Apocryphal Zen Stories – Part 1

A Rotting Horse Carcass

One day, a young monk came to Master Hongren’s monastery to seek enlightenment.

“You will achieve enlightenment if you can answer this one question: What is Buddha?” asked Hongren. The monk could not think of an answer, and stood before Hongren in silent contemplation.

“Master,” asked the disciple, “Is there one answer, or are there many answers?”

Hongren slapped his disciple violently across the face. “A rotting horse carcass!” he exclaimed, answering his own question.

At this point, the disciple achieved enlightenment.


The Non-Being Being

Hongren was drinking tea in his garden when he was approached by his disciple Mazu.

“Master,” said Mazu, “Why did Bodhidarma come from India?”

Hongren began to laugh loudly. He laughed so hard that his sides shook, and then he laughed some more. He laughed until all of the tea spilled out from his teacup, and then he continued laughing.

“That is not a question,” he calmly replied, and returned to drinking his tea.


Crane With Broken Wing

Hongren went up to a mountaintop to meditate. He meditated day and night for many days, until his beard and toenails had grown to a great length. He continued meditating, as summer turned into autumn, and then winter. He continued meditating as snow fell, melted, and fell again.

When he came down from the mountain, Mazu was astonished to see him.

“Master!” he exclaimed, “Have you been meditating on the mountaintop this entire time?”

Hongren grabbed a sharp kitchen knife, held Mazu’s hand firmly, and amputated a single finger.

“Thank you for this gift,” Mazu exclaimed gratefully as he stumbled away.


On Buddha-Nature

One day, the local governor visited Hongren seeking enlightenment.

“I come before you not as a governor, but as a simple man seeking wisdom. Will you teach me the Dharma?” asked the governor. Hongren sat stoically before the governor, refusing to acknowledge his guest. They continued like this for some time.

“Am I not worthy to receive your teaching?” asked the governor. Still, Hongren sat stoically, without a word.

The governor sat facing Hongren for hours, staring intently, waiting for acknowledgment.

Abruptly, Hongren shouted, “What is Buddha-nature?!” In answer to his own question, he let out an extremely loud and foul-smelling belch.

The governor resigned from his post, gave up all of his worldly possessions, and spent the rest of his life studying in Hongren’s monastery.


On Rebirth

Hongren was sitting in his garden when a disciple approached him.

“Master,” asked the disciple, “How can we escape from the cycle of death and rebirth?”

Hongren nodded once. At this point, the disciple achieved enlightenment.

The next day, the same disciple returned to the garden.

“Master,” he asked again, “How can we escape from the cycle of death and rebirth?”

Hongren nodded once. At this point, the disciple achieved enlightenment.

The following day, the same disciple once again returned to the garden.

“Master,” he asked for the third time, “How can we escape from the cycle of death and rebirth?”

Hongren smiled.


On Emptiness

One morning, as harsh winds were blowing from the East, a disciple visited Hongren in his garden. The tall grass in the garden danced in rhythm to the gusts of the wind.

“Master,” said the disciple, “How can the mind truly grasp emptiness?”

“Do you see the grass moving with the wind?” asked Hongren.

“Yes, master, I do,” responded the disciple.

Hongren smacked the disciple hard across the head. “Idiot!” he yelled.

At this point, the disciple achieved enlightenment.


One Hand

Hongren was practicing calligraphy on a cool, cloudless morning when he was interrupted by the arrival of a disciple. An ox lumbered past in a farmer’s field nearby.

“Master,” asked the disciple, “What instruction can you offer me today?”

“Meditate on the sound of one hand clapping. Return to me in five days.”

The disciple left in silence.

Five days later, the disciple returned to Hongren.

“Have you come to realize the sound of one hand?” asked Hongren.

“Not yet, master.” The disciple slumped his shoulders and hung his head low in humiliation.

“Then meditate for five more days and return to me.”

Five days later, the disciple returned to Hongren. A gentle rain was falling on the courtyard of the monastery, as farmers began harvesting their rice crops outside the gates.

“It has been five more days. Have you come to realize the sound of one hand?”

“I have meditated without pause for five more days. I have devoted myself so fully to my meditation that I have even gone without food and water. But still I cannot fathom the sound of one hand.”

“Then you must meditate for another five days, and then return to me.”

After an additional five days, the disciple returned to Hongren. He was exhausted by his ordeal, but he carried an expression of purest satisfaction on his face.

“Master,” said the disciple, “I have done it! After another five days of meditation, I can truly grasp the sound of one hand. It is as if I can hear it in my mind’s ear at this very moment.”

“What?” said Hongren, looking confused and irritated. “Why are you bothering me now? Can’t you see that I am sweeping the courtyard?” Hongren chased the disciple away with a broom.

At this point, the disciple achieved enlightenment.


The Tale of the Tiger

At this time, a ferocious tiger was menacing the local village. It was killing livestock, devouring chickens and pigs, and filling the villagers with terror.

Seemingly without other options, the leader of the village council came to Hongren to ask for help.

“Master Hongren,” said the councillor, “This tiger has been terrorizing our village. What can we do?”

Hongren smiled calmly. “To rid yourselves of the tiger, simply approach it and utter this magical incantation. With these holy words, Lord Buddha will protect you from harm, and the tiger will be forever banished from your village.”

The next morning, the councillor entered the forest where the tiger was known to roam. He found it pacing about in the tall grass, and approached it. He uttered the incantation, as Hongren had taught him, and the tiger proceeded to tear him limb from limb. It was a gruesome, pitiful death.

At this point, the councillor achieved enlightenment.

At this point, the tiger achieved enlightenment.


On Enlightenment

Hongren was drinking tea in his garden under a full moon. The night was alive with the sound of chirping insects. The perfume of the flowers in the garden lingered in the air. A disciple approached him.

“Master,” said the disciple, “I have meditated for fifty-nine days without rest. During this time, I sat next to a flowing stream and contemplated being and non-being, Buddha-mind and Buddha-nature. And still, I have not achieved enlightenment. What is missing?”

Hongren was silent for some time. Finally, he stood up, and walked away without uttering a word.

At this point, the disciple achieved enlightenment.

A moment later, Hongren returned to the garden and began smacking the disciple roughly upside the head.

“But I have already achieved enlightenment!”

“Then you are a fool!” yelled Dongren, as he pushed the disciple to the ground and began kicking him.

At this point, the disciple achieved enlightenment.

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