Words are powerful tools that have been developed throughout human evolution and are essential for maintaining communication in social groups and for passing the collected knowledge from one generation to another. The nature of words, however, is dualistic. When we try to describe something, we analyse, compare and separate what we want to describe from everything else. In doing so, we use each word as a container holding an isolated piece of information.
To break down the duality that is caused by verbal communication, spiritual teachers use the power of paradoxes and stories.
The analytical mind has a difficult time when facing a paradox that cannot be explained or understood in a logical way, which often causes irritation accompanied by judgment. Guided by logic, the thinking mind always considers a paradox to be a mistake that must be rejected or at least corrected. This conflict that the logical mind faces in the presence of paradox is perceived by spiritual masters as an extraordinary tool for breaking down Ego structures. Even, all Zen practice is based on apparently paradoxical statements that aim to dispel dualistic perceptions.
Apart from paradox, another, seemingly easier way to overcome the dualistic nature of words is achieved through stories. Stories are nothing but words interwoven into a network, which, unlike isolated words, do not transmit information linearly but multi-dimensionally. In this way, they have the ability to quietly penetrate the mind, as water that flows through gates locked with heavy chains and innumerable seals.
Our mind receives and remembers the stories in a more complex way than individual words. While for individual words the mind uses a dualistic approach to classify and store the information received, the information contained in the stories reaches deeper and it is recalled more quickly. Indeed, the story uses the mind's ability to store information more effectively, leading to a better absorption of the transferred knowledge and a more successful retention of the transmitted message. This is also why mnemonic (“Eselsbrücke”) is used for memorising, why fairy tales are read to young children, why Aesop's fables were taught in schools, and why every religion uses storytelling as a medium to convey messages of wisdom.
The skill of the mind to sort, organise and categorise received information, makes the stories an excellent carrier of knowledge, but also a trap of misinterpretation and manipulation. With that, unfortunately, stories have the capacity not only to break down but also to strengthen Ego structures. This is because the Ego-driven mind tends to be dualistic when translating even the most complex information, categorising everything into "I vs. another", "sadness vs. happiness", "gain vs. loss", "good vs. evil", "black vs. white" " etc.
Therefore, stories that aim to convey knowledge and wisdom are often interpreted literally and in accordance with the needs of the individual Ego. Still, their ability to help people transcend dualistic perceptions should not be overlooked. This is why Buddhism has been using parables, anecdotes, fables and stories for centuries to convey some of the life lessons, as well as to help people develop awareness by providing enlightening insights. Zen Buddhism, in particular, uses short stories as an instrument to overcome the duality of good and evil or right and wrong and to lead monks, Zen students and lay people into a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of reality.
Once the reader is immersed in the world of the Zen Buddhist narrative, Zen-stories seem either easy to understand or rather confusing. But this first impression should never be trusted. Each Zen story carries the hidden message that lingers beneath the surface. So, a seemingly easy-to-understand story may not be that easy, and a confusing story may not be as complicated as it seems. It is therefore necessary to read between the lines - curiously and without judgment of the Ego-driven mind - and to remember that the essence of any Zen story goes beyond a simple life-story or a historical record. Yet, when Zen stories are read with an open mind, they are transformed into vehicles that help personal development on the path to peace, joy and contentment. In that moment, one can even say that the story itself is not relevant, but only the wisdom contained in it. Wisdom over which words and time have no power.
May you transcend the dualistic perception.
Five Zen Stories for your mind work:
Translated in English by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.
Source: Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings
1. Working Very Hard
A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.” The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?” The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”
2. It Will Pass
A student went to his meditation teacher and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, or my legs ache, or I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s just horrible!” “It will pass,” the teacher said matter-of-factly. A week later, the student came back to his teacher. “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!’ “It will pass,” the teacher replied matter-of-factly.
3. 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 honour 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 realisation.”
4. Nothing Exists
Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku. Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realisation, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.” Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.
“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”
5. No Water, No Moon
When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!