The Moon Cannot be Stolen

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 shoud not return emptyhanded. 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.”

– From the 13th Century Zen Collection ‘Shaseki shū’, written by Zen master Mujū.

Law for the whole world

No village law is this, no city law,
No law for this clan, or for that alone;
For the whole world — and for the gods too –
This is the law: All is impermanent.

– Verse attributed to Bikkhuni Kisa Gosami.

Kisa Gotami’s Child


This is a sad story from the Pali canon, which contains much wisdom about acceptance, and the universality of suffering:

“Kisa Gotami was the wife of a wealthy man of Savatthi. She had only one child. When her son was old enough to start running about, he caught a disease and died. Kisa Gotami was greatly saddened. Unable to accept that her son was dead and could not be brought back to life again, she took him in her arms and went about asking for medicine to cure him. Everyone she encountered thought that she had lost her mind. Finally, an old man told her that if there was anyone who could help her, it would be the Buddha.

In her distress, Kisa Gotami brought the body of her son to the Buddha and asked him for a medicine that would bring back his life. The Buddha answered: “I shall cure him if you can bring me some white mustard seeds from a house where no one has died”.

Carrying her dead son, she went from door to door, asking at each house. At each house the reply was always that someone had died there. At last the truth struck her, “No house is free from death”. She laid the body of her child in the wood and returned to the Buddha, who comforted her and preached to her the truth. She was awakened and entered the first stage of Arhatship. Eventually, she became an Arhat.”

Mindfulness alone can’t do all the work

Liberating insight comes from testing, experimenting. This is how we learn about the world to begin with. If we weren’t active creatures, we’d have no understanding of the world at all. Things would pass by, pass by, and we wouldn’t know how they were connected because we’d have no way of influencing them to see which effects came from changing which causes. It’s because we act in the world that we understand the world.

The same holds true with the mind. You can’t just sit around hoping that a single mental quality—mindfulness, acceptance, contentment, oneness—is going to do all the work. If you want to learn about the potentials of the mind, you have to be willing to play—with sensations in the body, with qualities in the mind. That’s when you come to understand cause and effect.

And that requires all your powers of intelligence—and this doesn’t mean just book intelligence. It means your ability to notice what you’re doing, to read the results of what you’ve done, and to figure out ingenious ways of doing things that cause less and less suffering and stress: street smarts for the noble path. Mindfulness allows you to see these connections because it keeps reminding you always to stay with these issues, to stay with the causes until you see their effects. But mindfulness alone can’t do all the work. You can’t fix the soup simply by dumping more pepper into it. You add other ingredients, as they’re needed.

– Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Thai Forest Tradition. 

Autumn Leaf

One autumn day, I was in a park, absorbed in the contemplation of a very small but beautiful leaf, in the shape of a heart. Its color was almost red, and it was barely hanging on the branch, nearly ready to fall down. I spent a long time with it, and I asked the leaf a lot of questions.

I asked the leaf whether it was scared because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and summer I was very alive. I worked hard and helped nourish the tree, and much of me is in the tree. Please do not say that I am just this form, because the form of leaf is only a tiny part of me. I am the whole tree. I know that I am already inside the tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. That’s why I do not worry. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.’”

Suddenly I saw a kind of wisdom very much like the wisdom contained in the Heart Sutra. You have to see life. You should not say, life of the leaf, you should only speak of life in the leaf and life in the tree. My life is just Life, and you can see it in me and in the tree. That day there was a wind blowing and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the tree. It was so happy. I bowed my head, and I knew that we have a lot to learn from the leaf.

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Tradition.

Advice from master to students

Living in the world yet not forming attachments to the dust of the world is the way of a true Zen Student.

When witnessing the good action of another encourage yourself to follow his example. Hearing of the mistaken action of another, advise yourself not to emulate it.

Even though alone in a dark room, be as if you were facing a noble guest.

Express your feelings, but become no more expressive than your true nature.

Poverty is your treasure. Never exchange it for an easy life.

A person may appear a fool and yet not be one. He may only be guarding his wisdom carefully.

Virtues are the fruit of self-discipline and do not drop from heaven of themselves as does rain or snow.

Modesty is the foundation of all virtues. Let your neighbors discover you before you make yourself known to them.

A noble heart never forces itself forward. Its words are as rare gems, seldom displayed and of great value.

To a sincere student, every day is a fortunate day. Time passes but he never lags behind. Neither glory nor shame can move him.

Censure yourself, never another. Do not discuss right and wrong.

Some things, though right, were considered wrong for generations. Since the value of righteousness may be recognized after centuries, there is no need to crave an immediate appreciation.

Live with cause and leave results to the great law of the universe.

Pass each day in peaceful contemplation.

– Written by Master Zengetsu, Zen/Chan Tradition, for his students.