The Zen master, the thief and the moon

February 18th, 2019

The little Zen story of Ryokan, the thief and the moon proffers as lovely an enactment of Jesus’ teachings as one could wish. 

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 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.” 

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.”* 

A number of aspects of this story seem, to the Christian reader, interiorly full of the way of Jesus, positively brimming with the scriptures. Nevertheless, the beauty and the genius of the story is that it contains them all in such a succinct and elegant vignette. 

First of all, there’s the simplicity of Ryokan’s hut to begin with. There’s nothing in it to steal. The Zen sage, in his peaceful hermit existence by the mountain, has not laid up treasures on earth. 

Then there’s Ryokan’s response of compassion for the thief: Ryokan not only does not resist the evildoer, he does not judge him at all. And not only does he not judge him, he gives him his own clothes  which seems to Christian eyes a more intense imitation of the way of Christ than John the Baptizer’s counsel that everyone with two cloaks ought give one to the person without. 

This all has a mind-boggling, bewildering effect on the thief. 

But Ryokan’s compassion doesn’t end there. Even in his nakedness he is not irate with the thief; his nakedness must be to him only a greater degree of humble simplicity. The thief has only helped him find more of what he sought in his mountain retreat in the first place. Perhaps Ryokan will find some sort of covering the next day. But that night, he watches the moon peacefully, a placid lake of compassion still reflecting on the poor thief. Here is a deeply Christian paradox: the Zen master sits naked, and laments the poverty of the would-be thief to whom he gave his clothes. Ryokan enjoys the beautiful moon, and wishes he could give it to the thief: he wishes for the man to have the interior peace to recognize the surpassing and simple wealth he already possesses in being able to behold the moon.

“All creatures of our God and King,” sang St. Francis  another voluntarily poor man who felt free and so able to enjoy God’s whole world with an ownership far more capacious than merely legal right. Some lines of Paul’s famous apostolic rhapsody in the Second Letter to the Corinthians come to mind: “As aggrieved yet ever rejoicing, as destitute yet enriching many, as both having nothing and possessing all things” (2 Cor. 6:10). Naked, Ryokan feels himself in possession of the moon which he’d like to give as a gift. Ryokan embodies Jesus’ teaching about the One his own followers should be like: God the Father: “he makes his sun to rise on the wicked and the good, and sends rain upon the just and the unjust…. So be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:45, 48). 

Ryokan’s contemplative Zen manifestation of the way of Jesus is all the more striking since the culmination of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” is his confident declaration that those who hear his sayings and put them into action “shall be likened to a prudent man who built his house upon rock. And the rain descended and the rivers flooded in and the winds blew and fell upon that house, and it did not fall; for it had been founded upon rock.” 

That is a remarkable ending to a collection of teachings which seem infallibly destined to render Jesus’ disciples maximally vulnerable in the world, meek and even weak. Yet this apparent weakness, Jesus declares, is in fact incredible solidity and strength: it is to have one’s foundation built on rock rather than sand. One might extrapolate a bit: those who enact Jesus’ sayings, embracing worldly vulnerability, stand upon the absolute solidity of eternity. Correlatively, it is this age’s forms of security and strength which turn out to be transient, fleeting, ephemeral, not dependable. 

It must be admitted: Ryokan's Zen is looking pretty solid. 

*Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (New York: Doubleday, 1961), 12. New Testament quotations in this post come from David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

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