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Zen Story: When is a koan not a koan? Never!

A puny, wimpy student of a Zen master asked instruction of the master how he might build up his inner strength.

The master told him that there was a park, not far from the Zen monastery. 

“Every day, you must go there and walk up and down the steps that are there, leading up to the Japanese garden, at the top of these steps. Make at least ten such up and down trips, each and every day.”

“Do this for a year, then come back to me then,” he said.

After a year, the young student re-appeared in the master’s rooms.

He said to the master,

“For one year, I have done as you told me to do, but as far as I can see, I am still the same as I was a year ago. Nothing has changed in me. I still do not have inner strength.”

The master grimaced visibly. His student had obviously missed seeing the whole point of the exercise.

Then the master smiled again, as he spoke to his student,

“Well, look at your outer body. It has gained much strength, and muscle, from your performing diligently this set task.”

“Anything that happens outwardly always affects you inwardly too, you know. And so, do not be so certain, you must have changed inwardly too.”

“What did you do when you got up to the gardens there?”

“Did you come right back down again, after your tenth trip, each day, or at least once, did you stop at the top, to look at the garden there?”

The student replied,

“No, not once did I stop at the top. I just carried out your instructions rigidly every day, without varying from them, at all.”

The master winked twice, before he said,

“Well, maybe you are right, you are disciplined, but too disciplined to be flexible enough to grow and to change from who you inwardly are right now.”

“Do not follow rules so doggedly, but stop sometimes to see what is at the top of your task.”

“See the truth, that the task takes you to truth, but on its own, the task only ever leads you further away from it, because you stubbornly refuse to see the benefits, the results, the insights, and learning opportunities that you can see on the way, without over-focussing on your task, excluding all else, as you do so.”

“All life is winking the truth at you, if only you recognise the wink, as the truth.”

What do you think?

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Written by The Dunce

I like to write from time to time, short stories, poetry, and deeply questioning articles, mainly about spiritual subjects, or personal development type things, of interest to me.

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10 Comments

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  1. I do understand, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder if one opens his eyes to see the truth right? I have seen much sorrow in my life and I try to keep my eyes open in case something of value crasses my path, I love the fall season and I wait for beautiful leaves to show themselves,

    • Yes, truth is all around us, if we stay open to seeing it. We should not concentrate all of our focus on the telescope/instrument, that we are using to try to find it.

      Even if we are using our mind as an instrument, we should not always stay in our minds, but drop down to our heart to feel the truth, and to connect to it more strongly then too.

      We can read the letter of truth in our mind, but we can only really know and understand and connect to it from our hearts.

      Truth is not just literal, an intellectual knowledge thing. Truth must come alive in us to be real in us.

  2. The story highlites what a koan is, and is not, indirectly.

    A koan is like a conundrum, in English.

    Koan is a Japanese word that describes something similar to this:

    koan, a noun.

    “A koan is a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment.”

    It is sort of like a meditation, where we try to drop the mind, to see into the essence of what is.

    The most famous koan, is this one:

    “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

    Of course, obviously, one hand cannot clap on its own, but the koan makes you think of why this is so, or not so. You think deeper than the obvious.

    All of life is like this. We see things on the surface, when usually, everything carries a deeper, more connecting reason to it too.

    Hence the title of my piece.

    “When is a koan not a koan? Never!”

    All of life is like a koan, but I got the idea of the title, from Shakespeare, “to be, or not to be”

    Everything can either be, or not be for us.

    It is up to us to either accept things as they are, or pretend that they are something else, or try hard to change things that we cannot really change, and so end up unhappy with our lives.

    The koan shows us the useless nature of our thinking, thinking in circles for answers that can not be found with logical solutions, but must be found more creatively, by thinking out of the box, imaginatively, not by following old rules, and restricting laws.

    If Einstein had believed Newton was right, and that his laws were the be-all and end-all, he would never have discovered his more encompassing theory of relativity , for example.

    • I am still not used to how to reply here. I sometimes reply as a new comment, and you cannot edit a comment once it’s posted, so I posted this reply again to you here now.

      The story highlites what a koan is, and is not, indirectly.

      A koan is like a conundrum, in English.

      Koan is a Japanese word that describes something similar to this:

      koan, a noun.

      “A koan is a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment.”

      It is sort of like a meditation, where we try to drop the mind, to see into the essence of what is.

      The most famous koan, is this one:

      “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

      Of course, obviously, one hand cannot clap on its own, but the koan makes you think of why this is so, or not so. You think deeper than the obvious.

      All of life is like this. We see things on the surface, when usually, everything carries a deeper, more connecting reason to it too.

      Hence the title of my piece.

      “When is a koan not a koan? Never!”

      All of life is like a koan, but I got the idea of the title, from Shakespeare, “to be, or not to be”

      Everything can either be, or not be for us.

      It is up to us to either accept things as they are, or pretend that they are something else, or try hard to change things that we cannot really change, and so end up unhappy with our lives.

      The koan shows us the useless nature of our thinking, thinking in circles for answers that can not be found with logical solutions, but must be found more creatively, by thinking out of the box, imaginatively, not by following old rules, and restricting laws.

      If Einstein had believed Newton was right, and that his laws were the be-all and end-all, he would never have discovered his more encompassing theory of relativity , for example.

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