Telling & Retelling of a Story of a Zen Life
James Myoun Ford
In my adolescence I stumbled upon Journeys on the Razor-edged Path. It was written by Simons Roof. I never learned much about him beyond how in the first half of the twentieth century he traveled to India and studied with several prominent gurus. After that he may have had some connections to Western theosophical communities. Or, maybe not. Details are misty.
He seems to have written this single book. However, that book became very important to me, especially some of the teaching stories he collected on his travels. They pointed me in directions that would become a significant part of the foundations of my ongoing spiritual life.
One story in particular caught my heart. It was about a burglar trapped into pretending he was a guru. Roof attributes it as “an old Hindu tale.” Here is my retelling of that story, the one I encountered on my own travels through the Zen way into the mysteries of the interior life…
Once upon a time long ago and far away there was a burglar. She was quick witted, and nibble footed, so she was successful in her chosen trade. However, as sometimes happens when one is good at something, she kept pushing the envelope. And with that came the disaster.
She was discovered trying to break into a rich merchant’s home. She fled without anyone catching a glimpse of her face. However, with the hew and cry pretty much the whole village was soon in hot pursuit of the thief.
Fortunately for her she was just far enough ahead of the crowd that when she saw a cave opening in front of a creek, she had time to throw herself into the water, rolled in the mud, and then sat, settling into a traditional meditation posture in front of the cave. It looked exactly as if she were simply one of the many mendicants, monastics, mad people, and others who took to the road on the great spiritual quest.
When the crowd arrived in front of the cave and the convincing looking monastic, their leader saw her and said, “Oh holy one! Did you see the thief we were chasing?”
The burglar simply ignored the question and continued sitting as if she were meditating.
One of the villagers said to their leader, “Can’t you see she’s meditating? We would earn some very bad karma if we disturb her.” And then another said, “Let’s wait. When she’s ready she’ll speak.” There was muttering of agreement and the leader understood one leads by ordering people to do what they want to. So, they all sat on the ground in front of the thief and waited.
While the burglar sat there, pretending to meditate, she desperately wondered when they would move on. Instead more and more villagers gathered. Some remained standing. Most sat down. A few even began to meditate themselves. After about two hours, vastly longer than the burglar ever thought she could ever hold still, she pretended to awaken from her meditative trance. Slowly opening her eyes, she looked out at what was now about fifty people, all of them quietly waiting.
She cleared her throat and spoke softly, but with enough volume to be heard by everyone there. “Why are you looking for some poor thief, dear ones? Wouldn’t it be vastly better to search for your true nature? After all who isn’t stealing their lives by ignoring the great question of life and death?”
With this the villagers were overcome, some with grief at their wasted lives, others at the call to something more important than perhaps they’d ever considered before. A few ran back to the village to gather flowers to give her. Others went home and got some food as an offering. And for a couple not just leftovers; but treats rare in their community.
Presented with the flowers and food the burglar ate, trying not to gobble or look greedy. Then asking herself what a wise person would do in a similar situation, she asked that the majority of the food was distributed among those present, asking that the poorest got enough and particularly some of the best delicacies. She also handed out the flowers to everyone. People felt graced.
Finally, the rich merchant himself stepped forward and implored the wise nun that she remain here, and grace their village with her wisdom.
The burglar thought to herself, well, while I’m good at my trade as a thief, it is hard work, and it is too dangerous. This holy nun gig could be an easy way to make a living. As a thief she thought she could easily steal what she needed just by pretending to be holy.
So, she said, “I will stay with you. But, only for a brief time.”
The villagers were ecstatic. They brought her blankets and candles, and someone even thought to bring her a down filled pillow.
Life was comfortable, beyond what she had experienced, ever. The price was that she had to pretend to meditate for hours every day and then in the early evening to answer questions they would bring her. Answering questions turned out not to be difficult. It seemed she knew what a good and generous heart would do, or, as she thought it, what a sucker might do. Not a lot of difference, she was pretty sure. Pretending to meditate, however, was harder. She had to hold still. And she knew people were watching, so she really had to hold still.
Time passed. Days turned into weeks. Weeks into months. The food was good. The blankets were warm. And, oh, my, that pillow.
But her meditating continued to be a terrible ordeal. The burglar was forced to sit. There were simply too many witnesses. She experimented with her posture, trying to find a position that wasn’t painful. She began to sit on that pillow, and gradually become comfortable sitting cross-legged. Over time her knees began to drop and then touch the ground.
But then there was her mind. She fantasized about everything that had happened her life, how she was raised. The poverty. The violence. The gift of learning to read at the local temple. And the reading of books. There weren’t many, but she read them over and over. Then there was her trade. Figuring out how to steal without getting caught. Experiencing what happened early on when she was caught. The moments of joy and the long times of boredom and intermittent flashes of terror. She also fantasized at the future, about what new treats the villagers might bring, about what she would do when she tired of this and returned to the road and a life of burglaries.But as she passed in her imagination from the past to the future increasingly, she noticed something. Just for a moment. At first it was like a flashing silence. Then, gradually it grew larger in her consciousness. After a while as those weeks passed into those months, that space, that quiet, that just being present became a large part of her holding still, pretending to meditate.
That pretending was becoming something. She couldn’t say what. But it was now different. As, she began to notice, was how she saw the villagers. And even, how she saw the words that came out of her mouth. She gradually came to know the villagers, their sorrows, how they could be so petty and even sometimes cruel, their various intrigues in their lives, their loves as they arose, sometimes fell apart, sometimes deepened, as well as their many generosities, sometimes unconscious, sometimes grand and, even costly. Gradually she began to love them.
And, she began to see how her own life, which she was becoming ever more aware of, in painful and minute detail just through the repetitions of her own mind playing around the silences, was just like theirs.
She knew they were different, and yet, somehow, mysteriously they were also one. Increasingly as she spoke everything she shared was based in that mystery, that they were different and that they were more closely connected than the finest woven fabric.
Then the boy appeared. He approached her one evening, made bows, and said he’d been wandering looking for a teacher. And he’d began to hear of this amazing nun who spoke wisely and more importantly modeled the great gift of silent meditation.
He declared he wanted to learn her wisdom.
Not knowing what to do, she simply ignored him. He took a place in the dirt below her as she began to pretend to meditate and sat quietly. The next day she told him to go, she wasn’t interested in having disciples. But he continued to sit with her at a respectful distance. She knew she had to pretend to be generous, so she made sure he was fed. And before long the villagers made sure he had blankets and even a pillow of his own. He seemed much less interested in them than she was. What he seemed to love was to sit quietly.
She asked him what he was doing while meditating?
He said he did what he was taught when he first decided to walk the spiritual path. He counted his breath, putting a one on his inhalation, then exhaled, then put a two on the next inhalation, and continuing until ten. After which he repeated the process. She said nothing. Then she tried it for herself, and discovered it helped with her concentration. But, it also tended to obscure the quite place that seemed increasingly interesting to her. So, a few days later she told him that he might try just sitting quietly, not trying to think, not trying not to think. And he did.
She began to wonder if it was time to escape.
The problem was that there were villagers around pretty much all the time, and the boy, well, he was there all the time.
So, the burglar was stuck.
Over time the burglar grew ever more quiet. She witnessed the day as it began. She witnessed the day as it passed. She witnessed the evening as it arose. Her last moment before sleep was noticing, witnessing, being present. And her words almost always came from that place, the place where she saw she and they were all the same.
Increasingly she talked about the silence, about what she found, and what they might find.
One day the boy came to her and said that when he took a walk down by the creek a crow called out. And, in that moment he realized the crow, the creek, the trees, he himself, and all things were joined so closely that the right word for what was true and present was simply “one.” He then added, embarrassed, how he knew even that “one” seemed a bit too much.
She wasn’t sure what to say, so she simply smiled at him, put her hands together and made a small bow.
They continued together in this way as the months turned into years.
She wasn’t sure when it happened for herself. In fact, she never had that “big” thing like her disciple. What she did have was a gradual growing into peace and joy. And gratitude for it all.
Eventually her fame as a wise counselor and teacher of the ways of the heart spread across the country. She was attended to faithfully by her disciple who was increasingly seen as a wise teacher himself. Eventually a small community of monks and nuns gathered around her. And, within the village others seemed to become wise, as well…
Eventually she fell ill, but that seemed okay. Her disciples tended to her. And that was okay. The villagers came to ask her last questions. And that was okay. The world as terrible as it was, was also something wonderful, something amazing.
And when she died, her senior disciple, now a wise and respected counselor oversaw the burning of her corpse. He installed her ashes under some rocks out beyond the small monastery of nuns and monks that had grown over the years. The community elected him to succeed their founding teacher.
Always before he lectured on the mysteries of the way, he would always thank the good gods that he had been given such a wonderful guide on the mysteries of life and death.
The teacher who stole his delusions. And in doing so, opened his heart.
So, dear ones, my story. Maybe, of course, it’s yours, as well.
And with that how to conclude? How about with a poem by the Zen poet Jane Hirshfield. It gave the title to this reflection, Come, Thief:
The mandarin silence of windows before their view,
Like guards who not to every visitor,
The path to the doorway agrees.
A fire requires its own conflagaration.
As birth does. As love does.
Saying to time to the end, “Dear one, enter.”