September 27, 2015

3 Thought-Provoking Zen Stories that Teach us About Life.

Hartwik HKD/Flickr

Zen is the school of Mahayana Buddhism that originates from China and Zen stories are a very well-known tradition in their culture.

They usually illustrate a certain truth about life or human beings and most of them require a certain time to ponder at as they are quite deep, and sometimes hard to understand. However, they all offer provocative lessons that teach abundant wisdom.

Personally, I adore Zen stories. They have always been a reference to me whenever I go astray. Among hundreds of them, I chose to share three of my favorite ones with a small interpretation of each. The following aim at giving us a better understanding on non-judgment, impermanence, and acceptance. May they enlighten your path the same way they have enlightened mine.


Once upon a time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, he was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

Non-judgment: In the story, we can see how non-judgmental the farmer is—unlike us. Unfortunately, we are used to divide events in our life into “good” or “bad.” We judge everything we go through, and give it a certain label.

We are basically like the neighbors who visit the farmer; we don’t fully understand the notion of interdependence. In fact, the farmer demonstrates the reality of this life: all is interconnected, there is no good or bad.

Life is a set of different cycles that occur at different stages in our life. However, it’s not about the incident that takes places, it’s about our perception of it. Like the farmer, I think we should practice non-judgment, and refrain from labeling events.

“This too shall pass.”

According to an ancient story, there once lived a king in a Middle Eastern land. The king was continuously torn between happiness and agony. The smallest things could make him really upset or give him an intense emotional reaction, so his happiness easily turned into disappointment and despair.

One day the king got tired of himself and started seeking a way out. He sent for a wiseman living in his kingdom. The wiseman was reputed for being enlightened. When he arrived, the king said to him, “I want to be like you. Can you bring me something that gives balance, peace and serenity in my life? I will pay whatever price you like.” The wiseman replied, “I may be able to help you, but the price is so great that not even your kingdom would be enough payment for it. Therefore I will give it to you as a gift, if you will honor it.” The king gave his assurances, and the wiseman left.

A few weeks later he returned, and handed the king an ornate box carved in jade. The king opened the box, and found a simple gold ring inside. The inscription on the ring read, “This, too, shall pass.” “What is the meaning of this?” asked the king. The wiseman replied, “Wear this ring always. Whatever happens, before you call it good or bad, touch the ring and read the inscription. That way, you will always be at peace.”

Impermanence: This Zen story moved me to an extent I inked “This too shall pass” on my wrist, where I can always see it at all times. I think our main problem is refusing to believe impermanence. We basically take everything seriously, and totally forget about the reality of impermanence.

Like the king, we are moved by the smallest things. The silliest event, or person, can turn us miserable in a flick of a switch. Truth is, the moment we realize that all will pass, we will approach life differently. We won’t be as attached to the results. Moreover, our reaction will be less intense, and more logical.

“Is that so?”

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life. A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was pregnant. This made her parents very angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger the parents went to the master. “Is that so?” was all he would say. When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he takes care of the child since it was his responsibility. “Is that so?” Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.

A year later the girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth—that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket, and not Hakuin. The parents of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, and to get the child back again. Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: “Is that so?”

Acceptance: Hakuin teaches us a valuable lesson about acceptance. Usually, we rarely accept what happens with us. Sometimes, we are faced with responsibilities we didn’t plan for. Hakuin shows us the importance of accepting them as part of our destiny. He taught us that once we accept, things will take a turn, and eventually change.

We also learn from Hakuin that it doesn’t matter what our reputation is, or what others think of us. We are the only ones who truly know ourselves, and the world won’t matter as much once we acknowledge our worth.


Author: Elyane Youssef

Editor: Katarina Tavčar

Photo: Hartwik HKD/Flickr

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