Tuesday, January 29, 2008


In ancient Japan most people traveled by foot because they were too poor to own a house or a horse, or simply because they enjoyed the freedom of the unattached life.

Poets, and painters, and samurai, and uncommitted monks rambled at liberty from one place to another, often sleeping in the open. Or else they might shelter under a bridge, or in a cave. If they had a few yen, they could stay in a cheap inn. Unlike today, what few homeowners there were, were usually hospitable to a nomad and might invite one in.

In those days it was customary for a pilgrim who needed lodging to stop at a Zen monastery or a temple and engage one of the monks in debate. If the traveler got the better of the monk, the traveler was permitted to remain for the night. However, if the monk won the dialogue, the traveler had to leave and move on.

A tiny hermitage in a remote part of Honshu Prefecture was under the care of two monks, who were brothers. The older monk was very perceptive. He was also intelligent and a skilled conversationalist. On the other hand, the younger brother was slowwitted.

Also, he had only one eye.

One evening a wanderer arrived at the temple and requested permission to shelter for the night. The older monk took his brother aside and explained that he was too tired to talk with anyone and wanted to rest.

“Please debate in my place, but do it without speaking,” the older monk said, because he didn’t trust his brother’s thickheadedness. Then he settled down in his room.

After a while the older monk noticed the visitor leaving the temple, so he asked him about the discussion.

“Oh, your brother is very wise, and he came out far ahead,” the traveler said. “So, according to the unwritten hospitality rule of our country, I must be on my way.”

The monk was puzzled about the comment that his brother was wise, and he asked for an explanation.

The traveler said, “I was kindly served tea, but no words passed between us. I figured the silence was this temple’s way of communicating, so I held up one finger, to indicate the Buddha.”

“Your brother profoundly held up two fingers, to indicate the Buddha and me.

“So I held up three fingers to signify the Buddha, me, and him.

“Then your brother closed all of his fingers to form a tight ball, indicating that everything is really one.

“What a brilliant fellow, and what an amazing experience. I am happy to have lost the discourse, and to be on my way.”

After the traveler headed off down the path, the older monk called in his brother and asked him about the encounter.

“What a crude man,” the brother said. “First he held up a single finger, mocking my one eye.

“However, I remained compassionate and held up two fingers to indicate he had two eyes.

“Then what did the rascal do but hold up three fingers, to show that between us we had only three eyes.

“That made me so angry I made a fist to punch him in the nose, but before I could do that he bowed and left.”


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