Zen Buddhism with a practice motto of Kenshō （明心见性）, which means clarity of one’s mind to see one’s nature. (Our Buddha nature or our enlightened mind.)
In Buddhism, the mind that is shrouded by craving, hatred and ignorance is the mind of ordinary beings; whereas the mind that is free from afflictions is the enlightened mind. It is the same mind.
It isn’t surprising that enlightened zen masters displayed a sense of humor that is filled with wisdom. Here’s 2 of my favorite stories.
Grandpa dies, father dies, son dies
This story happened in ancient China. A local magistrate was having a birthday party for his dad’s 80th birthday. Being a devout Buddhist, he invited a famous zen monk who was also a famous calligrapher.
That monk offered to write them a calligraphy as a birthday gift. Naturally, the magistrate was delighted that a holy person was going to bestow some auspicious verses as a gift. The ink, brush and paper was promptly brought to the courtyard and a table was set up. All the guests crowded around, eager to see the birth of an auspicious verse in beautiful calligraphy.
However, as the monk wrote his well wishes, the crowd turned dead silent. It was an awkward atmosphere and people did not know what to make of the situations unfolding in front of them.
Foremost, the monk wrote:”Grandfather dies” two words in bold calligraphic stroke that defies any sense of auspiciousness, on the 80th birthday party of the grandfather!
Then he wrote”Father dies” and “Son dies” It looks more like a curse instead! The magistrate was seething with anger, dumbfounded and rooted to the spot beside the monk. How should he react? His mind was a complete blank as all the guest stared at him.
The zen monk gently picked up the calligraphy written on the expensive paper and handed them to the magistrate respectfully.
“What is the meaning of this?” each word in his sentence growing louder than the one before. The magistrate’s face had turned red as he saw his father staring sadly at the calligraphy.
That zen monk smiled and calmly replied the magistrate,
“Don’t you like the order of my calligraphy? I can re-write it in reversed order, if that is really what you want?”
The unexpected respond was like a clap of thunder in the magistrate’s mind. The anger on his face evaporated and was replaced with calmness and a gentle smile. He bowed deeply to the zen monk and raised the calligraphy high above his head. That calligraphy was promptly hung and prominently displayed in the main hall.
The magistrate had realized that death is inevitable and the sequence of death written on the calligraphy is auspicious!
Note: Do not imitate enlightened monk indiscriminately, I tried doing that when I was seventeen years old and I wasn’t welcomed to birthday parties after that.
Hell and heaven in a thought
Traditional Buddhist text narrates hell and heaven as states of rebirth for people who are extremely bad or good. Modern Buddhist brush off the relevance of these topics as mere educational tools used for teaching morality.
What did an enlightened monk in ancient Japan say?
This story happened in ancient Japan, when powerful Samurai ruled the land. Many warlords, sponsored Buddhist monks and built temple as a “Total defense” against enemies. While their physical army defends the land physically, monks were expected to defend against spiritual attack with prayers. Such grand sponsorship of temples and famous monks also helped the warlords gain support from the general population.
During that time, there was a famous zen monk who was reputedly enlightened and a Samurai who was growing in militia strength.
The Samurai’s housekeeper/ administrator kept advising the Samurai to offer sponsorship to that wise monk. The Samurai warlord was irritated by the constant nagging because he believed in the power of his sword only. All the talks about heaven and Buddha was considered superstitious and useless.
“Fine! I will visit him and ask him to show me heaven and hell, if he is that enlightened.”
The wise zen monk was sitting in the main hall when the Samurai warlord arrived.
“People say you are enlightened, can you show me heaven and hell?” asked the warlord.
“Nah! you are just an uneducated brute. You can never understand our profound doctrine.” said the monk without even looking at the Samurai (a very rude gesture that is dismissive)
“WTF! ” cursed the warlord. He drew his long Samurai sword and raise it to strike the insolent monk.
“That is hell!” said the zen monk calmly, while pointing his finger at the Samurai’s head.
This sudden reaction caught the warlord off guard and he froze in his position with sword ready to strike. His anger quickly disappeared and he promptly kept his sword and knelt down.
“That is heaven!” said the zen monk calmly, again pointing his finger at the Samurai’s head.
Our rebirth is largely driven by our karma. Karma means our actions, speech and thought. If we constantly seek violence in action, speech and thought, our mind becomes habitually violent. After we die, we will be reborn in violent places.
That is why Buddhist say, hell and heaven is in a thought. （一念地狱，一念天）
May all be well and happy.