The Moon Cannot Be Stolen


Ryōkan, 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 to steal.

Ryōkan returned and caught him. "You 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.

Ryōkan sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon."


What does this mean? Being a Zen anecdote, does "meaning" even apply? Literal meanings may not be the point. Anyway, the Human Condition is to look for reasons, and I am curious...

First, what is the motivation of the thief? I think that he or she is "just a thief", i.e. a trope playing the part of a one dimensional character.

Who is Ryōkan? Well... Also, why was he unperturbed by encountering a thief in his home? Well, he is a Zen master after all, and "turns the table" on the thief, greeting an honored guest. But why does he give away his clothes? What is his motivation? Giving gifts to and getting them from house-guests is a tradition in many cultures. But why does he wish he could give away the Moon, too? Is this the part where meaning does not apply, maybe?



Aha. The Zen master doesn't need any of what we would call "possessions" - He "has" the Moon after all. And his possessions - all of Nature - cannot be given away in the traditional sense. One has to be enlightened to gain them, instead of a common thief.