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5 Zen Stories Worth Contemplating for Years (Or Not at All)

Zen masters haven’t got anything to teach. This insistence is one of the most fascinating features of Zen Buddhism. In this spirit, I would have to end this post right here. But being human, you came here for some inspirational Zen stories and I enjoy writing about them. Because paradoxically, Zen stories teach us a simple and beautiful lesson that cannot be reiterated often enough. So here they are, five Zen stories to contemplate for years sitting in a cave. Or not at all.

1. True Mastery

The first of our five Zen stories goes straight to the core of why many people turn to Zen: How can I become a master of life? The answer is a bit underwhelming: The same way you become a master at anything.

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 everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”

The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”


Of course, this Zen story is not only about martial arts. It echoes the Law of Reversed Effort which suggests that the more we strive for something, the least likely we are to attain it. The martial arts student’s commitment is commendable. But the teacher probably saw it as a close-minded hindrance. Jeopardising the student’s ability to keep his beginner’s mind; to do everything as if he was doing it for the first time.

2. Undivided Attention

Speaking of the infamous beginner’s mind. Our second Zen story is taken from Shunryū Suzuki’s classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice. Using the analogy of a railway track, the Zen monk tells a different anecdote about how to go about our everyday lives.

The Bodhisattva’s [person on the path to enlightenment] way is called “the single-minded way,” or “one railway track thousands of miles long.” The railway track is always the same. If it were to become wider or narrower, it would be disastrous. Wherever you go, the railway track is always the same. That is the Bodhisattva’s way. So even if the sun were to rise from the west, the Bodhisattva has only one way. His way is in each moment to express his nature and his sincerity.

We say railway track, but actually there is no such thing. Sincerity itself is the railway track. The sights we see from the train will change, but we are always running on the same track. And there is no beginning or end to the track: beginningless and endless track. There is no starting point nor goal, nothing to attain. Just to run on the track is our way. This is the nature of our Zen practice.

But when you become curious about the railway track, danger is there. You should not see the railway track. If you look at the track you will become dizzy. Just appreciate the sights you see from the train. That is our way. There is no need for the passengers to be curious about the track. Someone will take care of it; Buddha will take care of it.

But sometimes we try to explain the railway track because we become curious if something is always the same. We wonder, “How is it possible for the Bodhisattva always to be the same? What is his secret?” But there is no secret. Everyone has the same nature as the railway track.

Shunryū Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Suzuki describes how consistent focus on what we do in any given moment leads to better outcomes. We’ve all experienced this in one way or another. We’re in a state of flow. But only as long as we don’t think too much about it. If you play an instrument, you know what happens when you start second-guessing your ability to play a difficult passage. The same happens during public speaking when we suddenly become hyper-aware of our audience and how they might judge us. So to keep the eternal flow, don’t try to explain it.

3. Moving to a New Town

On to Zen story number three. It’s a story for everyone who blames their environment for anything that goes wrong in their lives.

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.”


This Zen story plays with the idea of karma. Whatever happens to someone is the result of their own actions. We may travel halfway around the world in the hopes of escaping a life we loathed. What we will find instead is that we bring this life with us wherever we go. Thankfully, this is also true for the positive, in that happiness might indeed be a choice.

4. Learning to Be Silent

By this point, we can already see a pattern. In all of the Zen stories, misguided curiosity and needless talking made things worse. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Zen story that illustrates this idea better. It’s a story I also featured in my collection of stories with a moral everyone should know.

The pupils of the Tendai school used to study meditation before Zen entered Japan. Four of them who were intimate friends promised one another to observe seven days of silence.

On the first day all were silent. Their meditation had begun auspiciously, but when night came and the oil lamps were growing dim one of the pupils could not help exclaiming to a servant: “Fix those lamps.”

The second pupil was surprised to hear the first one talk. “We are not supposed to say a word,” he remarked.

“You two are stupid. Why did you talk?” asked the third.

“I am the only one who has not talked,” concluded the fourth pupil.

Source: Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

This Zen parable is not only a story about silence but also about oneupmanship. How many of us would know when to quit and be able to actually do it? As someone who – on occasion – likes to hear himself talk, I’m not prepared to answer this question. But if enough people took this story to heart, it could be a serious threat to Twitter’s business model.

5. Skilful Rejection

The last one of our Zen stories is more of a meta-story. It’s told by English philosopher Alan Watts, the ‘spiritual entertainer’ who popularised Zen Buddhism in the West. In case you’re interested, check out my post about five Alan Watts quotes and his perspective on becoming a master of life. He had the gift of explaining and breaking down the philosophy of Zen Buddhism like no one else. And he did it with humour and levity.

If you go to a Zen teacher and you approach him in the traditional way, the first thing he will do is to say: “I haven’t anything to teach. Go away!”

“Well,” you say, “what are these people doing around here? Aren’t they your students?”

“They’re working with me, but unfortunately, we are very poor these days, we don’t have enough rice to go around to make ends meet.”

So you have to insist to be taken in. Every postulant for Zen training assumes immediately that the teacher has given him the brush off in order to test his sincerity. In other words: “If you really want this thing, you gotta work for it.”

That isn’t the real point. The point is that you got to make such a fuss to get in that you cannot withdraw gracefully after having made such a fuss to get in. Because you put yourself on the spot. And you define yourself as somebody needing help or as somebody with a problem who needs a master in order to be helped out of the problem.

Alan Watts

I think what Alan Watts is trying to say is that many of our problems are self-imposed. This is why Zen has nothing to offer since we cannot attain what we already have. Unfortunately, we have to try to kick in the door to happiness fairly often until we realise it was never locked.

BONUS: Expressing the Inexpressible

“If they’re all pointless and redundant how come there are so many Zen stories?” you ask. Let me answer this question with a final parable. It plays with the idea of overcoming dualism. See if you can guess how it ends before reading the last sentence.

There were two good friends, Chokei and Hofuku. They were talking about the Bodhisattva’s way, and Chokei said, “Even if the arhat (an enlightened one) were to have evil desires, still the Tathagata (Buddha) does not have two kinds of words. I say that the Tathagata has words, but no dualistic words.”

Hofuku said, “Even though you say so, your comment is not perfect.” Chokei asked, “What is your understanding of the Tathagata’s words?”

Hofuku said, “We have had enough discussion, so let’s have a cup of tea!”

Shunryū Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

I have nothing to add. Just one more thing.

Closing Thoughts

“Those,” in the words of Lao-Tze, “who know do not say. Those who say do not know.”

And yet he said that.

Alan Watts

Paradoxically, Zen stories teach us a lesson so simple and beautiful that it cannot be reiterated often enough. Although we may have already learned said lesson. As Alan Watts remarked, even the legendary Chinese master Lao-Tze could not help but break his own rule. We could meditate on that for years. Or not at all.