The Missing Context in Zen Stories

Zen stories are very popular among students of Zen. These stories have been around since the time Bodhidharma went to China.

​Monk asked, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?” Joshu said, “The oak tree in the garden.”

All Zen stories have the same two characters – a student monk and the master – and it contains an interaction between them. The student wants to know “why did Bodhidharma come from the west?” in other words he wants to know the essence of the teaching or the true nature of reality. The Zen master responds & sometimes the student gets enlightened.

​The Zen master’s response is usually mysterious & that is the main reason why Zen stories are so popular. However the Zen master does not intend to be mysterious. He is as direct as one can be in that moment & intends to point to the essence directly.

​Monk asked, “What is Buddha?” Unmon said, “A dry shit-stick”

Over the centuries, as these stories have been retold by students & translators, they have lost their details. The only part that is passed down is about what the student asked & what the master said. The whole context & the situation in which the dialogue took place has gone missing.

​A Zen master helps a particular student at a particular point & it is so very intimate. Everything in that moment is important to the story – what the master was doing when the student asks him, how the student asks, things around the place, time of the day – not just the words.

Monk asked, “What is Buddha?” Tozan said, “Three pounds of flax”

For an astute student, knowing the context of the master’s response can help a lot in understanding what the master is pointing to.

Monk asked, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joshu said, “Mu”

Joshu did not merely say “Mu”. He shouted at the top of his voice. Mu is a Japanese word that means No.

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