The Monk Challenges His Teacher

A young monk went to a private instructional talk with his Zen teacher. The teacher and monk sat, on the floor, directly across from each other. After they sat in silence for several minutes, the monk asked “What do you see?” The teacher replied: “I see a buddha.” Silence again for several minutes, then the teacher asked: “What do you see?” The monk gave a quick response: “ I see a useless bag of bones.” The teacher said nothing, but placed his palms together and made a deep bow to the monk. The period was over and the monk left.

The monk was exultant. He had bested his teacher in a one-to-one exchange. He could not contain his excitement. Later, in the day, while working in the kitchen with a senior monk, he retold the story of the exchange in a triumphant tone. It was a sign of his progress on the path.

The senior monk simply smiled: “No, it was the teacher who has taken you. When he spoke, he showed what was in his mind, and when you replied, you revealed what was in yours!” The young monk had no further response.


Our everyday experience suggests that there is an objective world, with distinct objects, an inside and an outside.

The teacher suggests that everything that is seen or experienced is our own life. The possibility is shown to the young monk for the first time. Then, there is no inside or outside, or even an objective world.

The teacher’s response comes to each person. “How do we experience the world? How can that experience be refined”. It is a crucial question, driving to the heart of the matter.

As with all open ended stories, each individual has a unique response.

Additional Stories

This is a link to a Collection of Zen Stories     (


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