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Posts from the ‘Classic Zen’ Category


Do You Want Me to Thank You?

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The merchant Umeza decided to donate some money to the master Seietsu so that he could build a bigger school.

Umeza brought a bag full of coins and placed it before Seietsu, who was meditating. “This is for you to build a new school,” he said.

Seietsu opened his eyes, nodded, and went back to his meditations.

Umeza was a bit perturbed and he remarked, “There is enough money there to pay a year’s wages for 50 men.”

Seietsu opened his eyes and said, “So do you want me to thank you?”

Umeza said, “Well, isn’t it the least I should expect?”

Seietsu said, “Why should I? The giver should be thankful.” And he resumed his meditation.



Photo by OliBac

One day, Subhuti sat under a tree and went into a state of total emptiness. Flowers from the tree began to shower upon him. He heard a whisper, as from the gods, saying “We thank you for your discourse on emptiness.”

“But I have not said anything about emptiness,” said Subhuti.

“That is true,” came the reply. “You have not spoken about emptiness. We have not heard about emptiness. That is true emptiness.”

And the flowers continued to fall like the rain.


Tetsugen’s Sutras

Photo by ganap0627

Tetsugen was a zen master who lived in 17th century Japan.  He wanted to produce a Japanese edition of the buddhist sutras (scriptures) which were then only available in Chinese. This was to be an expensive project because it involved making around 60,000 wooden blocks for printing.

Tetsugen wandered around Japan collecting funds for this project. Sometimes he would meet wealthy people who would offer gold and silver, but mostly he would encounter peasants who could only afford a few small coins.

After 10 years of traveling, he had collected enough funds to start his project. But there was a great flood as the river Uji overflowed. People were left homeless and starving. Tetsugen used all the money he collected to help them.

Then he began traveling and collecting money again for his project. It was several more years before he thought he had enough. Just then, an epidemic spread throughout Japan and Tetsugen once more gave away all that he had collected to aid the afflicted ones.

Then he started traveling again. Twenty years later (and one year before he died), he was able to fulfill his dream of printing the sutras in Japanese. The original printing blocks he used are preserved today in the Obaku Monastery in Kyoto, Japan.

The Japanese like to tell their children that Tetsugen actually produced three editions of the sutras, but the first two are invisible and far superior to the last.


The Sound of One Hand Clapping and other koans

Note: the following are examples of zen koans – taken from the Japanese “ko” (public) and “an” (proposition). Koans may take the form of a question, a verse or a short anecdote or teaching. It is designed to bring the student towards a direct realization of the ultimate reality. Koans are often very puzzling and incomprehensible and it may take months or even years for one to fully understand one.

The great Japanese master, Hakuin, wrote: “If you take up one koan and investigate it unceasingly, your mind will die and your will will be destroyed. It is as though a vast, empty abyss lay before you, with no place to set your hands and feet. You face death and your bosom feels as though it were on fire. Then suddenly, you are one with the koan, and body and mind are cast off. This is known as seeing into one’s nature.”

Now, on to the koans:

  1. What is the sound of one hand clapping?
  2. A monk asked master Haryo, “What is the way?” Haryo replied, “An open-eyed man falling into a well.”
  3. When the many are reduced to one, to what is the one reduced?
  4. The roof was leaking so the master asked two disciples to bring something to catch the water. The first one brought a pail while the second brought a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the second was highly praised.
  5. What is your original face, before your father and mother were born?
  6. One day, master Chao Chou stumbled and fell. He cried out, “Help me, help me!” A monk came and lay down beside him. Chao Chou got up and walked away.
  7. When you can do nothing, what can you do?
  8. (a modern koan) Where is the hole when the entire donut is eaten?

Forgotten words

fish - photo by Benjamin Hollis

fish - photo by Benjamin Hollis

“The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten.

The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.

The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.

Where can I find the man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”

- Chuang Tzu

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