The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

The truly wise appear
truly foolish
to the truly foolish.

– Stonepeace

Zen Master Ryokan lived a simple and frugal life – all by himself in a small hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal. When Ryokan returned, he was ‘caught’ red-handed. Instead of being angry or alerting the authorities, Ryokan said, ‘As you must have come a long way to visit me, you should not leave empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.’ Stunned and bewildered, the thief nevertheless took the clothes before sheepishly hurrying off. As Ryokan sat naked while watching the moon, he exclaimed, ‘Poor fellow, I wish I could have given him the beautiful moon!’

Ryokan challenged the norm by being gracious even to the petty. Shouldn’t he admonish him to change his ways? He probably saw no point in punishing him conventionally, but more worth in acknowledging his desperation with touching compassion. In an extended version of the story, he asked the thief to thank him before leaving. When he was caught later, Ryokan was asked to testify the theft, among others. Ryokan answered that he gave his robe to him, that he was even thanked for it. To that, the thief broke down in hot repentant tears. Criminals are often further hardened with punishment. Why not soften their hearts instead?

In Buddhism, the moon symbolises the bright and beautiful truth, that is often missed, shrouded by the passing dark clouds of our defilements. Yet, taken for granted, the moon is always there. The truly precious cannot be stolen. It cannot even be given, but only pointed to – for another to see. Even fellow Buddhists miss the moon of truth at times, when they become attached to the finger of words that point to the truth, mistaking the finger for the moon. The thief almost missed the precious truth too, that Ryokan was trying to impart – the truth that the virtues of contentment, generosity and kindness which saved him are priceless, that cannot be stolen – qualities that he should emulate.

To see the truth,
one has to see beyond
that which points to the truth.


Please Be Mindful Of Your Speech, Namo Amituofo!

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