Ryōkan in the Bronx

One of my favorite Zen stories is about Ryōkan, a Japanese hermit-monk-poet of the late 18th/early 19th century. Like every good story, there are many slightly different versions, and it grows in the telling -- you may have heard me tell this one around the fire at FSG, or allude to it in one of my poems. The tale goes something like this:

Ryōkan was a hermit monk who lived a simple life in a hut up in the hills. One day he went down to the village, probably to beg a little food and play with the kids. When he got back to his tiny little hut, he found a burglar going through his meager possessions.

Now, you or I would probably be pretty pissed at this point. I can see myself grabbing up a stick and giving the burglar what-for. But Ryōkan, he was a enlightened Zen guy. He knew that anyone who was trying to rob him -- a hermit in a hut, for crying out loud! -- had to be pretty desperate.

So Ryōkan said, "You've come all this way to see me, and I'm sorry that I don't have anything to offer you! I can't let you go away empty-handed. Please," he said, taking off his robe, "take this with you."

And as the befuddled thief walked away with the robe, Ryōkan stood naked in the night and looked up at the sky. "Poor fellow!" he said. "I wish I could give him that beautiful moon."

Now that's a pretty good story, but, we might ask, is being compassionate to thieves really practical, in this day and age?

Julio Diaz thought so. I don't know if Mr. Diaz had ever heard of Ryōkan; but one night in the Brox, when a teenage mugger with a knife demanded his wallet, Mr. Diaz not only handed it over, but gave him the coat off his back as well. And then invited him to dinner.

They went to a diner. They talked. The kid gave Mr. Diaz his wallet back, and also gave up the knife. Mr. Diaz gave the kid $20. From there -- well, who knows? Like Ryōkan's thief, the kid headed off into the night, probably scratching his head in wonder and confusion.

You can hear Mr. Diaz tell the story at storycorp.org

(Thank you, Nidaime Akira Nakamura, for posting Mr. Diaz's story -- I'd seen it a while back but lost the link.)

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