Zen Humor


Compilation © copyright 2007 by Timothy Conway

[UPDATE: An additional two dozen entries were added in August 2012, another dozen in January 2013, ten more in March 2014, and several more in July 2014 (toward the bottom). In 2013 I also added Pinyin transliterations for almost all the Chinese names in addition to the older Wade-Giles way of rendering them.]

[These items are drawn from many sources, including Thomas & J.C. Cleary (Tr.), The Blue Cliff Record (Chinese: Pi Yen Lu; Jap.: Hekiganroku), 3 vols., Shambhala, 1977, and other works translated by Thomas Cleary & J.C. Cleary; D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism (3 vols.), Rider & Co., 1949 onward, and other works; Conrad Hyer, Zen and the Comic Spirit, Rider & Co., 1974; Andy Ferguson, Zen's Chinese Heritage, Wisdom Publ., 2000; Irmgard Schloegl, The Wisdom of the Zen Masters, New Directions, 1975; Philip Kapleau, Three Pillars of Zen, Beacon Press, 1967; Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Doubleday Anchor Books ed., first published serially in the 1930s; Trevor Leggett, The Warrior Koans, Arkana, 1985; Peter Haskel (Tr.), Bankei Zen: Translations from the Record of Bankei, Grove Weidenfeld, 1984; James Green (Tr.), The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu, Shambhala, 2001; etc., etc.]

[NOTE: For background material on Buddhism, the Buddha Siddhartha (566-486 BCE), a profile of great Zen Buddhist master Bankei (1622-93), and the teachings of the Daoists/Taoists who influenced Chan/Zen in the Far East, see the relevant links at the Religion & Spirituality section of our website.]

Japanese Zen master Oda Sesso (1901-66), abbot of Kyoto's Daitokuji monastery, warned, “There is little to choose between a man lying in the ditch heavily drunk on rice liquor, and a man heavily drunk on his own ‘enlightenment’!”

The saintly Japanese Zen hermit, poet, calligrapher, friend of children and benefactor to the poor, Ryokan (1758-1831), lived austerely and simply in a little hut below a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to find nothing there to steal. So he went off into the night. Ryokan caught up with him: “You may have come a long way to visit me, and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The bewildered thief took the clothes and slunk away. Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon!”

Bodhidharma was regarded by later Chan tradition as the first Patriarch of this “meditation” school of Buddhism (Chinese: Chan; Japanese: Zen; Korean: Seon, from the Indian Sanskrit word Dhyana). Bodhidharma is alleged to have come from south India to south China around 527 CE and to have visited Emperor Wu-di, founder of the Liang dynasty at Nanjing and one of Buddhism’s greatest all-time patrons in China.

In a tale invented well over a century after Bodhidharma's time, it is said that Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma about the highest meaning of noble Truth, and Bodhidharma replied, “Vast emptiness, there is no noble Truth.” “Who, then, is standing before me?” “I don’t know,” said Bodhidharma. Emperor Wu then asked the enigmatic Indian sage how much karmic merit he, the emperor, had accumulated by building monasteries, ordaining monks, sponsoring translations and copies of scriptures and making Buddhist art-images. Bodhidharma was quite blunt: “No merit whatever!” And he left the region.

One of the most famous legends spun about Bodhidharma is that the seeker Huike (Chinese WadeGiles: Hui-k'o) patiently stood deep in the nocturnal snow outside the old master’s cave, yearning for instruction. He finally hacked off his own left forearm and presented it as a demonstration of his sincere aspiration for complete enlightenment. (In Daoxuan’s earlier and likely more accurate account, wandering bandits had cut off his arm.) Bodhidharma told Huike: “This enlightenment is not to be sought through another.” Huike begged to have his agitated self or mind pacified. The sage retorted, “Show me your self and I will pacify it.” Huike said “I’ve sought it many years but can’t get hold of it.” Bodhidharma then declared: “There! It is pacified once and for all!” Upon hearing this, suddenly Huike completely awakened to his transcendent True Nature before/beyond the ego-self. He was free in/as his Ever-Free Nature. (Huike would retrospectively later be designated the “second Patriarch” of a “Chan School” of Buddhism by authors writing around 700 CE).

But now, what about that forearm—was it still with Huike? Did he care? Was he not the fullness and wholeness of Perfect Realization? In any case, now we know where Hakuin (d.1768) got his famous Zen koan: "What is the sound of one hand?"

And if you pity Huike for that silly old lost forearm, he's still got one very good arm with which to smack you!

In the poetic little Chan wisdom treatise, Xinxin Ming (WadeGiles: Hsin Hsin Ming, 8th century, fancifully attributed to the so-called "3rd Chan Patriarch," Sengcan / Seng-t’san, d.606), we hear the following: “One in all, all in one—if only this is realized, no more worry about your not being ‘perfect!’”

Daoxin (Tao-hsin, 580-651), the so-called "4th Chinese Chan Patriarch," the actual first Chan master of a settled monastic community, stated: “The wise man does nothing, while the fool is always tying himself up.”

Some monks were sitting quietly in the garden of a Buddhist monastery on a calm, beautiful day. The prayer flag on the roof started fluttering and flapping in a breeze. A young monk observed: “Flag is flapping.” Another monk said: “Wind is flapping the flag.” The Chan master Huineng (whom Southern School Chan regards as 6th Patriarch), overhearing the two monks talking, declared: “It is your minds that are flapping.” Centuries later another famous Chan monk, Wumen Huikai (1183-1260), commented on this episode: “Flag, wind, minds flapping. Several mouths were flapping!”

Two Zen monks, Tanzan and Ekido, traveling on pilgrimage, came to a muddy river crossing. There they saw a lovely young woman dressed in her kimono and finery, obviously not knowing how to cross the river without ruining her clothes. Without further ado, Tanzan graciously picked her up, held her close to him, and carried her across the muddy river, placing her onto the dry ground. Then he and Ekido continued on their way. Hours later they found themselves at a lodging temple. And here Ekido could no longer restrain himself and gushed forth his complaints: “Surely, it is against the rules, what you did back there…. Touching a woman is simply not allowed…. How could you have done that? … And to have such close contact with her! … This is a violation of all monastic protocol…” Thus he went on with his verbiage. Tanzan listened patiently to the accusations. Finally, during a pause, he said, “Look, I set that girl down back at the crossing. Are you still carrying her?”
(Based on an autobiographical story by Japanese master Tanzan, 1819-1892)

A young monk brought two potted plants into the monastery’s garden while the Zen master looked on. “Drop it,” instructed the master. The young monk gently let down one pot. “Drop it,” again ordered the master. The monk let go the second pot. “DROP IT!” roared the master. The young monk stammered, “But… I have nothing more to drop.” “Then take it away,” said the old master, smiling.

A wise old Zen master, very near death, lay quietly on his mat with his eyes closed, all his disciples gathered around. Kneeling closest to him was his number one disciple, a longtime practitioner who would succeed the old man as head of the monastery. At one point the old master opened his eyes, and lovingly gazed at each and every one of his disciples assembled in the crowded room. Finally his glance rested on his successor, and he managed to speak his last words to the man: “Ah, my son, you have a very thorough knowledge of the teachings and scriptures, and you have shown great discipline in keeping the precepts. Your behavior has, in fact, been flawless. Yet there is one more thing remaining to be cleared up: you still reek and stink of ‘Zen’!”

Keiji, a long-time Zen student, approached his master and said: “I don’t see how there can be any enlightenment that sets you free once and for all. I think we just get ever greater glimpses of Buddha-nature, the vastness that is our true Reality. It’s an ever-expanding process.” The master, looking penetratingly at Keiji, replied. “That may be what you think. But what is your experience, your experience right now?” Keiji looked momentarily confused. “My experience right now, Master?” “Yes. Do you know yourself as Keiji, having ever-expanding experiences of Buddha-nature? Or do you know yourself as Buddha-nature, having the experience of Keiji?

The renown Japanese Zen master Bankei Yotaku (1622-93) drew huge multitudes to hear his pithy teaching, Fu-sho! “Unborn!” Meaning, “Don’t get ‘born’—abide as your Unborn Buddha-Nature.” A woman suffering under patriarchal East Asian norms once complained to Master Bankei that her gender was a karmic obstacle. He retorted: “From what time did you become a woman?”

Bankei never wanted anyone to become fascinated by anything other than our Infinite Nature. And so, when a monk stepped forth in a vast assembly and proudly told Bankei, “I diligently chant the Light Mantra night and day and my body emits rays of light,” Bankei replied: “Those rays of light of yours are nothing but the flames of the evil passions consuming your body.”

In a two-line section of his famous poem, Honshin No Uta, Bankei says: “It's the buddhas I feel sorry for: with all those ornaments they wear / They must be dazzled by the glare!”

A monk wondered why Bankei used none of the methods of fabled Chan/Zen masters of yore, such as the stick, the shout, the slap. Bankei replied, “I know how to use the three inches”—i.e., his tongue, to tell people they are really Unborn!

Bankei criticized fellow Japanese Zen teachers who hid their own failure to realize Unborn Buddha-nature with, instead, a mish-mash of confusing old Chinese-language koan-anecdotes, the “dregs and slobber of the Chan Patriarchs” as he called the ancient lore! And he chided the overly clever who are deluded by their own cleverness. “I tell my students, 'Be stupid'!... What I'm talking about isn't the stupidity of (mindless) stupidity or (clever) understanding. That which transcends stupidity and understanding is what I mean by stupidity.”

The illustrious Chan adept Mazu (Ma-tsu, 709-88) in his youth is said to have asked his master Nanyue (677-744), “What great spiritual truth do you teach?” Nanyue raised his fan. Mazu remarked, “Is that all? Nothing else?” Master Nanyue then lowered his fan.

Mazu's enlightened disciple Yanguan Qi'an (Yen-kuan Ch'i-an; 750-842) was told the story of how a monk asked the teacher Damei, "What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?" Damei had answered, "There is no essential meaning." Upon hearing this, Yanguan commented, "It's one coffin with two corpses."

Mazu's primary successor at his two communities at Mt. Gonggong and Hongzhou, Xitang Zhizang (Hsi-t'ang Chih-tsang; 738-817), was asked by a layman, “Is there a heaven and hell?” Xitang replied, “There is.” Layman: “Is there really a Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha (Buddhist assembly)?” “There is.” The layman asked a few more similar questions, to each of which Xitang affirmed, “There is.” The layman then wondered, “Is the master sure there’s no mistake about this? I once visited Master Jingshan, who said there isn’t a single thing.” Xitang asked him, “Do you have a wife and children?” The layman replied, “Yes.” Xitang further asked: “Does Master Jingshan have a wife and children?” “No.” Xitang concluded, “Then it’s okay for Jingshan to say there isn’t a single thing.”

When Chan Master Deshan (Te-shan, 782-865) arrived at Guishan monastery, he carried his bundle with him into the teaching hall, where he crossed from east to west and then from west to east. He looked around at all the monks assembled and said, “There’s nothing here, simply no one at all.” Then he went out.

When Tesshu (1836-88), the famous Japanese samurai master of the sword, was young and headstrong, he visited one Zen master after another. Once he went to visit Master Dokuon and triumphantly announced to him the classic Buddhist teaching that all that exists is empty, there is really no you or me, and so on. The master listened to all this in silence. Suddenly he snatched up his pipe and struck Tesshu’s head with it. The infuriated young swordsman would have killed the master there and then, but Dokuon said calmly, “Emptiness is sure quick to show anger, is it not?” Tesshu left the room, realizing he still had much to learn about Zen. He later became fully enlightened and founded the art of “no-sword.”

A young Zen monk was recognized by his teacher as having experienced an initial breakthrough enlightenment (Japanese: satori, kensho). His teacher then told the young man that, for realizing complete, irreversible enlightenment (Sanskrit: anuttara-samyak-sambodhi), he would need to study under a certain wise old master whose small temple was situated in another part of the country. And so the young man set off to meet the old master. After several weeks of travel, he finally arrived at the remote temple. The sentry told him that all the other monks were working at their daily chores, and sent the young man straightaway to the meditation hall to meet the venerable master.

Entering the meditation hall, the young monk espied an old man doing repeated prostrations to a simple statue of the Buddha, softly chanting the name of Buddha Amida (who saves all sentient beings from suffering). The young man was shocked. Having realized from his teacher the basic truth that the Self or Buddha-nature is formless openness-emptiness, utterly transcendent and all-pervasive, he was a bit disturbed to see the old man apparently still caught up in such “dualistic” practices—ritually bowing to an idol and chanting with devotion to a mythical Buddha.

And so he came up to the aged monk, introduced himself, and, from his “truly enlightened” perspective, proceeded to lecture the old man on the futility and stupidity of worshipping mere forms. Finally, his brief rant over, he realized that, having traveled such a long way to meet the “master,” he should probably ask the old monk for whatever wisdom he had to share. “So, old man, what can you tell me about full enlightenment?”

In response, the master smiled, said nothing, and resumed sincerely bowing in gratitude before the statue of the Buddha, gently invoking the Name of Amida on behalf of all beings….

And, in a flash, the young man fully understood the way of true spirituality, and he, too, began spontaneously to bow alongside the old master.

Zen masters have often spoken of Enlightenment as like the moon shining brightly in the dark sky, while the Zen Buddhist teachings are like a finger pointing up toward the moon. Too many people, however, instead of gazing at the great moon, prefer to relentlessly suck on the finger!

An old Zen saying: “In matters of religion, most persons prefer chewing the menu to actually eating the food!”

A student went to see his meditation teacher and said, “My situation is horrible! I feel so distracted most of the time, or my legs ache, or I’m repeatedly falling asleep. It’s terrible.” Said the teacher matter-of-factly, “It will pass.”

A week later, the student returned to his teacher. “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive!” The teacher told him, “It will pass.”

A monk asked master Xuefeng Yicun (Hsueh-Feng, 822-908) what were the essential teachings of the Buddha and holy Patriarchs. Old Feng replied, “The Buddha is a bull-headed jail-keeper and the Patriarchs are horse-faced old maids!”

Chan master Fayan Wenyi (Fa-yen Wen-i, 885-958) interrupted an argument among some monks concerning the relationship of mind to reality by posing to them a question: “Over there is a large boulder. Do you say that it is inside or outside your mind?” One of the monks replied, “From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so that I would have to say that the stone is inside my mind.” Quipped Fayan, “Your head must be very heavy!”

Chan master Huangbo (Huang-po, d.850s) said: “Many people are afraid to empty their own minds lest they plunge into the Void. Ha! What they don’t realize is that their own Mind is the Void.”

Huangbo is said to have been unusually tall. Master Nanquan (Nanchu'an) couldn't help but remark: “Your body is unusually big—isn’t your straw hat too small?” Huangbo replied: “Perhaps... but the entire universe is within it.”

The formidable Japanese Rinzai Zen master Hakuin (1686-1768) spoke: “If you want to get at the pristine truth of egolessness, you must once and for all let go your hold and fall over the precipice!”

Concerning terms for enlightenment and liberation like “Bodhi,” “Nirvana,” etc., Chinese Chan master Linji Yixuan (Lin-chi I-hsuan, d.867) is alleged by later sources to have said: “These words are a stake to which donkeys are fastened!”

When asked about “enlightenment,” wise old Bishop Nippo Syaku (1910-91), head of a few Ekayana Buddhist temples in California, replied in his halting, heavily accented English: “Ah, enlightenment… You can’t fall into it. You can’t fall out of it!”

Zenkei Shibayama (1894-1974), overseer of the large Rinzai Zen Nanzen-ji branch of temples, once related: “There is a common saying [in Japanese Zen], “Miso (bean paste) with the smell of miso is not good miso. Enlightenment with the smell of enlightenment is not the real enlightenment.”

Chan master Yunmen (864-949) put it so simply, “When walking just walk. When sitting just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.”

Yunmen sang:
The cloud and the moon, both the same.
Valleys and mountains, each different.
Are they one, or are they two?
Wonderful! Splendid!

The famous Zen abbess of the 20th century, Rev. Shundo Aoyama relates (in her book Zen Seeds): “The Zen term kanshiketsu literally means ‘shit-stick.’ In China, a monk calling on Zen Master Yun-men asked, ‘What is a buddha?’ Yun-men replied, ‘A dried shit-stick.’ When the abbot or any of the teachers is away from a temple for a week or so, the novices think nothing of it. But if there were no toilet paper, they would quickly feel its absence! Shit-sticks, which were used in former days for the same purpose, could be washed and re-used any number of times. Shit-sticks become dirty to clean us. If these are not buddhas, what is? Out of gratitude for them, I recognize the shit-stick as a buddha.”

Garma C. Chang relates the story of Su Dongpo (Su Tung-p'o), a celebrated poet and devout Buddhist of the Song Dynasty, who was close friends with Fo-ying, a brilliant Chan master. Fo-ying's temple was on the Yangxi River’s west bank, while Su Dongpo's house stood on the east bank. One day Su Dongpo paid a visit to Master Fo-ying and, finding him absent, sat down in his study to wait. Finally bored with waiting, he began to scribble poetic verses on a sheet of paper he found on a desk, signing them with the words, "Su Dongpo, the great Buddhist who cannot be moved even by the combined forces of the mighty Eight Worldly Winds." (These are gain, loss, defamation, eulogy, praise, ridicule, sorrow and joy.) After a while longer of waiting, Su Dongpo got tired and left for home.

When Master Fo-ying returned and saw Su Dongpo's composition on the desk, he added the following line after the poet’s signature line: "Rubbish! What you have said is not better than breaking wind!" and sent it to Su Dongpo. When Su Dongpo read this outrageous comment, he was so furious that he crossed the river on the nearest boat, and hurried once again to Fo-ying’s temple. Catching hold of the master’s arm, Su Dongpo cried: "What right have you to denounce me in such language? Am I not a devout Buddhist who cares only for the Dharma? Are you so blind after knowing me for so long?"

Master Fo-ying looked at him quietly for a few seconds, then smiled and slowly said: "Ah, Su Dongpo, the great Buddhist who claims that the combined forces of the Eight Winds can hardly move him an inch, is now carried all the way to the other side of the Yangxi River by a single puff of wind from the colon!"

This famous little Zen temple in northern Kyoto (in 1976 re-located away from the encroaching city to a remote mountain location in northern Hyugo prefecture), was inspired by the very simple, yet deep style of zazen taught by reformer “Homeless Kodo” Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965). Antaiji was very popular with the most serious zazen practitioners from all over Japan and from abroad in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time it was led by Roshi Kosho Uchiyama (d.1996). The five-day sesshins were notable for their complete focus on sitting and walking meditation—no chanting of scriptures or dharanis (mantras), no interviews with the master, or anything else. The Rev. Shundo Aoyama tells that at the close of one five-day sesshin meditation intensive, when some talking was finally allowed, Master Uchiyama declared to the group of ardent meditators: “The zazen practice here amounts to nothing, no matter how long you sit. But it would really come in handy if you were to be put in jail.”

Dogen Zenji (1200-53), the illustrious Japanese master who founded Soto Zen in Japan in 1233, had four years of Chan training in China from 1223-7, over two years under master Rujin (Ju-ching), frequently receiving personal instructions from the master in his chamber. While in China, Dogen procured or copied valuable texts, including at least one major koan anthology and also the major Chinese Chan monastic rule-book. At some point after his return to Japan, he was asked, “What noble teachings have you brought back?” He replied, “I have returned empty handed!”

Japan’s Zen Master Harada Sogaku (1870-1961) once wrote in verse: “For 40 years I’ve been selling water by the bank of a river. Ho! Ho! My labors have been wholly without merit.”

Harada-roshi taught: “My admonition is this: be a Great Fool! A petty little fool is nothing but a worldling. But a Great Fool is a Buddha!”

Harada’s successor Yasutani (1885-1973) declared: “To see a beautiful vision of a celestial Buddha does not mean that you are any nearer to becoming one yourself!”

Chan master Linji (Lin-chi, d.867) is said by the later (inauthentic) Song-dynasty "crazy wisdom" Chan literature to have displayed a famously fiery approach with students—involving iconoclasm, paradoxical dialogue, explosive shouting (the famous kwatz!) and even slapping/striking (though scholar Albert Welter has documented how such accounts should not be taken at face value). In any case, the image of Linji inspired the influential Linji Chan school in China (later known as Rinzai Zen in Japan). Among the transcribed talks we have from Linji, here are excerpts—some of which may be genuine sayings from Linji—on how he chided students (and certain fellow teachers!) for their obtuseness in not awakening to the Buddha-nature "right before/behind your eyes" as he called it:

“O you, followers of Truth… do not be deceived by others. Inwardly or outwardly, if you encounter any obstacles, lay them low right away. If you encounter the Buddha [as merely a mind object], slay him; if you encounter the Patriarch, slay him; if you encounter the parent or the relative, slay them all without hesitation, for this is the only way to deliverance. Do not get yourself entangled with any object, but stand above, pass on, and be free. As I see those so-called followers of Truth all over the country, there are none who come to me free and independent of objects. In dealing with them, I strike them down any way they come…. There are indeed so far none who have presented themselves before me all alone, all free, all unique. They are inevitably found caught by the idle tricks of the old masters! … They are all ghostly existences, ignominious gnomes haunting the woods, elf-spirits of the wilderness. They are madly biting into all heaps of filth. O you, why are you wasting all the pious donations of the devout [who give to the monastery]! Do you think you deserve the name of ‘monk’ when you are still entertaining mistaken ideas of Zen? You are putting another head over your own! What do you lack in yourselves? O you, followers of Truth, what you are making use of at this very moment is none other than what makes a Patriarch or a Buddha. But you do not believe me, and stupidly seek it outwardly…. There are no realities outside, nor is there anything [any “thing”] inside you may lay your hands on!”

And elsewhere Linji said: “Students nowadays do not know the Dharma. They are like goats, nuzzling and nibbling at everything they come across. They cannot distinguish the servant from the master, nor the guest from the host.”

Other sayings from Linji or attributed to him: “What is the frantic hurry to deck yourselves in a lion's skin when all the while you are yapping like wild foxes? A real man has no need to give himself the airs of a real man!”

“Monks,… I spent twenty years with my late master, Huangbo. Three times I asked him on the essence of Buddhism, and three times he beat me. It was as if he had caressed me with a branch of fragrant sage. Now I feel like tasting a sound beating again; who can give it to me?” A monk stepped forward and said, “I can.” The master took up his stick and handed it to him. The monk hesitated to take hold of it. So the master hit him.

“A student wearing chains presents himself before the [mediocre or false] teacher. The teacher then puts another set of chains on him. The student is overjoyed. Neither the one nor the other are capable of discernment…. Followers of the Way, the true sentiment is very difficult, the Buddha-Dharma is a profound mystery. But if you understand, you smile. … Even if there is no form, the brightness shines of itself. But students have not enough faith. So they cling to names and phrases and try to find the meaning of these names. For fifty years and more they run about carrying their corpses, their staffs and bundles.”

The famously "rogue" Rinzai Zen Master Ikkyu (d.1481), later the abbot of Japan's Daitokuji monastery, told a visitor: “I'd like to offer something to help you. But in the Zen School we don't have a single thing!”

So wisely unattached are the Zen masters to the elements of their own tradition, that the great Zen painter Sengaku (1750-1837) could sketch an image—almost incredible in the context of most other religions—of a monk leaning over to relieve himself of intestinal gas, with the accompanying calligraphy inscription: “One Hundred Days of Buddhist Spiritual Teaching!”

Danxia Tianran (739-824), a famous disciple of 8th-century Chan masters Mazu and Shitou, was spending a night at a ruined temple with a few traveling companions. It was fiercely cold and no firewood was to be found. Danxia went to the Buddha-shrine hall, took down the sacred wooden image of the Buddha, and set it ablaze to warm himself. Reproached by his friends for this act of sacrilege, he said: “I was only looking for the sharira (sacred relic) of the Buddha.” “How can you expect to find sharira in a piece of wood?” asked his fellow travelers. Replied Danxia, “Ah, well then, I am only burning a piece of wood after all. Shall we burn a few more?”

Tianran Roasting the Buddha, painting by Sengai Gibbon (1750-1837)

Touzi Datong (T’ou-tzu Ta-t’ung, d.914), a mentor to famous Chan master Zhaozhou (Chao-chou), was once asked, “What is the Buddha?” His considered response: “The Buddha!”

When Nanyuan Huiyong (860-930) was likewise asked (it’s a very popular question in Chan tradition!), “What is the Buddha?” He replied, “What is not the Buddha?” Another time his answer was, “I never knew him.” On a third occasion, when asked “What is the Buddha?”—Nanyuan replied, “Wait until there is one—then I’ll tell you.”

Master Xuansha (Hsüan-sha, 9th century) was asked by a monk, “What is my self?” Xuansha retorted, “What would you do with a self?” This same Master Xuansha once described the existential situation: “We are here as if immersed in water head and shoulders underneath the great ocean, and yet how piteously we are extending our hands for water!”

An old Indian-Chinese Buddhist tradition holds that someone who makes false statements concerning the Dharma, the spiritual Way or Truth, will lose all his facial hair. So Chan master Cuiyan (Ts’ui-yen, 9th to 10th century), at the end of one summer spiritual intensive remarked to all those assembled, “Since the beginning of this summer session, I have talked much. Please see if my eyebrows are still there!”

Some officials came to see the Chinese emigre Chan/Zen master Lanqi Daolong (J: Daikaku Zenji; 1213-78) of Kamakura, Japan, and complained that the one page Hridaya Sutra ("Heart Scripture"), chanted daily in Zen monasteries, is too long and difficult to read. They preferred the 7-syllable mantra given by Nichiren of the New Lotus school (Namu Myoho Renge Kyo) or even the 6-syllable Nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu) of the Pure Land Buddhist school. Daikaku listened to them and said, “If you want to recite the Zen scripture, do it with just one word. It is the six- and seven-syllable phrases which are far too long!”

Master Setsuo would present this story of Daikaku to his own pupils: “The Zen school says that the Buddha in all his 49 years of preaching never uttered a single word. But our Old Buddha (Daikaku) declares one word to lead the people to salvation. What is that word? What is that one great word?! If you cannot find it your whole life will be spent entangled in creepers in a dark cave. If you can say it, with that leap of realization you will pervade heaven and earth.” Those to whom Setsuo gave this riddle over the years tried the word “Heart” and the word “Buddha,” also the words “God,” “Truth,” “mantra,” etc., but none of them hit it.
So what is that one word?

Before Japanese Rinzai Zen Master Takuan Soho (1573-1645) died, this great scholar-artist-teacher instructed: “Bury my body on the mountain behind the temple; throw earth on it and go away. No scripture reading, no offerings—go on with your meals. Afterwards, no pagoda, no monument, no posthumous name or title, and certainly no biography full of dates!” At his final moment, he wrote the Chinese character for yume ("dream"), put down the brush, and died.

When, earlier in his ministry as a famous Zen roshi, Takuan was asked by a monk whether he ever performed the sacred Nembutsu recitation of the holy Name of Amida Buddha, he replied, “No, never.” “Why not?” “Because I don’t want my mouth polluted!” Yet it's funny: Takuan had spent years in his youth involved in chanting Amida's name as a member of the Pure Land devotional Buddhist sect!

Later, in his little text Reiroshu, Takuan told the following story:

When Ippen Shonin (13th cent.; later a father of Pure Land Buddhism) met Zen master Hotto Kokushi, the founder of the Kokokuji Temple in Yura village, he said, “I have composed a poem.” Master Kokushi said, “Let's hear it.” Ippen recited:
When I chant,
Both Buddha and self
Cease to exist,
There is only the voice that says,
Namu Amida Butsu.

Kokushi said, “Something's wrong with the last couple of lines, don't you think?” Ippen then confined himself in Kumano and meditated for twenty-one days. When he passed by Yura again, he said to the Master, “This is how I've written it”:
When I chant,
Both Buddha and self
Cease to exist.
Namu Amida Butsu,
Namu Amida Butsu.

Kokushi nodded his enthusiastic approval, “That's it!”

Chinese Chan master Yiduan (I-tuan, 9th century), a disciple of Nanquan, declared: “Speech is blasphemy! Silence is a lie! Above speech and silence, there is a way out.”

When Chan master Yunmen (Yün-men, 864-949) was asked by a monk for details about the life and teaching of ancient sage Nagarjuna, the renowned Indian master of the 2nd century, considered a primary Patriarch of Chan/Zen and other schools of Buddhism, Yunmen smilingly replied: “In India there are ninety-six classes of heretics, and you belong to the lowest.”

When Huineng (638-713), regarded by Shenhui's "Southern School" of Chan Buddhism as the 6th Patriarch, was allegedly asked on what basis he succeeded the 5th Patriarch in this lineage of Buddhism, Huineng is said to have instantly replied, “Because I do not understand Buddhism.”

One of Huineng’s supposed successors, Master Nanyue, came upon young Mazu who had been ardently spending all his days sitting in meditation at a temple. The master asked Mazu, “What are you doing?” “I’m practicing meditation.” “Why?” asked the master. Said Mazu, “I want to attain enlightenment; I aim to become a Buddha.” Master Nanyue thereupon picked up a rough tile lying nearby and began to vigorously rub it against a rock. “What are you doing?” asked Mazu. Said the master, “I want to make this tile into a mirror.” “How is it possible to make a tile into a mirror?” asked Mazu. Retorted Nanyue: “How is it possible to become a Buddha by doing meditation?… If you keep the Buddha seated, this is murdering the Buddha.”

Modern-era Soto Zen master Shunryu Suzuki (1904-71) clarifies: “We practice zazen meditation to naturally express True Nature, not to ‘attain enlightenment.’” And one of Zen master Sengai’s (1751-1837) famous cartoonish Zen paintings shows a smiling frog sitting on a lily pad, with the caption: “If by seated meditation one becomes a Buddha… [implication: then all frogs are Buddhas!]”)

A monk asked Chan master Baizhang Huaihai (Pai-chang, 749-814), “Who is the Buddha?” Baizhang answered: “Who are you?”

A monk asked famous Chan Master Zhaozhou Congshen (Chao-chou, 778-897): “What is the Buddha?” The master replied: “The one in the hall.” The monk said, “But the one in the hall is an image, a mere statue, a lump of mud.” Zhaozhou agreed, “That’s true.” “So,” persisted the monk, “what is the Buddha?” Zhaozhou responded: “The one in the hall!”

One summer day the venerable old Zhaozhou proposed a little contest of Zen repartee with his attending disciple, Wenyuan: to see who could identify himself with the lowest thing in the scale of human values. Zhaozhou began: “I am a donkey.” Wenyuan: “I am the donkey’s buttocks.” Zhaozhou: “I am the donkey’s dung.” Wenyuan: “I am a worm in the dung.” Zhaozhou, unable to think of a rejoinder, asked, “What are you doing there?” Replied Wenyuan: “I am spending my summer vacation!” Zhaozhou laughingly conceded defeat.

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is that which is spiritual?” The Master replied, “A puddle of piss in the Pure Land [of Amitabha Buddha].” The monk said, “I ask you to reveal it to me.” Zhaozhou said, “Don’t tempt me.”

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “I have come here and know nothing. What are my duties?”
Zhaozhou said, “What’s your name?”
The monk said, “Huihan.”
Zhaozhou retorted, “A fine ‘knowing nothing’ that is!”

An official asked Zhaozhou, “Will the master go into hell or not?”—likely referring to Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha/Dizang’s activity of liberating beings in the hell-states.
Zhaozhou replied, “I entered hell long ago.”
The official asked him, “Why do you enter hell?”
Zhaozhou: “If I don’t enter hell, who will teach you?”

Zhaozhou asked a monk, “How many sutras do you read in a day?”
The monk said: “Maybe seven or eight. Sometimes even ten.”
Zhaozhou said, “Oh, then you can’t read scriptures.”
The monk asked, “Master, how many do you read in a day?”
Zhaozhou: “In one day I read one word.”

Zhaozhou entered the Dharma hall and addressed the monks, saying, “When a true person speaks a heresy, all heresies become true. When a heretic speaks a truth, all truth becomes heresy.”

One day Zhaozhou was sweeping. A monk asked, “The master is a great worthy. Why are you engaged in the lowly task of sweeping?”
Zhaozhou said, “Dust comes in from outside.”
The monk replied, “This is a pure temple. Why, then, is there dust?”
Zhaozhou said, “Ah, there’s some more dust.”

A monk asked Dasui Fazhen of Sichuan (Ta-sui Fa-chen; 878-963) what is the sign of a truly great man? Dasui replied, “He doesn’t have a placard on his stomach.”

Dasui asked a departing monk, “Where are you going?” The monk said, “I’m going to live alone on West Mountain.” Dasui asked, “If I call out to the top of East Mountain for you, will you come or not?” The monk replied, “Of course not.” “Ah,” said Dasui, “you haven’t yet attained ‘living alone.’”

One time when many people assembled to hear Dasui, he contorted his mouth into a pained position and said, “Is there anyone here who can cure my mouth?” Monks and laypersons all vied with each other to offer medicines and potions, but Dasui refused them all. Seven days later he slapped himself and his mouth resumed normal appearance. He then declared, “Those two lips have been drumming against each other all these years—up until now no one has cured them!” He then sat upright and died.

In the early 20th century, Zen master Nan-in received a university professor who came to ask about Zen. But instead he only talked on and on about his own ideas. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then, while the man continued to speak, Nan-in kept on pouring the tea. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “You fool! It is overfull. No more will go in!” Nan-in replied, “Like this cup, you are also too full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your mind?”

When the old warrior Hosokawa Shigeyuki (1434–1511) retired as daimyo or territorial lord of Sanuki Province, he became a Zen priest. One day he invited a visiting scholar-monk, Osen Kaisan (1429–93), to see a landscape-painting he himself had brushed in ink on a recent trip to Kumano and other scenic spots on the Kii Peninsula. When the scroll was opened, there was nothing but a long, blank sheet of paper. The monk Osen, struck by the emptiness of the "painting," exclaimed:
Your brush is as tall as Mount Sumeru,
Black ink large enough to exhaust the great earth;
The white paper as vast as the Void that swallows up all illusions.

(—from a story related by William Scott Wilson, The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea, 2012)

During Zen’s early history in Japan, the émigré Chinese Chan masters instructing their pupils often had to make use of interpreters to communicate with these Japanese students of Zen. Chan master Wuxue Zuyuan (Japanese: Mugaku Sogen, 1226-86) was brought over to succeed Lanqi Daolong (d. 1279) as head of Kenchō-ji monastery, and then in 1282 he founded the majestic Engaku-ji monastery in the forests of northern Kamakura, under Regent Hōjō Tokimune’s patronage. Lord Tokimune was a personal student of Wuxue, but the spiritual master never forgot that Tokimune was Japan's ruler. When, during the sanzen question and answer sessions between Master Wuxue and Lord Tokimune, it was time for the master to playfully strike the disciple for incomprehension or encourage greater efforts (the usual custom among Chan masters by this point in China’s Chan development), Wuxue delivered the slaps to the interpreter, not to Lord Tokimune. So who really became enlightened here—Tokimune or his interpreter? Or both? Or neither?

Someone asked Soto Zen master Shunryu Suzuki (1904-71): “What do you think of all of us crazy Zen students?” He replied: “I think you're all deeply enlightened.... Until you open your mouths.”

When Catholic missionary St. Francis Xavier was touring Japan, he was graciously hosted in 1549 by the extraordinarily friendly master Ninshitsu of Fukusho-ji Soto Zen monastery, near Kagoshima. Strolling through the temple grounds one day, Xavier saw monks meditating in great repose and dignified appearance. “What are they doing?” he asked Ninshitsu. The master laughed, “Some are calculating contributions received the past month, others are wondering how to get better clothing, and still others are thinking of vacation and pasttimes. In short, no one here is doing anything of importance!”

A Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near Zen master Hakuin, who at that point was still young, evidently in his 30s or 40s. One day the girl's parents suddenly discovered she was pregnant and were very angry when she refused to confess the man's identity. After much harassment she at last named the monk Hakuin. Furious, the parents went to confront the master. He would only say, “Is that so?” Shortly after the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child, obtaining milk from neighbors and all else the child needed. A year later the girl could not stand it any longer. She told her parents the truth—the child's real father was a young man working at the fish market. At once the girl's parents rushed to see Hakuin, apologetically explaining and begging forgiveness, and humbly asking to bring the child back to its mother and real father. Hakuin happily yielded the child to them, saying only: “Is that so?”

From D.T. Suzuki:
Wang the court-official once asked a monk, “All beings are endowed with the Buddha-nature; is it really so?” Monk: “Yes, it is so.” Wang pointed at the picture of a dog on the wall and asked, “Is this, too, supplied with the Buddha-nature?” The monk did not know what to say. Whereupon the official gave him the answer: “Look out, the dog bites!”

Chan master Yangshan Huiji (9th cent.) asked Sansheng Huiran, “What is your name?”
Sansheng said, “Huiji.”
“Huiji?!” Yangshan Huiji said, “That’s my name!”
“Well then,” said Sansheng Huiran, “my name is Huiran.”
Yangshan roared with laughter.

Nine centuries later, in commenting on the first line of this gong'an (J: koan) case from the Blue Cliff Record, Hakuin Zenji said of Huiji’s initial question of Huiran: “It is like a policeman interrogating some suspicious fellow he has found loitering in the dark.” Hakuin observes of the next two lines: “this is no place for lame horses and blind asses,” before commenting on the penultimate line: “Their singing together and handclapping, their drumming and dancing—it is as if the spring blossoms had their reds and purples competing against one another in the new warmth.”

Poems by the Chan hermit Shiwu (1272-1352), a.k.a. Chinghong / Stonehouse:

My hut isn’t quite six feet across
surrounded by pines bamboos and mountains
an old monk hardly has room for himself
much less for a visiting cloud

Standing outside my pointed-roof hut
who’d guess how spacious it is inside
a galaxy of worlds is there
with room to spare for a zazen cushion

My mind outshines the autumn moon
not that the autumn moon isn’t bright
but once full it fades
no match for my mind
always full and bright
as to what the mind is like
why don’t you tell me?

—Daoquan (Tao-ch’uan), a 12th century Chan master, wrote a verse:
Make it out of clay or wood or silk
paint it blue or green and gild it with gold
but if you think a buddha looks like this
the Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin) will die from laughter.

Master Mi-an said, "The reason this [Chan] path has not been flourishing in recent years is nothing else but the fact that those who are acting as teachers of others do not have their eyes and brains straight and true. They have no perception of their own, but just keep fame and fortune and gain and loss in their hearts. Deeply afraid that others will say they have no stories, they mistakenly memorize stories from old books, letting them ferment in the back of their minds so they won’t lack for something to say if seekers ask them questions. They are like goats crapping: the minute their tails go up, innumerable dung balls plop to the ground!"

Zen master Fushan Fayuan (991-1067) entered the Dharma hall and addressed the monks, “I won’t speak any more about the past and present. I just offer the matter before you now in order for you to understand.” A monk then asked, “What is the matter before us now?” Fushan said, “Nostrils.” The monk asked, “What is the higher affair?” Fushan replied, “The pupils of the eye.”

Fushan Fayuan said to Daowu Zhen: The case of those who, while their study has not yet arrived on the Way, still flash their learning and run off at the mouth with intellectual understanding, using eloquence and sharpness of tongue to gain victories, is like outhouses painted vermillion—it only increases the odor.

A monk asked master Zhu’an Shigui (1083-1146), “What is the first principle?” Shigui said, “What you just asked is the second principle.” [Phenomena!]

Case 43 of the Wumenguan tells that Chan master Shoushan Xingnian (926-93) (whom scholars credit as real founder of the Linji Chan school) once held up a bamboo staff before the assembly and said, “If you say it’s a staff, you’re grasping at words; if you say it’s not a staff, you’re turning away in nonsense. What do you say?”

It is said that, in the next century, the Chan master Huitang Zuxin (1025-1100), when interviewing a monk in the abbot’s quarters, would often raise a fist and say, “If you call it a fist, I’ll hit you with it. If you don’t call it a fist, you’re being evasive. What do you call it?”

What a copy-cat! So what happens when Shoushan's staff emerges out of the Void to meet Huitang's fist... What you call that??

A student spoke up in the assembly at one of the centers of Korean Son/Zen master Seung Sahn (Soen-sa nim, 1927-2004), saying, “It seems that in Christianity God is outside me, whereas in Zen God is inside me, so God and I are one, correct?” Soen-sa said, “Where is inside? Where is outside?” Said the student: “Inside is in here; outside is out there.” Asked Soen-sa: “How can you separate? Where is the boundary line?” “I’m inside my skin, and the world is outside it.” Soen-sa then said, “This is your body’s skin. Where is your mind’s skin?” “Mind has no skin.” “Then where is your mind?” “Inside my head,” said the student. “Ah, your mind is very small. (Laughter all around.) You must keep your mind BIG. Then you will understand that God, Buddha, and the whole universe fit into this BIG MIND.” Then, holding up his watch, Soen-sa said, “Is this watch outside your mind or inside it?” “Outside,” said the student. Soen-sa replied in his usual playful fashion: “If you say ‘outside,’ I will hit you thirty times. If you say ‘inside,” I will hit you thirty times.”… After a silence, Soen-sa continued: “Don’t make inside or outside. Okay?”

On another occasion, Soen-sa nim quoted to a student the ancient Chan/Zen teaching, “Originally all things are empty.” “Yet,” said Soen-sa, “you want to attain enlightenment. This is funny.... Put it down! Put it down! [Let it go!] Now, this is funny. What is there to put down?”

A visiting monk was taking leave of master Wufeng (9th cent.). The master said to him, “When you travel around, don’t slander me by saying that I am here.” The monk said, “I won’t say you’re here.” The master asked, “Where would you say I am?” The visiting monk held up one finger (to symbolically express the Zen intuition of oneness). “Ah,” said the master, “you have already slandered me.”

In his chamber, the eminent Chan master Dahui Zonggao (Ta-hui Tsung-kao, 1089-1163) asked a monk, “The Way does not require practice, but it must not be defiled. What is the undefiled way?” The monk said, “I don’t dare answer.” Dahui: “Why not?” Monk: “I’m afraid of defilement.” Dahui said, “Good! Bring in the broom for sweeping shit!” The monk was flustered. Dahui drove him out of the room with blows.

The nun Miaozong (J: Mujaku), back in the years before she was ordained, but after her spiritual awakening, often visited her great teacher, the Chan master Dahui Zonggao, for conversations in his private quarters. He had seven women disciples but Miaozong was the most physically beautiful. Head monk Daoyan, likely concerned about his master's reputation in the community, objected strongly to her visits. Dahui, who knew her great virtue, told Daoyan he should go interview Miaozong. Daoyan reluctantly agreed and went to see Miaozong at her small home. She came out to meet him and asked, “Will you make it a spiritual interview or a worldly interview? “A spiritual interview,” said Daoyan. Miaozong went into her room and in a moment she told him to come in. He did so and there found Miaozong lying face upwards on the bed without any clothes. Daoyan pointed at her and began a Chan dialogue: “What is in there?” She replied, “All the Buddhas of the three worlds and all the patriarchs and great priests everywhere— they all come out from here.” Daoyan said to her: “And would you let me enter, or not?” Miaozong replied: “A donkey might pass; a horse may not pass.” Befuddled, Daoyan said nothing, and Miaozong declared: “The interview with the head monk is ended.” She rolled over and showed her backside. Daoyan turned red and left. Dahui later told Daoyan: “The old gal had some insight, didn’t she? She outfaced head monk Daoyan!”

A monk, concerned about his entanglement in the three worlds (desire realm, subtle form realm, causal realm), asked Chan master Tianping Congyi (10th century), “How does someone leave the three worlds?” Tianping quipped, “When the three worlds arrive, then you will leave them.”

When the Chan master Yuezhou Qianfeng in the prior century had been asked by a monk a similar question, “How does one escape the three realms?” Yuezhou called out, “Summon the temple director and have this monk chased out of here!”

A monk asked Tianping Congyi, “The mountains, rivers and the great earth-- from where did all of these things comes forth?” Tianping replied, “From where did this question come forth?”

A monk, wondering about the stillness of the transcendent principle, asked Bao'en Xuanze (10th century), “What is the meaning of 'no movement'?” Bao'en replied, “The river rapids heave and crash. The sun and moon swirl in orbit.”

Chan master Ruiyan Shiyan (d. 10th century), when he settled at his Auspicious Cliff monastery in Taizhou, famously sat either in his abbot’s chamber or on a large rock and daily, audibly dialogued with himself by calling out, “Master!” “What?” “Stay wide awake!” “Yes!” “And in future don’t be fooled by anyone!” “Yes, yes!”

The Lamp Transmission literature relates that a monk in Ruiyan’s congregation once asked him about a sublime vision experienced in meditation, “When a crown appears on the head and flowery clouds at the feet, what is it?” Ruiyan: “A fool in manacles.” The monk then asked, “When there’s no crown nor flowery clouds, then what?” Ruiyan: “Still in manacles.” Monk: “Then, after all is said and done, what is it [our True Nature]?” Ruiyan said, “Being tired after the banquet.”

A monk came to Chan master Luohan Guichen (Lo-han Kuei-ch'en, 867-928) and asked, “What is Luohan's single phrase?” Luohan replied, “If I tell you it will turn into two phrases.”

The illustrious reviver of Korean Son/Seon (Zen) Buddhism for the modern era, master Kyongho Song-u (1846-1912), had many great dharma-successors. The most formidable was Mangong Wolmyon (1871-1946). Once, Mangong and Suwol (1855-1928), an older dharma successor of Kyongho, were sitting together in conversation. Suwol picked up a bowl of browned rice, a favorite Korean snack, and spoke in the paradoxical language typical of Son/Zen: “Don’t say this is a bowl of browned rice. Don’t say this is not a bowl of browned rice. Just give me one word.” Mangong reached over, took the bowl from Suwol and threw it out of the window. Suwol was very pleased, “Very good. That’s wonderful!”

A monk once made a circle in the air and asked Son master Mangong, “Why is it that all the monks of the world between the sky and the ground cannot get into the middle of this circle?” Mangong also made a circle and said, “Why is it that all the monks cannot go out from the middle of this circle?” (They cannot leave their changeless Real Nature!)

At his talk at the end of a week-long intensive meditation retreat, the great Chan master Hsüan-hua (Pinyin: Xuanhua, 1918-1995) concluded: “Now we have finished. Everyone stand and we will bow to the Buddha three times to thank him. We thank him because, even if we did not have a great enlightenment, we had a small enlightenment. And if we did not have a small enlightenment, at least we didn't get sick. Well, if we got sick, at least we didn't die! So let's thank the Buddha.”

Old Japanese master Hoshin told his disciples: “It is not necessary for a Zen master to predict his passing, but if he really wishes to do so, he can.” “Can you?” asked a student. “Yes. I will show you what I can do seven days from now.” None of the disciples believed him, and most had forgotten his words when he called them together again. “Seven days ago, I said I was going to leave you. It is customary to write a farewell poem, but I am neither a poet nor calligrapher. One of you please inscribe my last words.” His disciples thought he was joking, but one started to write. Hoshin dictated: “I came from brilliancy / and return to brilliancy. / What is this?” The poem was one line short of the customary four, so the disciple said, “Master, we are short by one line.” Hoshin, with the roar of a conquering lion, shouted “Kaa!” and was gone.

A monk asked Chan master Touzi Datong (T'ou-tzu Ta-t'ung, 819-914), “What is the final word?” Touzi: “The word you didn’t understand at the beginning.”

One day Chan master Yangqi (Yang-chi, 992-1049), after meditating with the large assembly of monks, got up to give the formal lecture on the way of enlightenment. Gazing out at all the monks, he instead began laughing. “Ha! Ha! Ha! What’s all this? Ha! Ha! Please go to the back of the hall and drink some tea!”

* * * * *

Part of the Animal Scrolls attributed to Buddhist abbot Toba Sojo, Kozan-ji, Kyoto, Japan, 12th century.

Great Chan master Linji (Jap.: Rinzai) mentoring his disciples, Zen painting by Sengai.