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
McRae, John R. Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation,
and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism.
Berkeley: University of California Press,
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