by Brendan Patrick Hennessy

Table of Contents

Prologue 12. The Itinerant Surfer 24. Ming’s Three Rats
1. One Hand Clapping 13. Wei’s Seven Apples 25. The Surface of the Lake
2. The Dispensation of Fish 14. An Unexpected Surplus 26. The Contents of a Box
3. Three Pounds of Flax 15. Buddha-Nature 27. Probability
4. Worldly Possessions 16. Wei’s Boisterous Goose 28. The Buddha’s Predisposition
5. A Legitimate Game 17. Master Lu’s Instruction 29. Ming’s Enlightened Dentists
6. Master Lu’s Gift 18. Zhou’s Second Guess 30. A Stopped Clock
7. Master Ji’s Chair 19. The Two Sailors 31. Wei’s Open Mind
8. Broken Eggs 20. A New Applicant 32. The Troublesome Barber
9. Foolishness 21. Heavy Rocks 33. Ming’s Technique
10. The Chairman’s Words 22. The Lingering Guest 34. A Wise Judgement
11. The Buddha’s Condition 23. No Moral Contradiction Epilogue


Sokei-an was one of the first Japanese masters to bring Zen Buddhism to North America. One day in the early 1930s, one of his students approached him with an obscure Buddhist text which had recently been translated into English. The text was a collection of koans concerning an eighth century Zen teacher named Master Lu and the young man wanted to know if Lu’s teachings were correct.

In response, Sokei-an presented his student with an empty cup and said, “Fill this cup with tea.”

The student obliged, filling the cup up most of the way.

“More,” said Sokei-an, “right to the top.”

The student did as commanded.

“Very good. Now fill it again,” he said.

“But the cup is already full of tea,” said the student. “How can I fill it again?”

“Exactly,” said Sokei-an. “You see, the mind is like a teacup. A layman's cup overflows with assumptions and opinions, leaving no room for anything else. It is only once your cup is empty that you can be shown Zen.”

The student nodded.

“Now,” said Sokei-an, “bring the cup to your mouth and take a small sip.”

Once again, the student did as he was told.

Sokei-an held up his hand. “There. Master Lu’s mind was like the cup you are holding now. Basically full, but with a little bit of room in the top for emergencies. Does that make sense?”

“Not really, master.”

“No, I suppose not. But try to keep the analogy in mind.”

* * *

1. One Hand Clapping

Master Lu asked of his students, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

After much contemplation, Novice Wei replied, “There is none. One hand clapping doesn’t make a sound.”

“Correct,” said the master.

2. The Dispensation of Fish

One fine summer day, Master Lu went on a fishing trip with two young students from the monastery. While on the docks, he posed to them this question: “Let us say that I catch seven fish today. Would it be moral for me to take them home and eat them?”

“I say it would not,” said Novice Zhou, “for the Buddha teaches compassion for all living things, even the lowliest of fish.”

“I say it would,” said Novice Wei, “for you have worked hard to catch the fish and it is only fair that you consume the fruits of your labour.”

“Ah,” said Master Lu, “but now let us say that instead of eating all seven fish, I give one to the poor. Is that more or less moral?”

This time Novice Wei spoke first. “I would say it is more moral, for charity is a virtue and the poor are in need of sustenance.”

But Novice Zhou disagreed, saying, “I feel that the act is even less moral. You were already cruel, but now you are being gluttonous as well. There are many paupers and they are all in need of food. Why must they split one fish between them while you keep six for yourself?”

Master Lu puffed on his pipe and nodded. “You are a stubborn one indeed, Zhou, but let me ask you this. What if I were to give two fish to the poor? How moral would the act be then?”

“Um... equally moral, I suppose?”

“Ah, but what if I were to give one fish to a doctor, and one to a murderer? What then?”

“I’m confused,” said Novice Wei. “Is this in addition to or instead of giving two fish to the poor?”

“And how many people has the murderer murdered?” asked Novice Zhou. “Is he a serial murderer or was it a one-time crime of passion?”

“I feel like we don’t have enough information to answer this question,” said Wei. “Would the murderer survive if he was not given a fish, or is he a well-fed murderer?”

“And we haven’t even broached the subject of the doctor yet,” said Zhou. “What sort of medicine does he practice? Does he save lives or merely heal minor ailments?”

“Or is he a charlatan?” asked Wei.

“Alright, alright,” said Master Lu, “We are getting off track here. I shall begin again. Let us say I have six fish—”

“Six?” asked Wei. “What happened to seven?”

“I decided to reduce the number to six,” replied the master, “because six is a nicer number than seven and easier to divide.”

“So what did you do with the seven fish you originally caught?” asked Zhou.

At this, Master Lu threw up his hands and said, “You know what? Let’s just forget this hypothetical question and concentrate on fishing.”

And so the trip progressed in contemplative silence. That day, Novice Wei caught seven fish and when he returned to the monastery he was very confused about what to do with them.

3. Three Pounds of Flax

Novice Wei approached Master Lu as he was weighing some flax and asked, “What is the nature of the Buddha?”

Master Lu replied, “Three pounds of flax.”

“...The Buddha is three pounds of flax?” asked the novice.


“Flax as in the crop? Like that flax you’re weighing right now?”

“That’s what I said,” said the master.

“I’m sorry, am I to understand that our entire religion is built around the teachings of three pounds of flax?”

“Well,” said the master, “I mean, no. Not literally. The Buddha was an ancient prince that attained enlightenment after 49 days of meditation. The flax thing was really more of a metaphor.”

“You know,” said Wei, “it would have been quicker just to give me the straight answer.”

4. Worldly Possessions

A noble from the court of Emperor Daizong came to Master Lu’s monastery and asked him how to attain enlightenment. The master sat him down on a prayer mat and gave him the following instructions: “First,” he said, “you must give up all of your worldly possessions. Then you must devote yourself to the study of—”

“Hold on,” said the nobleman. “When you say all of my worldly possessions, does that include my concubines?”

“Well, thinking of human beings as property is probably not an ideal mindset to start out with,” said the master, “but yes. You must indeed give up all your concubines.”

“How about my money?” asked the nobleman. “That’s not so much a possession as it is the means by which I attain possessions.”

“You must forfeit your money as well,” said the master. “Anything and everything you have must be given up.”

“What if I bury the money out in the woods somewhere and then dig it up after I attain enlightenment?” asked the nobleman. “Is that allowed?”

“Would you have to keep a map?” asked the master.

“No,” said the nobleman, “I would memorize the location.”

Master Lu meditated on this for a moment, and then said, “I’m still going to say no.”

5. A Legitimate Game

Master Lu was sitting out in the village square when a trio of grifters came through town.

“Ahoy there, Mr. Monk,” said the chief grifter. “Fancy a perfectly legitimate game of cards?”

Master Lu waggled his finger dismissively. “You may think you can deceive me, but I can see right through you. You are confidence men, just as surely as a dog is a dog and a twig is a twig.”

“Golly,” said one of the associate grifters, “You’re too smart for us, Mr. Monk.”

“That is correct,” said Master Lu. “I am very smart. Thank you for noticing.”

“I guess we’ll be off then,” said the chief grifter, “on account of there being no potential victims here.”

“Not a one,” agreed the second associate grifter.

“Now hang on,” said the monk. “There is no need to be hasty. Since I have determined that you are swindlers by trade, I am now incapable of being swindled by you. Therefore there is no harm in playing an innocent game of chance.”

The first associate grifter smiled and moved to the front of the pack, for it was he who was most involved with the day-to-day running of the trio’s activities. “Okay boss,” he said, “the game is Pick a Card and the rules are simple: You pick a card out of the deck and if it’s a good card then you win.”

“Are you feeling lucky, Mr. Monk?” asked the second associate grifter.

“I am feeling exceptionally lucky,” replied Master Lu.

“Then pick a card.”

Master Lu picked a card. It was the Queen of Diamonds.

“Hey, how about that,” said the chief grifter. “You win!”

“What do I win?” asked the master.

“You win the right to give me your wallet,” said the first associate.

“Excellent,” said Master Lu as he reached into his pocket.

6. Master Lu’s Gift

In the first month of the sixteenth year of his reign, Emperor Daizong held a sumptuous birthday celebration in his palace. As part of the festivities he summoned the four great masters of his kingdom and invited them to shower him with gifts and adoration.

Master Ji was first in line, saying, “I have come empty-handed, your highness, and in so doing I have given you the gift of appreciation for what you already have.”

“Very good,” said the Emperor.

Next came Master Qufu, who said, “Your highness, I have forgotten your birthday. By telling you this openly I have given you the gift of honesty.”

“Well done,” said the Emperor, cracking a wry smile.

Third in the procession was Master Zuo, who said, “I too have forgotten your birthday, your highness, but instead of giving you the gift of honesty, I have given you the gift of apathy.”

The Emperor clapped enthusiastically. “Astounding!” he said. “Very well done indeed!”

Last came Master Lu, who presented the emperor with a modest bouquet of flowers and said, “Happy Birthday, your highness!”

“Oh,” said the Emperor.

“Do you like them?” asked Lu.

“Well they’re alright, I suppose. But I already have flowers. My imperial botanical garden is full of the most exotic and spectacular flowers in all the world.”

“I just figured I would get you an actual gift instead of an abstract idea this year,” said Lu.

“I mean they’re fine and everything, but I was sort of expecting an abstract idea.”


“You are a monk after all,” said the Emperor. “It’s kind of what you’re supposed to do.”

Master Lu looked down at his bouquet. “Well then, er, I have given your majesty... The gift of appreciation for horticulture!”

The Emperor sighed. “I already have an appreciation for horticulture.”

And so the Emperor’s party became awkward. Sensing this, the other three monks excused themselves, saying they had some important meditation business to take care of elsewhere.

7. Master Ji’s Chair

Master Ji was an adherent to the obscure philosophy of Analogism, which taught that enlightenment could be achieved by reducing all things to laboured analogies. One serene autumn day, he was having a debate with Master Lu.

“Enlightenment is like this ripened apple,” said Ji, producing an apple from his sleeve, “it is red and juicy and desired by all.”

“Your simile is flawed,” said Lu, “for enlightenment has no colour, and I am not sure how one could realistically describe it as ‘juicy.’ What juice is there in enlightenment?”

“Poor literal minded Lu,” said Ji. “I speak not of the colour red, but of a more metaphorical redness, like that which is commonly associated with the feeling of passion. As for the juiciness, the juice is to enlightenment as sourness is to a lemon. It is a quality, not a physical ingredient, and it is only defined as it is experienced by the taster.”

“I feel like you are mixing your metaphors,” said Lu.

“Indeed,” replied Ji, “but a metaphor is much like a salad; it is good to mix. Imagine if you had a bowl with distinct piles of romaine lettuce, and shredded carrots, and sliced cherry tomatoes, and diced red bell peppers, and diced yellow bell peppers, and finely chopped scallions, and even croutons. Imagine also that next to that bowl was a small cup of olive oil and that next to that cup was a slightly smaller cup containing balsamic vinegar. The dish would be delicious, certainly, but it would be somehow incomplete. And anyway, one would probably end up mixing the dish simply in the process of eating it. Do you see now?”

“I do not,” said Lu. “Your rhetoric is needlessly complex.”

“Ah,” said Ji, “but recall the story of the mother bird who built her nest out of too many twigs. The foxes and the otters told her that it was too complex, but when it came time to lay her eggs, suddenly the excess structural support was put to good use.”

“Aha!” said Lu, “Now I have got you. That is not an analogy at all. That is a fable. The two concepts are related but distinct.”

“Incorrect again,” said Ji, “For this fable is in fact a metaphor for a parable about a human constructing his house on a muddy embankment.”

At this, Master Lu cried out, “Gaaaah! You are not making any sense!”

“But sense is like a chair,” said Ji, “so why should I be the one to make it? Would not the task be better suited to a carpenter or a maker of fine furniture? Go and reflect on that.”

With this the debate ended. And although it was generally agreed by those in attendance that Master Lu had been the victor, Master Ji argued that victory was like a spoiled egg and that he did not want it anyway.

8. Broken Eggs

Master Lu was cooking breakfast for his students one morning when he saw the opportunity to impart some philosophical wisdom. He called Novice Zhou over to examine the frying pan.

“Regard this omelette,” said the master. “Does it not look delicious?”

“I cannot rightly say,” said Zhou. “I am not that much of an ‘egg person.’”

“Yes, yes,” said Lu, “but surely you can appreciate that the omelette looks delicious as far as eggs go?”

“To be honest I would prefer a breakfast of fruit and yogurt,” said the novice.

Master Lu sighed. “Very well. Let us pretend that you like eggs for the purposes of this exercise.”

The student thought about this for a moment. “Must I pretend to like all kinds of eggs, or would just pretending to like omelettes suffice?”

“It does not matter,” said Lu. “Do whatever is easiest for you.”

Novice Zhou nodded. “I will pretend to like omelettes, then.”

“Good,” said Lu, “So, this omelette. It looks delicious, does it not?”

Novice Zhou opened his mouth.

“No. Hold on,” said Lu. “Don’t answer that. Just... This omelette looks delicious.”

Novice Zhou shut his mouth.

“But look over here at these eggshells,” continued the master, “See how they lie broken and discarded on the counter. What lesson might we glean from them?”

Novice Zhou thought for a while and then said, “I have an answer, but it might be out of character for this omelette-loving persona that I have developed.”

“Just answer honestly,” said Lu.

“Very well,” said Zhou. “The lesson I would take from this situation is that you should not make omelettes, for it will require you to break eggs.”

“Close,” said the master. “The real lesson is that you cannot make a delicious omelette without breaking a few eggs.”

“But you don’t have to break any eggs at all,” said Zhou. “You could go the rest of your life without breaking any eggs at all as long as you were willing to forego omelettes.”

Master Lu shook his head. “That is not the lesson.”

“Well it should be,” said the novice. “My observation is an actual piece of philosophical guidance. Yours is just a truism about the nature of omelettes.”

At this, Master Lu waved his student away with his spatula. “Enough! Go back to your seat and wait for breakfast.”

“Is it going to be an omelette breakfast?” asked Zhou.

“What do you think, Zhou? We have been talking about omelettes for the past five minutes. Now go and sit down.”

Novice Zhou lingered for a moment. “...Master Lu?”

“What is it, Novice Zhou?”

“Is the lesson over then? Because I know I was pretending to like omelettes, but actually—”


9. Foolishness

Novice Wei and Novice Zhou were eating their lunch together by the koi pond.

“Hey Zhou,” said Wei, “are you going to Novice Han’s party on the fourteenth day of the third month of the sixteenth year of the reign of Emperor Daizong?”

“I do not attend parties,” said Zhou. “Party attendance runs contrary to the teachings of the Buddha.”

“Are you sure?” asked Novice Wei. “The shapely daughter of the town blacksmith will be there.”

“Courting the shapely daughter of the town blacksmith runs contrary to the teachings of the Buddha,” replied Zhou.

“Come on,” said Wei.

“Absolutely not,” said Zhou.

All of a sudden, Master Lu — who had snuck up behind the pair — piped up. “What is all this about a party? Novice Zhou, you are not going to a party, are you?”

“No,” said Zhou, glaring at Wei.

“There is no party, Master Lu,” said Wei. “You must have misheard us.”

Master Lu shook his head. “I do not think so. I distinctly heard reference to a party in Novice Han’s quarters on the fourteenth day of the third month of the sixteenth year of the reign of Emperor Daizong.”

“I do not recall anything about that,” said Wei.

“Hmm,” said Lu, “Scribe, come here!”

The monastery’s scribe came running up, scrolls in hand. “Yes, Master Lu?”

“Were you recording the conversation that just transpired between Novice Zhou and Novice Wei?”

The scribe bowed deeply. “Of course, Master Lu. It is my duty to transcribe all that I hear.”

“Very well then,” said Lu, “please read the transcript.”

The scribe consulted his notes, and then spoke. “Novice Wei invited Novice Zhou to a party that Novice Han was hosting on the fourteenth day of the third month of the sixteenth year of the reign of Emperor Daizong. Novice Zhou said he would not attend such a party, as his faith forbade it. Novice Wei attempted to lure Novice Zhou to the aforementioned party by telling him that he would have an opportunity to court the shapely daughter of the town blacksmith. Once more, Novice Zhou said that his faith forbade such an act. Again Novice Wei asked Novice Zhou to attend the party, and again Novice Zhou refused. At this point, Master Lu came up and asked Novices Wei and Zhou what party they were talking about, to which Novice Wei replied...”

“Yes, yes, that is fine,” said Lu.

The two novices looked sheepish.

“You two are being foolish,” said the master. “I have not received any notification of any party, therefore the party cannot exist.”

The two novices were silent.

“For I am the most popular person in the monastery,” he continued, “and I would be invited to any party.”

Again, the two novices were silent.

“I hope I have cleared up your philosophical confusion on this matter,” said Master Lu.

“Yes,” said Novice Wei. “That is precisely what you have done.”

10. The Chairman’s Words

One day, Master Lu came upon a crowd of rabble-rousers causing a disturbance in the town square. “Death to the emperor!” they cried. “Death to the capitalist bourgeoisie!”

In short order it became clear that the agitators were being led by a mid-level functionary of the local communist party. So the master approached him and said, “Hey now, what is the cause of all this commotion?”

“We are following the words of Chairman Tang,” said the functionary, brandishing a copy of Tang Guodong’s Concise Book of Correct Scholarship and General Teaching. “The capitalist bourgeoisie must be overthrown and the emperor must be put to death. So it says on page 34.”

“Death to the emperor!” cried the crowd. “Death to the capitalist bourgeoisie!”

“Come, come,” said Lu, “there is no need for such violent talk. The Buddha teaches compassion to all people and things, no matter what social stratum they occupy. Can we not come together as brothers and solve our disputes peacefully?”

The functionary thought about this for a moment. “I will have to see what the Book says.”

The crowd was silent as the functionary thumbed through his little orange book.

“Well?” asked Master Lu.

“The Book says that unless you support our violent revolution, we must go to your monastery and burn it to the ground.”

“Death to the emperor!” cried Lu. “Death to the capitalist bourgeoisie!”

11. The Buddha’s Condition

One day, Novice Wei and Novice Zhou were playing chess in the garden when Master Lu and Novice Han came up to them.

“Ah,” said Lu, noticing the chess set, “this is a perfect opportunity to test you all on your studies.”

Novice Wei groaned. “Master Lu, this is supposed to be our break time.”

“Enlightenment does not take breaks,” said the master.

“I am willing to hear your wisdom, Master Lu,” said Novice Han.

“Very good, Han,” said Lu. “Your classmates could learn a thing or two from you.”

Novice Zhou rolled his eyes.

“Go ahead, master,” said Wei.

Master Lu lined the pieces up on the edge of the chessboard and then spoke. “Chess is a game of many different pieces, each with a different function. Which of those pieces best embodies the nature of the Buddha?”

The three novices sat in contemplation over this question, and then each spoke in turn.

“I would say that the Buddha is most like a king,” said Zhou, “for he is the most enlightened being in the cosmos, and by his words we live our lives.”

Master Lu nodded.

“I would argue that the Buddha is like a pawn,” said Wei, “because he was just a man, and it was through his actions that he attained greatness.”

“Good, good,” said Lu.

“Well, I would say that the Buddha is most like a knight,” said Han, “because he was afflicted with a foot condition that forced him to walk in an L-shaped pattern.”

“Really?” asked Lu. “I was not aware of that.”

“It is true,” said Han. “He also had to hop over things.”

Master Lu smiled. “You continue to impress me, Novice Han. To think that you knew something about the Buddha that even I did not know. Truly, you are wise indeed.”

“But Master Lu,” protested Zhou.

“Quiet now, Zhou,” said Lu. “Your answer was good, but Han’s was superior. You must learn to accept that.”

“But nowhere does it state that—”

“No buts,” said Lu. “If you cannot be a graceful loser, then perhaps a demerit point is in order.”

Novice Zhou lowered his head in shame.

“You are very wise in your assignment of demerit points, Master Lu,” said Han.

“Thank you, Novice Han,” said the master. “You are observant to notice that.”

12. The Itinerant Surfer

One day, a wandering surfer by the name of Chet came to visit the monastery. Master Lu agreed to give him food and board for the night. After the evening meal was concluded, the monks fell back into amiable chatter and spiritual debate, and the visitor was invited to join in. Before long, he was dominating the conversation, telling all who would listen about his life as a surfer.

“My whole life is the ocean, man,” he said. “You know what I mean? The waves are my lungs and the air is my blood and the seagulls are my white blood cells. I just go out surfing. Going from town to town, looking for the big waves, having a gnarly time. That’s what I do, man. I live it up. It’s how I do what I do when I do it.”

The monks exchanged quizzical looks and chuckled nervously, not sure what to make of the visitor.

“You guys should come out to Santa Rosita some time,” he continued. “We could catch some killer waves, eat some plantains... Just live it up, you know? You’d totally dig it.”

“I am afraid we do not have time for such things,” said Novice Zhou. “We must stay here and attend to our studies.”

“So you guys are like monks or whatever?” said Chet.

“That is correct,” said Novice Wei.

“Rad,” said the surfer. “So, like, ying yangs and Confucius and so forth?”

“No, those are related to Daoism and Confucianism, respectively,” said Novice Zhou, with an air of indignation about him. “We are Zen Buddhists.”


“We devote ourselves to meditation upon deep philosophical principles in order to come closer to enlightenment,” said Master Lu. “Let me come up with an example for you.”

With this, the master sat on his contemplation mat and began to meditate. Meanwhile all the students gathered around, waiting to hear his wisdom.

At last, Master Lu awoke from his trance and said, “Now I have got it. If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The surfer responded quickly and without thinking. “Yeah, man. Of course. Why wouldn’t it?”

Master Lu chuckled. “No, no. I am afraid your inexperience shows. Novice Wei, would you care to give it a go?”

Novice Wei looked around uncomfortably. “Er... Actually, Master, I believe that our visitor is correct. The tree would obviously still make a sound.”

Master Lu was taken aback by this.

“I mean,” continued Wei, “it is not like our ears make the sound. The sound is created when the tree hits the ground.”

The master sighed. “I am disappointed, Wei. I suspected our visitor would be too simple for such matters, but I had hoped you were more spiritually receptive.”

“No,” said Zhou, “Novice Wei is correct. Objects make sounds regardless of whether or not they are being observed. It is a simple scientific fact.”

“Ah,” said the master, “but how can there be a sound if there is no one to hear it?”

“Easily,” said Wei.

Novice Zhou gingerly put his arm on his master’s shoulder. “Master Lu, do you understand how sound works? We would understand if you did not.”

And so the evening’s activities came to an end early, with Master Lu grumbling something about young people as he made his way to bed.

13. Wei’s Seven Apples

One day, Master Lu came upon Novice Wei juggling in the garden.

“Look Master Lu,” said the eager young student, “I am juggling seven apples at once!”

“Stop with this foolishness,” said the master. “You are supposed to be focussing on your studies, not frolicking with fruit. Put those apples down at once.”

“But Master Lu,” said Wei, “I am juggling seven apples at once on my first try. That is very difficult.”

The master gave Wei a stern waggle of his finger. “What good is a difficult activity if it does nothing to further your spiritual development? Juggling is a pursuit for sleazy buskers and unwashed grifters. You might as well be playing cribbage on the street.”

“But Master Lu,” said Wei, apples still in the air, “It is not interfering with my studies. I am just juggling on the side as a hobby. Like Novice Han and his pottery making.”

“Enough!” said Lu. “Monks do not have time for frivolous hobbies. If you continue to juggle like this you will never reach an enlightened state.”

At this, Novice Wei gave the master a perplexed look. “Am I to understand that jugglers cannot attain enlightenment?”

“You are to understand that you will not attain enlightenment if you continue this juggling!” said Lu.

“That is awfully arbitrary of the Buddha,” said Wei.

“The Buddha does not make the rules,” said Master Lu as he walked away, “He is just enlightened as to their nature.”

Novice Wei was so struck by this piece of wisdom that he dropped all of his apples in distraction. Cursing the master’s name, he picked up all of his apples and tried to start juggling again, but found he could only get up to four before losing control. It was because of this experience that Novice Wei took up baton twirling.

14. An Unexpected Surplus

In the fourth month of the sixteenth year of the reign of Emperor Daizong, one of the many finance ministers within the massive state bureaucracy discovered a considerable surplus in the realm’s coffers.

The Emperor, not knowing what to do with the money, decided to summon representatives from each of the major castes, guilds, religious orders, political parties, informal clubs, and social strata of his realm. Once they were all assembled, they took turns addressing the emperor and suggesting ways to spend the windfall.

Master Lu, as a revered holy man, was given the honour of speaking first.

“Your highness,” said the master, “I am a simple man, and so I have a simple suggestion. You should give your money to charity, in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha.”

“Could you expand upon this concept further?” asked the Emperor.

Master Lu raised a learned eyebrow. “Upon the concept of charity, your majesty?”

“Yes,” replied the Emperor.

“Well, you would give the money to the less fortunate,” said the master.


“And then they would have it.”

“Go on,” said the Emperor.

“And spend it,” said the master. “On things they need. Such as food.”

The Emperor contemplated this as he bit into a juicy plum.

“But then I would cease to be in possession of the money,” he said, wiping plum juice from his chin.

“I am afraid that is just how giving away money works, your highness,” said the master.

The Emperor shook his head and bit into a second plum. “I must admit that all of this esoteric religious talk is going straight over my head.”

Master Lu solemnly bowed and then removed himself from the Emperor’s sight.

“Perhaps we should turn to politics,” said the Emperor. “I call upon the mid-level functionary of the local communist party.”

The mid-level functionary of the local communist party stepped forward.

“What do you think we should do with the money?” asked the Emperor.

“I must consult the infinitely wise teachings of Chairman Tang,” replied the functionary.

The assembly waited patiently as the functionary flipped through Tang Guodong’s Concise Book of Correct Scholarship and General Teaching.

After a short while, the functionary said, “The book states that you must use the money to fund a violent overthrow of yourself, your highness.”

“Must I?” asked the Emperor.

“According to page 213, you must,” the functionary replied.

“Hmm. No. I do not like that one bit.” The Emperor sighed and bit into a third plum, considerably juicier than the two that had come before it. “Does anyone have any suggestions that do not involve me giving away the money?”

The assembled crowd looked around nervously and no one said a word. Finally, one of the realm’s many finance ministers piped up. “Your highness, it seems clear to me that the folk assembled here will never come to an agreement about what to do with the money. What you should do, therefore, is hire men who are experts in the field of properly allocating funding.”

The Emperor inquisitively wiped some plum juice from his lips.

“I speak, of course, of finance ministers,” continued the minister. “You should expand the massive state bureaucracy even further, and let it make the difficult decisions in the most efficient manner possible.”

“I don’t know...” said the Emperor. “What does my bureaucracy minister think?”

“I think it is an excellent idea,” said the bureaucracy minister.

“Then it is settled! How many more finance ministers do you think you need?”

“I would say... ten to twelve finance ministers should suffice, your majesty,” said the finance minister.

“It is done,” said the Emperor. “The money shall be used to hire eleven new finance ministers, who will be charged with determining how to spend the money.”

The finance minister bowed deeply. “You are too kind, your imperial highness.”

“Actually, wait. No. Ten finance ministers and another bowl of plums.”

15. Buddha-Nature

Novice Zhou asked of Master Lu, “What is the nature of the Buddha?”

The master replied, “The Buddha is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”

Novice Zhou asked, “Master, are you not describing Superman?”

“No,” said Master Lu, “I am describing the Buddha. Pay attention.”

16. Wei’s Boisterous Goose

One day, Master Lu’s meditation was interrupted by the honking of a boisterous goose.

“What is this?” he asked, awaking with a start. “What is the meaning of this?”

“I found this goose in the village square,” said Novice Wei, holding the goose up to Master Lu’s face. “It looked lost. Can we keep it?”

The master massaged his temple. “We cannot keep a goose in the monastery, Novice Wei.”

“But it is so cute!” said Wei. “Look at its little beak!”

“It is a goose, Wei,” said the master. “It will honk incessantly and create messes and disturb meditation. We cannot have it on the monastery grounds.”

“Honk,” went the goose.

“Besides,” he continued, “by ancient custom, all geese in this kingdom belong to the Emperor. We cannot turn our back on our obligations as loyal subjects.”

“Oh come on,” said Wei, “that is just a relic of an earlier feudal past. Surely the Emperor does not actually consider himself the owner of every goose in this kingdom. And even if he did, how would he ever know what we were doing?”

At that very moment, Emperor Daizong entered the monastery, followed by a royal procession.

“Your highness!” said the master, immediately bowing. “To what do I owe this honour?”

“Oh,” said the Emperor, “I was wandering through the village when I realized that one of my many thousands of geese was missing. You haven’t seen it, have you?”

Novice Wei and Master Lu looked uneasily at each other.

“Honk,” went the goose.

After a few moments of uneasy silence, the Emperor spoke. “That is not one of my geese, is it?”

“Er...” said Novice Wei, “you see...”

“It is... an imported goose, your majesty,” said Master Lu.

“Oh?” said the Emperor.

“From Korea,” said Lu.

“That’s right,” said Wei. “From Korea.”

The emperor raised an eyebrow. “You are certain that it is not one of my geese? Because I would be very upset if it was.”

“No,” said Lu, “it is most definitely from Korea.”

There were another few moments of silence.

At last, the Emperor smiled. “Very good, then,” he said. “Your loyalty is much appreciated. If you see my goose, please let me know.”

With this the Emperor departed, followed by his royal procession.

“...I don’t suppose this helps my argument?” asked Novice Wei.

“Not really, no.”

17. Master Lu’s Instruction

One day a wealthy nobleman came to Master Lu’s monastery, saying, “Oh wise teacher, please tell me the nature of the Buddha.”

“I am busy,” said Lu. “Go look it up or something.”

The nobleman looked it up as instructed, and he was enlightened.

18. Zhou’s Second Guess

One warm summer’s evening, Master Lu was roasting marshmallows with some of the novices from the monastery.

“Look over there at that big stone,” the Master instructed. “Would you consider it to be inside or outside of your mind?”

All three pupils looked over at the rock, but none of them would answer, for fear of getting it wrong.

After several minutes of awkward silence, Master Lu sighed and said, “I will give you an extra marshmallow if you answer correctly.”

At once, all three novices put up their hands. Master Lu nodded at Novice Zhou.

“Well,” said the student, “the Buddha teaches that everything is an objectification of the mind. Therefore, I would have to say that it is inside.”

“You must feel very heavy then,” said Master Lu, “If you are carrying a stone around inside of your head.”

Novice Zhou cocked an eyebrow. “I do not understand,” he said. “Are you asking if the stone is literally inside of my head? Because in that case, it is not. It is right there on the ground, as you can plainly see.”

“Very good,” said the master, “but no prizes for a second guess.

At this, he popped the marshmallow into his mouth and Novice Zhou lowered his head in shame.

After some silence, Novice Wei said, “Master Lu, what exactly does this have to do with our studies?”

“Mmmph hmm hmm mmm mm hmmph,” the master replied.

19. The Two Sailors

One evening during the fifth month of the sixteenth year of the reign of Emperor Daizong, Master Lu called Novice Han before him.

“Novice Han,” he said, “you are one of my best and brightest students. I need your help resolving an ethical issue which has been plaguing me as of late.”

“I will do anything you ask of me, Master,” replied the novice.

So the two men sat opposite each other upon a contemplation mat and prepared to think.

“Let us say two sailors are shipwrecked at sea,” said Master Lu, “and both come upon a plank floating upon the waves. They are both seasoned sailors, well versed in the intricacies of ship design, so they know that the waterlogged plank can only support the weight of one sailor. Now, one of the sailors — let us call him ‘The Sailor’ — is a marginally better swimmer than the other sailor, whom we shall refer to as ‘The Other Sailor’. As such, he arrives at the plank first.”

Novice Han nodded, taking in all of the details.

The master continued. “Let us also say that The Other Sailor, despite knowing full well that the plank cannot support his weight, attempts to climb on board also. The Sailor, concerned for his own life, pushes The Other Sailor away, causing him to drown. Soon after, rescue boats arrive and The Sailor is brought back to shore.”

Novice Han stroked his chin. “This sounds like one of the seven canonical sailor’s dilemmas. Perhaps we should consult the writings of Master Shang.”

“Hold on,” said Master Lu, “I have not gotten to the juicy bit yet. Suppose that once he gets back to shore, The Sailor is overcome with guilt, and tells his story to the authorities. I ask you this: Would it be correct for the authorities to convict him of murder, or would they instead have to release him on the basis of self-defense?”

Novice Han sat and pondered on this for many hours. Evening passed into night, and night passed into even later at night. Finally, just as Master Lu was beginning to nod off to sleep, the Novice spoke.

“We live in an absolute monarchy,” said Han, “so the Emperor could convict The Sailor of anything he liked at any time for any reason.”

Master Lu gave a solemn nod. “Excellent,” he said. “That is precisely what I thought. The Emperor will be pleased to hear this.”

Upon receiving the news, Emperor Daizong gathered up some sailors and gleefully put them all to death.

20. A New Applicant

One day, a villageress by the name of Ming arrived at the monastery of Master Lu, looking to become a disciple.

“Master Lu,” she said, “I have travelled a great distance to be here. I wish to study under you and learn the ways of the Buddha.”

“I do not know about this,” replied Lu. “A student must possess a great deal of dedication and persistence. What evidence do you have of these qualities?”

“I have walked over 400 li so that I may study the teachings of the Buddha,” Ming replied. “I have been to the monasteries of Master Ji, Master Qufu, and even Master Zuo, and all three have rejected me out of hand. And yet I have not given up hope. Instead, I have come to you, so that I may attain enlightenment any way that I can.”

“Wait,” said Master Lu, “am I to understand that you visited every other monastery in the region before you came to me?”

“Er...” said Ming, “well, not... um... that is... I was... er... saving the best for last! Yes. That is it. I was saving the best monastery for last. For some reason.”

Master Lu smiled. “Ah, very good then. You have shown great prudence. Now show me your curriculum vitae and we will see what we have got.”

The villageress bowed her head and handed over a scroll.

“Hmm,” said Master Lu, “23 years’ experience as a peasant. That is good. Desire for spiritual betterment. That is also good.”

Ming smiled.

“Oh, hold on,” said the master, raising a hand. “It says here that you are a female.”

“Yes, but—”

“I am sorry, but we do not allow females to become novices. Monastery policy, I am afraid.”

“But in what way am I less qualified?” asked Ming. “Do not women have just as much Buddha-nature as men?”

“I would have to look it up in the scriptures,” replied Lu, “but I believe that the answer is no. They do not have as much Buddha-nature as men.”

Ming looked down in disappointment.

“Now, now,” said the master, “Do not despair. I can refer you to a local nunnery. You won’t come any closer to enlightenment there, but there will still be plenty of fasting and repentance.”

Ming sighed. “I did not wish to have to resort to this,” she said, “but you leave me no choice.” As the master watched, she reached into her pocket, retrieved a false moustache, and carefully applied it to her face. Then, adopting a significantly lower tone, she spoke again. “Master Lu, I am a man and I wish to study at your monastery,” she said.

“Ah!” said Master Lu. “Well then, if you are a man then that changes everything.” He rose, and extended his hand in congratulations. “Welcome to the monastery.”

Ming leapt up and shook the master’s hand vigorously. “You will not regret this, Master Lu!”

Master Lu smiled. “I agree. Now what did you say your name was again?”

“Ming,” said Ming.

“Ming,” repeated the master. “That is a very feminine sounding name, is it not?”

“I think you are mistaken, Master.”

“Ah,” said Lu, “I must have it confused with a different feminine sounding name. Very well then. Let me show you to your chambers.”

And so it was that Novice Ming became a student of Master Lu. Several days later, she removed her false moustache and began speaking in her normal voice, and nobody seemed to notice.

21. Heavy Rocks

Novice Wei inquired of Master Lu, “Could the Buddha create a rock so heavy that even he could not lift it?”

Master Lu replied, “The Buddha cannot create rocks. Next question.”

22. The Lingering Guest

It was the eighth month of the sixteenth year of the reign of Emperor Daizong, and Chet the surfer had been staying at Master Lu’s monastery for quite some time.

The monks were accommodating people by nature, but even they were growing tired of his persistent laziness and his boorish eating habits. So Master Lu called his most trusted students together and asked them to devise a way to get the visitor to leave.

“Get rid of him,” said the master. “I do not care how it is done.”

Novice Zhou raised his hand. “As long as it is in keeping with the teachings of the Buddha, of course?”

“Hmm?” asked Lu. “Oh. Right. Sure. Of course.”

The four novices went off to plan, but they could not agree on a single course of action. So they decided to each try it alone. Novice Wei went first.

“Brother Chet,” said Wei, “You have been at this monastery a long time now...”

“I know, man,” said Chet. “I’m really digging the place. You’ve got that whole Asian vibe going on.”

“We are Asian.”

“Yeah man. I hear you.”

Novice Wei sighed. “Brother Chet, are you not growing restless? You have told me before that surfing is your life. And yet here we have only the koi pond and the tranquil lake. Is this truly the environment for a surfer?”

“I don’t know, man. I’ve been thinking of giving up surfing. I mean, I’m 27 years old. It’s time for me to settle down somewhere. You know? Somewhere cushy. Somewhere where I don’t have to do any work. Somewhere where there are a bunch of monks to take care of me.”

Novice Wei returned to the group, shaking his head. “It is no good,” he said. “Novice Zhou, perhaps you should give it a go.”

So Novice Zhou went out and brandished a scroll at the surfer.

“Slouch! Sloth! Lounger!” he cried. “You are living your life in violation of the principles of Buddhism, and you shall reap the punishments as a result!”

“Whoa,” said Chet. “What punishments?”

“You will never attain enlightenment,” said Zhou.


Zhou scratched his head. “Well, er... that’s it. You will never attain enlightenment. That is the ultimate punishment.”

“Yeah,” said Chet, “but, I’m not like, trying to attain enlightenment. You dig?”

Novice Zhou stared back at him.

“I mean, it would be a huge bummer if I was a monk, but I’m just a surfer. What do I care if I attain enlightenment?”

Defeated, Novice Zhou returned to the group.

“It is hopeless,” he said. “That man is insane and beyond reason. There is no way we can ever evict him.”

“Leave it to me,” said Han. “I have a plan.”

So Novice Han walked over to the surfer.

“Look man,” said Chet, “If you’re here to try and get me to get out, you should know—”

“Shut up and listen,” said Han. “If you get up and leave this monastery right now, I will give you 100 wén.”


Novice Han rolled his eyes. “Ten of the little silver coins with the square holes in the middle.”

“Oh,” said Chet. “Wicked.”

And so the visitor packed up his things and promptly left. When Novice Han returned to the group, his colleagues were amazed.

“How did you do it?” asked Wei. “I thought for sure that he was beyond convincing.”

“It was easy,” said Han. “I just explained to him that he was living his life in violation of the principles of Buddhism and that he would never attain enlightenment.”

“Strange,” said Zhou. “That is precisely what I did.”

“I guess I just did it better,” said Han.

Novice Ming shook her head. “And to think, I was going to offer him 100 wén if he left.”

Novice Han chuckled and patted his fellow student on the shoulder. “Oh, Ming. Your inexperience truly shows. Now come on. Let us go tell Master Lu of my phenomenal success.”

When Master Lu heard the news, he was overjoyed. As a reward, Novice Han received 150 wén.

23. No Moral Contradiction

One morning, Master Lu was gleefully frying up some bacon for breakfast, and meditating on the nature of bacon as he did so. He was almost finished cooking when Novice Zhou piped up from behind him.

“Master Lu,” said the novice, “is not bacon is against the teachings of the Buddha?”

“No, I do not think so,” said Lu. “Bacon is delicious and there is nothing wrong with it. Now please leave me be. I have things to attend to.”

Despite Master Lu’s instruction, Novice Zhou lingered. He cleared his throat.

Master Lu put down his spatula and turned to his student. “What is it, Zhou? I am trying to focus on my bacon.”

“Well… it is just… the Buddha teaches compassion to all living things does he not? How is bacon consistent with that teaching?”

Master Lu sighed. “Bacon is not alive.”

“Well, no,” said the novice. “But it was alive. It used to be a pig.”

“It was not alive when I got it from the butcher,” said the Master. “Therefore, there is no moral contradiction.”

“I do not think—” began Zhou.

“Look,” said Lu, growing somewhat impatient, “it is in the scriptures.”

“Where in the scriptures?” asked Zhou.

“I do not know! It is in there somewhere.”

Novice Zhou nodded. “I will look for mention of bacon in the scriptures,” he said. And with that, he dutifully left.

“Finally,” mumbled Lu, “I thought he would never dutifully leave.”

Master Lu turned back to the bacon only to find that it had burned. Sighing, he discarded the overcooked meat and made himself some toast with jam for breakfast instead. Meanwhile, Novice Zhou found justification for eating bacon in the scriptures, and promptly went and made himself some.

24. Ming’s Three Rats

Early one morning, Master Lu came upon Novice Ming fiddling with some rats in the dining hall.

“Novice Ming, what are you doing up?” he asked, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, “I have not even begun to make my bacon yet.”

“Oh, Master Lu! I did not see you come in.” Novice Ming leapt up, put away some loose scrolls, and then lined up her three cages in front of him.

“Why have you got rats in here?” asked the master. “This is where we eat breakfast.”

“You are just in time to see my experiment,” said Ming. “I am attempting to apply the principles of science to my quest for enlightenment.”

“Would it not be more efficient for you to apply the principles of meditation to your quest for enlightenment?”

“Observe these cages,” instructed Ming. “In the first, I have a page from The Annals of Shandong Monastery. In the second, a page from The Chronicle of Master Yuan.”

Master Lu peered into the third cage. “Why does that rat have a page from Novice Zhou’s diary?”

“He is my control. Now, I will be timing these rats, and seeing which one attains enlightenment first. In that way, I can know which text is more valuable.”

The two stared at the rats in silence for a few minutes.

“You know,” said Lu, “in the time it took you to set up and carry out this experiment, you probably could have read both of those texts. They are very concise and accessible.”

“Hush,” said Ming. “You might influence the results.”

Suddenly, and without warning, all three rodents attained enlightenment simultaneously.

“Huh,” said Ming.

“And what lesson have you learned from this?” asked the master.

“Well,” said the novice, “either those old masters are not all they are cracked up to be or Novice Zhou is more profound than we thought.”

25. The Surface of the Lake

One day, Master Lu took a field trip down to the beach with his students. During the lunch break, he came upon Novice Wei trying to skip stones.

“Darn,” cursed Wei. “No matter how hard I throw the stone, it never skips more than twice.”

Master Lu puffed on his pipe. “Throw again for me, so I may observe your technique.”

Novice Wei obliged. The stone skipped twice and then sunk.

“Your problem,” said Lu, “is that you are trying to skip the stone on the surface of the lake. Next time, try skipping the lake under the surface of the stone.”

“You know,” said Wei, “I am not always looking for a religious teaching. Sometimes I just want to know how to do a thing. Is that too much to ask?”

Master Lu sighed. “You need to sort of flick your wrist inwards.”

26. The Contents of a Box

Late one evening, Master Lu came upon Novice Ming performing another one of her scientific experiments in the meditation room. The novice was seated on the floor, staring intently at a featureless box.

“What have you got in that box?” asked the master.

“I am glad you asked,” said Ming.

“Really? Because I am regretting it already.”

“You see,” said the novice, “I placed a stray cat inside of the box, and next to the cat I placed an excerpt from the Summer and Winter Annals.”

“I suppose there is no way of stopping you from telling me why you did that,” said the master.

“The cat in the box is either enlightened or unenlightened,” continued Ming, “depending on whether or not it has absorbed the text. However, there’s no way of knowing what state the cat is in unless an observer opens the box.”

“So why have you not opened the box? Don’t you want to know whether or not the cat is enlightened?”

Novice Ming peered up at the master. “Why? What good would that do?”

“I can say with all honesty that I do not know,” said Lu. “May I look in the box?”

“Only if you refrain from telling me whether or not the cat is enlightened,” said Ming.

Master Lu peered inside the box.

“Tell me,” he said, “how long do you suppose can a cat last without food or fresh air or water?”

“Is this one of your parables, Master Lu?”

“It is somewhat less abstract than a parable, I am afraid.”

Novice Ming looked in the box and saw the very still cat.

“Rats,” she said.

“Do not despair, young one,” said Lu. “Perhaps this is a sign that you should give up science forever and go and have a good round of meditation.”

“No no,” said Ming. “I mean I should use rats instead of cats. They are smaller, require less oxygen...”

27. Probability

One day, Novice Wei came upon Master Lu playing Mahjong solitaire in the gardens. He was staring at the board intently, and it was clear that he had not made a move in some time.

“Are you stuck, Master Lu?” asked the novice.

“No,” said Lu.

“You look stuck.”

“I am not stuck. I am meditating on the nature of Mahjong solitaire.”

“You should match the Bamboo Eight in the top left corner with the Bamboo Eight in the top right corner,” said Wei.

“I have seen that move, Novice Wei,” said the master. “And I have chosen not to take it. There are more optimal moves for me to take. I am simply determining which is the… most optimal.”

“I do not think you have any other moves, Master Lu,” said Wei, examining the board more closely.

“Enough of you!” said Lu, shooing the novice away. “I will meditate upon this and come up with the correct course of action.”

The next morning, Novice Wei returned to the garden and again saw Master Lu looking at his Mahjong tiles.

“Still at it?” asked the novice.

“Er… No,” replied Lu. “No, I solved that game some time ago.”

Novice Wei arched an eyebrow. “But that is the exact same configuration of tiles I left you with.”

“It must have come up again, by chance.”

“Exactly the same way?”

“Evidently so,” said the Master.

“That is highly improbable, Master Lu.”

“Improbable, but not impossible.”

“But highly, highly, improbable,” insisted Wei.

“But not impossible.”

“No,” said Wei. “I will prove it.”

With this, the young novice ran off. When he returned, he had Novice Ming and her scientific instruments in tow.

“There,” said Wei. “Now we will see who knows what about probability. Novice Ming, what are the odds of getting the exact same Mahjong deal twice in a row?”

Novice Ming fiddled with her abacus for a while. “Very, very, very, very unlikely. Utterly and completely so.”

“Come now,” said the master, “you two are overstating things.”

“I do not believe we are, Master Lu,” said Ming. “It would be exceptionally unlikely. The odds are upwards of one in ten to the 249th power.”

“And yet, by your own admission, it would not impossible.”

“Okay,” said Wei, “perhaps I can contextualize this for you. Let us say that you pluck a single grain of sand from a rock garden in order to meditate upon it. Then, once you are finished meditating upon it, you cast it away. And then, once it has landed back in the garden, you kick the spot where it landed to mess about the sand. And then, you rake it, again meditating upon the nature of the sand. And then you close your eyes, and pluck another grain of sand, completely at random, from the garden. The odds of you retrieving your initial grain of sand are somewhat comparable to the odds of you dealing out the same Mahjong layout twice in a row.”

“Actually, that is incorrect,” said Ming. “Master Lu would be much, much, much more likely to retrieve the grain of sand. By many orders of magnitude.”

“And yet the event could still occur,” replied the master. “You have proven nothing.”

“Yes, and lightning could strike you dead right now,” said Wei. “Yet we are safe in assuming that it will not.”

“On a clear day like today?” Master Lu raised a palm to the heavens. “No, that would indeed be impossible.”

“Master Lu, I could deal out hands of Mahjong solitaire until the day that I die and I would never again come across that specific configuration of tiles,” said Wei.

“Are you willing to wager an hour of recreation time on it?” asked the Master.

“Yes,” replied the novice. “Absolutely. I would be foolish not to.”

And so Novice Wei gathered up all the tiles and dealt out a new hand. When he was finished, he was dismayed to learn that the exact same layout had come up again.

“But… but…” the novice protested, “the odds against this happening are astronomical.”

“Well well,” said the master, chortling and slapping his knee, “It would seem that we have truly seen who knows what about probability!”

And then Master Lu was struck by lightning.

28. The Buddha’s Predisposition

On the fifteenth day of the ninth month of the sixteenth year of the reign of Emperor Daizong, Master Lu’s students came to visit him in the hospital.

The master gave them a warm smile as they entered the room. “I am pleased to see you all. My recovery has been very long and painful, and it is good to have friendly faces to comfort me.”

“Hmm?” said Novice Zhou. “Oh. Right. That. No, actually, we are here because we have a philosophical question that we need settled.”

Master Lu’s face dropped. “You want me to dole out philosophical wisdom while I am wrapped in bandages and propped up in a hospital bed?”

“Well,” said Zhou, “It is not like you would have to move or anything.”

The master sighed and said, “Very well. Go ahead. “

“We want to know why the Buddha is fat,” said Wei.

“You want to know why the Buddha is fat.”

“All of the depictions of the Buddha around the monastery show him as a smiling fat man,” said Ming, “but he gave up all of his worldly possessions and embraced a life of asceticism. Something does not add up here.”

“He looks jolly and portly when he should be slender and austere,” continued Wei. “I mean, we live the same lifestyle as he did, and we are all thin.”

“Well,” said Zhou, “most of us anyway.”

“Hey!” said Novice Han. “I cannot help my weight.”

“Maybe you should go out for some exercise once in a while instead of spending all your free time in the basement with your pottery wheel,” said Zhou.

“It is true,” said Wei. “You barely ever leave the monastery grounds. No wonder we always lose the annual swim meet against Master Qufu’s monastery.”

“Enough!” cried Master Lu. “If I tell you why the Buddha was fat, will you stop squabbling amongst yourselves?”

“We will stop squabbling here,” said Wei.

“Good enough,” said Lu. “The Buddha was overweight due to genetics.”

“Genetics?” asked Zhou. “That’s it?”

The master offered a weak shrug. “Laozi had a glandular problem and Confucius ate too many carbohydrates, but the Buddha was simply predisposed to obesity. What can I say? Some people are naturally fat.”

“And you are sure there was no other factor?” asked Ming.

“If I had a philosophical explanation, I would give it to you,” said the master.

“Oh,” said Wei. “Well, thank you, I guess.”

And so the four students left their Master to recover in peace.

“I told you,” said Han, as he left.

“This does not prove anything,” replied Zhou.

Once they were all gone, Master Lu relaxed and chuckled to himself.

“Genetics,” he said. “I swear, these novices will believe anything that you tell them.”

29. Ming’s Enlightened Dentists

When Master Lu finally returned home from the hospital, he found a giant mechanical device occupying the prayer room.

“Novice Ming!” he shouted. “Get in here this instant!”

Novice Ming poked her head through the doorway. “How did you know it was me?”

“Did I not forbid science within monastery grounds?”

“Technically this is applied science.”

The master began to muster an objection, but he could tell he was fighting a losing battle. “Alright,” he said, “what does this one do?”

“It is a computer,” said Ming. “And it has been programmed to generate koans.”

“ there a Zen master with a calligraphy brush inside?”

“Do not be silly,” said the novice. “It does everything automatically. With gears, mainly.”

“Enlightened gears?” asked Lu.

Novice Ming sighed. “I can see that you are skeptical.”

“Your powers of observation are truly second to none.”

“All I ask is that you not pass judgement until you see the machine’s output.”

“Okay,” said the master, “but do not get your hopes up.”

Novice Ming gave the master a quick bow and ran over to pull a lever on the side of the machine. The gears inside began spinning and after a few noisy minutes, the machine produced a long thin scroll which read as follows:







“Hmm…” said the master, “it is not very deep, but one could probably make a theological argument supporting it. If nothing else, this reflects well on your understanding of the basic principles of Buddhist thought.”

Novice Ming’s eyes widened. “So you approve?”

“Conditionally. Let me see another one.”

Novice Ming pulled the main lever again, and the machine printed out another scroll.







Master Lu read over the parable a few times. “A bit focused on dentists, isn’t it?”

“That’s odd,” said Ming. “Let me try another one.” She pulled the lever a third time, and the machine printed out yet another scroll.









“Have you considered leasing your device to the Imperial College of Dentistry?” asked Lu.

“There must be a screw loose somewhere,” said Ming.

“Funny,” said the master, “I was thinking the same thing.”

“It was working before,” she insisted. “Novice Wei got a great one. He found it very enlightening.

“Perhaps Novice Wei should look into a career as a dentist,” said Master Lu, mockingly.

“Are you mocking me, Master Lu?”

“Not at all,” lied Master Lu.

“You will see,” said Ming. “One day, there will be no masters. There will only be computers that dispense wisdom automatically.”

“And then perhaps we can have automatic students automatically attaining enlightenment and there will be no need to have humans involved at all,” said the master.

“Exactly,” said Ming. “I am glad you see the—wait, what?”

30. A Stopped Clock

“Here is one for you to consider,” said Master Lu to Novice Wei. “Would it be better to own a stopped clock, or a clock that is one second too slow?”

“I would imagine that the slow clock would be preferable for obvious reasons,” replied the student.

“Ah,” said the master, “but while the slow clock is always wrong, the stopped clock is right twice a day.”

“But the slow clock is slow by such an insignificant amount of time that it is basically as good as an accurate clock,” said Wei. “And anyway, how would you be able to tell when exactly the stopped clock was right?”

Master Lu contemplated this for a moment, and then got up to leave.

“Where are you going?” asked Novice Wei.

“I have to go try and get my old clock back,” the master replied.

31. Wei’s Open Mind

One day, Novice Zhou came upon Novice Wei studying some texts in his quarters. “What have you got there?” he asked.

“Oh. Er… nothing,” Wei replied, gathering together the works and trying to hide them.

But Novice Zhou was too fast for him, and snatched a few texts out of his hands. “The Daodejing? The Daozang? Wei, are you reading Daoist texts?”

Novice Wei rolled his eyes. “What tipped you off, Zhou?”

“Both books contained the word ‘Dao’ in their titles.”

“That was sarca—”

“I cannot believe you would be reading Daoist texts!” said Zhou. “It is bad enough that we lose the swim meet against Master Qufu’s Daoist monks every year. Now you are defecting over to their side?”

“I am just trying to have an open mind,” said Wei. “Laozi was a very wise man and his teachings could no doubt be applied to—”

Novice Zhou came up and rapped on Novice Wei’s head.

“Ow!” said Wei, “Hey!”

“Your mind is open so wide that your brain is falling out,” said Zhou. “Now get back to studying Buddhist parables.”

“Here, let me show you the sort of thing which you are missing.” Novice Wei opened his copy of Zhuangzi and beginning to read it aloud. “One day about sunset, Zhuangzi dozed off and dreamed that he turned into a butterfly. He flapped his wings and sure enough he was a butterfly. What a joyful feeling as he fluttered about, he completely forgot that he was Zhuangzi. Soon though, he realized that that proud butterfly was really Zhuangzi who dreamed he was a butterfly, or was it a butterfly who dreamed he was Zhuangzi! Maybe Zhuangzi was the butterfly, and maybe the butterfly was Zhuangzi? This is what is meant by the ‘transformation of things.’”

Wei closed the book and smugly waited for Novice Zhou’s retort.

“That’s it?” retorted Zhou. “You are taking your spiritual guidance from a man who could not tell whether or not he was an insect?”

“It is slightly more complex than that,” said Wei.

“Oh yes!” said Zhou. “Very complex! A man cannot remember what species he is. There are so many layers there.”

“I do not think—”

“Here. Watch me. I am about to settle the great theological debates of Daoism. Are you ready?” Novice Zhou rolled up his sleeves. “Zhuangzi was a human dreaming he was a butterfly. There. Mystery solved!”

With that, Novice Zhou stormed off. That night he had a dream that he was a Daoist, and when he awoke he was very annoyed.

32. The Troublesome Barber

One day, Master Lu came to Novice Wei with a philosophical quandary. “Let us suppose that the village barber advertises that he shaves all men in the village who do not shave themselves,” he said.

“Why?” asked the student.

“I am trying to give you a paradox to consider. That is why,” replied the master.


“Anyway,” continued Lu, “in this scenario, who shaves the barber?”

“He shaves himself,” said Wei.

“Ah, but the barber only shaves those who do not shave themselves. How can he shave himself if he is not a man who does not shave himself?”

“You did not say only,” said Novice Wei. “You just said all.”

“I meant only,” said Lu.

“It is not fair to move the goalposts like this, Master Lu.”

“Please just try and answer the adjusted question.”

“Well...” said Wei “if the barber cannot shave himself for logical reasons, and if similar logical considerations prevent someone else from shaving the barber, then logically no one shaves the barber.”

“What do you mean?” asked the master. “Surely someone must shave the barber.”

“Why? The barber could be a woman. No contradiction there. Or it could just be a man with a large untrimmed beard.”

“I think you are missing the point of this exercise,” said Master Lu.

“Perhaps he lives outside of the village and commutes to his barbershop. That way he isn’t shaving a man in the village.”

“I do not think—”

“Or perhaps he has alopecia.”

Master Lu held up his hand. “You know what? I will rephrase one more time. A male, clean-shaven barber who has the ability to grow facial hair and who lives in the village where he works places a sign in his window saying that he shaves all those men in the village — and only those men in the village — who do not shave themselves. Now, in this situation, who shaves the barber?”

Novice Wei thought about this for a good long while and then said, “Perhaps he is lying.”

Master Lu sighed and shook his head. “You are not very good at considering paradoxes, are you, Novice Wei?”

“It is funny, Master Lu. I was about to say the same thing to you.”

33. Ming’s Technique

One day, Master Lu came upon Novice Ming with her nose buried deep in a pile of books.

“Oh, Master Lu,” she said. “Have you read about this new many-worlds theory?”

“No,” said the master. “I have been busy reading religious texts. Because I am a monk.”

“It is quite fascinating.”

“I do not understand.”

“I have not even started to explain it yet.”

“No, I do not understand why all of my students are occupying themselves with these frivolities instead of studying scripture.” said Master Lu. “Novice Han has been spending all his time writing poetry for the easily-courted young women of the village, Novice Zhou will not stop training for a swim meet that is eleven months away, and Novice Wei is endlessly twirling that infernal baton of his! And now here you are, studying yet another scientific theory. Have you all forgotten that this is a place of learning? How do you intend to ever reach enlightenment?”

“I am glad you asked,” said Ming. “You see, many-worlds theory teaches us that there is a different alternate universe for every choice we make. Indeed, every single possible outcome has its own universe, and just as there are an infinite number of possible outcomes, so too are there an infinite number of universes.”

“So, somewhere out there, there is a Novice Ming who has chosen to devote all her time and energy to studying the Buddha in silence?”

“Precisely,” said Ming.

Master Lu smiled.

“In fact, that is exactly why I am studying the theory. There is an alternate universe somewhere where an alternate Novice Ming has already attained enlightenment. If I find a way study her, then I can replicate her technique and attain enlightenment myself.”

“I would be willing to bet that her technique involves years of study and very few distractions,” said Master Lu.

“Perhaps, but there is no way to know that for certain. No, I’m afraid the only thing to do is to find a way to study this alternate universe.”

“Just to make sure that I am completely up to speed on your plan, instead of spending several years studying enlightenment directly, you intend to spend several years studying an unrelated scientific theory in order that you may come to learn that you need to spend several more years studying enlightenment directly?”

“Well, I wouldn’t put it like that,” said Ming.

“Of course not,” said the master. “Tell me, Novice Ming. There are an infinite number of possible universes, correct?”


“Including a universe where you spend the rest of your life attempting to learn about this alternate universe and never succeed?”

“I suppose.”

“And a universe where you find out how alternate Novice Ming attained enlightenment, but cannot replicate the circumstances in your universe.”

“That... would be a possibility.”

“And a universe where you think you’ve found out how alternate Novice Ming attained enlightenment but actually you were mistaken and you spend years trying to replicate something which didn’t work or never happened?”

“Also a possibility.”

“And a universe where many-worlds theory is incorrect?”

“Yes, that too. ...Wait, what? No. ...Maybe?”

“Mmmhmm,” said Lu. “Well, good luck with your studies. I’m sure they will be fruitful.”

Novice Ming looked down nervously at her research as the master departed.

The next day, Master Lu returned to the same spot and saw Novice Ming with a different set of books.

“Well, well,” he said, “what have we here? The Golden Fern Annals? The Chronicles of Master Jin? Novice Ming, are you studying Buddhist texts?”

“I am,” said Ming.

“Well, that’s a first.”

“Unfortunately, they are not as helpful as I had hoped. Not one of them mentions many worlds theory at all.”

34. A Wise Judgement

Master Lu was well known in the village for resolving seemingly unresolvable disputes. On one occasion he was visited by two women, each claiming to be the mother of the same baby. Each one accused the other woman of attempting to steal it, and neither had any evidence to support their claim. After much consideration, Master Lu came up with a cunning plan to determine who the true mother of the baby was.

“The baby will be cut down the middle,” he proclaimed, “and each woman will receive half.”

“That seems fair to me,” said the first woman.

“I as well find this solution fair,” said the second.

“Aha!” shouted Master Lu, “That means the true mother is—wait, what?”

“We accept your judgement as fair and even-handed,” said the first woman.

“Yes,” said the second woman. “Please cut the baby in half now.”

And so it was that Master Lu’s monastery adopted a baby.

* * *


After finishing the text, the student returned to Sokei-an.

“This book has left me... confused,” he said. “It does not seem conistent with the other Buddhist texts I’ve read.”

“Perhaps I can explain with a metaphor,” said Sokei-an. “In the botanical gardens of China there are all manner of beautiful lotus flowers in every colour imaginable. If we were to think of the whole of Zen Buddhism as one of these gardens, the teachings of Master Lu would be like a patch of smallish beige lotus flowers off in a corner somewhere. Which is to say they aren’t great, but they’re still fine in a pinch, but you could do better, but you could also do worse. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“Not really.”

“Mull it over.”

So instructed, the student got up to leave, pausing as he passed through the doorway to ask, “Master, what happened to the baby they were talking about?”

“Hmm? Oh, the baby.” Sokei-an set his tea down. “His name was Zhaozhou Congshen. He was raised by the monks and through their teachings became one of the most famous and knowledgeable Zen masters in history.”

“What, seriously? How come none of that is in there?”

“Well, that part isn’t super important. Really your main takeaway should be the teacup metaphor from earlier.”

The student considered this for some time.

“...I think I’m going to switch to another religion,” he said.

“Fair enough,” said the master.