Heaven and Hell: A Zen Parable on Self-Awareness


Your Mind Renders the Outer Condition into Inner Pain and Suffering—or Joy and Happiness

The state of your mind plays a vital role in shaping your everyday experiences of joy and happiness, and your general physical and mental well-being.

If you can maintain a peaceful and tranquil state of mind, the external conditions can cause you only limited disturbance. However, if your mental state is tense, restless, and agitated, you’ll find it difficult to be at peace even in the best of circumstances—even if you’re surrounded by the best of your friends and family.

When you truly become aware of how much damage negative emotions can cause—for yourself and for others—you will not indulge them even a bit.

The following Zen ‘koan’ parable (see source in postscript) validates the potential dangers that can occur when you fall prey to your negative emotions.

When you become aware of how much damage negative emotions can cause, you will not indulge them even a bit.

Heaven and Hell: A Zen Parable

A tough, brawny samurai once approached a Zen master who was deep in meditation.

Impatient and discourteous, the samurai demanded in his husky voice so accustomed to forceful yelling, “Tell me the nature of heaven and hell.”

The Zen master opened his eyes, looked the samurai in the face, and replied with a certain scorn, “Why should I answer to a shabby, disgusting, despondent slob like you? A worm like you, do you think I should tell you anything? I can’t stand you. Get out of my sight. I have no time for silly questions.”

The samurai could not bear these insults. Consumed by rage, he drew his sword and raised it to sever the master’s head at once.

Looking straight into the samurai’s eyes, the Zen master tenderly declared, “That’s hell.”

The samurai froze. He immediately understood that anger had him in its grip. His mind had just created his own hell—one filled with resentment, hatred, self-defense, and fury. He realized that he was so deep in his torment that he was ready to kill somebody.

The samurai’s eyes filled with tears. Setting his sword aside, he put his palms together and obsequiously bowed in gratitude for this insight.

The Zen master gently acknowledged with a delicate smile, “And that’s heaven.”

Self-Awareness & Self-Regulation: The Bases of Emotional Intelligence

'Emotional Intelligence' by Daniel Goleman (ISBN 055380491X) Retelling this Zen parable in his influential bestseller, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, the Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman comments, “The sudden awakening of the samurai to his own agitated state illustrates the crucial difference between being caught up in a feeling and becoming aware that you are being swept away by it. Socrates’s injunction ‘Know thyself’ speaks to the keystone of emotional intelligence: awareness of one’s own feelings as they occur.”

In Emotional Intelligence (1995) and in his legendary Harvard Business Review article What Makes a Leader (1998), Goleman further argues that self-awareness and self-regulation are essential elements of emotional intelligence. In What Makes a Leader, he writes, “Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs and drives. … People who have a high degree of self-awareness recognize how their feelings hurt them, other people, and their job performance.”

With reference to self-regulation, “Biological impulses drive our emotions. We cannot do away with them—but we can do much to manage them. Self-regulation, which is like an ongoing inner conversation, is the component of emotional intelligence that frees us from being prisoners of own feelings. People [with high self-regulation] feel bad moods and emotional impulses just as everyone else does, but they find ways to control them and even to channel them in useful ways.”

The Stoic Philosophers Advocated an Equanimous Outlook to Life

Equanimity is an essential state of mind that you must maintain when interacting with people who rub you the wrong way or push your buttons.

Equanimity (apatheia in Greek and aequanimitas in Latin) was one of the ideals of Stoic philosophy, the third great philosophy of the Ancient World. The ex-slave and leading Stoic philosopher Epictetus teaches, “Man is troubled not by events, but by the meaning he gives them.”

Marcus Aurelius, who finally carried Stoic philosophy into the emperor’s seat, writes in Meditations, “When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.”

Equanimity is an Essential Buddhist Virtue

In Buddhism, equanimity (upekṣā in Sanskrit and upekkha in Pali) denotes a mind that is at peace notwithstanding stressful and unpleasant experiences. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, the Vietnamese-French Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh defines upekṣā as “equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upa means ‘over,’ and iksh means ‘to look.’ You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other.”

In Dhamma Reflections, the American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi describes equanimity as “evenness of mind, unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. Upekkha is freedom from all points of self-reference; it is indifference only to the demands of the ego-self with its craving for pleasure and position, not to the well-being of one’s fellow human beings.”

'Comfortable With Uncertainty' by Pema Chodron (ISBN 1590306260) In Comfortable With Uncertainty, an excellent discourse on overcoming the many challenges that life presents us, the renowned Buddhist nun Pema Chodron discusses the above Zen parable and comments,

The view of the warrior-bodhisattva is not “Hell is bad and heaven is good” or “Get rid of hell and just seek heaven.” Instead, we encourage ourselves to developing an open heart and an open mind to heaven, to hell, to everything. Only with this kind of equanimity can we realize that no matter what comes along, we’re always standing in the middle of open space. Only with equanimity can we see that everything that comes into our circle has come to teach us what we need to know.

Equanimous Outlook to Life Through Mind Training

Transcending Turmoil through Mind Training

If life is what you make of it, you can shape your attitudes and behavior by possessing a calm and stable mind.

Centuries of eastern contemplative practices have posited that regular physical yoga exercises and mindfulness meditation can train your mind to regulate your emotional states and bring about positive effects on your physical health and psychological well-being. In the last two decades, thanks to the Dalai Lama’s collaboration with the scientific community through programs such as the Mind and Life Institute, a growing number of scholars in the biological and cognitive sciences are convinced that such contemplative practices are a substantially beneficial introspective laboratory into the effects of negative emotions on overall wellbeing.

Given that your mind is the cause of all emotional upheaval, you can attain an enlightened state of mind by transcending turmoil. Practice of yoga and meditation can help you develop a compassionate assessment of the feelings of pain and suffering, and pleasure and happiness that dominate your existence.

In several well-known books and lectures (such as the Habits of Happiness TED Talk,) the French biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk Matthieu Ricard has popularized the practice of mindfulness meditation as the key to mind training. In Motionless Journey, his awe-inspiring photographic journal of his retreat in the Himalayas, Ricard writes,

A [practitioner] begins by understanding that true happiness does not fundamentally depend on changing external conditions, but rather on changing his own mind and the way it translates the circumstances of existence into happiness or frustration. He sees that as long as he is still not rid of hatred, obsession, pride, jealousy and the other mental poisons, it is as hopeless to expect happiness as it would be to hold his hand in a fire and hope not to be burnt.

Postscript / Source: The Zen Koan “The Gates of Paradise”

Japanese-American Buddhist teacher Gyomay M. Kubose‘s Zen Koans (1973) includes a faithful translation of the parable from Shasekishū (trans. Sand and Pebbles,) an anthology of koans by the thirteenth century Japanese Zen monk Mujū DŌkyŌ:

Nobushige, a soldier, came to Hakuin, a famous Zen Master, and asked, “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.

“I am a samurai,” Nobushige replied.

“You, a samurai!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of lord would have you as his guard? You look like a beggar!”

Nobushige became so enraged that he began to draw his sword.

Hakuin continued, “So you have a sword. It is probably too dull to even cut off my head.”

Nobushige brandished his weapon.

Hakuin remarked, “Here, open the gates of hell.”

At these words the perceptive samurai sheathed his sword and bowed.

“Here, open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

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