I'm currently reading Jack Maguire's book, Essential Buddhism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs and Practices, that I bought some time ago, but have never read. I recommend this book because it covers a lot of information, but I was especially struck by an old zen story that he recounts in the book:
A big tough samurai once went to see a little monk. In a voice accustomed to meeting with obedience, the samurai said, "Monk, teach me about heaven and hell."
The monk looked up at this mighty warrior and replied in a voice of utter contempt, "Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn't teach you about anything. You're filthy. You stink. Your sword is rusty. You're a disgrace to the samurai class! Get out of my sight!"
The samurai was speechless with rage. His muscles bulged. His face got red. He swung his sword high above his head, preparing to slay the monk.
"That is hell," the monk said softly.
The samurai froze. Suddenly he was overwhelmed by the compassion for this tiny, defenseless man who had just risked death to give his teaching. As he slowly lowered his sword, he was filled with gratitude and wonder.
"That is heaven," the monk said softly.
This, to me, explains one of the most important teachings in zen. We create our own heaven and hells here in this life. I thought that I would share this story with the sangha because there have been many times when I felt just like the samurai in this story. I have been so angry with others that I ended up living in my own personal hell, while at other times, I have felt so much compassion, gratitude, and wonder over daily life, that I have felt like I was walking in my own personal heaven. Every time that I feel the seeds of anger swelling up in my body, I will use this story and remember that I am the one causing these feelings; I choose to act this way, no matter what another may say or do, I make the ultimate choice of how to react. I am the one that chooses heaven or hell.