Zen Koans Explained: "A Smile in His Lifetime"

Imagine opening a bag of Scrabble letters and scattering them across the ground. You look down, and "Z-E-N" is spelled out at your feet. Your face remains expressionless. In your hand is an empanada. But it's not time to eat.

The koan: "A Smile in His Lifetime"

Mokugen was never known to smile until his last day on earth. When his time came to pass away he said to his faithful ones: "You have studied under me for more than ten years. Show me your real interpretation of Zen. Whoever expresses this most clearly shall be my successor and receive my robe and bowl."

Everyone watched Mokugen's severe face, but no one answered.

Encho, a disciple who had been with his teacher for a long time, moved near the bedside. He pushed forward the medicine cup a few inches. That was his answer to the command.

The teacher's face became even more severe. "Is that all you understand?" he asked.

Encho reached out and moved the cup back again.

A beautiful smile broke over the features of Mokugen. "You rascal," he told Encho. "You worked with me ten years and have not yet seen my whole body. Take the robe and bowl. They belong to you."

The enlightenment: A nonsense teacher teaches nonsense.

This has been "Zen Koans Explained." If it has.

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