Zen Koan Case of the Drowning Monk


This Zen story is about learning, about learning the hard way, through being deeply loved, all the way through the hardships.

We are always, always, each of us, this deeply loved by God.

The story has been told by many masters and in many different ways, but the essentiality of its truth remains within each rendition of its telling.

Here is yet another spin on this old yarn.

An old hermit was meditating silently on the banks of a wide-raging river. Walking along a nearby bush track was a man and his girlfriend. They reached where the old monk was, and the man starting mocking him.

” Venerable old master, what are you doing here all alone? Why do you need to meditate? What good is it to anyone? There is no secret to life. There is no God. There is only us, and we always do what we like to do, whenever we like to do it, and I have the power to end your life, right now. ”

Grabbing the old master by the beard, he dragged him roughly down to the river. The young man was very strong, and the old master could see the rippling muscles in his sinewy arms, but he never even once tried to resist the younger man’s movements.

The young Japanese warrior then summarily pushed the old master’s head deep under the water, and he forcibly held it down now, for several long minutes. He laughed aloud, as he did this, saying to his girlfriend, what good is his meditation to him now. His life is in my hands.

The girl remonstrated noisily to her partner in crime,

” Stop, she said don’t kill the poor old man, what has he ever done to you? ”

The young man relented, for in a way he listened to his girlfriend, whom he loved in his own way. And so dragging the master’s soaking dripping head back out of the water, he asked the master this question.

” What was it that you most needed, when you thought that you were going to drown? ”

The old master smiled for the length of his breath, and then he smiled his beautiful smile once more again, as he said,

” Well you, my son, would probably answer for me, air. Of course, everybody would answer that they needed to breathe, but that is not my answer to you, my young friend. ”

What was the old master’s answer to the young warrior?

Well, this is how this version of the story continues.

The most loving thing to do was not for the master to display any anger at the young man’s actions, but to still reflect the anger that the young man held within him, back to himself in some subtle way.

The old master simply smiled for a third time, as he serenely and peacefully now said to him,

” Come back in a year, if you still remember me then, and I will tell you the secret of life. ”

The couple left then, and life took hold of them for yet another long year, but some type of curiosity had been sparked in this young man, or maybe it was that he had been connected to something else. His heart had been touched by something in the knowing way that the master had spoken to him, not condescending in any way, just spoken almost as an unspoken truth, but with the authority of a God.

Little did he know, that his spiritual journey had begun now in earnest, and without him even knowing it, upon his first meeting with this real and authentic spiritual master.

After one year….

Sure enough, the man returned to the river after one year to the very day after his terrible treatment of the old man, the year before, when he took fun in nearly killing an old and harmless meditating monk.

The man came up to the monk, who was again meditating at the edge of the waters of that mighty flowing river, in exactly the same position, and in exactly the same way, as he was before last year at exactly this same time and place.

The young man, this time though, thought twice about interrupting the old man’s reverie.

He also sat down next to him quiet closely nearby, and he also started meditating.

Suddenly he saw something in the corner of his eyes.

He saw an enormously bright light that moved out now and warmly surrounded him. It seemed to be emanating from the master, as it now enveloped him completely. He was a little bit scared about what this was at first, and it was so bright, that it seemed to be burning, and almost suffocating him even.

Maybe the master was going to punish him, and exact some kind of retribution for how he had treated the poor helpless old man last year, he thought to himself now.

The intensity grew and grew, and build itself up inside of him like a pressure cooker. He did not know how to release, or to relieve the pressure. Screaming inside of himself, he wanted this to stop, for it seemed to him like some ancient form of torture.

Just as suddenly as this great light had found him, he now found himself.

He remembered now what the old master had said to him the last time that they had met. He had said something about his answer not being air. Maybe just maybe, it was this light, he thought now to himself.

Instantly upon having this thought, he relaxed, and the light infiltrated all of him now, with its love.

He immediately realized that it was this, the master’s enormous unconditional love for him that was able to allow the master to answer him in the way that he did last year, and without any pretense of any fear. The master was loving him and had been loving him, even when he was drowning. This realization made the young man, now but a year older, weep inside, and outside a bit, as well.

Deeply touched from within by the master, he now felt the touch on his forehead of a soft loving old wrinkled hand, even as the master’s equally soft melodious voice said to him, ever so quietly now.

” Now you know. ”

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