Zen Koan 4: “Obedience”

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Zen Koans seem like paradoxes at first. The reason is that Koans are not meant to be understood by the intellect, but by intuition. Pondering over these riddles can help us unravel greater truths about our world and ourselves. This breakdown isn’t meant to substitute the insight the Koans are meant to invoke, but merely aid in getting there.

From “101 Zen Stories”:

” The master Bankei’s talks were attended not only by Zen students but by persons of all ranks and sects. He never quoted sutras not indulged in scholastic dissertations. Instead, his words were spoken directly from his heart to the hearts of his listeners.

His large audience angered a priest of the Nichiren sect because the adherents had left to hear about Zen. The self-centered Nichiren priest came to the temple, determined to have a debate with Bankei.

“Hey, Zen teacher!” he called out. “Wait a minute. Whoever respects you will obey what you say, but a man like myself does not respect you. Can you make me obey you?”

“Come up beside me, and I will show you,” said Bankei.

Proudly the priest pushed his way through the crowd to the teacher.

Bankei smiled. “Come over to my left side.”

The priest obeyed.

“No,” said Bankei, “we may talk better if you are on the right side. Step over here.”

The priest proudly stepped over to the right.

“You see,” observed Bankei, “you are obeying me, and I think you are a very gentle person. Now sit down and listen.” ”

The Breakdown

Instead of questioning himself and his teachings, the Nichiren priest’s pride took over and immediately challenged Bankei after the adherents left him. During the confrontation, Bankei outsmarts the priest with little effort, as the priest’s preoccupation with his anger and image prevented him from seeing through Bankei’s trick.

The Nichiren priest was too attached to his status to consider that his teachings were lacking. If we think we are always right and that we know everything we will not be open to other ideas and possibilities. Thus we miss out on valuable lessons life has to offer unless we’re lucky enough to come across a wise teacher, like Bankei, who can snap us out of our delusions.


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