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These classic Zen stories speak of death, life, and the perfect journey.

Truth has nothing to do with words. So say the various Zen masters throughout the ages.

Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger pointing at the moon. The finger can point to the moon’s location, but to truly look at the moon, it is necessary to look past the finger.

Similarly, these Zen stories are not truth themselves – they merely aim to illustrate various elements of truth.

“Think of these tales as conversation pieces,” writes John Suler, “as handy tools that you can lift out of your pocket to help you and others talk, think, and laugh about the wondrous and mysterious details of this thing we call Life.”

I chose the following from the brilliant collection 101 Zen Stories, based on the merit they present to travelers of all ages, religions, and nationalities. I follow each with a short commentary on how I interpreted them.

Enjoy! And don’t forget to share your own thoughts at the end of the post.

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?”

The best travelers head out with no preconceptions about the cultures they will visit and the people they will meet. They remember to pack the most important thing: an open mind.

2. Muddy Road

Tanzan and Ekido were once travelling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks can’t be near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

Sometimes the right decision means not following the rules. The important thing is to act, then let it go and move on.

3. The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you shoud not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He 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.”

On the road, don’t be too paranoid about losing your stuff. Material possessions are useful, but pale in comparison to the true riches of a journey.

4. Your Light May Go Out

A student of Tendai, a philosophical school of Buddhism, came to the Zen abode of Gasan as a pupil. When he was departing a few years later, Gasan warned him: “Studying the truth speculatively is useful as a way of collecting preaching material. But remember that unless you meditate constantly you light of truth may go out.”

While traveling, it can be tempting to focus only what’s in your guidebook and on the web. This speculative studying is helpful, but no substitute for using your own awareness as a guide.

5. The Gates of Paradise

A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin. “I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.

“You, a soldier!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.” Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”

As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: “Here open the gates of hell!” At these words the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.

“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

The difference between heaven and hell is often a matter of perspective. How will you choose to perceive the experiences of your journey?

6. Killing

Gasan instructed his adherents one day: “Those who speak against killing and who desire to spare the lives of all conscious beings are right. It is good to protect even animals and insects.

But what about those persons who kill time, what about those who are destroying wealth, and those who destroy political economy? We should not overlook them. Furthermore, what of the one who preaches without enlightenment? He is killing Buddhism.”

Be wary of travel companions who speak one way and act another. They can inadvertently kill a trip faster than you think. Learn how to execute your escape.

7. Inch Time Foot Gem

A lord asked Takuan, a Zen teacher, to suggest how he might pass the time. He felt his days very long attending his office and sitting stiffly to receive the homage of others.

Takuan wrote eight Chinese characters and gave them to the man:

Not twice this day
Inch time foot gem.
This day will not come again.
Each minute is worth a priceless gem.

No matter how uncomfortable the bus ride, how horrendous the airline food, or how saggy the bed, remember: this moment will not come again.

8. 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 pupils 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.

Never be too quick to judge others. Chances are, you’re not the perfect traveler yourself.

9. The Stone Mind

Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves.

While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said: “There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?”

One of the monks replied: “From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.”

“Your head must feel very heavy,” observed Hogen, “if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.”

With everyone jumping on the law of attraction bandwagon (The Secret anyone?) it’s easy to believe reality is an illusion, and that you’ve got it all figured out. Maybe…but don’t forget you’re still a human be-ing.

10. Time to Die

Ikkyu, the Zen master, was very clever even as a boy. His teacher had a precious teacup, a rare antique. Ikkyu happened to break this cup and was greatly perplexed. Hearing the footsteps of his teacher, he held the pieces of the cup behind him. When the master appeared, Ikkyu asked: “Why do people have to die?”

“This is natural,” explained the older man. “Everything has to die and has just so long to live.”

Ikkyu, producing the shattered cup, added: “It was time for your cup to die.”

Every trip, even the ones you want to last forever, must inevitably come to an end. That’s not tragic… that’s life. Don’t be afraid to accept when it’s time for your journey to die.

What do you think of these zen stories for travelers? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Also, be sure to check out Awakeblogger’s own 10 best zen story picks.



About The Author

Ian MacKenzie

Ian MacKenzie is the founder and former editor of Brave New Traveler. He is Head of Video at Matador Network. Ian is also an independent filmmaker, with his first feature (One Week Job) released in 2010. His more recent projects include Sacred Economics and Occupy Love.

  • Spencer

    Excellent idea, Ian. There is always something to be said for compassion and understanding on the road. Sometimes I am amazed by the over-stimulation that creeps up on me in a new place. When everything is new and fresh it is important to free ourselves from the preconceptions, for better or worse, that frame our intellect. Lately I have been consumed with this idea of the eternal present. There are many words for it, or symbols, or ideas. And one of them you happened to include here in the first story: the empty cup of tea. This idea, this out-there existence beyond any self-image, this is what we hope to attain if we are to learn from the places we visit. Or the minutes of our day. A great cutout to paste in the journal and reread on the sweaty bus at noon near the equator.

  • Ian MacKenzie

    @Spencer – Glad you enjoyed the collection! What I love about the stories is they are not esoteric and mysterious. They are very down to earth tales that provide insight and food for thought that can be pondered by any traveler.

  • erin malloy

    Ian, thank you for this. i immensley enjoyed each one! especially # seven’s acronym N.I.T.E. will be etched into life. travelling or during an otherwise mundane day, i’lll try to ‘look on the bright side of life’ and whistle like bruce cockburn. : )

  • Marie-Christine Desy

    I LOVE the Muddy Road one. So, so full of truth. Have got to print it up and stick it to my fridge door or something!
    That’s a great article Ian, always so talented :)

  • Christine

    “Sometimes the right decision means not following the rules. The important thing is to act, then let it go and move on.”

    Ahh, so, so true…

  • Turner Wright

    Not a real big Zen story on traveling, but I do like Hakuin’s “Is that so?”

    • Ian MacKenzie

      @Turner – I think that’s a good one for traveling. It’s speaks to the tendency of travelers to pre-judge an experience as good or bad…without considering a bad experience may in fact lead to a good one.

  • Brian from

    Muddy Road is not only applicable to travel, but to most of life. How many things have come and gone yet they still weigh us down. Push it out of you mind and move on. You can’t change it and stressing over it certainly won’t change the circumstances surrounding it.

  • Alex

    This a wonderful piece on perspective and being mindful of yourself. Good thoughts to refect on, not only in travel but in the grand picture of your own everyday life.

    The Stone Mind is particularly interesting to me since despite the many years people have dedicated to figuring our the grand mystery we call life, we are still no nearer to knowing it. Remembering to live here and not be lost inside ourselves is a hard practice for there is nothing more tantalizing to a curious mind as a mystery.

    Thank you kindly for this thoughtful article. Appreciated it very much.


  • Brielle

    I always belly laugh when I read ‘A Cup Of Tea’. I have to read it though, not just think about it or tell it. When I read it, I laugh. I am drinking some tea right now too – and it is my son’s 16th birthday. So, I suppose I should pour some tea for him too. bye for now. hahahahahahahah thanks for the laughter. B.

  • Tracy Barnett

    I just found this piece posted on Twitter, and am so glad I did! It’s a gem. I’m going to share it, too. Its time to die has not yet come!

  • Sanjay Tiwari

    Somehow these stories force us to think about the destiny we are here for.
    The small small things which we dont realize are the biggest secrets of the life.

  • ksnarayanarao

    The moon can’t be stolen and about heven and hell are very thought provocking.

  • HL

    Most of the interpretations are wrong, it’s not because the interpreters’ fault, it’s simply due to the level of zen you have, and the gap between eastern and western, you cannot interpret it correctly until you have a good understanding of the culture, which is the root of Zen.

    • Ian MacKenzie

      Hi HL – appreciate you stopping by… though I question how you can pronounce interpretations “wrong.” Zen is poetry… and as such, is subject to many interpretations.

  • Maria

    Hello Ian – I had promised myself NO distractions today, but that was before I came upon this page!!!! What a fabulous collection of stories! I hope you won’t mind my referring to them from time to time. Great work!

    • Ian MacKenzie

      @maria – awesome, glad you liked the post!

  • Christine Ferraren

    thank you very much for this article. we were asked to search for zen stories that we can enact.
    And I passed by this article and it made my research easier now that there are so many stories here.
    and im still 14 years old and yet I enjoy reading it. especially the “Muddy Road”

    -great work sir!

  • http://timetodie Tanya

    I am not a fan of Zen stories but i enjoyed this passage of “Time to die.”

  • Jeff Kurian

    Thank you Ian. The muddy road is one of my favorites. Here’s another (not sure of the source):
    A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

  • Ben Steed

    I know this is incredibly late-coming, but thank you for this post. Very inspiring and insightful :)
    Best wishes.

  • Mark Fullarton

    I love these. Thank you.

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