Zen Stories

by Staff

A young and rather boastful champion challenged a Zen master who was renowned for his skill as an archer. The young man demonstrated remarkable technical proficiency when he hit a distant bull’s eye on his first try, and then split that arrow with his second shot. “There,” he said to the old man, “see if you can match that!” Undisturbed, the master did not draw his bow, but rather motioned for the young archer to follow him up the mountain. Curious about the old fellow’s intentions, the champion followed him high into the mountain until they reached a deep chasm spanned by a rather flimsy and shaky log. Calmly stepping out onto the middle of the unsteady and certainly perilous bridge, the old master picked a faraway tree as a target, drew his bow, and fired a clean, direct hit. “Now it is your turn,” he said as he gracefully stepped back onto the safe ground. Staring with terror into the seemingly bottomless and beckoning abyss, the young man could not force himself to step out onto the log, no less shoot at a target. “You have much skill with your bow,” the master said, sensing his challenger’s predicament, “but you have little skill with the mind that lets loose the shot.”

During a momentous battle, a Japanese general decided to attack even though his army was greatly outnumbered. He was confident they would win, but his men were filled with doubt. On the way to battle, they stopped at a religious shrine. After praying with the men, the general took out a coin and said, “I shall now toss this coin. If it is heads, we shall win. If tails, we shall lose. Destiny will now reveal itself.”

He threw the coin into the air and all watched intently as it landed. It was heads! The soldiers were so overjoyed and filled with confidence that they vigorously attacked the enemy and were victorious. After the battle, a lieutenant remarked to the general, “No one can change destiny.”

“Quite right,” the general replied as he showed the lieutenant the coin, which had heads on both sides.

How Long
A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your 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 every day, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?” The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”

No Questions
Upon meeting a Zen master at a social event, a psychiatrist decided to ask him a question that had been on his mind. “Exactly how do you help people?” he inquired. “I get them to where they can’t ask any more questions,” the Master answered.

Think Of a Bell
A new student approached the Zen master and asked how he should prepare himself for his training. “Think of me as a bell,” the master explained. “Give me a soft tap, and you will get a tiny ping. Strike hard and you’ll receive a loud, resounding peal.”

Without Blinking
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?”

Gift of Insults
There once lived a great warrior. Though quite old, he still was able to defeat any challenger. His reputation extended far and wide throughout the land, and many students gathered to study under him.

One day, an infamous young warrior arrived at the village. He was determined to be the first man to defeat the great master. Along with his strength, he had an uncanny ability to spot and exploit any weakness in an opponent. He would wait for his opponent to make the first move, thus revealing a weakness, and then would strike with merciless force and lightning speed. No one had ever lasted with him in a match beyond the first move.

Much against the advice of his concerned students, the old master gladly accepted the young warrior’s challenge. As the two squared off for battle, the young warrior began to hurl insults at the old master. He threw dirt and spit in his face. For hours he verbally assaulted him with every curse and insult known to mankind. But the old warrior merely stood there motionless and calm. Finally, the young warrior exhausted himself. Knowing he was defeated, he left feeling shamed.

Somewhat disappointed that he did not fight the insolent youth, the students gathered around the old master and questioned him. “How could you endure such an indignity? How did you drive him away?”

“If someone comes to give you a gift and you do not receive it,” the master replied, “to whom does the gift belong?”