Tag Archives: story book

Tales of the Rabbis

I’ve been working on a series of stories for liberal religious kids, and here’s another story from this work-in-progress. This is part of a series of “Tales of the Rabbis,” taken from the Talmud and from medieval sources. The stories of rabbis are reminiscent first of stories of Zen masters, and second (obviously) they are reminiscent of stories of Jesus. The story below should be familiar to anyone who has taught Sunday school for a few years; but my version tries to remain closer to the original version in the Talmud (without the common Christian interpretations that creep in, like changing or criticizing Rabbi Hillel’s one-sentence version of the Torah/Law), and my version also gives the original source. Note that the version below is still a rough draft.

You can find more of my Tales of the Rabbis here.

Standing on One Foot

A man came to talk with Rabbi Shamai, one of the most famous of all the rabbis, nearly as famous as Rabbi Hillel himself.

“I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew,” said the man. “But I don’t have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot.”

The Torah is the most important Jewish book there is, and this crazy man wanted to learn it while standing on one foot? Why, people spent years learning the Torah; it was not something you can learn in five minutes! Rabbi Shamai grew angry with this man, and he pushed the man away using a builder’s yardstick he happened to be holding in his hand.

The man hurried away, and found Rabbi Hillel. “I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew,” said the man. “But I don’t have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot.”

“Certainly,” said Rabbi Hillel. “Stand on one foot.”

The man balanced on one foot.

“Repeat after me,” said Rabbi Hillel. “What is hateful to you, don’t do that to someone else.”

The man repeated after Rabbi Hillel, “What is hateful to me, I won’t do that to someone else.”

“That is the whole law,” said Rabbi Hillel. “All the rest of the Torah, all the rest of the oral teaching, is there to help explain this simple law. Now, go and learn it so it is a part of you.”

Source: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sabbath 31a.

Talmud online:

The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein of Jews’ College, London.

The Babylonian Talmud, translated by Michael L. Rodkinson (1918).

Jesus in Jerusalem, part 2

I’ve been working on a series of stories for liberal religious kids, and here’s another story from this work-in-progress. This is very much a Unitarian version of the Easter story (betraying my own religious background; I was born a Unitarian, just before merger), in which there is no thought that Jesus might be God; this, as you will see, changes the story from the traditional version. In the book, this will follow a story about the events of Palm Sunday (“Jesus in Jerusalem, part 1,” not yet complete). Note that this is still a rough draft.

Jesus in Jerusalem, part 2

Copyright (c) 2006 Dan Harper

On that first day in Jerusalem, Jesus did little more than look around in the great Temple of Jerusalem; the Temple that was the holiest place for Jesus and for all other Jews. Jesus couldn’t help but see that around the edges of the Temple there were people selling everything from goats to pigeons, and other people who would change money for you, for a fee. Besides that, Jesus saw all kinds of people coming and going, taking shortcuts by going through the Temple, carrying all kinds of gear and equipment and baskets. But on that first day, he and his followers just watched all this, and then left.

The next day, Jesus returned to the Temple. He walked in, chased out the people selling things, and upset the tables of the moneychangers. Needless to say, he created quite a commotion! and a crowd gathered around to see what this stranger, this traveling rabbi, was up to. Once the dust had settled, Jesus turned to the gathered crowd, and quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Isaiah where God says, “My Temple shall be known as a place of prayer for all nations.” Jesus said it was time that the Temple went back to being a place of prayer. How could you pray when there were people buying and selling things right next to you? How could you pray with all those pigeons cooing?

His followers and many other people thought Jesus did the right thing in chasing the pigeon-dealers, the moneylenders, and the other salespeople out of the Temple. But the way he did it managed to annoy the powerful people who ran the Temple. It made them look bad. They didn’t like that.

In the next few days, Jesus taught and preached all through Jerusalem. He quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Leviticus where it says, “You are to love your neighbor as yourself.” He encouraged people to be genuinely religious, to help the weak and the poor. Jesus also got into heated discussions with some of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, and he was so good at arguing that once again, he made those powerful people look bad. Once again, they didn’t like that.

Meanwhile, other things were brewing in Jerusalem. The Romans governed Jerusalem, and they became concerned about Jesus. They realized that when Jesus rode into the city, he was welcomed by a crowd of people who treated him as if he were one of the long-lost kings of Israel. That made the Romans worry. Was Jesus planning some kind of secret religious rebellion? How many followers did he have? What was he really up to, anyway?

Jesus continued his teaching and preaching from Sunday until Thursday evening, when Passover began. Since Jesus and his disciples were all good observant Jews, after sundown on Thursday they celebrated a Passover Seder together. They had the wine, the matzoh, the bitter herbs, all the standard things you have at a Seder.

After the Seder, even though it was after dark Jesus and his followers went to a garden to sit for a while. All his followers fell asleep, but Jesus himself was restless and depressed and stayed awake. He had a strong sense that the Romans or the powerful religious leaders were going to try to arrest him for stirring up trouble, for agitating the people of Jerusalem. He didn’t regret anything he had said or done, for after all what he had said was the truth; but he was restless. He didn’t know how or when he might be arrested, but he was pretty sure it would happen sometime soon.

As it happened, Jesus was arrested just a few hours after the Seder while he sat in the garden, while his followers were still sleeping. Jesus was put on trial that same night, and he was executed the next day. The Romans put him to death using a common but very unpleasant type of execution known as crucifixion. He died on Friday, when the sun was about to go down.

Because the Jewish sabbath started right at sundown, and Jewish law of the time did not allow you to bury anyone on the Sabbath day, Jesus’ friends couldn’t bury him right away. There were no funeral homes back in those days, so Jesus’ friends put his body in a tomb, a sort of cave cut into the side of a hill, where the body would be safe until after the Sabbath was over.

First thing Sunday morning, some of Jesus’ friends went to the tomb to get the body ready for burial. But to their great surprise, the body was gone, and there was a man there in white robes who talked to them about Jesus!

This whole story happened two thousand years ago, so we’ll never know quite what happened. But what might have happened is that some of Jesus’ other friends had already come along buried the body. Jesus’s followers must have been disorganized and confused that morning, and though they all were upset Jesus was dead, they also worried that one or more of them might be arrested, too, and even put to death. The burial must have taken place in secret, and probably not all the followers got told when and where the burial was.

So by the time some of Jesus’ followers had gotten to the tomb, others had already buried his body. Some of Jesus’ followers began saying that Jesus had risen from the dead, and after that several people even claimed to have spoken with him. All of his friends were so sad, and missed him so much, that they wanted to believe that he was alive again.

But you could say that Jesus did live on through his teaching. What he taught about the power of love has changed the world. He taught that we should love all people as we love ourselves; and if you can really live your life that way, you’ll find that your world will be changed, too.

The Quail and the Bird called P’eng

Part of a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This story is from the Taoist tradition: adapted from section 1 of Chuang Tzu, from translations by Lin Yu tang, and by Burton Watson. The closing paragraph is derived from a line that may have been lost from the text (see note 5 in Watson).

The Quail and the Bird Called P’eng

Copyright (c) 2006 Dan Harper

Many years ago in ancient China, the Emperor T’ang was speaking with a wise man named Ch’i.

Ch’i was telling the Emperor about the wonders of far off and distant places. Ch’i said:

“If you go far, far to the north, beyond the middle kingdom of China, beyond the lands where our laughing black-haired people live, you will come to the lands where the snow lies on the ground for nine months a year, and where the people speak a barbaric language and eat strange foods.

“And if you travel even farther to the north, you will come to a land where the snow and ice never melts, not even in the summer. In that land, night never comes in the summer time, but in the winter, the sun never appears and the night lasts fro months at a time.

“And if you go still farther to the north, beyond the barren land of ice and snow, you will come to a vast, dark sea. This sea is called the Lake of Heaven. Many marvelous things live in the Lake of Heaven. They say there is a fish called K’un. The fish K’un is thousands of miles wide, and who knows how many miles long.”

“A fish that is thousands of miles long?” said the Emperor. “How amazing!”

“It is even more amazing than it seems at first,” said Ch’i. “For this giant fish can change shape and become a bird called P’eng. This bird is enormous. When it spreads its wings, it is as if clouds cover the sky. Its back is like a huge mountain. When it flaps its wings, typhoons spread out across the vast face of the Lake of Heaven for thousands of miles. The wind from P’eng’s wings lasts for six months. P’eng rises up off the surface of the water, sweeping up into the blue sky. The giant bird wonders, ‘Is blue the real color of the sky, or is the sky blue because it goes on forever?’ And when P’eng looks down, all it sees is blue sky below, with the wind piled beneath him.”

A little gray dove and a little insect, a cicada, sat on the tree and listened to Ch’i tell the Emperor about the bird P’eng. They looked at each other and laughed quietly. The cicada said quietly to the dove, “If we’re lucky, sometimes we can fly up to the top of that tall tree over there. But lots of times, we don’t even make it that high up.”

“Yes,” said the little dove. “If we can’t even make it to the top of the tree, how on earth can that bird P’eng fly that high up in the sky? No one can fly that high.”

Ch’i continued to describe the giant bird P’eng to the Emperor. “Flapping its wings, the bird wheels in flight,” said Ch’i, “and it turns south, flying across the thousands of miles of the vastness of the Lake of Heaven, across the oceans of the Middle Kingdom, heading many thousands of miles towards the great Darkness of the South.”

A quail sat quietly in a bush beside the Emperor and Ch’i. “The bird P’eng can fly all those thousands of miles from the Lake of Heaven in the north across the Middle Kingdom, and into the vast ocean in the south?” said the quail to himself. “Well, I burst up out of the bushes into flight, fly a dozen yards, and settle back down into the bushes again. That’s the best kind of flying. Who cares if some big bird flies ninety thousand miles?”

The Emperor listened to Ch’i, and said, “Do up and down ever have an end? Do the four directions ever come to an end?”

“Up and down never come to an end,” said Ch’i. “The four directions never come to an end.

“That is the difference between a small understanding and a great understanding,” continued Ch’i. “If you have a small understanding, you might think the top of that tree is as high up as you can go. If you have a small understanding, you might think that flying to that bush over there is as far as you can go in that direction. But even beyond the point where up and down and the four directions are without end, there is no end.”

But the quail did not hear, for she had flown a dozen yards away in the bushes. The cicada did not hear because it was trying to fly to the top of a tree. And the little dove did not hear because he, too, was flying to the top of the nearby elm tree.

The Little Tree Spirit

Another excerpt from a work-in-progress, a book of stories for liberal religious kids. This one is still pretty rough, my version of a Jataka tale, that is, a tale of one of Buddha’s previous incarnations. This little-known tale is unusual in that Buddha is incarnated as a tree. An essay on Jataka tales in the book Buddhism and Ecology, part of the Harvard University series on ecology and religions of the world, mentioned this story as having implications for a Buddhist ecological theology.

Be forewarned: Some browsers may have problems with the Pali diacritical marks in the proper names.

The Little Tree-Spirit

One day, some of Buddha’s followers, or bhikkus, were sitting in the Hall of Truth. They were talking about three other bhikkus, Kokālika and his friends Sāriputta and Moggallāna. The three friends didn’t seem to know how to get along with each other. Just that day, Kokālika had asked his two friends to travel with him back to his own country, and they had refused — rather rudely, too.

Buddha came and and heard the bhikkus talking about the three Kokālika, Sāriputta, and Moggallāna. One bhikku said, “That Kokālika can’t live without his two friends, but he can’t live with them, either.”

“That reminds me of a story,” said Buddha, joining the conversation….


Once upon a time, two tree-spirits lived in a forest. One of the tree-spirits lived in a small, modest tree; the other tree-spirit lived in a huge old tree that towered over the other trees.

Now in that same forest there lived a ferocious tiger and a fearsome lion. This lion and this tiger used to kill and eat every large animal they could get. Because of this, no human beings dared set foot in the forest, nor were there very many other animals left. Worse yet, the lion and the tiger were very messy eaters, leaving chunks of meat on the forest floor to rot. The whole forest was filled with the smell of their rotting food.

The smaller tree-spirit had no common sense, and got the idea that the lion and the tiger had to leave the forest. He said to his neighbor, the great tree-spirit, “I have decided to drive the ferocious tiger and the fearsome lion out of our forest!”

“My friend,” said the great tree-spirit, “don’t you see that it is because of these two creatures that our beloved forest is protected? If the tiger and the lion leave the forest, human beings will come and cut all the trees down.” And the great tree-spirit recited part of an old poem:

When you feel a friend
Might bring an end
To your peace of mind,
Watch what you say,
Remain kind.

One day, that friend might prove
Worth the love
That you should offer anyway
To all living beings
In every way.

But the little tree-spirit didn’t listen to the great tree spirit, and the very next day assumed the shape of a large and terrible monster, and drove the ferocious tiger and the fearsome lion out of the forest.

Within two weeks, the human beings who lived close by began to realize that the tiger and the lion had left for good. They moved into the forest, and cut down half the trees.

The little tree spirit was frightened, and cried out to the great tree spirit, “Oh, you were right, I should never have driven the tiger and the lion out of our forest, for now the human beings are cutting us down. Oh, great tree spirit, what can we do?”

“Go find the tiger and the lion,” said the great tree-spirit. “Apologize for your harsh treatment of them, and invite them to return to the forest. That is our only hope.”

The little tree spirit ran off and found the tiger and the lion living nearby. He greeted them, and said, “Lion and Tiger, I’m sorry I chased you out of your old home by assuming the shape of a large and terrible monster. Please come back to live in the woods once again, for once you left the human beings started to cut down the trees, and soon your old home will be gone for good.”

But the tiger and the lion just growled at the little tree spirit, and rudely said that they would never return. Within a few days, the human beings had cut down the rest of the trees, and the forest was gone.


When Buddha finished telling the story, he said, “As you might have guessed, the little tree-spirit in the story was Kokālika, the lion was Sāriputta, and the tiger was Moggallāna.” And the bhikkus knew that Buddha himself was the great tree-spirit in the story.

Copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper. All rights reserved. Source: Tale 272, Vyaggha-Jātaka, from the Cowell translation of the Jataka tales (1911).

The Frightened Rabbit

Part of a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This well-known story comes from the Jataka Tales, stories of the former lives of the Buddha. The title in the original Pali is Duddubha Jataka, and it is Jataka tale number 322.

While this story has appeared in many picture books, those who retell it never seem to include the framing story, which is interesting in its own right. For the purposes of religious education, the framing story can serve to teach children about the Buddha, and it also adds another layer to the interpretation of the story. It’s also interesting that the fruit tree that the little rabbit lives under is the same kind of fruit tree that Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, is said to have lived under — perhaps there is some implicit criticism of Hinduism in this story that could be explored with a religious education group. Thus, although this is a well-known story, I think my version is sufficiently different to be of some interest.

The Frightened Rabbit

Copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper

One day in the town of Savatthi, some of Buddha’s followers went out to beg for their food, as was their custom. These followers of Buddha were known as bhikkus.

Each day when the bhikkus went out to beg, they went to a different part of the town. On this particular morning, their path led them past some holy men. These holy men lay naked on beds of thorn-plants, in the hope that this would help them become more holy.

The bhikkus looked at these holy men, and kept walking. Then their path led them past more holy men. These men had built a large bonfire, and even though the day was hot and the sun was bright, they sat as close as they could to the broiling fire, in the hope that this would help them become more holy.

The bhikkus walked by these men, too, and continued on their way, stopping at each house and begging for food. When at last each of their begging bowls was filled with food, they returned to where they lived with Buddha and all the other bhikkus.

As they sat and ate, the bhikkus talked about the holy men that they had seen. They talked and they talked, and finally they decided to ask Buddha about these holy men.

“Buddha,” said one bhikku, “when we were out getting our food this morning, we walked past some holy men who were lying naked on cruel, sharp thorns.” She paused for a moment. “Will doing this make them any more holy?”

“And Buddha,” said another bhikku, “when we were out getting our food this morning, we walked past some holy men who were sitting next to a blazing fire, out under the blazing hot sun.” He paused for a moment. “Will do this make them any more holy?”

“No,” said Buddha. “Lying on thorns will not make you more holy. Baking yourself under the sun and next to a hot fire will not make you more holy. Such things are just like the horrible noise that was heard by the timid rabbit.”

The bhikkus looked at each other. One of them said, “Buddha, we have never heard about the timid rabbit and the noise he heard.”

“Well,” said Buddha, “it is a story that took place long, long ago, in the far distant past.” And then he told this story:


Once upon a time, there was a little rabbit who lived in a forest by the Western Ocean. This little rabbit went to live in a beautiful grove of trees. He made his home at the foot of a Bengal quince tree, the kind of tree under which the god Shiva was said to have lived. Next to the Bengal quince tree was a plam tree where the little rabbit liked to sit and nibble grass.

One fine day, the little rabbit sat under the palm tree nibbling grass and thinking about what would happen to him if the world got destroyed by Lord Shiva. At just that moment, a large, hard Bengal quince fell off the tree and hit the ground directly behind the little rabbit.

“The earth is being destroyed!” cried the little rabbit, and he immediately started running as fast as he could away from the sound.

Another rabbit saw him running with terror in his eyes, and said, “What’s going on?”

“The earth is being destroyed!” cried the little rabbit, and kept running.

The second rabbit ran after him, shouting, “The earth is being destroyed!” Soon, all the rabbits in the neighborhood were running with them.

When the other animals saw all the rabbits running, they asked, “What’s going on?”

The rabbits cried out, “The earth is being destroyed! Run for your lives!”

The other animals began to run, too: the wild pigs, the deer, the buffaloes, the rhinoceroses, the tigers, and even the elephants all began to run, shouting, “The earth is being destroyed!”

Now, in another part of the forest there lived a good and kind lion. She saw all the animals running, and heard them shouting, “The earth is being destroyed! Run for your lives!” The lion was wise enough to see that the earth was not being destroyed, and she could also see that the animals were so frightened that they would run right into the Western Ocean and drown. She ran as fast as she could and got in front of all the animals, and stopped them by roaring three times.

When the animals heard the good and kind lion roaring, they call came to a stop.

The lion said, “Why are you all running?”

The earth is being destroyed,” said all the animals together.

The lion said, “How do you know the earth is being destroyed?”

One of the animals said, “The elephants must have seen it.”

But the elephants hadn’t seen anything. “We think the tigers saw it,” they said.

But the tigers hadn’t seen anything. “We think the rhinoceroses know what happened,” they said.

But the rhinoceroses didn’t know anything. “We think it was the buffaloes who gave the alarm,” they said.

But the buffaloes hadn’t given the alarm. Nor did the deer know anything. The wild pigs said they started running when they saw the rabbits running. One by one, each of the rabbits said that they hadn’t seen anything, until at last the little rabbit said, “I was the one who saw the earth starting to break into pieces.”

The lion said, “Where were you when you saw this?”

“I was at home in the little grove of trees,” said the little rabbit, “next to my house at the foot of the Bengal quince tree. I was sitting under my favorite little palm tree nibbling grass, when I heard the earth start to break behind me. So I ran away.”

The lion knew then that the Bengal quinces were starting to ripen, and she knew that one of the fruits had fallen from the tree and hit the ground behind the little rabbit. But she said to all the animals, “Stay here for a while. I will take the little rabbit with me to this place, and we will see what is happening back there.”

The kind lion had the little rabbit jump up onto her broad back, and ran off to where the little rabbit thought he had heard the earth breaking up. When they got to the Bengal quince tree, the little rabbit pointed in terror and said, “There! There it is! That’s where the earth is breaking up!” And the little rabbit closed his eyes in fear.

But the lion said kindly, “Little rabbit, open your eyes and you will see that the earth is not breaking up. I can see just where you were crouching under the little palm tree nibbling on some grass, and right behind that a large fruit from the Bengal quince tree is lying on the ground. You heard was the sound of that piece of fruit hitting the ground behind you. It must have made a loud sound, and now wonder you got scared, but there really is nothing to fear.”

The good lion went back and told the other animals what she had found. The animals all sighed in relief, and everything returned to normal.


“So it is,” said the Buddha, “that you should not listen to rumors, and you should not listen to the fears of other people. You should try to find out the truth for yourselves.”

A bhikku said, “The lion was truly wise and compassionate. If it had not been for her, all the animals would have drowned.”

Another one of the bhikkus said, “Buddha, were you the lion in that story?”

“Yes,” said the Buddha. “I was the lion who stopped the animals from harming themselves for no reason at all.”

After that, the bhikkus no longer needed to ask questions about people who lay on thorns or sat next to a bonfire on a blazing hot day.

The Shattered Tea Cup

I’ve been working on a series of stories for liberal religious kids, and have already posted two on this blog here and here. Yet another story from this work-in-progress:

The Shattered Tea Cup

Copyright (c) 2005 Dan Harper

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a land called Japan, there lived a Zen Master. This Zen Master was very, very wise. People said that perhaps he was the wisest person in all of Japan.

The Zen Master was small and quiet, with gray hair and many lines on his face. He often smiled. He lived in a monastery that stood near the banks of a rushing river. There, he watched over all the monks who lived at the monastery, teaching them how to be good Zen Buddhist monks.

The monks chopped wood for the fireplace. They hauled buckets of water from the well to use in the kitchen. They listened to the teaching of the Zen Master, sitting in the great hall while the Zen Master gave Dharma Talks. Sometimes the best monks would challenge the teaching of the Zen Master in a tradition called Dharma Combat. Only monks who were truly enlightened could match the wit and wisdom of the Zen Master in Dharma Combat. And if one of the monks ever got the better of him in Dharma Combat, the Zen Master laughed out loud in pleasure.

But the most important thing that the monks did was to meditate. Every day, they sat on the floor of the great hall of the monastery, meditating in silence. No one said a word all day long. All you could hear in the great meditation hall was the sound of the rushing river, and the wind in the trees.

It was hard for the young monks to sit in silence for such long periods of time, but the Zen Master could sit for days on end, meditating in silence.

One of the younger monks asked him, “How can you sit for so long in silence?”

The Zen Master replied, “Stop worrying so much. Just sit.”


At that time in Japan, a very wise scholar lived far, far away from the monastery at a great University. This wise Scholar had written many books about Zen Buddhism, and in fact he had even lived as a Zen monk for a number of years. But while he was a monk he had never achieved enlightenment, and at last he had left the monastery to become a scholar. In fact, for all his wisdom and learning he had to admit to himself that, having never experienced enlightenment, he had never quite understood what enlightenment was.

One day, the Scholar heard about the wise Zen Master, who was perhaps the wisest person in all of Japan. “Ah!” said the Scholar to himself. “Someone who is as wise as that might be able to tell me what enlightenment is. I will go and visit this Zen Master.”

He called to his servants, “Get my donkey! I will ride to meet this wise man.”

His servants brought his little donkey, and off they trotted. After days and days and days and days of traveling, the Scholar got to the monastery. He and his servants were welcomed in silence by some monks. The Scholar stated his business, and he was led in alone to see the Zen Master.

While the Zen Master prepared tea, the Scholar said, “Zen Master, I have been trying to determine what Enlightenment is.”

“Do you think I can tell you?” said the Zen Master.

“They do say you are the wisest person in all of Japan,” said the Scholar. “Now, I have not myself reached the state of enlightenment, but I do know something about it. When I was a Zen monk, I sat and meditated for many hours. I have read the poems of the monk Ryokan, I have read what Boddhidharma said, I have read what Master Sheng-yen says, and many other writers and scholars. It seems that enlightenment is not a state where you know the oneness of the universe, but rather a state of empty mind. On the other hand….”

The Scholar talked on and on and on and on. He told the Zen Master what he, the Scholar, thought enlightenment might be. The Zen Master finished preparing tea. The Scholar kept on talking. The Zen Master handed the Scholar a delicate porcelain cup. The Scholar took the cup, paused to mention how beautiful the cup was, held it in both his hands — but he kept on talking.

The Zen Master began to pour the hot tea. The Scholar kept talking. The Zen Master kept pouring. The Scholar kept talking. The Zen Master kept on pouring, and the delicate cup grew uncomfortably hot. Then the cup overflowed, and some scalding water flowed onto the Scholar’s hands.

The Scholar started in surprise, the delicate cup flew out of his hands, and shattered on the floor beside him.

Upon hearing the cup shatter, the Scholar experienced enlightenment.

The Zen Master took all this calmly. “Here’s another cup,” he said. “Let’s have some tea.”


Notes on the story: In the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (compiled by Paul Reps), you can find a story where a scholar visits the Japanese Zen master Nan-in (1868-1912). The Scholar talks too much, and Nan-in pours hot tea over the Scholar’s hands as a vivid demonstration of the necessity of keeping your mind open to new ideas. This story has taken on the status of a folk tale in contemporary American culture, and it is often used to tell people that they should shut up and listen to what the speaker has to say.

I have told variations of the Nan-in story a number of times in worship services, but I became uncomfortable with the way adults interpreted the story. Adults wanted the story to mean that children should be quiet and listen to authority figures. I tried to frame the story so that it became clear that it applied to adults as well: I would make the Scholar be the same age as I, and at the end of the story I would say that I felt more like the Scholar than the Zen Master. I began to tell the story as way to demonstrate the importance of meditation and of emptying one’s mind. But no matter how I told the story, the Scholar always came off looking like an idiot, and adults kept interpreting it as a story that was meant to tell children to be quiet and listen.

Then I read a dharma talk by Master Sheng-yen (1931- ), who tells the story of how one of his Zen masters, Xu Yun, acheived enlightenment. Xu Yun was holding a cup into which someone else was pouring tea. By mistake, the other person spilled some tea onto Xu Yun’s hand, he dropped the cup, and upon hearing it shatter he acheived enlightenment. Master Sheng-yen says that just as the cup shatters, the mind must shatter to become no-mind. By the way, Master Sheng-yen is a university professor and scholar as well as a Zen master, demonstrating that enlightenment and learning are not mutually exclusive.

Having the cup shatter seemed a much better ending to the story, so I retold the Nan-in story with this new ending. Of course, now it is no longer a Zen story, it is my story with Zen trappings.

In the Beginning

For the past few months, I’ve been working on a book of stories for liberal religious kids. Just for fun, I thought I’d post a draft of one of the stories on this blog. Obviously, this story comes from the book of Genesis, up to chapter 2 verse 4 (remember that there are two stories of the creation of humanity in Genesis, and I have only included one of those stories here).


In the Beginning

Copyright (c) 2005 Dan Harper

Once upon a time that had no time, a being lived in a place that wasn’t really a place. This being did have a name, but the being’s real name cannot be spoken. Because of this, it’s easiest to call the being “God.”

Before time began, before you could even say there was a before, or an after, God looked around, and saw that nothing had any shape or form to it. All around God, it was just nothingness. Or perhaps there was water, and there was wind, and the wind was God. Either that, or God seemed like wind and all around God was everything that ever was, or is, or could be, but it was all mixed up together as if it were a vast ocean.

God decided to separate out light from darkness, and when God did that, time began. God looked at the light and the darkness, decided that they were good. God called the darkness “Night,” and the light “Day,” which meant there now was evening and morning, and that was the first day of all time. But no one knows how long that first day lasted, for in the beginning time did not flow in the same way it does now.

Eventually God wanted more than just light and darkness, night and day. God separated out some of the water, and made it into a big dome that arched above the rest of the water. God called the big dome the “Sky.” Time moved on, evening came, morning came, and another day passed. But no one knows how long that second day lasted.

When it was time for another day to begin, God gathered together the water that lay under the sky, which meant there was room for dry land to come forth. God called the dry land “Earth.” God asked the dry land to grow plants, and plants grew. All kinds of plants, small plants with seeds, and plants that have spores instead of seeds, and trees, and every kind of plant grew up out of the Earth. It must have taken a long time for all the plants to grow. But time still hadn’t settled down into a regular rhythm yet. Evening came, and morning came, but how long did they last? The plants grew and grew, for a long, long time, but it only took a day. That was the third day.

On the fourth day, lights appeared in the dome of the sky, a big bright light, a smaller dimmer light, and lots and lots of tiny little lights. God put all the lights in the dome of the sky. The big, bright light came out in the day. When evening came, the smaller, lesser light came out, and so did all the stars. These lights in the sky lit up the earth, and helped to separate out light from darkness because now there could be days and nights, and seasons, and years. God looked at everything, and felt that everything was good. No one knows how long that fourth day took, but at last it was done.

The next morning, which was the fifth day, living creatures started to live in the waters, and birds started to live in the skies. God created every kind of animal that lives in the water, and every kind of winged creature that flies in the sky. God told them that they could have babies on their own. God told the sea creatures to fill up the waters, and the birds to settle down on earth. It took one day to create all these creatures, but no one knows how long that fifth day lasted. For all we know, the fifth day and night lasted so long we would call it a million years.

On the sixth day, God decided that the land needed more creatures, so God told the earth to bring forth animals. God made all kinds of animals, from mosquitoes to tigers. God liked all the animals.

God made human beings, too. We human beings say that God made us look just like God, that women and men were created to be the exact image of God. Just like the animals, God told the human beings that they could have babies on their own. And God said to the first human beings, “Because I made you in my image, you are responsible for all the creatures in the sea, and all the creatures who live on land. Rule over them wisely.”

After that, God told all the animals, and the human beings, that they could eat the plants that had come forth from the earth. “Everything that has the breath of life,” said God, “shall eat plants for food.” That was the end of the sixth day. It must have been a very long day, but once again no one knows just how long that day lasted.

At last, God felt that everything was finished. Now there was light and darkness; and the dome of the sky; and the oceans and earth with green plants; and sun and moon and stars; and creatures of the water and of the air; and creatures who lived on dry land including human beings.

But not quite everything was finished. On the seventh day, God made a different kind of day. God blessed this seventh day and rested, and God admired light and dark and day and night, the sky and the water, the plants growing on dry land, the sun and the moon and the stars, all the creatures in the water and all the birds in the air, the animals and the human beings. Some people say that God liked everything existed, but there needed to be a reason for everything to exist, and that was why God made the seventh day.

Finally, on that day of rest, God felt everything was finished.