During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived - everyone except the Zen master.
Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn't treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.
"You fool," he shouted as he reached for his sword, "don't you realise you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!"
But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. "And do you realise," the master replied calmly, "that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?"
Things are not
what they appear to be;
nor are they otherwise.
The old monk sat by the side of the road. With his eyes closed, his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap, he sat. In deep meditation, he sat.
Suddenly his zazen was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior. "Old man! Can you teach me about heaven and hell!"
At first, as though he had not heard, there was no perceptible response from the monk. But gradually he began to open his eyes, the faintest hint of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood there, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each passing second.
"You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?" replied the monk at last. "You who are so unkempt. You whose hands and feet are covered with dirt. You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul? You whose sword is all rusty and neglected. You who are ugly and whose mother dresses you funny. You would ask me of heaven and hell?"
The samurai uttered a vile curse. He drew his sword and raised it high above his head. His face turned to crimson and the veins on his neck stood out in bold relief as he prepared to sever the monk's head from its shoulders.
"That is hell," said the old monk gently, just as the sword began its descent.
In that fraction of a second, the samurai was overcome with amazement, awe, recognition and compassion for this gentle being who had dared to risk his very life to give him such a teaching. He stopped his sword in mid-flight and his eyes filled with grateful tears.
"And that," said the monk, "is heaven."