Nature’s Beauty – A Zen Buddhist Spiritual Story About Overcoming Ego

A priest was in charge of the garden within a famous Zen temple. He had been given the job because he loved the flowers, shrubs, and trees. Next to the temple there was another, smaller temple where there lived a very old Zen master.

One day, when the priest was expecting some special guests, he took extra care in tending to the garden. He pulled the weeds, trimmed the shrubs, combed the moss, and spent a long time meticulously raking up and carefully arranging all the dry autumn leaves. As he worked, the old master watched him with interest from across the wall that separated the temples.

When he had finished, the priest stood back to admire his work. “Isn't it beautiful,” he called out to the old master. “Yes,” replied the old man, “but there is something missing. Help me over this wall and I'll put it right for you.”

The priest lifted the old fellow over and set him down. Slowly, the master walked to the tree near the center of the garden, grabbed it by the trunk, and shook it. Leaves showered down all over the garden.

“There,” said the old man, “you can put me back now.”

The author of this spiritual story is unknown and greatly appreciated.

The Spiritual Moral / Meaning of This Story

This story of the Zen priest and the old Zen master is a beautiful illustration of the deeper principles of Zen philosophy, particularly the concepts of naturalness, imperfection, and the essence of true beauty. Through the interaction between the priest and the master, the narrative delves into the heart of Zen teachings, offering profound insights on the nature of perfection and the importance of embracing the natural flow of life.

Monks Tending To Zen GardenEmbracing Imperfection: The priest’s meticulous efforts to create a perfectly ordered garden represent the human desire for control and perfection. However, the old Zen master’s action of shaking the tree to scatter leaves reflects the Zen teaching that true beauty lies in imperfection and spontaneity. This story emphasizes the concept of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in imperfection and the natural state of things. It teaches us to appreciate the beauty in the natural, unarranged, and imperfect aspects of life.

Naturalness and Simplicity: The master’s intervention highlights the value of naturalness and simplicity in Zen practice. Zen philosophy encourages a return to simplicity and a harmonious relationship with nature. The scattered leaves symbolize the acceptance of the natural order and the beauty that arises from it. The story invites us to embrace simplicity and to find contentment in the natural unfolding of events, rather than striving for artificial perfection.

Letting Go of Control: The priest’s meticulous arrangement of the garden reflects a desire to control and manage his environment. In contrast, the master’s act of shaking the tree demonstrates the importance of letting go of control. This action teaches that true peace and beauty come from allowing things to be as they are, without excessive interference. It encourages us to let go of our need to control every aspect of our lives and to trust in the natural flow of existence.

The Present Moment: Zen emphasizes living fully in the present moment and appreciating what is, rather than constantly seeking to improve or alter our surroundings. The master’s intervention serves as a reminder to be present and to appreciate the garden in its natural state. This aligns with the Zen practice of mindfulness, which involves fully engaging with the present moment and finding joy in the simple, everyday experiences.

Humility and Learning: The priest’s willingness to allow the master to make changes to his carefully tended garden demonstrates humility and openness to learning. This aspect of the story highlights the importance of being open to new perspectives and teachings, even when they challenge our existing beliefs and efforts. It encourages us to remain humble and receptive to the wisdom that others can offer.

Symbolism of the Garden: The garden itself is a powerful symbol in Zen tradition. It represents the mind and the inner state of being. The process of tending the garden can be seen as a metaphor for cultivating the mind and spirit. The story teaches that while it is important to care for and nurture our inner selves, we must also allow for the natural flow and spontaneity that bring true balance and harmony.

The Role of the Teacher: The old Zen master’s actions serve as a teaching moment for the priest. This interaction underscores the role of the teacher in Zen practice, who often uses unconventional methods to impart wisdom. The story highlights the importance of guidance and the value of learning from those who have a deeper understanding of the spiritual path.

In essence, this Zen story is a profound reminder of the beauty of imperfection, the importance of naturalness and simplicity, and the value of letting go of control. It invites us to embrace the present moment, remain humble and open to learning, and appreciate the spontaneous beauty that arises when we align with the natural flow of life.

Personal Reflection Questions:

Spiritual stories are an opportunity to reflect on your own life. Here are 10 questions you can use to go deeper with the teachings in this story:

  1. Embracing Imperfection: How do you respond to imperfections in your life? Can you think of a time when something imperfect turned out to be beautiful or meaningful?
  2. Naturalness and Simplicity: In what ways can you simplify your life and return to a more natural state of being? How does this simplicity affect your sense of peace and contentment?
  3. Letting Go of Control: Reflect on a situation where you tried to control the outcome. What was the result? How might letting go of control have changed your experience?
  4. The Present Moment: How do you practice mindfulness and living in the present moment? What activities help you stay grounded and present?
  5. Humility and Learning: How open are you to new perspectives and teachings? Can you recall a time when you learned something valuable from an unexpected source?
  6. Symbolism of the Garden: How do you tend to your inner garden (your mind and spirit)? What practices help you cultivate a healthy and harmonious inner state?
  7. The Role of the Teacher: Who are the teachers or mentors that have influenced your spiritual journey? What lessons have they imparted to you?
  8. Finding Joy in Simplicity: What simple, everyday experiences bring you joy? How can you incorporate more of these moments into your life?
  9. Accepting Natural Flow: How do you handle unexpected changes or disruptions in your plans? What helps you to accept and adapt to the natural flow of life?
  10. Beauty in Spontaneity: Can you think of a spontaneous moment that brought beauty or joy into your life? How can you create space for more spontaneity in your daily routine?

A Poem Based On This Story

Zen Garden: Embracing Natural Beauty and Letting Go

In a temple garden, quiet and serene,
A priest worked hard, his love was seen,
He tended flowers, shrubs, and trees,
With careful hands, he sought to please.

He raked the leaves, the moss he combed,
He made the garden a perfect home,
For special guests, he took great care,
To make it beautiful and fair.

An old Zen master, wise and kind,
Watched the priest with thoughtful mind,
“You’ve done well,” he said with grace,
“But something’s missing in this place.”

“Help me over,” the master said,
“I’ll put it right,” with gentle tread,
The priest agreed and helped him down,
The master walked without a frown.

He shook a tree, leaves fluttered free,
They scattered round for all to see,
“There,” he said, “now it’s complete,”
“Natural beauty is so sweet.”

The priest stood back, a lesson learned,
In Zen, his heart, with wisdom burned,
Imperfection, beauty found,
In scattered leaves upon the ground.

For life itself is not precise,
It’s messy, beautiful, and nice,
In nature’s flow, we find our peace,
In letting go, our joys increase.

So tend your garden, mind and soul,
With gentle hands, yet let it roll,
For in the leaves that fall and play,
True beauty lies, in nature’s way.


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