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Koan: A Mother’s Advice

A Mother’s Advice

Jiun, a Shingon master, was a well-known Sanskrit scholar of the Tokugawa era. When he was young he used to deliver lectures to his brother students.

His mother heard about this and wrote him a letter:

“Son, I do not think you became a devotee of the Buddha because you desired to turn into a walking dictionary for others. There is no end to information and commentation, glory and honor. I wish you would stop this lecture business. Shut yourself up in a little temple in a remote part of the mountain. Devote your time to meditation and in this way attain true realization.”

So what do you think? Was she right or wrong?
Comment below!

18 comments to Koan: A Mother’s Advice

  • Sabrina

    She was somewhat right. Balance is important. So a balance between meditation (being) and life pursuits (doing) is the middle path.

  • Kalieris

    I think she was right, if his lectures were coming from a place of pride or subtle arrogance. Sometimes, for people who delight in knowledge, the hardest thing can be to deliberately stop feeding the ego by cutting back on those activities that showcase that knowledge. She probably knew him well enough to guess that the lectures were feeding his ego as much as or more than perhaps they were nourishing his fellow students. She may also have been addressing a tendency to intellectualize, rather than experience.

  • Phil

    I once knew a sage elderly gentleman who told me a similar story about himself. He said that after having read dozens of books about Buddhism and talked to countless teachers and practitioners, he thought he “knew” Buddhism. But his heart was heavy for he did not. He said the weight lifted when he said to himself, “Enough ABOUT Buddhism, BE Buddhism.” Thereafter he became austere, with his friends and family not knowing him, but over time he reached a great tranquility. Why did he tell me this story? Because he saw me doing the same thing as he had done …

  • Alan

    We can’t know another truly needs. She should leave for the mountains as soon as possible.

  • Grey

    I don’t think she was right or wrong. While time needs to be devoted to meditation, there will always be people eager to learn and someone has to teach. I would think that a Middle Way – a balance of both meditation and teaching might be the best approach. 🙂

  • micah

    It sounds like his mother was giving him sound advice. In the advice she stated “There is no end to information and commentation, glory and honor”. She observed that the goals of his lectures was to get “glory and honor” for himself. The more information he learned and shared with others, the more other people looked up to him, and, I suppose, the bigger his ego got. I dont think that there was anything wrong with him lecturing, but his error was in his intentions (enlarging his own ego vs. helping others).
    I think that her advice to addressing the problem was also good. “Shut yourself up in a little temple” was to remove him from the “glory and honor” that he was receiving. He needed to be byself in a simple place. By doing that, he would be able to examine himself, “deflate” his own ego, and come to true realization. By learning the truths himself, and applying them in his own life (rather than just parroting them) he could then share them compassionately with others.
    Not to open a can of worms, but this article reminded me of some of those pastors of megachurches (I am sure that this applies to all relgions in some form). Some (NOT ALL) seem to be more concerned about their own “glory” rather than actually applying their relgion to their own lives. Jesus rode a donkey into town (but usually walked). A far cry from (some) ministers who fly their personal jets, drive their expensive cars, and go off on their book signing tours.
    I recently talked with a retired minister who discussed the depression that some retired ministers go through after retirement. They “lose their purpose” after retiring from “their” church. I imagine that their is some sadness (it is a change…something that is an adjustment for a lot of people going into retirmement) If the minister’s calling is to minister then it shouldnt matter if it is in a church of 50, 100, or 1000… or if it is being one of 100 volunteers in a soup kitchen. It seems to me that the depression stems from the ego no longer being “stroked”. Something which Buddhism (and, I believe, Christianity) teaches us to avoid.
    Sorry, another long post :/


  • Daecabhir

    I do not know if she was right or wrong, because I do not know the heart of either the mother or the son. But, as someone who is following a path that leads towards presenting the dharma, this gives me food for thought. I am wrestling with the knowledge of my own ego and its desire to be confirmed versus my desire to help spread the teachings of the Buddha. Perhaps it is best to remind oneself of Shantideva’s teaching on the need for introspection, as a tool for recognizing when one has left the realm of benefiting others and entered the realm of solidifying self. Or as my meditation instructor said to me yesterday, love your students completely – you do not need to know them personally, but you should love all of them. Perhaps from there the ground for representing the dharma without dilution or perversion arises?

    In any event, that is thought provoking indeed. Thank you!

  • Pete

    I think one of my primary goals of meditation is to quiet the mind and examine oneself and one’s ego. To be able to step back from your own ego and say “this is what I could do without” is very powerful, or it has been for me at least. There is no way to get rid of ones ego but you can examine yourself well enough to make the appropriate changes. If you understand yourself you’ll understand the world and others alot better.

  • Her sending of the message was inconsistent with the message itself.

  • No, I think she was wrong. Giving the Dharma to students or disciples is cause for accumulating great merit. One might need to go on retreat to directly understand emptiness or other things, but one should also be accessible to other members of the community to share those techniques and insights. The Buddha (Gotama) separated himself from people before he was enlightened, but he spent 45 years teaching them after his enlightenment (as did other Buddhist scholars like Milarepa). In fact, Jiun became known for writing one of the first extensive textbooks on sanskrit in Japanese, and went on to establish a separate Shingon sub-school devoted to the study of “Shoboritsu” (Vinaya of the True Dharma) for which he received recognition from the government as well as the Sangha.

    In all cases, the middle path is right.


  • steve

    If i may comment on the teacher.
    I believe that the teacher should ask himself the question.When i am not teaching who am i?If he answers,”i am the teacher than he is seeking his self identity in being a teacher,but if he were to answer there is no self than i believe that he should continue to teach.

  • Angela

    I remember being specifically chided to abandon a specific work that people around me now call “a gift”. My father told me to 20 years ago to stop wasting my time with it and choose something else. I followed his advice and now all I hear from people who are touched by my “gift” wish that I would pick up that work again and devote my energy to it. I am happiest and most fulfilled when I’m sharing the “gift” even if it makes no money and no sense to anyone but me. So, filtered through my experience, I think the mother should be careful not to squelch a passion that might have a greater reach than her son’s ego.

  • Hello!
    I agree Steve’s answer. Also, if Jiun felt that he had the seed of knowledge to spread in which the others did not, then by all means it is right to educate the others.

  • If she is right, isn’t it wrong to to this blog and podcast? Does a monk not have a responsibility to those around him/her? If all monks did this…?

  • Mia

    I feel that Jiun’s mother gave him sound advice to experience his own teachings before lecturing others. Not all who speak of lofty ideas have that Inner Silence.

  • I think it depends on the Mother and on the son. If his teaching came from ego rather than a service motivation then she may be right.

    On thinking about this I have just understood something my Mother told me nearly 20 years ago.

    Thank You for the story


  • Jami

    Many of the Posts provide wonderful insights. We are not told what type of effect Jiun’s teaching was having on him.

    We know his mother’s perception of learning: ‘there is no end to information & commentation’, she says. Then she adds ‘glory & honour’, which may follow from it. Kalieris’ ‘ego’ concerns seems right.

    But students of the dharma need to be taught. And scholarship is central. The Buddha taught. The Buddah meditated. And the fact that Jiun became a ‘Shingon Master’ implies he harmonised scholarship and meditation. It is a story about caution: it is about the dangers inherent in scholarship for the ‘ego’.

    In Sufism, al Ghazali’s experience strikes a powerful example. In Islamic learning, his
    scholship was praised yet he was a man of sadness. He found solace and peace in meditation and in following the ‘sufi path’. He renounced the ‘world’ in order to live in it. Healed, he returned to learning and left a legacy of enduring spiritual significance.

    It appears Jiun trod a similar path. For this reason, his mother’s tender and partly selfish advice does not seem justified.

  • Mike

    You have to learn yourself before you can help anyone else. Otherwise they are just empty words.