Stories of the type presented here are used in many spiritual schools, to a greater or lesser extent; nearly all teachers make some use of them. I have collected these over the years from a variety of sources: sometimes reminiscences of a former teacher are buried in an old book, or a temple magazine; one or two are folk stories, some are verbally transmitted, some would be difficult to trace to a source. There are one or two incidents personally experienced, and I have occasionally put a few introductory remarks.
Their function is to act as flint and steel in making a light. In this, the flint is gripped in the left hand, with some dry tinder (usually a herb) under the thumb near the edge; then the steel is struck with a glancing blow across the edge of the flint. There may be no spark; then one tries again. There may be a spark which does not touch the tinder; then one tries again. But when a spark does set the tinder smouldering, as must happen sooner or later, it has to be carefully blown on – not too much and not too little – till it glows brightly. Finally a spill of thin paper can be ignited, and that in turn lights the lamp or fire.
If a story here strikes no spark, or if there is a spark which dies away so that it does not recur in the mind, then another can be tried. When one does grip the mind, it should be pondered daily for several weeks, to find the deeper points. At the end of the introduction an example is given of how to focus on one such point. The process corresponds to nurturing the little glow of the tinder; it should not yet be subjected to the strong wind of outside criticism or scepticism or even constructive suggestion. It must be cherished inwardly. If all goes well and it creates a blaze, then outer winds, however strong, can only increase it.
These stories are not the same as Zen koans, in many of which something apparently extraordinarily inappropriate is said, or perhaps done; just because these are extraordinary, they are good for catching the mind. But afterwards the light from them has to be applied to daily life. The pieces presented here are often incidents from ordinary life (not that there are no extraordinary ones too). The aim is to find realization and inspiration from daily life. Because they are ordinary, it may be harder to focus upon them; but the traditional presentation is skilful at catching at the heart of an attentive reader.
In the Jewish tradition, Jesus was the first person known to have made systematic use of the method of riddle. He never spoke to the people except in riddles, says the Gospel. He expected these to be solved: to disciples asking for an explanation he replied briefly, ‘Are you as dull as the rest?’ (Interested readers may find a stimulus in the Buddhist priest’s comment on pearls and swine. His use of the riddles was itself one, echoing and extending the riddle in Isaiah: ‘to those outside everything comes by way of riddles, so that (as Scripture says) they may look and look, but see nothing; they may hear and hear, but understand nothing; otherwise they might turn to God and be forgiven.’