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The Moon Cannot be Stolen

September 5, 2012

by Stephen Damon

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

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may 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.”

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

As is the case with many Zen stories and Koans, this one expresses several key components of Zen Buddhism, but I’d like to talk about just one of them this morning.  I’d like to talk about the last sentence, which leads me to the questions that first brought me to Zen and has stayed with me over the years.  What is it that I want?  Why do I get up early each morning to sit quietly?  Why do I read and chant sutras?  Why do I practice?  These questions were Dogen’s, and perhaps they are yours too.  They certainly are mine.

Apparently the thief didn’t have these questions.  Seeing the monk as just an old man who had nothing to offer him but his clothes, he missed the deeper possibilities of the moment.  The monk gave the thief the only thing that he wanted—material possessions.  What would’ve happened had the thief not asked for material things but for something else, something that perhaps he couldn’t name or point to.  Suppose he had gone deep into the mountains for the same reason that the monk had done so, years before. Suppose the thief had been a pilgrim in search of another way of living?  Suppose the thief had woken up that morning with a deep wish for enlightenment. Then, the monk might’ve reached high up into the sky, or deep into himself, and given him the moon, a well known symbol for Buddha nature. But the thief was a “poor fellow” and didn’t know what to ask for.

Do we do the same thing?  Do we see each moment only in its “outer garb” as an empty space to fill with our ordinary desires for material and psychological comfort, or do we see that each moment is the possibility of making contact with the part of ourselves that is our teacher, our “inner monk?” Do we see that at each moment we can move in a perpendicular dimension to our lives and reach up into the sky for the moon?

Do we know what to ask for when we take our seat in the morning or drive deep into the mountains for an all-day sitting or a five-day sesshin? If we are honest, we may see that we really don’t know what we want or what to ask for. If we stay with this question, we begin to experience ourselves in a new way.  We experience ourselves as a question. When we do this, we become much more open to everything. We feel that the sun, the moon, and the stars as well as the deepest part of ourselves are silently waiting for us to ask.  



From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. A good post; interesting questions to ponder. Thank you. And Ryokan is a favorite of mine 🙂

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