zen stories

can trees become buddhas?

Japanese Zen Master Chen-kuan studied the doctrine of the Tien-tai School for six years, after which, he converted to the teachings of Ch’an. Having studied the teaching for seven years, Chen-kuan went to China and traveled for twelve years through famous mountains to visit Ch’an masters and to practice meditation.

After being in the Ch’an School for more than twenty years, he finally perceived his true nature. He then packed his belongings and returned to his own country.

In the cities of Kamakura and Nara, he disseminated the Ch’an teaching far and wide. Buddhists from all over came swarming to seek instruction and to practice meditation under his guidance. They all posed questions which were difficult for him to answer. These included:

  1. What is one’s Buddha-nature?
  2. What was the meaning of the Patriarch’s coming from the West?
  3. What was the meaning of Master Chao-chou’s ambivalent answers when he was asked whether a dog had the Buddha-nature?

Although he was asked many questions, Master Chen-kuan always kept his eyes closed and refused to answer even one of them. Some people knew that the Master did not like to discuss kung-ans with others. Hence, people discussed amongst themselves but did not improve their understanding of the kung-ans.

One day, Master Tao-wen, who was a scholar from the Tien-tai School, went to visit Chen-kuan and paid his respect. Tao-wen was about fifty years old at the time and had been studying Tien-tai doctrine for more than thirty years. He told Chen-kuan with great sincerity, "I’ve studied the Lotus Sutra of the Tien-tai School ever since I was a child, but there’s still one point I could never understand."

Chen-kuan straightforwardly retorted, "The Lotus Sutra is complex and profound. It is comprehensive and flawless. People who read it are supposed to have many questions. Yet you only have one! What is your question?"

Tao-wen declared, "It states in the Lotus Sutra: ‘The sentient and the non-sentient will both attain prajna.’ This implies that trees, grass, and flowers can all become Buddhas. Is this possible?"

Chen-kuan replied, "Well, in the past thirty years, you’ve been worrying about whether trees, grass, and flowers can attain Buddhahood. What benefit will you get from knowing that? You should have concerned yourself with the question of whether you can become Buddha."

Tao-wen was startled by this response. Finally, he said, "I’ve never thought of this question. May I ask, how can I become a Buddha?"

Chen-kuan answered, "You said that you only had one question, so you’ll have to answer the second question yourself."

It is not important whether trees, grass, or flowers can become Buddhas. This is because the earth, mountains, rivers, trees, flowers, and all other substances originate from the same source as our own nature. If we can become Buddhas, than all phenomena will naturally become Buddhas. We should probe the root of things rather than concentrating on the ramifications, otherwise we will never enter the Path. Ch’an immediately forces us to discern our own nature rather than being distracted by other matters.


life or death, let it be

Before Ch’an Master Pao-fu passed away he told his disciples, "I have been feeling weak lately. I suspect that it is almost time for me to go."

Upon hearing this, some of his disciples said, "Master, you still look very healthy."

Others implored, "Master, we still need your guidance," while some urged, "Master, please stay for the sake of all beings."

One disciple asked, "Master, when it is time for you to go, will you go or will you stay?"

Master Pao-fu asked, "which do you think would be better?"

The disciple answered without hesitation, "Whether it is life or death, let it be!"

The Master started laughing, "When did you steal the words that I was going to use?"

Upon saying this, Pao-fu passed away. 

To the average person, life is something to be happy about, whereas death is lamentable. To a realized Buddhist practitioner life is not something to be happy about, nor is death a cause for lament. Life and death are two sides of the same coin. The cycle of life and death is part of the law of Nature.

Many Ch’an practitioners have said that life and death have nothing to do with them. A Ch’an practitioner is neither greedy for life nor afraid of death but regards both life and death with a liberated attitude.


don’t worry about it

An attractive female decided to practice Ch’an so that she could become enlightened. Hence, she went to a Ch’an master and asked, "Master, what should I do to attain enlightenment?"

In ancient times, Ch’an masters employed many techniques to instruct others in the practice of Ch’an. Sometimes, they would teach someone to meditate on kung-ans such as "Who Is Meditating on the Buddha?" and "What Was My Original Face before My Parents Gave Birth to Me?"

The Master thought to himself: "Such an attractive young lady will encounter ample obstacles that could hinder her practice. How can she practice Ch’an so that she can become enlightened?" Then he taught her to recite, "Let it be. don’t worry about it!" The purpose of giving the lady such statements to recite was to help her concentrate so that she could see her own nature.

The lady was very serious and practiced diligently. One day, someone told her that her boyfriend had come to see her. She replied, "Let him be. Don’t wory about him!"

Soon after, a university that she had applied to informed her of her admittance. She only said, "Let it be. don’t worry about it!"

Her mother called and said, "You have won the lottery jackpot. "

She exclaimed, "Let it be. Don’t worry about it!"

She overcame one temptation after another. One day, she came across an old photograph of her grandmother and herself when she was yound. Seeing that the young girl in the picture was actually herself, she thought: "Eventually I will die and be buried just like my grandmother." Thinking such thoughts, she finally overcame the hindrance of birth and death and was no longer afraid of them. By understanding the impermanence of birth and death, she realized the bliss of no birth and no death. Her understanding of this truth is more valuable than anything else in this world.


high & far

The monastic students of the Long-hu Ch’an Monastery were in the middle of copying a painting of a dragon fighting with a tiger on the wall. The dragon in the painting was hovering under the clouds; the tiger was crouched on a mountain summit, poised as if about to pounce. Although it had been revised numerous times, there invariably seemed to be something missing in the flow of action in the painting. Quite by chance, at this time Ch’an master Wu-te returned from outside. The students requested the Ch’an master to make a quick assessment of what they had done.

After looking at it, Ch’an master Wu-te said: "The outlook of the dragon and the tiger hasn’t been painted too badly, but how much do you know about the nature of the dragon and the tiger? What you should know is that before the dragon attacks its head must shrink backwards, just as when the tiger is pouncing upwards its head is bound to press downwards. The more the dragon’s neck is bent backwards, and the closer the tiger’s head is to the ground, the faster they will be able to rush forward and the higher they’ll be able to jump."

The students were overjoyed to receive such an instruction, exclaimed: "The teacher really hit the nail on the head! Not only did we paint the dragon’s head too far forward, but the tiger’s head is also too high. No wonder we felt there was something lacking in the depiction of the action."

Ch’an master Wu-te seized this opportunity to teach by saying: "In personal conduct, as well as in taking care of affairs, while learning Ch’an and cultivating oneself religiously, one must prepare by taking a step back in order to rush ahead even farther, reflecting humbly so that one can climb even higher."

Apparently not completely following what was being told, the students asked: "Teacher, how is one who steps back able to move forward? How is one who humbles himself able to reach higher?"

In response, Ch’an master Wu-te then solemnly said: "Listen to my Ch’an poem :

By hand, plant the entire field with green seedlings;
Bowing my head, I see heaven appear in the water.
One’s body and spirit must be clean and pure before one can practice the way.
Taking a backward step is actually a forward move.

"Are you all able to comprehend?"

By now all the students finally understood. 

Self-respect is part of the character of a Ch’an practitioner. They are independent, full of pride and distant like a dragon raising its head and tiger wrestling with its foe; however, sometimes they are also extremely modest, like a dragon shrinking back and a tiger lowering its head. This explains perfectly what is meant by progressing when one should progress; yielding when one should yield; raising up high when it’s proper to be high; lowering oneself when one ought to be low. In other words, one should go forward or backward as reason demands it, and raise up high or lie low when it’s the proper time for it. Dragons are the spirit of the beasts and tigers are the kings. Those who practice Ch’an are the sages among the people, taking backward motion as progress and humility as their loftiness. Is this not how it should be?




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