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Zen Stories

before enlightenment: chop wood, fetch water
after enlightenment: chop wood, fetch water...

I'm writing these stories from memory. Not because I couldn't look them up, but stories when told always reflect the storyteller. As a teacher, or mentor it is important to show yourself in your work.

This list will be growing shortly...

What Am I Learning?

A long time ago in China, most of the families that lived in the small towns in the countryside were poor. They worked hard to keep everyone fed and sheltered. In a few places there were monastaries where monks lived, grew their own food, made their own clothes and were totally self-sufficient. These monks learned philosophy as well as physical disciplines such as martial arts. The story of one family who had too many children and not enough grain in the field goes like this:

The father decided to take one of his boys to the monastary and ask the monks if they would accept him as an apprentice. The father promised that the boy would work very hard and obey the monks and that he would work extra hard to repay their kindness through his labour and his contributions. It was not easy to do this, because there were many poor families and only a few children were chosen as apprentices. Later on, when the boy became a monk he would be ableto help his family.

The monks agreed, and the boy stayed, leaving his family behind in their village. The first day the monks gave him a simple robe to wear and the boy then had no other posessions. Then they put him to work. An old monk said, "Take that cauldron over there, fill it with water and place it on that large stone there." The boy did not understand the purpose but he obeyed and was a little afraid of what would happen if he didn't. There was no fire in the room so he wasn't sure what the cauldron was for. Then the monk said "Now splash the water out of the cauldron with your hands, like this." This seemed very strange but the boy obeyed. Some time later the stone floor was wet and the cauldron was empty, and his arms were stiff. Just then the monk came back and said "Now fill up the cauldron again." So three times the first day he did this, and three times the next day. After a month the boy was regretting his father's decision greatly but he was still afraid of disappionting his family and of talking back to the monks.

Finally, after 3 months the boy was offered a chance to go home and visit his family. He was very excited and releived for a few days without the cauldron.

At home, everyone was full of questions - "Do you like it?" "Is it hard?" "What did you learn?" "Can you break a board with your hands?". This was uncomfortable because he hadn't really done anything. He had filled the cauldron and emptied the cauldron. That was about it.

He just said "I haven't really learned anything yet. It's coming." But still they persisted - "Surely they showed you something show me one thing."

The boy was getting anxious now, irritated. "I learned nothing," he said.

But still, one more time a relative walked into the kitchen where he was sitting and said, "Please, I know you can't tell everyone, but tell me what did they teach you?"

The boy became so angry that he yelled "I didn't learn anything", he jumped up from his chair and slammed his hand down on the thick wooden table, which broke instantly in two.

Only then did he realize what he had learned.

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The Wild Horse

In the olden days, people used to go to the markets in town to buy, sell and trade - everyone would go on market day. One day in particular, as people were making their way down to the market on one of the narrow streets leading into the large open area where the bazaar was, a crowd began to gather in the small street.

The crowd was all stopping at a point near the entrance to the bazaar, many small groups discussing among themselves what they should do. Someone had tied a horse in the narrow street, but the horse was not quite tame. It was wild and not used to being around so many people. As the crowds gathered, the horse became more restless and it did not seem safe at all to pass, or to approach the horse in the narrow street.

The people were standing about discussing the problem - one man said "We should shoot the horse!", another said "If I had a long rope I'm sure I could throw it over that building...", while yet another man was saying how he thought he could subdue the animal if only he had a forked stick from a green willow tree.

Just then the crowd suddenly noticed an old man approaching down the narrow street. He was someone who was respected in the community for his wisdom. Surely, they all said he would know what to do. So the crowd parted slightly, and the old man was led up to a safe distance from the wild horse to see what the problem was. The people then asked him what they all should do.

The old man said nothing, but turned and walked down another street into the bazaar.

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Empty Your Cup

This telling of the story is from Bruce Lee's notebook. To get the printed copy, pick up a copy of Artist of Life by Bruce Lee, ISBN 0-8048-3263-3.

A learned man once went to a Zen master to inquire about Zen. As the Zen master talked, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like "Oh yes, we have that too", and so forth. Finally the Zen master stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man; however he kept on pouring and the teacup overflowed. "Enough! No more can go into the cup!" the learned man interrupted. "Indeed, I see," answered the Zen master. "If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?"

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