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Three Zen Stories for Peace of Heart

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Zen stories and koans have a reputation for being difficult to understand. While this is certainly true of some, there are others more transparent that seem to impart their primary lesson much more readily.

Here are three such stories, each of which uses a different strategy to address the issue of calming the heart and finding peace of mind.

1. Is That So?

There was a monk who lived on the edge of a small town, much to the delight of the townspeople. Whenever he ventured into town to help someone, everyone came out of their homes to give him gifts from their gardens, calling out to him, "Oh, Teacher, we're so fortunate to have you living nearby! You are such a wonderful person! You do so much good, Teacher! Your presence is such a blessing!"

To all of this, the monk would always reply, "Is that so? Is that so?"

One day a young woman came to the monk's hut and said, "Oh, Teacher, I'm in terrible trouble. I'm pregnant and my family will disown me. The young man who I love so much has fled to another town because my family would certainly do him harm. I have nowhere else to turn and no one else to ask for help."

The monk replied that she could live in the back room and help around the house and she would then have the security of a home for her child.

Well, now when the monk went into town, he was reviled. "You dirty old man! Look how you have betrayed our trust and taken advantage of that young woman! How could we have ever believed in you? What shame you have brought on us!" And they hurled rotten fruit at him along with their insults.

To all of this, the monk would always reply, "Is that so? Is that so?"

After a while, the father of the child returned to the town and presented himself before the family, saying, "I have spent the past two years learning a trade in a neighboring town and now I am able to provide a home for your daughter and grandchild." The family was overjoyed. Although it wasn't the best of situations, it was so much better than they had feared that they welcomed their daughter and grandchild back into the family with open arms.

How different it was when the monk came into town then. The townspeople lined the road every time, presenting him with gifts of food and calling out, "Oh, Teacher, how could we have ever doubted you? Look at the wonderful thing you have done! We are so ashamed! Please forgive us! You are such a wise and compassionate person! We are so fortunate to have you living nearby!"

To all of this, the monk would always reply, "Is that so? Is that so?"

While there is no single interpretation that would do justice to this story, it certainly speaks to the equanimity of the monk. Against the backdrop of praise and condemnation, he holds himself apart from "what everyone thinks" even as he acts with the most compassionate and involved sense of responsibility. Whether in public or the workplace or in the privacy of home life, people will misread our intentions and jump to conclusions that cast us in a bad light. The most straight-forward lesson of this story, then, is that by continuing on the most ethical course of action our true intents become known. This, however, can be a short-lived vindication as the same thing may happen all over again: We ought not be pulled off-center by shallow praise any more than by shallow criticism.

The monk in this story serves as a model by maintaining emotional detachment from the transient opinions of others while never withdrawing from personal involvement with others' real needs.

Other lessons can be derived from this story by looking at the events from the perspective of each of the other characters (the parents, the young man, the young woman, the townspeople) and considering how simply each of them could have maintained their own equanimity in the face of circumstances.

2. The Threadbare Coat

A woman whose husband died unexpectedly faced dire circumstances. Creditors hounded her, taking everything away from her and her young son. Fearing she might lose the most valuable possession of the family, she hid the priceless jewel that had been handed down for generations by sowing it into the sleeve of an old coat that the creditors would never want. The troubles weighed on her grief and eventually broke her spirit and she died without ever telling her son about the jewel.

The boy found himself without family or home, his only inheritance the old threadbare coat that the creditors left him. He found work wherever he could, staying in barns or out in the forest, exposed to the elements and grave hardship. Filled with sorrow at his fate, he endured the passing years with an abiding belief in the unfairness of life.

One day, as he was chopping wood, his sleeve caught on a branch and tore open. Out spilled the priceless jewel onto the ground before him!

The source of happiness -- real wealth -- is our birthright, something we carry with us from childhood whether we remember it or not. We are rich, the story says, even when we feel deprived. This is because, of course, the jewel represents the perfect nature of the true, original self with which we are born. Upon finding the jewel, the young man realized he had been rich all along -- and his life changed irreversibly in just that single moment of recognizing the jewel.

Becoming more aware of the hidden jewel we carry at all times brings us in touch with the source of inner peace and happiness. The more we identify with our hidden treasure, the more we become a well of peace and happiness overflowing into the lives of others.

3. The Wind and the Flag

A wandering monk passed by the courtyard of a monastery where he heard two groups of monks arguing about the temple flag fluttering in the breeze.

"It is the flag that moves," one group argued.

"No, it is the wind that moves," argued the other group.

Back and forth they argued, responding to the logic of the other side, coming up with new rationale for their respective positions. But it just came down to, "It is the wind that moves, it is the flag that moves."

After listening for a while, the itinerant monk interrupted them and said, "If you look more closely you will see that it is neither the flag nor the wind that moves -- what moves is your mind."

This story is a reminder of how easily we fall into "either-or" thinking. It doesn't matter what the subject is, we are fully capable of taking sides and then feeling the need to prove ourselves "right." The lesson of "seeing ourselves seeing" is a necessary one if we are to develop the witness awareness that watches habit thoughts and feelings arise automatically. Interrupting ingrained reactions to things allows us to consciously create new reactions that better reflect our current stage of development.

One of the most direct methods of doing that is to catch ourselves reliving an old tape and ask ourselves, "Did I consciously choose that thought?" If not, then we pointedly ask ourselves, "What thought do I choose to have?" This is a very practical exercise that works as well with habitual emotions and memories as it does with thoughts.

Zen stories serve as intriguing reminders we can use to keep our feet on the path of a calm heart and an untroubled mind in the hustle of everyday life. It is always easier to remember a story than an idea!

Each of these stories is open to multiple interpretations. Please feel free to share how you read them in the comments section below.

The Toltec I Ching, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden, is published by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, "64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World," hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.

Click here for sample chapters, reviews and a link for ordering the book.

For more by William Horden, click here.

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