Sunday, September 20, 2009


Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, a thief visited he hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. "You must have come a long way to visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift."

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could give him this beautiful moon."
Ryokan's thief visited the Chattanooga Zen Center today. While others were sitting in zazen and I was in dokusan, someone came into the yoga studio in which we meet, grabbed the cash that was sitting in the donation (dana) bowl, and bolted out. I saw him enter and leave over the shoulder of the person with whom I was conversing, but did not realize what had happened until later.

The poor fellow. In his delusion, he thinks his individual needs are more important than those of others. I wish I could give him Ryokan's moon.

Sensei tells another story: In a monastery in ancient China, the monks discovered that one of their fellow brothers was stealing from their rooms while they were in mediation services. Outraged, they banded together and marched to the abbot's office and demanded that either the thief be expelled or they will all leave.

"The poor fellow," the abbot told them. "He doesn't yet understand that he can not steal from us." The abbot refused to expel the thief, so the monks upheld their vow and moved out of the monastery. The abbot, left now with only the one monk, had no choice but to promote him to second in command, and the other monks, as they eventually returned, had to follow orders from the one they had wanted expelled.

While this story, like Ryokan's, sounds at first sounds like a too-kind master showing almost unbelievable patience and compassion for a thief, the meaning lies a little deeper. You cannot steal that which is freely given. The abbot allowed the monks to leave because they were still clinging to materialism and the dualistic concept of "mine" versus "other's." While the thief's actions were clearly a violation of the precepts, the abbot saw that he was still clouded in delusion, while his fellow monks should have known better. Better to have a thief for an assistant than a monastery full of clinging materialists.

Eisai once gave a starving man copper wire from a Buddha statue. If our thief had asked, the sangha would probably have donated more money than he could have grabbed from that bowl. What's more, we could have taught him Zen, shown him the path leading to the cessation of suffering, and helped him discover the Buddha nature within us all. In other words, we could have given him his whole life, the world, and the moon.

Well, that's all fine and good, and I can afford to be philosophical about other's money being stolen. But when I got home from Chattanooga a little after 6 today, I found that my front door was not only unlocked, but not even fully closed. While it is possible that in my rush this morning to leave, I neglected to fully shut and lock the front door behind me, that did not seem likely - it's never happened before in five years of living here. It seemed more likely that a burglar had broken in and later left in a hurry. I entered the house and quickly inventoried the objects most frequently taken by burglars - flat screens, computers, DVD players, and stereo equipment. Everything was in its place and there was no evidence of robbery, but the episode was a reminder of just how much I personally still cling to the material.

1 comment:

Mettai Cherry said...

FYI - I was at a neighborhood watch meeting yesterday and the situation of the door being unlocked and partly open was one mentioned by the officer. You may want to contact the police about it (and even change the locks). He also said that if you ever encounter this that you should not enter the house, but call the police because the intruder might still be in there.