For centuries, Zen masters have used stories and koans, or paradoxical riddles, to help students realize their true nature. These stories are often puzzling and may seem nonsensical, but ponder them yourself and you might emerge wiser and more self-aware. Here are seven of our favorite Zen stories.
We’re not going to try to explain the stories, because that would be missing the point: The stories themselves are the experience. Only you can meditate upon them to realize the insights within them. As Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki write in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, from which many of the stories below have been compiled:
Zen carries many meanings, none of them entirely definable. If they are defined, they are not Zen.
Or, as Mumon wrote in his introduction to The Gateless Gate, a thirteenth century collection of Zen koans:
Even such words are like raising waves in a windless sea or performing an operation on a healthy body. If one clings to what others have said and tries to understand Zen by explanation, he is like a dunce who thinks he can beat the moon with a pole or scratch an itching foot from the outside of a shoe. It will be impossible after all.
Without further ado, come see for yourself.
A variation of this story is also known as The Taste of Banzo’s Sword. We thought this was perfect for Lifehacker:
A fellow went to a Zen master and said, “If I work very hard, how soon can I be enlightened?”
The Zen master looked him up and down and said, “Ten years.”
The fellow said, “No, listen, I mean if I really work at it, how long—”
The Zen master cut him off. “I’m sorry. I misjudged. Twenty years.”
”Wait!” Said the young man, “You don’t understand! I’m—”
“Thirty years,” said the Zen master.