Shoun and His Mother/The Voice of Happiness

Prompts from "Shoun and His Mother" from 101 Zen Stories* 

. . . One day Shoun left for a distant temple to deliver a lecture. A few months afterwards he returned home to find his mother dead. Friends had not known where to reach him, so the funeral was then in progress.

Shoun walked up and hit the coffin with his staff. “Mother, your son has returned,” he said.

“I am glad to see you have returned, son,” he answered for his mother.

“Yes, I am glad too," Shoun responded. Then he announced to the people about him: "The funeral ceremony is over. You may bury the body.”. . . 

and another story: “The Voice of Happiness” from 101 Zen Stories*: “In all my experience, however, Bankei’s voice was always sincere. Whenever he expressed happiness, I heard nothing but happiness, and whenever he expressed sorrow, sorrow was all I heard.” 


The stories from the prompt are from a small book of stories and koans compiled by Paul Reps and named Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. I know because I have owned the book I was eighteen, in 1968.

I was in my senior year at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas. Integration had just started, the Russians had the bomb, and the Vietnam war was escalating, sucking up young men and spitting them out into body bags.

I was facing graduation and would be going to Texas Tech in Lubbock because it was where I could get in and it was far from my parents. I was raised in a church home and my father worked for a Methodist church. I had spent my youth in school and church and found both to be shallow and presumptuous. I carried a feeling of “Is this really all there is?”

One spring afternoon I came into my Civics class taught by a woman we used to call “The Ogre of the East Wing.” I moved to a desk in the back for safety. It was the traditional school desk of those days—a metal frame with laminated wood for the seat and desktop. It also had an open compartment below to store the books you weren’t using.
I had my stack of textbooks with me—history, geometry (for the second time around), and biology. I sat down and shoved them into what I thought was empty space below me.

I heard a “plop!” and looked down to my right. On the floor was a small paperback. It was yellow and brown and a little beat up. I picked it up and saw an old man in a robe riding a water buffalo down a trail. I saw the title: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps. I opened it not knowing anything about Zen.

I read the first story. It was about a learned scholar visiting a Zen master who served him tea. The scholar was very full of himself. The master placed the cup in front of the scholar and began to pour. The cup filled quickly and began running freely over the table and into the man’s lap. He jumped up and yelled, “Can’t you see the cup is full!” The master smiled and said, ”You, like the cup, are already full. How can I impart anything to you if you are already full?” 

I closed the book with reverence and put it away. I had found a true friend. I still have that book.

—Robert Porter


Shoun said he lived the best that he could. He couldn't live in the monastery, he bought fish for his mother, he played music and he visited a woman of the streets. He didn't follow the rules that the other monks followed.

But he was doing what was required in each situation. He wasn't embarrased about visiting a woman of the streets. He was a man of much personal integrity.

It seems easier to defend one's actions when those actions are according to some law. But that is not what Shoun did. He was true to his own heart and did what the moment demanded.

At the end of his life, all was perfect. “The rain had ended, the clouds were clearing, and the blue sky had a full moon.”

But Shoun was perfect in another sense. He had responded to each challenge in his life with a open hand and gave to it what was demanded. He went against the rules because this allowed him to give what was needed of him.

I have a sister who, like Shoun, is not seduced by authority. She broke most of the rules in the book, and probably some laws along the way. But she was always there for her friends, and now is a helpful and loving psychoanalyst. She shunned most if not all the good advice that her parents were so willing to give to her.

The other day I compared myself to my ideal self. I came out with a flunking grade. I wonder if the ideal self was what one would look like if they followed the rules, and if what I was now was closer to Shoan's statement, “I did what I could.”

How do we navigate the rules of society and the rules of our institutions and still walk proud? What was it in Shoun and my sister that allowed them, as they heard “the beat of a different drummer” to walk so confidently down the street. “Without shame,” my sister would add.


*101 Zen Stories is a 1919 compilation of Zen koans[1] including 19th and early 20th century anecdotes compiled by Nyogen Senzaki,[2] and a translation of Shasekishū,[1][3] written in the 13th century by Japanese Zen master Mujū (無住) (literally, "non-dweller").[3] The book was reprinted by Paul Reps as part of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.[4][3] Well-known koans in the collection include “A Cup of Tea” (1), “The Sound of One Hand” (21), “No Water, No Moon” (29), and “Everything is Best” (31). (From

Tell them, “Love is all that matters.”

(Blanche Hartman is a Zen priest at the SF Zen Center. Our AZC temple was named after her, and she transmitted the two head teachers that have been/is at AZC. Last night we wrote about her statement, “… love is all that matters.”)

Love is all that matters.
Love as vast as the sky of the Big Bend,
The ache in my chest
The pouring out of grief
Sweet warmth of family laughter.
A place to go to. A place I carry with me.

Sally Mayo Daverse


A teaching so broad, so deep,
so radical, the messenger is often
killed and those who do hear
find little direction in it, only
recognising it in the 
rear view mirror.

—Jeffery Taylor


I imagine walking up to this shy and lonely teenager and telling her love is all that matters. I imagine snapping this photograph and telling her that one day, she’ll be forty something, and sit looking at it and be astonished by her newness, by all she cannot feel and see and know—of her own loveliness, of the inherent goodness of others, of—. I imagine her stopping me, waving me away, and turning over sleepily in the sun.

Of course she would, wise child that she is. “Love is all that matters” is not something that can be conveyed. Not really.

It can only be lived and known.

We can only dive deeply into life, get caught up in it and throw dirt, be good and kind and obnoxious and arrogant. We can only be addicted to our own cleverness and find ourselves deeply wrong, over and over again. We can only gain and lose sanity and husbands and lovers and jobs and whatever it is we most treasure. We can only be people who meditate daily in an effort to go beyond and people who don’t give a shit and go shopping. We can only get caught up in all that is large and lofty and all that is small and petty and relish every moment. We can only do this.

What I mean is that we can only trudge in the direction of “Love is all that matters,” one painful or ecstatic or lonely breath at a time.

Love is all that matters, yes.

And it all matters: all the pain and disconnection; all the meanness and longing; all the excitement of new touch, the hearts broken from rejection and misunderstanding, the bumping up against each other’s hurts and making a terrible mess and believing we will never, ever be loved again.

All the years of feeling ourselves utterly unworthy must be known so we can know something else entirely.

Everything that is, all that arrives, has to matter and burn away before love can be all that matters.

That is what is so, and it is good. It is life. It matters. It all matters.

—Emma Skogstad


“Tell them Love is all that matters”

Love is all that matters.
How easy it is for other objects to obscure this truth, to distance the idea and its soothing influence.
Am I worthy of the Love? What are they getting in return?
Relationships often seemed like transactions, balances of goods and services. I always wanted to make sure I wasn't a burden. It was, and is, my biggest fear.

You see, about four years ago, I started recovery from anorexia. I took a Leave from college, stayed home, got better. Doctor visits, therapist sessions, creative art outlets . . . my parents picked up the tab. No questions. Not a bat of an eye.
I struggled, hugely, with self-worth. Often, I'd want to talk about it, exercise the words, see how they felt and sounded out of my head. Dad would stand there with me, in the same room, but planets away. Baby, how come you don't see what we all see? All that you are, you've done, you're capable of? It saddened and frustrated him, I could see that. And he learned over time that he wasn't needed to "fix" or answer anything--that just being in that room, stretching across planets to rub my back and listen . . . that was enough.

I woke up the next morning to a text from Dad:
“Go outside.
Look as far as you can in the sky to your right. Now to the left.
That's how much I love you.”

I returned to school. Part of my “maintenance program” while back was that I would spend as much as I needed on food—there would never be a question. Get what you need to get. Spend what you need to spend, they would say. One evening, I sat in the vacant conference room at college with Dad on the line. He naturally asked how recovery—food stuff—was going, how I was feeling, hard times that week, mental critiques, etc. I hesitantly voiced my fear of being a financial burden: Dad, what if I'm spending too much? Who are you two to have to pay for this? You didn't ask for this.
Dad responded: Baby, if it will help you get better, you can have all my money.

Love is all that matters.

—Jordan Spennato


“Love is all that matters.”

Why didn't anyone tell me that? Actually there was a guy (Leo Buscaglia) who preached love. He had a college course called love and it would fill every semester. But generally we are led to believe that other stuff will make us happy, like having an ocean view, a college degree or lots of money.

Love will tell us what something needs. My wife will look out the window and hear one of her plants screaming for water. She'll drop everything to give them a drink.

“Love is all that matters.”

Blanche devoted much of her life to Zen practice. Both the former head teacher and the current abbot at Austin Zen Center were transmitted by her. AZC is named Zenkei-ji which was Blanche’s Dharma name (meaning Inconceivable Joy). She was responsible for teaching many to sew robes. And yet, at the end of her life, she is proclaiming

“Love is all that matters.”

Imagine what the reaction might be if the New York Times were to print in big bold letters on their front page

“Love is all that matters.”

Would road rage disappear? Would waitresses smile at their customers? Would the subway come to a gentle stop? Would the stewardesses, rather than instructing us on the use of the life preservers, tell us that

“Love is all that matters?”

And does she really mean it? Why didn't she just practice

“Love is all that matters?”

rather than Zen.

Maybe Zen, at its best, is about

“Love is all that matters.”

As we pay attention to ourselves and the world we would naturally care for things. We would handle thing “gingerly.” We would evaluate our actions as to whether they were an expression of love or not.

And this is where it can get a little hairy. I put out poison so our house isn't a den for cockroaches. Is that love? Maybe for us, but not the blessed little creatures.

If it were so simple, life would be that simple. What is the loving thing to do is sometimes quite difficult to figure out. It might take meditation to see the challenge clearly. It might take a college degree. It might take going to jail for what you believe to be the best action. It might take every ounce of our energies to act on that most import maxim

“Love is all that matters.”

Kim Mosley