An Original Zen Koan

The Greatest Teaching

A student of Zen Buddhism approached his master and asked, “Master, what is the greatest teaching?”

The master thought for a moment, then stood up and went over to his calligraphy table.  He dipped his brush into the ink and drew a dot upon the page, then looked at his student expectantly.

But the student was dismayed.  “What is this, Master?”

“This is the greatest teaching.”

Frustrated, the student returned to his studies and meditation, hoping that upon achieving greater learning he could understand his master’s lesson.  As he did so, he returned often to his master’s drawing and pondered its potential meanings.  At length, he reached a conclusion and went again unto his master to inquire:

“Master, I believe I understand the meaning of the dot.  It is a representation of the Monad–that which is the simplest and most complete of things, even as an atom or a human being, or even the whole of existence are so.”

But the master was not impressed.  He thought for a moment, then stood up and went over to his calligraphy table.  He dipped his brush and drew a circle around the dot he’d previously drawn.  He then went back to his seat and meditated.

The student looked at this new drawing for a long time before returning to his studies, vowing to redouble his efforts to learn all that he could from both the ancient and modern masters in order to understand this greatest of teachings.  Finally, he returned to his master to inquire again.

“Master, this is not the Monad, but our world as it orbits around the sun.  In so doing, it represents our need to have others to teach us and give us light.  Is this correct?”

The master sighed and stood again.  He went to his calligraphy table and dipped his brush, then drew another dot a little ways away from the dot-and-circle he’d previously drawn.  At this, the student decided that he’d finally had enough.

“Master, this means nothing to me!  How can you draw such nonsense and call it the greatest of all teachings, only to arbitrarily change it each time I present an explanation for what it means?!  Clearly, this is not the greatest of teachings, at all, so cease this nonsense and teach me in a way that I can understand!”

When the student had finished speaking, the master neither did nor said anything.  Frustrated yet further, the student took the brush and dipped it quite sloppily into the ink jar, then splattered the ink upon the page, completely blotting-out the drawing of his master.

The master smiled surreptitiously to himself, and the student was enlightened.