Compassion for a Thief

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  the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught the thief still inside the hut. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not go away 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.”

(The pic is Ryokan’s actual hut at Gogo-an in Niigate.)

It used to be when I read a story like this, my mind would start a-spinnin’.

“Why,” I would think, ” oh, why did Ryokan treat a lowly thief so well that… not only did he not report the guy to the authorities, but that he actually gave the thief his clothes when there wasn’t anything in the hut to steal?  And why after the fact, did Ryokan have the thought of wanting to give the thief the beautiful moon also?  I mean… I can see in the heat of the moment of finding a thief in the house and being influenced by the adrenaline of the situation (and being a non-confrontational Zen monk) that you would give the guy something so he didn’t hurt you… but why the kind thoughts after the guy was gone and the danger had subsided?”  If you were standing near me, you probably could have actually heard my mind whirring in confusion.  And during my pre-enlightenment, I could never fully figure out the answers to those questions.

Now, I understand the answers.

See… what I didn’t understand then, is that this story wasn’t a mindful teaching of how a person should be forgiving of people like thieves.  Nor was it a story about how you should not be attached to material items even as meager as the clothes on your back.  It was actually a story of an example of how one human being who was in bliss might be compassionate towards another human being who was being held within the torment of their mind’s attachments and illusions.

If you’re a Christian (like many of my American and European readers / viewers are), you might see the parallel between the story of Ryokan giving his clothes to the thief, and a similar message from a more recognizable spiritual luminary named Jesus: “And to him that strikes thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that takes away thy cloak, forbid not to take your tunic also.” (Bible, Luke 6:29)

This biblical message is the same exact message as the one conveyed in the Ryokan story.  In the first example, because Ryokan was enlightened, he was no longer hostage to the torments of the mind that would suggest that existence at that moment was not already bliss, and that would create the illusory pain caused by the need for anything to make life more perfect than it already was.  Therefore, when Ryokan looked upon the thief, he did not see a thief.  He saw a man who was a victim in need of whatever compassion Ryokan could bestow upon him.  He saw a man in torment who was attempting to take action to calm his inner demon of his own mind.  So he gave the man his clothes (and wished he could give him the moon) so as to quell the man’s inner suffering as much as possible.

Similarly, the saying of Jesus in the Book of Luke conveys that exact same truth of compassion for someone who is similarly deluded:  If someone strikes you on your cheek, he is a victim of the illusions of mind that ultimately created his need to strike you.  He does not know that he is a part of God, that Heaven is all around him, and that you two are brothers/sisters, and thus… if it will help relieve some of his suffering… offer up your other cheek for him to strike as well.  And if he is trying to take your cloak, do not deny him your tunic right along with it.  Your reality is one where you understand God is within you… that God is a part of you and that you are a part of God, and that your life is perfect exactly as it is without needing anything else to make it so. But someone who is striking you or who thinks he needs your cloak does not have that same blessing, and therefor is in need of your compassion.  Help relieve his suffering.

The message of setting aside your own need for revenge or justice (that theoretically isn’t really a need for you if you realize you are one with God) in the name of compassion is a very common thread among the world’s religions:

If you’re Jewish, the message comes in this form: “One should choose to be among the persecuted, rather than the persecutors.” (Talmud, Baba Kamma 93a)

Or if you’re Muslim; “Let there be no injury and no requital.” (Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 32)

Or if you’re Sikh; “Those who beat you with fists, Do not pay them in the same coin, But go to their house and kiss their feet. (Adi Granth, Shalok, Farid, p.1378)

Or Buddhist; “Brethren, if outsiders should speak against me, or against the Doctrine, or against the Order, you should not on that account either bear malice, or suffer resentment, or feel ill will.  That would stand in the way of your own self-conquest.” (Digla Nikaya i.3)

[The examples from the Mormon, Hindu, and Confucian texts are way too long to include here.]

But I digress…

So the next time someone does you wrong.  Maybe what they need is your compassion.  Because the reality of the situation is that those who are doing evil to you… are doing so because they themselves are victims of the torment that is causing them to do that evil.  And if you’re past the point of being effected by that torment yourself… you have real reason to feel compassion for them.  The trick is getting YOU past the point of being effected by that illusion yourself so you can exude that compassion as your primary nature (which is what this website and the podcast are all about).

Remember to be compassionate with people who would not be compassionate you.  Always.

Peace,

 

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