Zen stories 2

Another brief Zen story I like:

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)

Zen stories

The stories of the Zen tradition are some of my favourites. Most of them are brief anecdotes without a hero, without a happy or unhappy ending. Many of them are funny.  Many are mysterious, or frustrating, or make you ask, "Yeah, so what?" Some don't seem to make a lot of sense (which may be the point), while others make a sword-sharp point (which may not be the point). If you step into a Zen story, you may never quite find your way out again. You might discover that the story can't be told without you.

When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

"Give me the best piece of meat you have," said the customer.

"Everything in my shop is the best," replied the butcher. "You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best."

At these words Banzan became enlightened.

[from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, Tuttle Publishing 1957]

story ghosts

I love ghost stories.

But I’m also fascinated by story ghosts.

Not just ghosts in stories, but the ghosts of stories, and the ghosts of characters who no longer have a story. There are far more of these to be found in the Perilous Realm than one would think. Every time a story is no longer told by anyone, or gets swallowed up by a story that has grown large and popular, the old story doesn’t just vanish suddenly but slowly fades away, remaining as a ghostly trace of what it once was, in the memories of storytellers and in other stories, too. Everyone believes that the big, new, important story is the only one that matters, but if you look carefully, you can still see the story ghosts hovering on the edges of the tale.

I’ve visited storylands where I’ve had the distinct feeling that there were other stories lurking inside this one, stories that had almost been forgotten. And then there are the story ghosts of “what might have been.” A story will be going along just fine, but every so often, you get a glimpse of the story that might have happened if things had gone a little differently, or if the storyteller had explored a little deeper in the shadowy corners of her own story rather than going down the same well-worn paths that she had always taken.