Tag Archives: zen story

Jain Zen – Getting Down from the Elephant

The origin of the Jain religion is in a story that is so Zen-like.

The first Tirthankar of the Jains, Rishabdev, left a major part of his property to his two sons, Bharata and Bahubali, and renounced the world. Bharata had ambitions and he conquered the rest of India and also asked Bahubali to surrender his share. Bahubali had a great ego and he refused and it was decided to settle the matter in a one on one combat.

Bahubali turned out to have the upper hand and right at the moment when he was about to kill Bharata, he realized the futility of it all. He stood at the same place and entered meditation. It is said that he stood there for a year and still did not attain enlightenment. Tribute has been paid to his meditative position through the various Bahubali statues in India, the most famous being the one at Shravanbelagola.

So when one stands in the same position for a year, he will lose his clothes and creepers will grow on him. Bahubali’s sisters got worried and asked their father Rishabdev what to do. He said, nothing can be done unless Bahubali gets off the elephant first. So the sisters went to Bahubali and asked him when he will get off the elephant. Hearing this, Bahubali got instantly enlightened. He is said to be the first person to get enlightened in this cosmic era.

The analogy is apparent to those who understand but the point is that the story is so Zen-like. Zen, as we know it, came much later but the essense of what we call Zen is clearly seen in this story.

The Elusive Zen Journalist

I enjoy reading Zen stories. It is so wonderful to read those interactions between master & student – the innocent question from the student and the crazy answer from the master.

Most of the times there is a question asked by the student, followed by the master’s enigmatic reply. The master’s reply is mysterious only to a non-enlightened student. The reply which takes many forms, not just words but sometimes a whack of a stick or a kick or a loud shout, is always intended to point directly to the mind.

Zen is described by many to be a teaching beyond scriptures & tradition, directly pointing to bare reality.

​So, not surprisingly, many students get enlightened on hearing the master’s reply. Such stories are the most interesting ones. We hope too to get an insight into the master’s response.

Zen Story of Gutei’s Finger

Whenever anyone asked him about Zen, the great master Gutei would quietly raise one finger into the air. A boy in the village began to imitate this behavior. Whenever he heard people talking about Gutei’s teachings, he would interrupt the discussion and raise his finger. Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief. When he saw him in the street, he asked the boy and asked him a question. The boy raised his finger as usual. Gutei grabbed his finger and cut it off with a knife. The boy cried and began to run away, but Gutei called out to him. When the boy turned to look, Gutei raised his own finger into the air. At that moment the boy became enlightened.

Zen Story of Dojen’s Enlightenment

One day Master Ju-Ching was scolding another monk for sleeping, and said, “The practice of Zazen (Sitting Meditation) is the dropping away of body and mind. What do you think dozing will accomplish?” Upon hearing these words, Dogen became fully enlightened.

Enlightenment apart, I really wonder who is it that takes the time to write down these stories?

The dialogue in a Zen story is a deeply intimate, intensely personal and mostly private exchange between the student & the master. So for the story to have passed down through the oral tradition, someone has to report it verbatim, for us to enjoy.

Is it the teacher who takes pride in his responses to his students & keeps repeating them to others so as to make stories out of it? I doubt it because if they are real Zen teachers, they would be more concerned about the student getting enlightened than about making a story of it to brag about.

So is it the student who reports his conversation with the teacher & shows off how he got enlightened? Again I doubt it because if the student really attained enlightenment, that would be such a great event, he would have been too out of his mind to cry “Eureka” and run down the street.

So there must be somebody else – the elusive journalist – who eavesdrops on the conversation, sees the changed expression on the face of the student & infers whether he got enlightened & then runs away to share the story with fellow students.

​There were no hidden microphones or voice recorders in those days & obviously neither Zen master nor the student who got enlightened would be interested in making silly stories, then WHO THE HELL NOTED ALL THESE ZEN STORIES? – TAKE IT AS A KOAN TO SOLVE.

Zen Story of Huike’s Enlightenment

Huike and Bodhidharma were climbing up a mountain peak. Bodhidharma asked, “Where are we going?” Huike replied, “Please go right ahead—that’s it.” Bodhidharma retorted, “If you go right ahead, you cannot move a step.” Upon hearing these words, Huike was enlightened.

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.