(ca. 528 B.C.) fiction
Zen Buddhism is a Buddhist school of thought that originated in India and came to China during the Tang dynasty (618-906) and Japan in 1191. The nature of Zen Buddhism is purposely illogical, because satori, a state of total understanding, cannot be achieved through traditional meditative methods. Understanding requires viewing the world through a “third eye.”
Zen masters helped their students along the path to satori through the use of parables and koan, short dialogues or statements meant to engage the students’ thinking. In one of the most famous koan, the Zen master Hakuin asks his students to hear the sound of one hand clapping. The question is designed to get the students to stop thinking in a traditional logical sense and to start reordering their thoughts based on their inner experiences. Zen parables work in the same fashion.
Parables are allegorical stories that help teach a moral lesson. However, unlike the famous parables of Jesus in the New Testament, Zen parables are often paradoxical, and despite their use as educational tools, they rarely explicitly define a moral; rather, they hint at possible ways of viewing situations. For example, in one parable, a student asks his teacher, “What is enlightenment?” The teacher replies, “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.” Such a response might lead the student to learn or “see” that much of what we do is based on survival, yet there might also be 100 other interpretations of the teacher’s response. In this way, Zen parables lead toward “enlightenment” by allowing students or listeners to interpret the parables as their conscious or subconscious leads them.
Zen Buddhism has influenced such prominent figures as Australian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951); German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976); and the poets Gary Snyder (1930- ), Jean-Louis (Jack) Kerouac (1922-69), and Allen Ginsberg (1926-97). The effect of Zen still lingers. Not only have the parables and Zen meditative thought influenced every aspect of ancient and medieval Japanese society, they also continue to influence many aspects of modern world culture around the globe.
English Versions of Zen Parables
100 Parables of Zen. Translated by Joyce Lim. Singapore: Asiapac Books, 1997. Wada, Stephanie, with translations by Gen. P.
Sakamoto. The Oxherder: A Zen Parable Illustrated. New York: George Braziller, 2002.
Works about Zen Parables
Freke, Timothy. Zen Made Easy: An Introduction to the Basics of the Ancient Art of Zen. New York: Sterling Publishing, 1999.
McRae, John R. Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Sudo, Philip Toshio. Zen 24/7: All Zen, All the Time. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Wu, John C. H. The Golden Age of Zen: Zen Masters of the T’ang Dynasty. Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2003.