I have told many people the two following stories about how great Zen masters taught their disciples (or wannabe disciples) precious lessons.
Story one: A great master was deep in meditation. A famous samurai-aristocrat went to see him in the hope of finding esoteric wisdom. He waited for a long time, but the master did not open his eyes even to acknowledge his presence. Not used to being so ignored, the warrior cleared his throat loudly to attract attention. The master opened his bloodshot eyes and said, rather roughly, ‘What do you want?’ As humbly as he could, the visitor said, ‘O wise one, I have come to ask you what is heaven and what is hell’. The master merely said ‘I have no time to answer foolish questions from riff-raff’, and closed his eyes again. Goaded beyond endurance, the warrior unsheathed his sword and shouted ‘You presumptuous beggar! Do you have any idea who I am? Do you know I could cut off your head at once?’ Strangely, the sage opened his eyes and sneered, ‘That is hell’. It hit the samurai like a thunderclap. He sat down and thought for a long, long time. Then all of a sudden he fell at the master’s feet and said, ‘O holy one, I now realize I am a benighted fool. Please, I beg you, show me the light.’ At this the old man opened his eyes briefly, and said, with a gentle, winning smile, ‘That, my son, is heaven. Go home.’
Story two: Another very venerable sage was going on a long journey on foot with a young disciple, lecturing on all sorts of subjects as he walked. When it was almost evening, they were passing a dense forest, and they heard a female voice crying. Hurrying to see who was in trouble, the master saw a young and pretty girl weeping by the river bank, a bloody wound under her foot. On being asked, she wept still, and said she had gone to sell fish in the market, and she had been late in returning, and the ferry had gone, and she had cut her foot on the sharp rocks, and now she couldn’t get across, and she would be eaten by wild beasts. The master (who was a very strong man) simply hoisted her on his shoulder like a sack, waded across the river, deposited the girl at her parents’ threshold and resumed his journey, lecturing as though there had never been a break. But the disciple’s mind was on fire. He had actually seen his master touching a young girl, a girl in clinging wet clothes, and carrying her on his back… the same master who kept on telling him that one of the absolute prerequisites for one who wanted to walk the path of sanctity was to stay away from women like the plague! What an utter hypocrite! Why was he wasting his time with such a fraud?
Presently they pitched camp, and the student lit a fire, and cooked a meal, and they sat down to dine, and still his mind was all muddled and distracted. At long last the master broke off his harangue and took notice. When he asked what the matter was, the young man was at first too abashed to say anything, but eventually the master insisted too sternly, and then, confused, mumbling, he confessed that his mind was in a whirl. ‘Why did you behave like that with the girl?’ What girl, queried the sage, wondering. ‘Oh, the girl you lifted on your shoulder, of course.’ ‘When did I do that?’ ‘Why, at the river bank, this very evening! You took her home. Surely you can’t have forgotten all that already?’
The master stared long and hard at the disciple, and then burst out laughing. ‘My dear boy,’ he exclaimed at last, choking back tears of mirth, ‘the difference between you and me is that I left the girl at her doorstep; you, however, are still carrying her on your back!’
Last words: 1) My grandfather could talk a great deal when he told me stories, but as I grow old I suspect that he might have been something like a zen master. And 2) a young reader, in college at present, very recently wrote that I have ‘a 70’s attitude to life’. Any comments?