I realized this morning that I have never shared here my favorite Buddhist story. I’m not sure where I first heard it and couldn’t find it with a quick Google search, so here’s my own version:
A Theravadan bhikkhu — a monk who has renounced worldly goods and lives by begging — is walking along a path. As he approaches a crossroad, he sees a man in rags, who hails him.
“Dear bhikkhu,” says the man, “I have lost my home and all my possessions in the recent storm. I have no clothing and nothing to eat. Can you help me?”
“I’m sorry, my friend. We monks have nothing but our robes and our begging bowls. I wish I could help…. Oh, give me a moment, please. I just remembered that someone once put a gem into my bowl.” He reaches into the folds in his robe, withdraws a sparkling gem and hands it to the man.
“Kind sir,” says the man, “this is obviously worth a fortune. Are you certain that I may have it?”
“Yes indeed. It is yours. May you find inner peace.”
The bhikkhu continues on his way, but before long he hears running footsteps behind him and turns to see the man again. “Wait! Wait!” the man shouts.
“Dear sir, there is nothing more I can do for you. I have nothing else to give you.”
“Yes you do,” says the man. “You have great generosity and compassion. I want to learn how to have those, too.”
I love this story because it demonstrates how much we gain by letting go — by not clutching. By taking a vow to renounce all worldly possessions, the bhikkhu was freed from caring whether that gem hung out for now in his robes or in the man’s hand. He knew that the gem’s state is temporary. By giving it to the man, he knew it would be sold, with at least some of the proceeds going to feed and clothe a deserving person in need. What else should matter?
We can easily forgive the man in the story for thinking that generosity and compassion are things to “have.” They are, of course, states of being. In my mind, the story concludes with the man eventually joining the monk’s order and learning to cultivate a compassionate heart. But that’s another tale.
The story here is about letting go and seeing wealth and possessions for what they are — units of value that can do good…or not.
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine