A Zen Story About the Moon and the Thief (A Mindful Reminder About Our Attachment to Things)

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The story goes that when a thief broke into a little hut at the foot of a mountain, the wise Zen master Ryokan, very much undisturbed by the intruder, welcomed him with open arms and said, “You have come a long way to visit me and you should not return empty-handed.” And then, in a compassionate and non-judgmental way he added, “Please take my clothes as a gift.” And so he gave up the only thing he ever possessed in his life.

Whatever relationships we may have with our personal possessions, the awareness that they are so essential to our modern way of life, so much the bone and marrow of our self, makes Ryokan’s gesture touchingly relatable; that he chose to give up the last thing he owned in so generous a way is a testament to his enlightened state of being.

What is most thought-provoking about this Zen story, however, is not the gesture itself but the last thing Ryokan said after the thief had left his house. As he sat naked, watching the moon, he mused, “Poor fellow, I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”

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Blossoming Cherry on a Moonlit Night by Ohara Koson.

Given how famous this Zen story is among spiritual seekers, it is rather odd that we rarely consider it from the viewpoint of the ordinary, unenlightened, and crave-bound mind of the thief. There, a story-driven glimpse into what might have happened — the untold epic of a minor character who heard Ryokan’s last words — can paint us a picture of someone who is trapped in a never-ending cycle of accumulation and discontent.

Such an uncommon poem-turned-zen-story-sequel is what Fannie Stearns Davis envisions in her marvelous “Moon Folly” included in the collection Myself and I. The role of the “thief” is taken up by a young boy in the TEDx video below. The video is almost ten years old and the young boy is not so young anymore, but it doesn’t take away one bit from the adorable performance we witness before our eyes. Please enjoy!

by Fannie Stearns Davis

I will go up the mountain after the Moon:
She is caught in a dead fir-tree.
Like a great pale apple of silver and pearl,
Like a great pale apple is she.

I will leap and will catch her with quick cold hands
And carry her home in my sack.
I will set her down safe on the oaken bench
That stands at the chimney-back.

And then I will sit by the fire all night,
And sit by the fire all day.
I will gnaw at the Moon to my heart’s delight
Till I gnaw her slowly away.

And while I grow mad with the Moon’s cold taste
The World will beat at my door,
Crying “Come out!” and crying “Make haste,
And give us the Moon once more!”

But I shall not answer them ever at all.
I shall laugh, as I count and hide
The great black beautiful Seeds of the Moon
In a flower-pot deep and wide.

Then I shall lie down and go fast asleep,
Drunken with flame and aswoon.
But the seeds will sprout and the seeds will leap,
The subtle swift seeds of the Moon.

And some day, all of the World that cries
And beats at my door shall see
A thousand moon-leaves spring from thatch
On a wonderful white Moon-tree!

Then each shall have Moons to his heart’s desire:
Apples of silver and pearl;
Apples of orange and copper fire
Setting his five wits aswirl!

And then they will thank me, who mock me now,
“Wanting the Moon is he,” —
Oh, I’m off to the mountain after the Moon,
Ere she falls from the dead fir-tree!

Coupled with the poem, this Zen story about the moon and the thief serves as a mindful reminder that nothing external can ever make us complete, and that the moon cannot be stolen. Now revisit Zengetsu who famously said, “Even though alone in a dark room, be as if you are facing a noble guest.

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