Zen Flesh Zen Bones

Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings

Have the fearless attitude of a hero and the loving heart of a child.
— Soyen Shaku

Many of us are students or readers of Thich Nhat Hanh, who comes out of the Vietnamese Zen tradition. Paul Reps has done a fine service in compiling this very small volume of Zen stories and teachings, which will provide relief, hilarity, profundity, gasps, and smiles from page to page.

The book has four parts: (1) 101 Zen Stories; (2) The Gateless Gate, Mu-mon’s commentaries; (3) 10 Bulls by Kakuan; and (4) Centering, a collection of 112 practical teachings (a few of which remind me of the utility of lojong slogans).

Here are a few of the Zen Stories:

1. A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), 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 own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

2. A Mother’s Advice

Jiun, a Shogun master, was a well-known Sanskrit scholar of the Tokugawa era. When he was young he used to deliver lectures to his brother students.

His mother heard about this and wrote him a letter.:

“Son, I do not think you became a devotee of the Buddha because you desired to turn into a walking dictionary for others. There is no end to information and commentation, glory and honor. I wish you would stop this lecture business. Shut yourself up in a little temple in a remote part of the mountain. Devote your time to meditation and in this way attain true realization.”

3.  If You Love, Love Openly

Twenty monks and one nun, who was named Eshun, were practicing meditation with a certain Zen master.

Eshun was very pretty even though her head was shaved and her dress plain. Several monks secretly fell in love with her. One of them wrote her a love letter, insisting upon a private meeting.

Eshun did not reply. The following day the master gave a lecture to the group, and when it was over, Eshun arose. Addressing the one who had written her, she said: “If you really love me so much, come and embrace me now.”

4. My Heart Burns Like Fire

Soyen Shaku, the first Zen teacher to come to America, said: “My heart burns like fire but my eyes are as cold as dead ashes.” He made the following rules which he practiced every day of his life.

  • In the morning before dressing, light incense and meditate.
  • Retire at a regular hour. Partake of food at regular intervals. Eat with moderation and never to the point of satisfaction.
  • Receive a guest with the same attitude you have when alone. When alone, maintain the same attitude you have in receiving guests.
  • Watch what you say, and whatever you say, practice it.
  • When an opportunity comes do not let it pass you by, yet always think twice before acting.
  • Do not regret the past. Look to the future.
  • Have the fearless attitude of a hero and the loving heart of a child.
  • Upon retiring, sleep as if you had entered your last sleep. Upon awakening, leave your bed behind you instantly as if you had cast away a pair of old shoes.

5. Every-Minute Zen

Zen students are with their masters at least two years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: “I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.”

Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.

6.  Soldiers of Humanity

Once a division of the Japanese army was engaged in a sham battle, and some of the officers found it necessary to make their headquarters in Gasan’s temple.

Gasan told his cook: “Let the officers have only the same simple fare we eat.”

This made the army men angry, as they were used to very deferential treatment. One came to Gasan and said: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country. Why don’t you treat us accordingly?”

Gasan answered sternly: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers of humanity, aiming to save all sentient beings.”

7. Learning to Be Silent

The pupils of the Tendai school used to study meditation before Zen entered Japan. Four of them who were intimate friends promised one another to observe seven days of silence.

On the first day all were silent. Their meditation had begun auspiciously, but when night came and the oil lamps were growing dim one of the pupils could not help exclaiming to a servant: “Fix those lamps.”

The second pupil was surprised to hear the first one talk. “We are not supposed to say a word,” he remarked.

“You two are stupid. Why did you talk?” asked the third.

“I am the only one who has not talked,” concluded the fourth pupil.

 

Here are a few of the teachings from Centering:

Eyes closed, see your inner being in detail. Thus see your true nature. [10]

In summer when you see the entire sky endlessly clear, enter such clarity. [51]

Just as you have the impulse to do something, stop. [64]

Feel yourself as pervading all directions, far, near.  [67]

When some desire comes, consider it. Then, suddenly, quit it.  [71]

In moods of extreme desire, be undisturbed.  [76]

Toss attachment for body aside, realizing I am everywhere. One who is everywhere is joyous. [79]

Feel the consciousness of each person as your own consciousness. So, leaving aside concern for self, become each being.  [82]

At the start of sneezing, during fright, in anxiety, above a chasm, flying in battle, in extreme curiosity, at the beginning of hunger, at the end of hunger, be uninterruptedly aware.  [93]

Be the unsame same to friend as to stranger, in honor and dishonor.  [100]

And let the last word go to Paul Reps: “It has been said that if you have Zen in your life, you have no fear, no doubt, no unnecessary craving, no extreme emotion. Neither illiberal attitudes nor egotistical actions trouble you. You serve humanity humbly, fulfilling your presence in this world with loving-kindness and observing your passing as a petal from a flower. Serene, you enjoy life in blissful tranquility.”

 

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