The Farmer and the Lost Horse

On the northern frontier of China there lived a poor old farmer named Sei Weng. This farmer had only one horse, upon whom he greatly depended. One day the horse ran away across the northern border. His neighbors came to offer their condolences. “What a shame. How will you work the land and make your living? Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. "Bad, good, who is to say?" said the farmer.

Not long after, the horse returned home, bringing with her a magnificent wild stallion. Word got out in the village and it wasn't long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer. "What a strong and healthy horse. Such good fortune for you!" they exclaimed. "Good, bad, who is to say?" said the farmer.

The following morning, Sei Weng's only son tried to tame the stallion and was thrown to the ground, breaking his leg. One by one the neighbors came again to offer their sympathy on the farmer's latest misfortune. "Your son won't be able to help you farm with a broken leg. Such bad luck!" they exclaimed. "Bad, good, who is to say?" said the farmer.

Not long after, war broke out with the north and the Emperor's army came to the village to conscript every able-bodied young man into battle. Only Sei Weng's son, because he had a broken leg, was deemed unfit to fight and allowed to remain. The neighbors came to offer their congratulations. "Wow, it all turned out to be good luck after all!" they surmised. "Good, bad, who is to say?" said the farmer as he headed off to work his field.

The Parable of the Two Sons

based on Matthew 21: 28-32

Once upon a time, there was a family that was known through out the town for their goodness.  This family was held in high esteem by everyone.  If there was ever a dispute between neighbors, this family was able to find a solution that worked for both parties.  If there was ever a need in the community, this family was able to support the filling of that need.  This was a good family.  They believed that actions that resulted in the expansion of good were important in order to have a wonderful and loving community. 

Now there were two sons in this family of roughly the same age.  Wherever they went, they met people who told them what a good family they came from.  Hearing these things made them feel good.

In school, the teachers would tell them, “Jason and Bryan, you come from such a good family.  We know your grandfather, what a good man he is. He has been so very helpful to the community.  If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have clean water here because he found a way to purify the wells that were contaminated.”  Their grandfather was head of the city health department and made sure that the city had clean water. 

The school’s foot ball coach would say, “Bryan and Jason, I know your father. He is such a good man.  Why if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have a decent volunteer firehouse with a Hook and Ladder truck.”  Their father was a volunteer firefighter and helped organize the community to raise the money for the truck to ensure they were ready in case the taller buildings had a major fire.  One such fire happened and because they had a Hook and Ladder truck they were able to prevent a tall building from burning to the ground. More importantly the fire fighters were able to save a family that was trapped on the upper floors. 

There was another time when a complete stranger came up to them and said, “Aren’t you Elizabeth’s sons?”  They shook their heads, yes.  “Well, your mom is one of the finest women in town.  She helped my children have access to the town library because it wasn’t wheelchair accessible.  You see, my two children were born with physical disabilities and they are unable to walk. But your mom worked with the library and the city to find the money to put in ramps to enable my children and other children like mine to use the library. I am so glad to have met you fine young men.”      

Everywhere Bryan and Jason went there were accolades given to their family about all the good things their family did for others.  The stories of how their family made the community better for others continued to be told.  And in time Bryan and Jason came to believe that they were good simply because they came from a good family.

Then one day something happened at school.  Bryan and Jason told their parents about it.  There were two girls who wanted to go to the school dance as a couple and were told that they could not go; only boy/girl couples could go.  Their parents asked them if it was fair that a girl couple be denied to attend the dance.  After some discussion, their parents asked Jason and Bryan if they would be willing to start a petition to give to the school board requesting these girls to be allowed to go to their dance.  Jason said he would not because he didn’t want to be made fun of by his football team.  Bryan said he would do it. 

But Bryan did not start the petition.  He decided he didn’t care if two girls could go to the prom or not after all it didn’t affect him.  

Jason begin to think of his grandfather’s work with getting clean water, his father’s work on having a fire truck, his mother’s work on having wheelchair ramps at the library. He remembered all these good things that his family did to help others and so he changed his mind and began the petition after all.  Jason reasoned that if the school could tell two girls they couldn’t go to the school prom, what else would they do to keep people from being themselves?  On Saint Patrick’s Day would they keep him from wearing the green plaid kilt his aunt bought him in Ireland to honor his Irish heritage? 

So Jason circulated the petition. Teachers, students, and community members signed it.  He received so many signatures that the school board decided to allow the girls to go to the dance as a couple.

Now sometimes, Bryan gets asked if Jason is his brother.  When he tells them yes, he is told, “Jason is a fine young man.  He stood up to fight an injustice in the school and if he hadn’t done that,  then girl couples and boy couples who wanted to go to the dance would not be allowed.  He is a good man just like his parents and grandparents.” Bryan tells them that he initially wanted to help with the petition and that Jason did not.  They reply, “But did you act on your good intention?” No, Bryan would shake his head.  They would sigh and say, “Good intentions mean nothing; it is good actions that make a difference.”

John Murray Sailed Over the Ocean

Many years ago, there were two separate kinds of churches – the Unitarians, and the Universalists. Each church started on its own, but over time, they grew to have more things in common with each other. This is the story about the person who started the Universalist church; his name was John Murray.

John Murray was born more than 250 years ago, in England. He was very religious, and started preaching in different churches. Eventually he started believing an idea called universal salvation, and that idea is what the Universalist church eventually got its name from.

But universal salvation was not popular back then, and many of John’s old friends disagreed with this new idea he was preaching. They made him leave their church, and stopped talking to him. Then something very sad happened: his wife, and his baby son, got very sick – so sick, they died. Some other bad things happened to John after that, so he decided to stop preaching, move away from England, and come to America. So in the year 1770, Murray got on a ship that sailed over the ocean, heading to New York City.

But the ship got blown off course, and got stuck in a bay in southern New Jersey. The ship finally got away, but a few sailors – and John Murray – had gotten on a smaller sailing boat, and the winds changed direction, so Murray’s boat could not leave the bay. They needed food, so he went ashore to ask for help from the nearest farmhouse he could find. When he knocked on the door, John Murray got the biggest surprise of his life: the farmer answered the door, and asked John, “Are you the preacher God has sent to me?” John was shocked: how could this man know he had been a preacher?

The farmer’s name was Thomas Potter, and he did not know that about John. But Thomas, also, was deeply religious. He led discussion groups on religious ideas in his house, then built a chapel, a small church building, on his farmland. Thomas prayed to God often, asking God to send him a preacher, to give sermons there. But not just any kind of sermons, because Thomas Potter also believed in universal salvation, and he wanted a preacher who would talk about that in his sermons. Very few people believed this idea, and for these two of them to find each other like this was totally surprising.

At first, John did not want to preach; he had left England to leave preaching behind him. But Thomas kept asking, so finally John said that if the winds did not pick up by Sunday, he would preach. The sailboat stayed in the bay for several days while no wind blew. Finally, on Sunday morning, Thomas invited his neighbors to the chapel, and John Murray preached a Universalist sermon there. The day was September 30th, 1770.  Thomas was extremely happy, and John…well, just as everyone was leaving the chapel, a sailor walked up to say the winds had started blowing again during the sermon, and they could now leave. That’s how John Murray got back to preaching in America, which led him to start the first Universalist church in America nine years later – well, the first besides Thomas’s chapel, that is.

Tale of the Journeying Stream

A stream, from its course in far-off mountains, passing through every kind and description of countryside, at last reached the sands of the desert. Just as it had crossed every other barrier, the stream tried to cross this one, but found that as fast as it ran into the sand, its waters disappeared.

It was convinced, however, that its destiny was to cross this desert, and yet there was no way. Now a hidden voice, coming from the desert itself, whispered: "The wind crosses the desert, and so can the stream."

The stream objected that it was dashing itself against the sand, and only getting absorbed: that the wind could fly, and this was why it could cross a desert.

"By hurtling in your own accustomed way you cannot get across. You will either disappear or become a marsh. You must allow the wind to carry you over, to your destination.

But how could this happen? "By allowing yourself to be absorbed in the wind."

This idea was not acceptable to the stream. After all, it had never been absorbed before. It did not want to lose its individuality. And, once having lost it, how was one to know that it could ever be regained?

"The wind," said the sand, "performs this function. It takes up water, carries it over the desert, and then lets it fall again. Falling as rain, the water again becomes a river."

"How can I know that this is true?" "It is so, and if you do not believe it, you cannot become more than a quagmire, and even that could take many, many years. And it certainly is not the same as a stream."

"But can I not remain the same stream that I am today?"

"You cannot in either case remain so," the whisper said. "Your essential part is carried away and forms a stream again. You are called what you are even today because you do not know which part of you is the essential one."

When it heard this, certain echoes began to arise in the thoughts of the stream. Dimly it remembered a state in which it -- or some part of it? -- had been held in the arms of a wind. It also remembered -- or did it? -- that this was the real thing, not necessarily the obvious thing to do.

And the stream raised its vapor into the welcoming arms of the wind, which gently and easily bore it upwards and along, letting it fall softly as soon as they reached the roof of a mountain, many, many miles away. And because it had its doubts, the stream was able to remember and record more strongly in its mind the details of the experience. It reflected, "Yes, now I have learned my true identity."

Simile of the Raft

Beggars! I will teach you by the Simile of the Raft that Dhamma is for Crossing Over, not for Keeping.

Beggars! In the same way as a man going along The High Way might see a River, with frightening dangers on this side, while the other side is Safe and Secure, but there is no bridge, no ferry, and no boat with which to cross.

He might think: "Here I am going along the High Way and come upon a River, with frightening dangers on this side, while the other side is safe and Secure, but there is no bridge, no ferry, and I have no boat with which to cross; suppose I gather together what limbs, and twigs, and leaves, and grass I can find and bind them together with reeds to make a raft and making effort with hands and feet cross over from here to the beyond."

And then, Beggars, he might, using what limbs, and twigs, and leaves, and grass he could find bind them together with reeds and make a raft and making an effort with hands and feet cross over from here to the beyond.

Then, here on the further bank, it might occur to him: "This raft I have pieced together has been very useful to me, suppose I were to lift this raft up onto my head or shoulder and carry it around as I go on about my business?"

What do you think, Beggars, would that man be doing what ought to be done with that raft?

In the same way, Beggars, This Dhamma is for Crossing Over, not for Keeping. You Beggars should Let Go of even High Mental Objects, not to mention Low ones.

(from the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha)


Zen Heaven and Hell

The old monk sat by the side of the road. With his eyes closed, his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap - in deep meditation, he sat.

Suddenly his zazen was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior. "Old man! I'm told that you know the secrets of this world and beyond. 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 ifoul, 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 his 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, compassion and love 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."

Sufi Heaven and Hell

A man, died and upon weighing the actions of his life, it was determined that he would to go to heaven. But before he went, he asked that he be allowed to see hell first. So he was led into hell and this is what he saw: row after row of dining tables, covered with the most exquisite of linens, place settings made of gold, crystal glasses, and the most delicious smelling, sumptuous of foods. And seated around the dinner tables were the residents of hell, their faces contorted in the deepest of frustration and anguish. Why would they suffer in a place such as this? The man looked closer and he saw. Tied permanently to each diner's hands were fantastically long forks - so long that while the diners could pick up the foods they chose, they could not get it to their mouths, no matter how hard they tried. And thus they were in a perpetual state of torment, being surrounded by lush, lavish foods and not being able to enjoy any of it.

Then the man was led to heaven and beheld a similar sight: row after row of dining tables, covered with the most exquisite of linens, place settings made of gold, crystal glasses, and the most delicious smelling, sumptuous foods. And seated around the dinner tables were the residents of heaven, with the same fantastically long forks attached to their hands. These forks were so long that one would never be able to get the food to one's mouth. Yet their faces beamed with serenity as they enjoyed their eternal meal together. For instead of trying to feed themselves, they were feeding each other.


Two monks were sitting on a mountain...

Two monks are sitting on a mountainside, high above the rest of the world, practicing their meditation. At some point, one of the monks looks down upon the world and sees: little fish being eaten by bigger fish; birds pulling worms from the ground; cats pouncing on birds and tearing them apart; dogs running down cats and rabbits; lions taking down gazelles and disembowling them;... (need I go on?)... heyenas and vultures flocking around the "left-overs;" and humans hunting and slaughtering other animals.

The first monk says, "Ugh!, how digusting! They're eating each other!"

The second monk opens his eyes, looks down upon the same scenes of bloody carnage and says "Oh, how beautiful! They're feeding each other!"

Why Not Be Changed Into Fire?

One day Abbot Lot came to his teacher, Abbot Joseph, and said, "Father, as best as I am able, I keep my little fast, my little rule, my little prayer. But it's not enough. And father, as best as I am able, I keep my meditation and my contemplative silence and I strive to cleanse my heart of all unnecessary desires. But it's not enough. I still haven't found what I seek. Father, what shall I do?

In reply, Abbot Joseph, the Elder, rose up and stretched out his hands to the heavens and his fingers became like ten burning lamps and he said "Why not be totally changed into fire?"

The Story of Pan Ku

At the beginning of time only Chaos existed. The chaotic universe had the shape of an egg, when the giant Pan Ku appeared out of nowhere. While he slept, he began to grow. His head became a huge globe, and his limbs legs grew broad and elongated until they reached unimaginable dimensions. Then, one day, Pan Ku awoke and his enormous eyes blinked open, but all he could see was darkness and disorder. In a fit of annoyance, he lifted his mountain of a fist and smashed the egg of chaos into a myriad of countless pieces. The shattered fragments of chaos floated gently apart. The pieces that were "yang" (those which were light and bright and hot) flew upward and became the sky. The pieces that were "yin" (those which were hard and dark and cold and heavy) dropped downward to form the earth. Pan Ku drew himself to his fullest height and stood between them. His feet were planted firmly on the ground and his immense head supported the dome which was the heavens. Between the two, the giant Pan-Ku continued to grow about three meters (ten feet) each day, increasing the distance between the sky and the Earth. He stood there holding the sky and earth apart for eighteen thousand years and, all the time, the sky rose up higher and higher and the earth became thicker and heavier, until finally they set in their places. During this time, Pan Ku carved the universe into a pleasing shape. When Pan Ku was finally satisfied with the appearance of the earth and was comfortable that the celestial spheres were fixed and firm, he set a massive sky-supporting mountain at each of the four corners of the world. (which is why China has four holy mountains) After 18,000 years Pan-Ku died. His breath became the white, fluffy clouds that sailed across the sky and also became the winds that swept the earth, keeping it fresh and sweet. His booming voice turned into the thunder. His eyes lived on as the moon and the sun, and his blood flowed into all the waters of the world--the oceans, the seas, the lakes, and the rivers. Pan Ku's skin and hair became the plants and the trees, while his bones and teeth dissolved into metals, minerals and precious and cinnabar, jade and diamonds, pearls and rubies, iron and salt. So glorious did Pan Ku's world become, that the gods deigned to leave paradise and visit the earth. One visitor, the dragon goddess Nu Kua, was dissatisfied. The earth was certainly beautiful but there was something missing. It seemed lonely. Nu Kua knelt upon the ground and scooped up a lump of yellow clay. She toyed with it for a long while, tapping it with her curved dragon's claws, rubbing it into a ball in the palms of her hands, squeezing it...and pressing it...and molding it. She shaped a head with a broad brow, two eyes, a straight nose and a smiling mouth--much like her own. But, instead of bestowing a replica of her own sinuous, serpentine body upon the tiny figure, she sculpted a torso, two arms and a pair of legs. She put the little clay doll carefully on the ground and breathed a cloud of warm, heavenly incense over it. Suddenly, the small arms flexed, the minuscule head swiveled, the tiny legs kicked out and the figure began to dance. Gathering more clay, Nu Kua made another figure...and then another...until the earth was full of people. For a while, she sat entranced as she watched her creations explore the world around them, but soon it was time for Nu Kua to return to her own universe. She was reluctant to leave, but had one final task to perform before she was compelled to go. Although Nu Kua might be immortal, her small artifacts were not. They were made of clay and would eventually age, wear out and then die. So, she lifted them up, two by two, and whispered into their ears, instructing them, very delicately, in the art and purpose of marriage. Then, confident that the human race would now be able to perpetuate itself, she flew home to her magnificent palace in the sky.


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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative