Someone asked Zhaozhou, “What are honest words?”
Zhaozhou said, “Your mother is ugly.”

I can only imagine what it must have felt like for the questioner to hear Zhaozhou say their mother was ugly. Filial piety is an important value in Confucianism, which permeated Chinese culture at the time. They did ask for “honest words”, but I doubt Zhaozhou ever even met their mother, so how could he honestly say she was ugly? It must have been shocking, like getting punched in the stomach or having your face slapped. Of course, those kinds of physical responses are not uncommon in Zen. Zhaozhou was not known for hitting or yelling, he achieved the same effect with his words, like when he said a dog does not have an awakened nature.

This story with Zhaozhou reminds me of the way mothers play a central role in the Tibetan tradition. We were told again and again that in the course of infinite previous rebirths we have each been each other’s mother. We were encouraged to remember and emulate the kindness and love that we had received from our mother as a way of motivating and guiding our practice.

In Zen, the love and compassion that is spoken of in the Tibetan tradition is approached in a different way. Rather than generating love and kindness by remembering the love and kindness we have received, in Zen we are encouraged to notice that when we drop our stories, love and kindness are revealed as always being here. That means dropping all stories, even ones we have about our mothers, not to mention the stories we have about ourselves and the nature of reality.


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