Five Zen Parables To Trip Up The Mind

“Great Teachers can lead you to the doors of understanding, but it is up to you to enter.” – Lao Tzu

The Monks and The Woman

Two celibate monks, forbidden from even glancing at a woman were traveling to a monastery when they came to a river. The river was very flooded and was impossible to cross without getting wet. They had just decided which would be the shallowest path across the river when the monks noticed a woman a little way along on the same bank, also trying to find a way to cross.

Since the woman was having great trouble and being the gentleman that he was, one of the monks offered to carry her across on his shoulders. She accepted and they began to wade across; they reached the other side where he set her down, she thanked him and went her own way. The monks carried on in silence.

Bigstock-22321633-Spa-still-life-with-bamboo-fountain-and-zen-stone‘Why did you carry that woman across the river?’ The monk asked the other in dismay, ‘We are not allowed to talk to, touch… even let our eyes fall upon a woman let alone carry her!

What were you thinking?’ The other monk listened with a smile upon his lips, then softly said. ‘But I put her down when I crossed the river. Why are you still carrying her?’

The Stone Cutter

Once there was a Stone Cutter who, though he enjoyed his work and found pleasure in his daily routine, found that he was greatly dissatisfied with his position in life.

One day he passed a wealthy Merchant’s house and, looking enviously through the windows at all the Merchant’s delightful treasures and rich and powerful guests, longingly thought how fantastic it would be to become a Merchant. With that – to his great and gloating surprise – his wish was granted. He became the Merchant! With treasures and friends galore. But soon he grew bored.

Then, a high-up and much revered Official turned up at the house, with gongs and attendants announcing his arrival. Everyone bowed down to him and listened with rapt attention to every word the Official spoke. ‘Oh how I wish I could be that Official!’ crowed the Stone Cutter. And With that, his wish came true.

He went about his day, carried around in a luxurious chair spreading fear and hatred through the towns and villages. Being such a hot day he soon grew tired and looked up at the sun.

‘Oh how I wish I could be the sun!’ He sighed, and with that he c69d6cd94bfc7514e2d3101e27baaf1ebecame the sun, pounding down on everyone’s backs and causing the sweat to pour over farmer’s brows.

But as the day began to turn, a huge angry cloud began to smother the sun, obscuring the Stone Cutter’s view of the world and dampening his scorching hot rays.

‘Oh!’ He grumbled. ‘If only I were like the cloud, how powerful and clever that cloud is.’ And so he became the cloud, causing many a frown and sinking heart. Suddenly he could feel himself being pushed and pulled and tugged at in all directions by the wind.

‘How alarming!’ Said the Stone Cutter. ‘This wind isn’t controlled by anyone, how I long to be the wind!’ And with that, he became the wind; uprooting trees and causing everyone’s hair to get tangled in knots.

Having such fun he didn’t notice until it was too late and ran straight into a large and unyielding rock. ‘My goodness!’ Exclaimed the Stone Cutter, what power and strength. If only I could be this great rock. But as he stood there, becoming the rock. He heard the chilling sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into his hard surface.

‘What?!’ He boomed, ‘What on this earth could be more powerful than me, a mighty rock?’ And with that he looked down to see, none other than a Stone Cutter.

An Insolent Wayfarer

In ancient times it was customary for a traveling monk seeking lodging at a Zen monastery to engage in dharma combat with the abbot or head monk. If the wayfarer won the debate, he could stay. If not, he had to seek quarters elsewhere.

zen-buddhaOne day a master instructed his pupil – who interestingly only had one eye – to engage in such an encounter with a traveling monk who was seeking lodgings at the monastery. The traveler had one stipulation; a silent debate.

Soon the traveler sought out the master insisting that the monk was too good for him and that he had not earned a bed for the night after all.

‘First I held up one finger to symbolize the Buddha, but he held up two to symbolize both the Buddha and the Dharma. Then I held up three fingers to symbolize the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha but he held up a clenched fist to indicate they are One… and so, defeated and realizing I was no match for him, I ran.’

And so the traveler moved off, eager to get on to find another monastery to lay down for the night, for the day was getting on.

illusion-peacock-butterfly-art-painting-sharon-cummingsMuch bemused the master bid his goodbyes only to see the pupil running towards him searching the gates; out of breath and angry. ‘Where has he gone?!’ He barked.

‘The Cretin had the gall first to insult me by holding up one finger pointing out that I only have one eye. Then, when I tried to practice compassion by holding up two fingers congratulating him on being blessed with two he held up three to mock me.’

But how did that mock you?’ asked the master in disbelief.

‘By stating that there were only three eyes between us!’ Exclaimed the pupil. ‘I went to hit him with my fists but he ran away. Where is he?!’ And with that he ran off in the direction of the gates.

The Fox and the Lion

Once there was a man who fervently prayed for the awareness to understand and be able to practice the meaning of life. One night he dreamed of going into the forest and finding all the answers to his questions. So the next day, he set out into the woods in search of the truth.

Soon he came across a clearing where something was moving between the rocks. He hid behind some bushes and stopped to watch. The creature was none other than a fox with no legs. The man sat back. But how could a fox with no legs survive in this cruel world? He had to find out. And so he made himself comfortable and sat there until twilight.

When the light began to fade the man saw an extraordinary thing. Out of the bushes across the clearing from the man, a lion came lolloping out of the thicket with a generous serving of meat in his jaws that he lay before the fox. The man crept home and lay awake in his bed puzzling over the meaning of his sighting.

a415c542171e1a7c5baeb26947979760-d6wy27rCould it be, thought the man, that the meaning of this sign was actually simple. All I have to do is trust in God the creator’s great design and understand that he will always lay everything I need at my feet. All I need to do is surrender.

Two weeks later, close to death from lack of food and water the man – in his bed again, dreaming – felt something hard and meaningful painfully whack him over the head followed by a voice that hissed. ‘You idiot… the meaning of the sign is in the lion, not the fox.

‘Be like the Lion!’


Sekkyo the master once said to one of his monks. ‘Do you think you can you grab a hold of Emptiness?’

‘OK I’ll try.’ Replied the monk, cupping his hands loftily in the air.

‘That was a rubbish attempt,’ mocked Sekkyo, ‘You’re cupping air.’Enzo-Symbol

Frustrated, the monk nether-the-less bowed his head. ‘Then master, please show me another way.’

Sekkyo grinned and suddenly seized the monk’s nose, giving it a generous yank.

‘There you are!’

‘That hurt!’ Complained the monk.

‘Well you asked me to show you.’ Replied Sekkyo craftily. ‘That is one way to grab a hold on Emptiness.’

Images & Sources:
Zen Stories
Two Illusions
Mind Trip

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  • Lauren Simpson-Green, who has had quite a few life-affirming spiritual experiences already, now passes her days trying to master one of the most challenging and rewarding spiritual experiences of all; being a mother to two children. Based in Devon, UK, she spends the rest of her time working on a children's book, practising yoga and making wool fairies and gnomes for her daughter's school fayres.

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