Zen Wisdom


How is it that we have come to practice meditation? What path did you take?

Here are some wonderful interviews, excerpts, stories, wisdom and inspirational writings …

Tami Simon: I wonder if you can start by going back in your life and talking to me about why you decided to become a monk, when you were a child, how old you were. And what was that inspiration?

Thich Nhat Hanh:
I was 9 when I saw a picture of the Buddha on the cover of a Buddhist magazine. I saw the Buddha sitting on the grass, like we do now, very peaceful, very solid. And I just wanted to be like him, someone like him, with some solidity and peace, because I saw around me people were not very happy, very relaxed. And it was not a decision. It was a kind of desire. And I saw that desire was in me, very clear, very strong. And it was watered by other events, like when I was twelve we climb together as a school to a mountain in the northern part of Vietnam for a picnic. I was excited because I knew that there was a hermit living in the mountain and a hermit is someone who practices in order to become like a Buddha, so I was very excited about meeting him. And when I arrived at the mountain, the hermit was not there. I was disappointed, but I discovered a well on the mountain where I drunk very refreshing water and I was a completely satisfied because of that water. And I thought it was the hermit who transformed himself into a well so that I can have private audience with him. And the fact that I drunk some of this water was very important to me, because during the time of drinking I had the idea that it must be the best water in the world. And if I think now more, I would say that the source of solidity, the source of peace and freedom, must be symbolized but that kind of water. And although I did not meet the hermit in person I had the impression that my desire to meet the hermit was fulfilled, and it transferred into my desire to become a monk. And at the age of 16 I was able to realize my dream to become a novice monk, and I had a very happy time being a novice. I think it is very important to be happy during the time you are a novice. If you can spend three or four years happily as a novice you will succeed in your life as a monk or as a nun. I always tell my students about this.

I was motivated in the very beginning to practice so that I have peace and joy and solidity in order to help other people. So Buddhism was already an engaged Buddhism at that time. You practice not only for yourself but you practice for people around you as well…

(The above transcript is courtesy of Insights at the Edge podcast, Sounds True.)

Other wonderful works from Zen Masters, found in the world’s literature…

Zen Master Huang Po:
Our original Buddha Nature is, in highest truth, devoid of any atom of objectivity. It is void, omnipresent, silent, and pure; it is glorious and mysterious peaceful joy, and that is all. Enter deeply into it by awaking to it yourself. That which is before you is it, in all fullness utterly complete. There is naught beside. Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva’s progress toward Buddha hood, one by one, when at last in a single flash you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha Nature which has been with you all the time, and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all.

People always say that the outside states obstruct the mind, and phenomenon obstructs the principle. So they always wish to escape from the outside state to make their minds peaceful and to renounce phenomenon to protect the principle. They do not know that the mind obstructs phenomenon. Therefore, if you cause the mind to be empty, the outside states will be naturally empty, and you cause the principle to be calm, so phenomenon naturally will be calm. Do not use the mind in an upside down way.


Zen Master Linji:
If you want to be free, get to know your real self. It has no form, no appearance, no root, no basis, no abode, but is lively and buoyant. It responds with versatile facility, but its function cannot be located. Therefore, when you look for it you become further from it, when you seek it you turn away from it all the more.


Zen Master Taisen Deshimaru:
Do karma and fate mean the same thing?

Karma equal action. Action of our body, our consciousness, our speech. If I strike you with my fist, for example, that is karma, an action that becomes karma …

At a sesshin once, one of my disciples did not behave well – too much sex, too much drinking – and the day he left he had an accident in his car with a young lady. That time, karma returned to the surface quickly. Even little things reappear. Whatever we do with our body, speech or thought, very certainly karma is created.

When you are born you have karma: that of your forebears, your grandparents, for example. But karma can be changed, whereas fate is a constant.

If you practice zazen your karma changes completely, it becomes better.


Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh:
Our breath is the bridge from our body to our mind, the element which reconciles our body and mind and which makes possible oneness of body and mind. Breath is aligned to both body and mind and it alone is the tool which can bring them both together, illuminating both and bringing both peace and calm.


Zen Master Hakuun Yasutani:
Your mind can be compared to a mirror, which reflects everything that appears before it. From the time you begin to think, to feel, and to exert your will, shadows are cast upon you mind which distorts its reflection. This condition we call delusion, which is the fundamental sickness of human beings. The most serious effect of this sickness is that it creates a sense of duality, in consequence of which you postulate “I” and “not I.” The truth is that everything is One, and this of course not a numerical one. Falsely seeing oneself confronted by a world of separate existences, this is what creates antagonism, greed, and, inevitably, suffering. The purpose of zazen is to wipe away from the mind these shadows or defilements so that we can intimately experience our solidarity with all life. Love and compassion then naturally and spontaneously flow forth.

Between a supremely perfect Buddha and us, who are ordinary, there is no difference as to substance. This “substance” can be likened to water. One of the salient characteristics of water is its conformability: when put into a round vessel it becomes round, when put into a square vessel it becomes square. We have this same adaptability, but as we live bound and fettered through ignorance of our true nature, we have forfeited this freedom. To pursuit the metaphor, we can say that the mind of a Buddha is like water that is calm, deep, and crystal clear, and upon which the “moon of truth” reflects fully and perfectly. The mind of the ordinary man, on the other hand, is like murky water, constantly being churned by the gales of delusive though and no longer able to reflect the moon of truth. The moon nonetheless shines steadily upon the waves, but as the waters are roiled we are unable to see its reflection. Thus we lead lives that are frustrating and meaningless.

How can we fully illumine our life and personality with the moon of truth? We need first to purify this water, to calm the surging waves by halting the winds of discursive thought. In other words, we must empty our minds of what the Kegon (Avatamsaka) sutra call the “conceptual thought of man.” Most people place a high value on abstract thought, but Buddhism has clearly demonstrated that discriminative thinking lies at the root of delusion.


Zen Master Bankei:
When you’re walking down a road, if you happen to encounter a crowd of people approaching from the opposite direction, none of you gives a thought to avoiding the others, yet you don’t run into one another. You aren’t pushed down or walked over. You thread your way through them by weaving this way and that, dodging and passing on, making no conscious decision in this, yet you’re able to continue along unhampered just the same. Now in the same way, the marvelous illumination of the unborn Buddha mind deals perfectly with every possible situation.

There was once a monk in my temple who had been dozing off. Another monk saw him and really laid into him with a stick. I reprimanded him: “Why hit him when he’s enjoying a pleasant nap? Do you think he leaves the Buddha mind and goes somewhere else when he sleeps?… If you stay awake, you stay awake. If you sleep, you sleep. When you sleep, you sleep in the same Buddha mind you were awake in. When you’re awake, you’re awake in the same Buddha mind you were sleeping in. You sleep in the Buddha mind while you sleep and are up and about in the Buddha mind while you’re up and about. That way, you always stay in the Buddha mind. You’re never apart from it for an instant.”

White Lotus

Zen Stories …

Nature’s Beauty:
A priest was in charge of the garden within a famous Zen temple. He had been given the job because he loved the flowers, shrubs, and trees. Next to the temple there was another, smaller temple where there lived a very old Zen master. One day, when the priest was expecting some special guests, he took extra care in tending to the garden. He pulled the weeds, trimmed the shrubs, combed the moss, and spent a long time meticulously raking up and carefully arranging all the dry autumn leaves. As he worked, the old master watched him with interest from across the wall that separated the temples.

When he had finished, the priest stood back to admire his work. “Isn’t it beautiful,” he called out to the old master. “Yes,” replied the old man, “but there is something missing. Help me over this wall and I’ll put it right for you.”

After hesitating, the priest lifted the old fellow over and set him down. Slowly, the master walked to the tree near the center of the garden, grabbed it by the trunk, and shook it. Leaves showered down all over the garden. “There,” said the old man, “you can put me back now.”

Moral of the story – Nature is more perfect than anything man can create. To disrupt that beauty for the sake of making something beautiful is an absurdity.


The Moon Cannot Be Stolen:
Zen Master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

Moral of the story -The Master and the thief walked beneath the same moon but the thief could not know the peace that the master held inside him.


Moving Mind:
Two men were arguing about a flag flapping in the wind. “It’s the wind that is really moving,” stated the first one. “No, it is the flag that is moving,” contended the second. A Zen master, who happened to be walking by, overheard the debate and interrupted them. “Neither the flag nor the wind is moving,” he said, “It is MIND that moves.”

Moral of the story – Nothing is as it seems.


Without Fear:
During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived – everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger. “You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. “And do you realize,” the master replied calmly, “that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

Moral of the story – It takes a lot more strength and courage to be a non-violent person.


Finding a Diamond on a Muddy Road:
Gudo was the emperor’s teacher of his time. Nevertheless, he used to travel alone as a wandering mendicant. Once when he was on his way to Edo, the cultural and political center of the shogunate, he approached a little village named Takenaka. It was evening and a heavy rain was falling. Gudo was thoroughly wet. His straw sandals were in pieces. At a farmhouse near the village he noticed four or five pairs of sandals in the window and decided to buy some dry ones.

The woman who offered him the sandals, seeing how wet he was, invited him in to remain for the night at her home. Gudo accepted, thanking her. He entered and recited a sutra before the family shrine. He then was introduced to the woman’s mother, and to her children. Observing that the entire family was depressed, Gudo asked what was wrong.

“My husband is a gambler and a drunkard,” the housewife told him. “When he happens to win he drinks and becomes abusive. When he loses he borrows money from others. Sometimes when he becomes thoroughly drunk he does not come home at all. What can I do?”

I will help him,” said Gudo. “Here is some money. Get me a gallon of fine wine and something good to eat. Then you may retire. I will meditate before the shrine.”

When the man of the house returned about midnight, quite drunk, he bellowed: “Hey, wife, I am home. Have you something for me to eat?”

“I have something for you.” said Gudo. “I happened to get caught in the rain and your wife kindly asked me to remain here for the night. In return I have bought some wine and fish, so you might as well have them.”
The man was delighted. He drank the wine at once and laid himself down on the floor. Gudo sat in meditation beside him.

In the morning when the husband awoke he had forgotten about the previous night. “Who are you? Where do you come from?” he asked Gudo, who still was meditating.

“I am Gudo of Kyoto and I am going on to Edo,” replied the Zen master.

The man was utterly ashamed. He apologized profusely to the teacher of his emperor.

Gudo smiled. “Everything in this life is impermanent,” he explained. “Life is very brief. If you keep on gambling and drinking, you will have no time left to accomplish anything else, and you will cause your family to suffer too.”
The perception of the husband awoke as if from a dream. “You are right,” he declared. “How can I ever repay you for this wonderful teaching! Let me see you off and carry your things a little way.”

“If you wish,” assented Gudo.

The two started out. After they had gone three miles Gudo told him to return. “Just another five miles,” he begged Gudo. They continued on.

“You may return now,” suggested Gudo.

“After another ten miles,” the man replied.

“Return now,” said Gudo, when the ten miles had been passed.

“I am going to follow you all the rest of my life,” declared the man.

Modern Zen teachers in Japan spring from the lineage of a famous master who was the successor of Gudo. His name was Mu-nan, the man who never turned back.


The Prime Minister of the Tang Dynasty was a national hero for his success as both a statesman and military leader. But despite his fame, power, and wealth, he considered himself a humble and devout Buddhist. Often he visited his favorite Zen master to study under him, and they seemed to get along very well. The fact that he was prime minister apparently had no effect on their relationship, which seemed to be simply one of a revered master and respectful student.
One day, during his usual visit, the Prime Minister asked the master, “Your Reverence, what is egotism according to Buddhism?” The master’s face turned red, and in a very condescending and insulting tone of voice, he shot back, “What kind of stupid question is that!?”

This unexpected response so shocked the Prime Minister that he became sullen and angry. The Zen master then smiled and said, “THIS, Your Excellency, is egotism.”


A monk set off on a long pilgrimage to find the Buddha. He devoted many years to his search until he finally reached the land where the Buddha was said to live. While crossing the river to this country, the monk looked around as the boatman rowed. He noticed something floating towards them. As it got closer, he realized that it was the corpse of a person. When it drifted so close that he could almost touch it, he suddenly recognized the dead body – it was his own! He lost all control and wailed at the sight of himself, still and lifeless, drifting along the river’s currents. That moment was the beginning of his liberation.

Apollo 8 Earthrise

Since every day on the Earth is a celebration of Buddha’s message, close the eyes and transcend to the unbounded bliss of the infinite splendor of life.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 11th, 2010 at 2:07 pm and is filed under Right action. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


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