Zen Story: Talking With Death

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Lucas Cranach The Elder, Allegory of Law and Grace (Left panel detail), ca. 1529.

A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant on an errand to the bazaar and the man came back white with fear and trembling. “Master,” he said, “while I was in the marketplace, I walked into a stranger. When I looked him in the face, I found that it was Death. He made a threatening gesture at me and walked away. Now I am afraid. Please give me a horse so that I can ride at once to Samarra and put as great a distance as possible between Death and me.” The merchant – in his anxiety for the man – gave him his swiftest steed. The servant was on it and away in a trice. Later in the day the merchant himself went down to the bazaar and saw Death loitering there in the crowd. So he went up to him and said, “You made a threatening gesture at my poor servant this morning. What did it mean?” “That was no threatening gesture, sir,” said Death. “It was a start of surprise at seeing him here in Baghdad.” “Why would he not be in Baghdad? This is where the man lives.” “Well, I had been given to understand that he would join me in Samarra tonight, you see…”

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