34. A Smile in His Lifetime
Once upon a time, there lived a Zen teacher named Mokugen, who was known for his solemn disposition and lack of smiles. However, on his final day in this world, something extraordinary occurred. Mokugen gathered his devoted disciples and presented them with a profound challenge.
Addressing his disciples, Mokugen acknowledged their many years of studying under his guidance. He urged them to demonstrate their true understanding of Zen, declaring that the one who could express it most clearly would become his successor, inheriting his robe and bowl—the symbols of his teachings.
Silence enveloped the room as everyone stared intently at Mokugen's stern countenance, unsure of how to respond. The weight of the moment hung in the air, palpable and intense. Yet, amid the silence, Encho, a dedicated disciple who had spent a considerable length of time under Mokugen's tutelage, stepped forward.
Drawing nearer to Mokugen's bedside, Encho performed a seemingly simple act. He gently nudged the medicine cup a few inches closer. In that subtle movement lay his answer to the teacher's command.
However, rather than eliciting a smile or a sign of approval, Mokugen's face grew even more severe. He confronted Encho, questioning if that was truly the extent of his understanding. Unfazed, Encho reached out once again and returned the cup to its original position.
In that precise moment, a radiant and enchanting smile unfurled upon Mokugen's features. Filled with affection, he playfully referred to Encho as a "rascal" and acknowledged that, despite their ten years together, Encho had yet to grasp the totality of his being. As a testament to Encho's profound insight, Mokugen bequeathed him the revered robe and bowl, symbolizing the passing on of his legacy.
The purport of this Zen story lies in the revelation of true understanding, which often transcends words and logical explanations. Mokugen's challenge to his disciples called for a genuine expression of Zen, yet their verbal responses fell short. It was Encho's subtle action, devoid of elaborate explanation, that resonated deeply with Mokugen's essence.
The severity of Mokugen's expression symbolizes the need to move beyond superficial appearances and intellectual concepts. Encho's instinctive response unveiled a profound understanding, delving into the unspoken essence of Zen. Mokugen's eventual smile represented the recognition of Encho's genuine insight and the transmission of wisdom that extends beyond linguistic limitations.
This story serves as a reminder to seek direct experiences and intuitive wisdom in our spiritual journeys. It encourages us to explore the unspoken truths that lie beneath words and to cultivate a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. By embracing silence, intuition, and a willingness to perceive beyond the surface, we can uncover profound insights and connect with the essence of our existence.


Encho's act of moving near the bedside and pushing the medicine cup forward a few inches carries symbolic significance. In Zen teachings, actions often speak louder than words, and Encho's physical gesture represents a non-verbal attempt to express his understanding of Zen. By moving closer to the bedside, Encho demonstrates his presence and attentiveness to his teacher, showing his deep connection and respect.

The severe expression on Mokugen's face and his question, "Is that all you understand?" reflect his desire for his disciples to grasp the deeper essence of Zen. Mokugen seeks a response that transcends intellectual explanations or superficial gestures. He challenges Encho to go beyond a mere physical act and express a more profound understanding of Zen.

Encho's response is equally significant. By reaching out and moving the cup back to its original position, he communicates a message without relying on words. This action represents the idea of non-attachment and the recognition that even the slightest movement can disturb the balance. Encho's gesture signifies a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of all things and the importance of returning to a state of equilibrium.

The transformative moment occurs when Mokugen's severe expression gives way to a beautiful smile. This change signifies Mokugen's recognition of Encho's genuine insight. By calling Encho a "rascal," Mokugen playfully acknowledges his surprise and admiration for Encho's realization.

The statement, "You worked with me ten years and have not yet seen my whole body," carries a metaphorical meaning. In Zen, "seeing the whole body" refers to perceiving the true nature of reality, transcending superficial appearances and conceptual understanding. Mokugen suggests that despite their lengthy time together, Encho had not fully grasped the deeper essence of his teachings until that moment. By understanding the interconnectedness of all things and embodying the wisdom of Zen beyond intellectual comprehension, Encho becomes worthy of inheriting Mokugen's robe and bowl, symbolizing his succession as a Zen teacher.

Overall, the story emphasizes the importance of intuitive understanding and direct experience in Zen practice. It invites us to go beyond mere words and intellectual concepts, encouraging us to connect with the essence of existence through silent observation, non-verbal communication, and a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things. Through genuine insight, we can transcend superficiality and perceive the profound truths that lie beneath the surface of our experiences.