7 Zen Stories That Will Help You Shift Your Perspective on Things

These stories were transcribed into English from a book called the Shaseki-shu (Collection of Stone and Sand), written late in the thirteenth century by the Japanese Zen teacher Muju (the ‘non-dweller), and from anecdotes of Zen monks taken from various books published in Japan around the turn of the 20th century.

Zen was rooted in China by Bodhidharma, who came from India in the sixth century, and was carried eastward into Japan by the twelfth century. It has been described as: ‘A special teaching without scriptures, beyond words and letters, pointing to the mind essence of man seeing directly into one’s nature, attaining enlightenment.’ Zen was known as Ch’an in China. The Ch’an-Zen masters, instead of being followers of the Buddha, aspire to be his friends and to place themselves in the same responsive relationship with the universe.

It has been said that if you have Zen in your life, you have no fear, no doubt, no unnecessary craving, and no extreme emotion. Neither illiberal attitudes nor egotistical actions trouble you. You serve humanity humbly, fulfilling your presence in this world with loving-kindness and observing your passing as a petal falling from a flower. Serene you enjoy life in blissful tranquility.

To study Zen, the flowering of one’s nature, is no easy task in any age or civilization. Many teachers, true and false, have purposed to assist others in this accomplishment. It is from innumerable and actual adventures in Zen that these stories have evolved. Hopefully these stories will enable you to shift your perspective on things.

My Heart Burns Like Fire

Soyen Shaku, the first Zen teacher to come to America, said: ‘My heart burns like fire but my eyes are as cold as dead ashes.’ He made the following rules, which he practiced every day of his life. In the morning before dressing, light incense and meditate. Retire at a regular hour. Partake of food at regular intervals. Eat with moderation and never to the point of satisfaction. Receive a guest with the same attitude you have when alone. When alone, maintain the same attitude you have in receiving guests. Watch what you say, and whatever you say, practice it. When an opportunity comes do not let it pass by, yet always think twice before acting. Do not regret the past. Look to the future. Have the fearless attitude of a hero and the loving heart of a child. Upon retiring sleep as if you had entered your last sleep. Upon awakening, leave your bed behind you instantly as if you had cast away a pair of old shoes.

The Thief Who Became a Disciple

One evening as Shichiri Kojun was reciting sutras a thief with a sharp sword entered, demanding either his money or his life, Shichiri told him: ‘Do not disturb me. You can find the money in that drawer.’ Then he resumed his recitation. A little while afterwards he stopped and called: ‘Don’t take it all. I need some to pay taxes tomorrow.’ The intruder gathered up most of the money and started to leave. ‘Thank a person when you receive a gift,’ Shichiri added. The man thanked him and made off. A few days afterwards the fellow was caught and confessed, among others, the offense against Shichiri. When Shichiri was called as a witness he said: ‘This man is no thief, at least as far as I am concerned. I gave him the money and he thanked me for it.’ After he had finished his prison term, the men went to Shichiri and became his disciple.

Right and Wrong

When Bankei held his seclusion weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of the gatherings a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled. Bankei ignored the case. Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again Bankei disregarded the matter. This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they would all leave.

When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. ‘You are wise brothers,’ he told them. ‘You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave.’ A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All the desire to steal had vanished.

Meditate or Lose Your Light

A student of Tendai a philosophical school of Buddhism, came to the Zen abode of Gasan as a pupil. When he was departing a few years later, Gasan warned him: ‘Studying the truth speculatively is useful as a way of collecting preaching material. But remember that unless you meditate constantly your light of truth may go out.’


A Zen student came to Bankei and complained: ‘Master, I have an ungovernable temper. How can I cure it?’ ‘You have something very strange,’ replied Bankei. ‘Let me see what you have.’ ‘Just now I cannot show it to you,’ replied the other. ‘When can you show it to me?’ asked Bankei. ‘It arises unexpectedly,’ replied the student. ‘Then,’ concluded Bankei, ‘it must not be your own nature. If it were, you could show it to me at any time. When you were born you did not have if and your parents did not give it to you. Think that over.’

Life Advice from a Zen Master

Zengetsu, a Chinese master of the T’ang dynasty, wrote the following advice for his pupils: Living in the world yet not forming attachments to the dust of the world is the way of a true Zen student.

When witnessing the good action of another encourage yourself to follow their example. Hearing of the mistaken action of another, advise yourself not to emulate it. Even though alone in a dark room, be as if you were facing a noble guest. Express your feelings, but become no more expressive than your true nature. A person may appear a fool and yet not be one. They may only be guarding their wisdom carefully. Virtues are the fruit of self-discipline and do not drop from heaven of themselves as does rain or snow. Modesty is the foundation of all virtues. Let your neighbors discover you before you make yourself known to them. A noble heart never forces itself forward. Its words are a rare gems seldom displayed and of great value. To a sincere student, every day is a fortunate day. Time passes but they never lag behind. Neither glory nor shame can move them. Censure yourself, never another. Do not discuss right and wrong. Some things though right, were considered wrong for generations. Since the value of righteousness may be recognized after centuries, there is no need to crave an immediate appreciation. Live with cause and leave results to the great law of the universe. Pass each day in peaceful contemplation.

Buddha’s Zen

Buddha said: ‘I consider the positions of kings and rulers as that of dust motes. I observe treasure of gold and gems as so many bricks and pebbles. I look upon the finest silken robes as tattered rags. I see myriad worlds of the universe as small seeds of fruit, and the greatest lake in India as a drop of oil on my foot. I perceive the teachings of the world to be the illusion of, magicians. I discern the highest conception of emancipation as golden brocade in a dream, and view the holy path of the illuminated one as flowers appearing in one’s eyes. I see meditation as a pillar of a mountain, Nirvana as a nightmare of daytime. I look upon the judgment of right and wrong as the serpentine dance of a dragon, and the rise and fall of beliefs as but traces left by the four seasons.’