7 Short Zen Stories You Will Love ~

Zen has a rich tradition of storytelling. We like stories so much because we can relate to them, whether they’re real or fiction. We personally connect with stories. We need to experience and go through something directly in order for us to relate and really learn from what these stories are about.

Zen short stories are fun because they require some level of meditative contemplation to figure out what lesson you get from every story. It is not about logic or words, but your state of mind. Their purpose is to teach a lesson. They may just be simple stories about life but they speak of truths which everyone can learn from. These stories try to point the way to develop confidence in your life and the way to live our life to the fullest and ultimately find peace within ourselves and with others.


Here are 7 short Zen stories that will teach you important life lessons:

1. Everything changes:

“Suzuki Roshi, “I’ve been listening to your lectures for years,” a student said during the question and answer time following a lecture, “but I just don’t understand. Could you just put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?”

Everyone laughed. Suzuki laughed.

“Everything changes,” he said. Then he asked for another question.

EXPLANATION: Everything changes. Nothing in life is permanent. Your loved ones, your home even our planet is not permanent. It is important to know this because it teaches us that holding on to things is one of the major reasons as to why we suffer. We need to be constantly aware of the ever-changing nature of reality and appreciate the present moment. It’s not about letting go, it’s really about not holding on. If we can learn to live in this way, we can find peace in everyday life.


2. Empty your cup:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during Meiji era received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.”

EXPLANATION: This story is a great reminder that in order for us to learn, we have to be humble, to empty our mind and make room for the new.


3. Non-judgment:

Once upon the 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,” the farmer replied.

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 well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

EXPLANATION: The farmer is practicing non-judgment. He understands the true nature of life, that you can’t judge an event as an “end” in a way. There’s always tomorrow. There are always two sides of the same coin. If things seem perfect, they aren’t. Things can change in an instant, at all times. We need to realize this truth and live in a way that we’re constantly aware of it in order to find peace and happiness.


4. Right and Wrong:

When Bankei held his seclusion-weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings, a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit is expelled. Bankei ignored the case.

Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again Bankei disregarded the matter. This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise, they will leave in a body.

When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. “You are wise brothers,” he told them. “You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave.”

A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.

EXPLANATION: How quickly would most people turn their back on those who commit a crime like stealing just as the pupils did. That thief simply needs to be shown the right path. Those who commit such crimes are often those that need help with the most basic spiritual and human principles, such as right and wrong. Of course, they should be disciplined for their behavior but we also need to take the time to guide them and teach them right and wrong.


5. Be the Boss:

A horse suddenly came galloping quickly down the road. It seemed as though the man had somewhere important to go.

Another man who was standing alongside the road shouted, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse replied.

“I don’t know! Ask the horse!”

EXPLANATION: The horse symbolizes our habit energy. Just because we are used to doing things do not mean we should live like it. The horse is pulling us along, leading us everywhere without knowing why. We need to learn how to take back the reigns and let the horse know who’s the boss. You’re the boss, you’ve always been the boss, so start acting like it. Lead your own life.


6. Watch Yourself:

There was once a pair of acrobats. The teacher was a poor widower and the student was a young girl by the name of Meda. These acrobats performed each day on the streets in order to earn enough to eat.

Their act consisted of the teacher balancing a tall bamboo pole on his head while the little girl climbed slowly to the top. Once to the top, she remained there while the teacher said to the pupil.

‘Listen Meda, I will watch you and you watch me so that we can help each other maintain concentration and balance and prevent an accident. Then we’ll surely earn enough to eat.’

But the little girl was wise, she answered, ‘Dear master, I think it would be better for each of us to watch ourselves. To look after oneself means to look after both of us. That way I am sure we will avoid any accidents and earn enough to eat.’

EXPLANATION: The story is meant to show that taking care of yourself is the most important thing you can do before you can take care of others. Learn to love yourself first so you can learn to treat others with love, kindness, and compassion. Taking care of yourself equals taking care of others.


7. Moving Mind:

Two men were arguing about a flag flapping in the wind. “It’s the wind that is really moving,” stated the first one. “No, it is the flag that is moving,” contended the second.

A Zen master, who happened to be walking by, overheard the debate and interrupted them. “Neither the flag nor the wind is moving,” he said, “It is MIND that moves.”

EXPLANATION: Our minds create what we see. It is strong and capable of anything. This means MIND OVER MATTER. This story isn’t trying to say that the flag and the wind aren’t moving — It is what it is. It’s the mind that gives things meaning. Everyone sees the world differently.