Tao Stories






A new student once asked Master Li what he should be thinking about during meditation. “Should I think about my meditating, should I think about my place in the universe, or should I be thinking of something else; or perhaps not thinking of anything at all.” Master Li shook his head and said “I do not know. I have never thought about it.”

It was a beautiful day outside and Master Li decided to go for a walk. While walking through the forest he came upon a student who was reading a book about the Tao. Master Li grabbed the book from the student’s hands and flung it into a nearby river. The stunned student asked Master Li why he had done that. Master Li responded, “It is better to rain than to just make a lot of thunder.”


There was once a meeting of teachers and students. The students were asked to come up with what they considered to be the most important aspect of zen. After a lengthy discussion, one student who was the spokesman for the group said, “We have decided that the most important aspect is awareness. After a long silence, the student repeated that they thought awareness was the most important aspect. Master Li replied, “What?”Master Li continued on about the most important aspect. “If you are on an important one hundred mile walk, what is the most important step? The first? The one that completed the halfway point, or the one that successfully completed the trek? Without the first, the journey would not ever start. Without the step halfway through, it would indicate you had given up or something had happened to you. Without the last step, you would not have had success in finally completing the journey after having come so far. So tell me, is one step more important than any other?”



A traveling zen teacher who considered himself to be quite the scholar met Master Li and proudly said, “I have discovered one hundred and twelve methods of meditation that constitute the whole science of transforming mind.” Master Li nodded his head and said “Is that so? I have discovered one hundred and thirteen methods.”
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The next day, another student came up to old master Li and asked “Master, what is the sound of one hand clapping?” The master paused and said “That is an excellent question. We should both meditate on it”. Upon hearing this the slapped student from yesterday walked up and said “Master, I asked the same thing yesterday and you hit me.” The old master replied “Yesterday, that was a foolish question, today it is an excellent one.”
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A young monk came running up to his teacher, “Master Li, have you heard? The temple in the village has burned down! Master Ghozan was inside. He was in such deep concentration while meditating, he did not notice the fire and he has died. What amazing powers of meditation!” exclaimed the student. Master Li replied, “That fool, he ruined a perfectly good robe!”
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A student and Master Li stood in the temple yard when a dog trotted by. “Does that dog have Buddha nature?” asked the student. Master Li said “Why don’t you ask him?”. The student said softly “He would not answer.” Master Li smiled and said “Then it is settled., he is the smartest one here.”
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Master Li once asked a new student; “Where are you from?” The student fidgeted and said “I am from an emptiness created by form.” “Most interesting, I am from Hunan Province” replied Master Li.
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A traveling intellectual stopped at the temple. He saw Master Li beating a drum. “You must be the famous Master Li. Can you teach me about the Tao?” asked the traveler. Master Li began beating a drum. “Excuse me, what is the secret of Tao?” the traveler repeated. Master Li remained silent and kept playing the drum. “What is the matter with you, are you deaf, I am asking you a question” the aggravated intellectual demanded. “And my drum is giving you the answer” replied Master Li.
"Master, with your help I am sure I can be a very enlightened being!" exclaimed a new student. The master sized up the overanxious student and replied; "I am afraid you overestimate abilities of master."
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There is a story about a fellow who somehow wakes up with a piece of poop on his nose. Throughout the day everyone he meets "stinks" and everything he does "stinks." He never bothers to look in the mirror before many years pass. Then one day he passes before a mirror and realizes the poop is on his own nose, and he must wash his own face to get rid of the smell.

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A new student had come to a temple and been rude, arrogant, and disruptive. After a week, he told the master he was leaving. "You are an absolutely horrible teacher, the worst ever!" exclaimed the student. The master smiled and said "It is a shame you are leaving, you are a wonderful one."
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The master asked a brand new student, “How was the lunch we served today?” The student said “Oh, very good.” The master said to a senior priest standing nearby, “Get rid of the cook. He is useless.”
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A student had grown tired of his work routine sweeping the floors. One day he asked the Master, “When are you going to teach me about Zen?” The master smiled and said, “I already am teaching you” and he handed the student the broom.
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“Master, I do not know whether the sandals should be on the right side or the left side of the vestibule. What do you prefer master?” “I prefer glass of sake” said the master.
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A new student at a temple was handed a large bowl of water. “What do I do with this water Master?” asked the student. “Don’t drop it” said the master as he walked away.
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A new student arrived at a temple. He arrived just as the other students began their work period. Not knowing what to do, he stood and watched. The master came up to him and asked “Why are you just standing there?” The student replied “No one told me what to do”. The master then said “Did anyone tell you to come to this temple?” “No” said the student. “Then get busy” answered the master.
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Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the dam of the Hao Waterfall when Zhuangzi said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”




Huizi said, “You’re not a fish — how do you know what fish enjoy?”


Zhuangzi said, “You’re not me, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”


Huizi said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish — so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”


Zhuangzi said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy — so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.
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A disciple once asked, “Master, what is the value of silence?” The master told the disciple, “ So long as the bee is outside the petals of the lotus, and has not tasted its honey, it hovers around the flower, emitting its buzzing sound; but when it is inside the flower, it drinks its nectar silently. If a man quarrels and disputes about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of the Tao; when he has tasted it he becomes still.”

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“Master, will I ever become enlightened?” asked a student. “Perhaps, why do you ask” said the master. “I ask because sometimes I get a little discouraged” replied the student. The master then said, “If I ask you to walk from here to Ghangzhou, can you say with absolute certainty that you will reach it?” The student said, “Not with absolute certainty Master, something could happen on my journey.” “This is true, but if you really wanted to reach Ghangzhou, would you keep walking in that direction despite the uncertainty?” asked the master. “Yes” replied the student. “Well then”, said the master “It would be best if you keep practicing even if you do not attain enlightenment, for any practice you perform will bring you that much closer.”
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“Master, I have been troubled since my brother died. Will the sorrow I feel ever end?“ asked a disciple. The master responded, “Sorrow like the great rain that falls soaks the ground. For a time, there is mud and perhaps even a flood. Soon though, the mud begins to dry out. The flood waters recede. Let no sorrow be so great as to not remember this. The rain falls, the sun shines, the mountains remain standing.”
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A long time student told the master that he felt he was close to becoming enlightened. “Have you been practicing a long time?” asked the master. “Yes, master“ replied the student. “Have you been diligent in your work?” inquired the master. “Oh yes, master. Very much so“ said the student. “One final question my student, have you felt you have made great progress?” asked the master. The student said “Yes, master.” The master smiled and said “Well, you better keep practicing then.”
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A man ventured far to visit a great Taoist teacher. When he arrived, the teacher only had a small hut with a table, a few pillows and a couple of books. After greeting him, the man, who was somewhat disappointed, asked the master “Where are your things at?” The teacher replied “Where are your things at?” The man said “I am only passing through.” The teacher smiled and said, “I too, am only passing through.”
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A student approached his master and told him that he had a revelation. “Master, I see myself and the others as a balloon. When we need it, you inflate it by giving us encouragement to keep going. When we become too inflated with ourselves, you always say something to take the air out of our balloon.” The master replied, “You have missed the point entirely. The goal is to not have a balloon.”
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Once there was an old farmer who never wore anything else than coarse hempen clothes; even for the winter he had no others. In spring, when cultivating the land, he warmed himself in the sunshine. He did not know that there were such things as large mansions and winter apartments, brocade and silk, furs of fox and badger in the world.




Turning one day to his wife he said: “People do not know how pleasant it is to have warm sunshine on the back. I shall communicate this to our prince, for I think he would be pleased to know this and the man went off to the castle to tell him. Before he got there, a rich man of the village said to him: ‘Once there was a man fond of what he called the simple things of life and some silly thing he called the Tao. He told the prince about it. The prince relayed to all the townspeople about what the man had said. Everybody laughed and chased the man out of town. Such a foolish man do you resemble.” The farmer replied, “I am proud to resemble such a man.”
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Yuan Hsie lived in squalor in Lu, while Tse Kung amassed great wealth in Wei. Within a short time span, both killed themselves. A disciple asked his master, “Master, why did both these men choose to end their lives?” The master replied, “Poverty galled the one, and riches caused uneasiness in the other. So you see disciple Chan, poverty will not do nor wealth either.” Disciple Chan said, “But what then will do master?” “What will do is to enjoy life and take one’s ease, for those who know how to enjoy life are not poor, and he that lives at ease requires no riches” answered the master.
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The master told the disciple, “ You knew Po Yi, yes? “Po Yi was not without desire, for being too proud of his purity of mind, he was led to death by starvation. You also knew Chan-Chi and for being too proud of his virtue he froze to death in his cave. They were no different from the fools walking the streets full of craving.” “How is this so master?” asked the disciple. The master responded, “Those who are in pursuit of purity and virtue and do so in a false way resemble those who seek to satisfy their desires.
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The disciple asked the master, “Are all people the same?” The master responded “That in which all beings differ is life, that in which they are all alike is death. During life there is the difference of intelligence and foolishness, honor and meanness, but in death there is the equality of rottenness and putrefaction. Neither can be prevented. Although intelligence and foolishness, honor and meanness exist, no human power can affect them, just as rottenness and putrefaction cannot be prevented. Human beings cannot make life and death, intelligence and stupidity, honorableness and meanness, what they are, for all beings live and die equally, are equally wise and stupid, honorable and mean. Some die at the age of ten, some at one hundred. The wise and benevolent die as the cruel and imbecile. In death, there are so many bones which cannot be distinguished. But if we hasten to enjoy our life, we have no time to trouble about what comes after death.”
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“Master, I have been contemplating something” said the disciple. “What have you been contemplating?” replied the master. “I have been contemplating who I am” the disciple said softly. “A most worthwhile question disciple Cho, and what is your answer?” “I do not know” said disciple Cho, “and it troubles me.” The master replied “Perhaps I can be of help. There is a scroll in our temple that an ancient master left us. It contains a poem. I shall recite it to you.”




I am the wind on the sea


I am the ocean wave


I am the sound of rustling leaves


I am the dog romping through the grass


I am the hawk on the cliff


I am the dewdrop in sunlight


I am the fairest of flowers


I am the powerful bear.


I am the softest whisper


I am the manta ray in the deepest waters


I am the frozen lake in winter


I am the fire providing warmth


I am the summer rain


Who levels the mountain?


Who speaks the age of the moon?


Who has been where the sun sleeps?


Who, if not I?


For I am one with the universe


“That is beautiful master” said the disciple. “I wish I could be all of that.” The master smiled, “You already are. You need only realize it.”
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One time at a meditation retreat, a master was sitting at a table drinking some tea. A new student came up to him and gushed “Master, I was sitting in meditation all morning and I had a breakthrough. I felt my ego melting away and I sat in a lasting state of rapture as my body sparked with energy and my mind swirled with ecstasy“. The master replied “Very good. Have you cleaned the toilets yet?”
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A new disciple was greeted by his master and shown to his hut where he was to meditate and practice. After a while, he noticed some students nearby were talking and laughing and not behaving as they should. He went to see the master and told him about the distractions and asked for the best place where he could deeply cultivate his meditation and practice. The master listened and then drew up a map of a hut he was then supposed to go to. The disciple walked out of the master’s hut and began following the map; through the grounds of the temple and then through the gardens. At last, he came to the hut where he was to go. He looked up and realized; it was the same hut he had complained about!
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A young monk was sent to meditate alone in a cave. He mediated for ten years, and developed all kinds of mystical powers, he could fly through the air, he could become invisible, he could dip under the earth, and so-forth. After ten years he returned to his master, and said “Master, see what I have learned.” And then he proceeded to show the master all of his exotic powers. The master frowned and said: “You’ve missed the point. Go back to the cave and start again.”
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One day a new student approached the master excitedly. “Master, I have discovered a depth of consciousness unparalleled. I felt the world falling away and I felt invisible” gushed the student. The master yawned. A few months later, the student again approached. “Master, I have discovered the divine in all. I cry and I laugh and am in constant rapture.” The master looked away disappointed. After a few months of not seeing the student, the student again showed up. The master inquired “How is your practice these days?” The student replied “I’m just trying to live my life and make it from one day to the next. I don’t care about spiritual progress. I‘m doing the best I can.” The master broke into a big grin and exclaimed “Now, you have got it!”
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One day a master walked inside the zendo and saw two disciples sitting in meditation. One disciple was very rigid, detail oriented, and a perfectionist. The other disciple was often late, wore his robe sloppily and fell asleep during meditation. The master walked over to the perfectionist and whispered “You should be more like him” and pointed to the sloppy disciple. The master then walked over to the sloppy disciple and whispered “You should be more like him” and pointed to the perfectionist. Too much or too little is not right. Aim for a proper balance. Do you actively seek out a balance in your life?
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A master and disciple were sitting on a rock overlooking a beautiful valley. The master said “Tell me disciple Chang, what do you know about the Tao?” The disciple feeling most proud of himself began to talk for several minutes about all the things he felt he knew. When he looked over at the master, the master was asleep. “Wake up master” the disciple said as he gently shook the master’s arm. The sleeping master awakened. The disciple said “I was telling you about my knowledge of the Tao.” “Oh, yes please continue” replied the master; “I wish to go back to sleep.”
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One day a master and several disciples went up a hill to dig for some stones. It was a hot day and the climb was somewhat difficult. When they arrived to the top of the hill, they discovered they had forgotten the shovel. The disciples began discussing who should go back down the hill and get the shovel. The first disciple said “I should not have to go, I am the oldest person and most senior disciple.” A second said “I should not have to go. I carried the majority of the other things up here.” A third disciple said “ I cannot go get it, it is hot and I am exhausted from the climb.” The discussion lasted several minutes as they each pleaded their cases to each other. They finally decided to ask the master who should retrieve the shovel. When they turned around to ask him, they looked down and saw that he was already coming back up the hill with the shovel.
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On a summer afternoon, a Taoist teacher gave a talk to local townspeople. After the talk was over, he was gathering up his things when a man approached him. “That was a great talk, I really learned a great deal. You are an excellent teacher!” The teacher smiled and said softly “Perhaps”. The man walked away and the teacher continued packing his bag for he had another town to visit and speaking engagement to fulfill. Suddenly, another man came up to him. “That was a total waste of time. You obviously don‘t know what you‘re talking about!. You are a terrible teacher!” The teacher smiled and said softly “Perhaps”. Letting praise inflate us or letting criticism deflate us knocks us out of balance. The key to maintaining harmony with the universe is to keep one’s balance at all times. We can achieve this by not becoming attached to any emotions or concepts about others or ourselves.
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Zen Master Hsueh-feng asked a monk where he had come from.




The monk said, “From the Monastery of Spiritual Light.”


The Master said, “In the daytime, we have sunlight; in the evening, we have lamplight. What is spiritual light?”


The monk could not answer.


The Master said, “Sunlight. Lamplight.”
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An impatient new monk was complaining to a couple of fellow monks while they were gardening. “I have been here a month and I feel no different than before. I thought the teacher here was supposed to be so good, so enlightened. Nothing has happened.” The teacher was passing by and heard the new monk. He walked over and grabbed a rake and rapped the monk firmly on the shins, sending the monk down to the ground in pain. “There now! Something has happened!” Being impatient for wisdom is like the man who is impatient and wants the sun to go down at mid-day. Wisdom takes time and time takes time.
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A man traveled far to a meditation retreat. He was greeted by the meditation master and shown to his cabin where he was expected to meditate all weekend. The cabin was nice but the man heard traffic passing by and looked behind the cabin. He saw an eight lane expressway full of passing cars and trucks loudly going by. “How can I possibly meditate here sir?” he asked the master. “Listen to all that noise!” The master stopped and listened for a moment and replied “Sounds like rushing water to me.” With that he left the man at the cabin.
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A king had heard about Tao and the people’s love for it and demanded of his security force that they go out and catch this threat to him and his power. He demanded that Tao be imprisoned. So the soldiers set out, scouring the countryside for this Tao. After many weeks, the soldiers came back discouraged. “Could you not find this Tao, you unworthy soldiers?” One soldier spoke up and said, “When we listened for him, we could not hear him. When we looked for him, we could not see him. When we tried to reach for him, we could not grasp him. Yet he seemed to be everywhere.” The king was furious and had the soldiers executed. The king went out to look for Tao himself. His efforts were fruitless as he too could not capture Tao. Finally, an exhausted king met a master by a bridge where the master lived. “You seek Tao, my king? The only way to find him is to let him come to you.” He handed the king a book with the verses of the Tao Te Ching. So the discouraged king went back to his castle to wait for this Tao to show up.. As he waited, he read the book the master had given him. Then one evening, something magically happened. The Tao came to the king. The formerly hated king repented for his cruelty and lived in peace with his countrymen and women the rest of his life.
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Once a great drought struck a valley. People were desperate and suffering. Some of the people noticed that one farm seemingly was unaffected. Out of curiosity, a group of the farmers went over to ask the owner why his farm was not drought stricken. “I have a special well” he said pointing over to a simple looking well. “It is a well filled with the Tao. No matter how much I use, there is more and more.” He invited the other farmers to come closer to inspect the well. He then passed out cups so that they too could drink from this well. “How deep is this well” asked one. The farmer replied, “Too deep to measure!” One farmer who was skeptical picked up a large rock and threw it down the well. He then stood and waited to hear a splash, but it never came. The farmers who were thirsty drank and drank and drank until they were no longer thirsty. Within a short time, the drought was over. All the residents who had drank from the well of Tao were content and peaceful. The Tao is an endless well that never runs dry and never fails to quench the thirst of those who seek wisdom.
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A woman was sitting on a rock high up in the mountains. A man who often walked in the mountains did not recognize her and decided to ask who she was. The sun was shining and she said “I am a ray of the sun shining down and warming the earth.“ The next day, the man again saw the woman and climbed up during a misty rain and asked again who she was. “I am a raindrop, nourishing the earth with love and seeking my river to the ocean”. On the third day, the man again scaled the mountain and asked who she was. This time, it was snowing. “I am a snowflake falling from the clouds and drifting peacefully to my last destination.“ A follower of the Tao lives in harmony with the natural rhythms and flows of life. No matter where she is, or what occurs, she remains intimately close to the Tao.
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Once there was to be a gathering of zen masters. One master lived in a very luxurious temple and was famous for his oratory and number of disciples. Another master lived in a mountain cave. He was very poor, had no disciples, and barely scratched out an existence. The first master spoke and talked for several hours about his knowledge of the Tao and Zen and all of its texts. The crowd cheered after he had finished. The second master got up and said “When hungry I eat, when tired I sleep, when I need to defecate, I defecate.” With that he sat down. The people laughed at him and ridiculed him for surely he was an ignorant soul. After the crowd dispersed, the first master came up to the second master and said “I wish my friend, that in my three hours of speaking, I could have come as close to the meaning of zen as you did in a few seconds.”
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After crossing a turbulent river, ten fools began to count themselves to see whether they had all crossed safely. But while counting, each one forgot to count himself, and so they each counted only nine, which led them to believe that one of them had been lost in the raging river. In distress, the ten fools plunged into the rapids to ’save’ the missing man. All ten drowned. The truth, however was that the tenth man could not be found for he had never really been lost. The moral here is that delusion and ignorance can be quite costly. The wisdom of the Tao is free.
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A Tao master and two of his young disciples were on a walk and came to a fast moving stream. “How shall we cross” asked the students. “When I was your age” said the master “I took a running start and jumped to the other side.” The students looked at each other perplexed but decided to try. The first boy ran as fast as he could and leaped but came up well short of the other side and fell into the cold water. The second boy also tried but he too could not reach the other side and fell into the water. After they got out of the water they said, “How is it master, that you could jump so far and get across?” The master replied “Yes, I could do it. Of course when I was your age, the stream was much narrower.” The master then proceeded to walk across some rocks in the stream to reach the other side. Things change, thus strategies must change. What worked yesterday may not be the right approach for today. The Tao flows one way and then another. Always be ready to adjust to the shifting tides.
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Master Li asked a recently new student how things were proceeding for him at the temple. “Good, master”, the student responded, “but we must give up all our possessions and I miss listening to my jazz music.” Master Li said, “Oh, is that so? Well why don’t you come over to my hut after meditation and we will listen to some of mine.”