Enough of your lute. Fetch me just the sound.’ Then they would say, ‘This lute, sire, is made of numerous components, a great many components. It’s through the activity of numerous components that it sounds: that is, in dependence on the body, the skin, the neck, the frame, the strings, the bridge, and the appropriate human effort. Thus it is that this lute — made of numerous components, a great many components — sounds through the activity of numerous components.’

“Then the king would split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces. Having split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces, he would shave it to splinters. Having shaved it to splinters, he would burn it in a fire. Having burned it in a fire, he would reduce it to ashes. Having reduced it to ashes, he would winnow it before a high wind or let it be washed away by a swift-flowing stream. He would then say, ‘A sorry thing, this lute — whatever a lute may be — by which people have been so thoroughly tricked & deceived.’

– Gautama Buddha

The old man and the scorpion

One morning, after he had finished his meditation, the old man opened his eyes and saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the water. As the scorpion was washed closer to the tree, the old man quickly stretched himself out on one of the long roots that branched out into the river and reached out to rescue the drowning creature. As soon as he touched it, the scorpion stung him. Instinctively the man withdrew his hand. A minute later, after he had regained his balance, he stretched himself out again on the roots to save the scorpion. This time the scorpion stung him so badly with its
poisonous tail that his hand became swollen and bloody and his face contorted with pain.

At that moment, a passerby saw the old man stretched out on the roots struggling with the scorpion and shouted: “Hey, stupid old man, what’s wrong with you? Only a fool would risk his life for the sake of an ugly, evil creature. Don’t you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful scorpion?”

The old man turned his head. Looking into the stranger’s eyes he said calmly, “My friend, just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save.”

– Unknown

A leaky basin

If we do evil and then try to plug the leak by doing good, it’s like plugging a leak in the bottom of a pot and pouring water in. Or like plugging a leak in the bottom of a basin and pouring water in. The bottom of the pot, the bottom of the basin, isn’t in good shape. Our abandoning of evil isn’t yet in good shape. If you pour water in, it all still seeps out and the basin goes dry. Even if you pour water in all day, it still seeps out bit by bit, and eventually there’s no water left. You don’t gain the benefits from it that you wanted.

– Ajahn Chah, Theravada, Thai Forest Tradition.

Simile of the Acrobats

“Once upon a time, monks, a bamboo acrobat, having erected a bamboo pole, addressed his assistant, Frying Pan: ‘Come, my dear Frying Pan. Climb up the bamboo pole and stand on my shoulders.’

“‘As you say, Master,’ Frying Pan answered the bamboo acrobat and, climbing the bamboo pole, stood on his shoulders.

“So then the bamboo acrobat said to his assistant, ‘Now you watch after me, my dear Frying Pan, and I’ll watch after you. Thus, protecting one another, watching after one another, we’ll show off our skill, receive our reward, and come down safely from the bamboo pole.’

“When he had said this, Frying Pan said to him, ‘But that won’t do at all, Master. You watch after yourself, and I’ll watch after myself, and thus with each of us protecting ourselves, watching after ourselves, we’ll show off our skill, receive our reward, and come down safely from the bamboo pole.’

“What Frying Pan, the assistant, said to her Master was the right way in that case.

“Monks, the establishing of mindfulness is to be practiced with the thought, ‘I’ll watch after myself.’ The establishing of mindfulness is to be practiced with the thought, ‘I’ll watch after others.’ When watching after yourself, you watch after others. When watching after others, you watch after yourself.

“And how do you watch after others when watching after yourself? Through cultivating [the practice], through developing it, through pursuing it. This is how you watch after others when watching after yourself.
“And how do you watch after yourself when watching after others? Through endurance, through harmlessness, through a mind of goodwill, through sympathy. This is how you watch after yourself when watching after others.

“The establishing of mindfulness is to be practiced with the thought, ‘I’ll watch after myself.’ The establishing of mindfulness is to be practiced with the thought, ‘I’ll watch after others.’ When watching after yourself, you watch after others. When watching after others, you watch after yourself.”

– Gautama Buddha

Two monks and a woman

Two monks, going to a neighbouring monastery, walked side by side in silence. They arrived at a river they had to cross. That season, waters were higher than usual. On the bank, a young woman was hesitating and asked the younger of the two monks for help. He exclaimed, ‘Don’t you see that I am a monk, that I took a vow of chastity?’

‘I require nothing from you that could impede your vow, but simply to help me to cross the river,’ replied the young woman with a little smile.

‘I…not…I can…do nothing for you,’ said the embarrassed young monk.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ said the elderly monk. ‘Climb on my back and we will cross together.’

Having reached the other bank, the old monk put down the young woman who, in return, thanked him with a broad smile. She left her side and both monks continued their route in silence. Close to the monastery, the young monk could not stand it anymore and said, ‘You shouldn’t have carried that person on your back. It’s against our rules.’

‘This young woman needed help and I put her down on the other bank. You didn’t carry her at all, but she is still on your back,’ replied the older monk.

– Unknown

Thorns

Things are simply the way they are.  They don’t give us suffering. Like a thorn: Does a sharp thorn give us suffering?  No. It’s simply a thorn.  It doesn’t give suffering to anybody.  If we step on it, we suffer immediately.

Why do we suffer?  Because we stepped on it. So the suffering comes from us.

– Ajahn Chah, Theravada, Thai Forest Tradition.