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Koan: Zen in a Beggar’s Life

Zen in a Beggar’s Life

Tosui was a well-known Zen teacher of his time. He had lived in several temples and taught in various provinces.

The last temple he visited accumulated so many adherents that Tosui told them he was going to quit the lecture business entirely. He advised them to disperse and to go wherever they desired. After that no one could find any trace of him.

Three years later one of his disciples discovered him living with some beggars under a bridge in Kyoto. He at once implored Tosui to teach him.

“If you can do as I do for even a couple of days, I might,” Tosui replied.

So the former disciple dressed as a beggar and spent a day with Tosui. The following day one of the beggars died. Tosui and his pupil carried the body off at midnight and buried it on a mountainside. After that they returned to their shelter under the bridge.

Tosui slept soundly the remainder of the night, but the disciple could not sleep. When morning came Tosui said: “We do not have to beg food today. Our dead friend has left some over there.” But the disciple was unable to eat a single bite of it.

“I have said you could not do as I,” concluded Tosui. “Get out of here and do not bother me again.”

15 comments to Koan: Zen in a Beggar’s Life

  • grey

    i don’t really understand this one. can someone please explain?

  • It will mean different things to different people, but I believe this one has to do with attachments to people.

    As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the body is just a disposable shell to MOST Buddhists. The disciple felt bad at the death of the other beggar, and either due to remorse or respect, couldn’t eat the dead man’s food. Tosui, on the other hand, could easily let go of his friend and take the “gift” that remained.

  • Anonymous

    I’m reminded of Lojong # 40)¬†”Be¬†patient,¬†whichever¬†of¬†the¬†2¬†occurs. ” Although many other sayings come to mind as well. Whether I see events as good or bad fortune is only my momentary perception. In reality events are just what they are. Life goes on (or not).

    Thanks for sharing this Koan.

  • Babu

    i was initially taken aback upon reading this for the first time. these zen guys are really tough. i was thinking what could be the meaning of this? could be the following;

    the zen master was not having the feeling of ‘I’ (note that he was begging, one has to forgo the ego to do that). when the disciple was not able to eat the food, the disciple was still having the feeling of ‘I’ the ego. hence the master send him away.

    if someone can give another explanation it would be fine. but in any case, these zen guys are quite tough guys indeed.

  • Jami

    You might say, following another moral code, the Zen Master is rude. Why treat a disciple like that, and, besides,shouldn’t he be more patient?

    There is, within the koan, a riddle. But the ego is tricky too. Behind openly illogical acts might be very simple logical motivations. The Zen Master may have lost it; some no doubt do. May be the life of beggging was wearing him down,and he was really saying to the disciple, “stop this nonsense! We need food, man, and that guy is dead and gone. Let’s eat!”

  • Michael

    Aside from the teacher’s and disciple’s view of the dead beggar’s food, I find more interesting the fact that he left his role as teacher when he had accumulated a large number of adherents. Isn’t teaching considered an important contribution to the community for more skilled practitioners? Does teaching a large number of students distract the teacher from his own spiritual needs, compelling him to seek a more isolated life?

  • TWC

    While I can see the wisdom in the above comments, the thing that I took from the story was that the teacher, for reasons known only to himself, had decided that he was spending too much of his time teaching, and needed time for himself. Not necessarily selfishly, but possibly to be a more effective teacher in future.

    The reason for putting conditions on the would-be student, might simply be because the teacher knew he was still not up to teaching someone who had not learned certain things (like detachment from the beggar’s death), and it would serve neither the teacher nor the student to accept him. In that sense, the teacher is neither rude nor harsh, but very caring and respectful of both their needs.

  • Hima777

    It was a very good koan, the disciple still felt attachment. Thankyou

  • Danny

    This koan may cause some confusion because of the cultural differences in the relationship between teacher and student. “Get out of here and do not bother me again.‚Äù is a common theme in Japanese stories. Japan has many stories of a master rejecting a student. The determined student will return repeatedly and be rejected many times before being accepted. It does not have the same connotation as in the U.S. culture.

  • Many serious practitioners don’t prefer teaching large gathering of students who blindly believe in them almostly worshipingly, because it tends to corrupt both the teacher and the deciples. There are many stories like that in Tibetan religious histories.
    It tends to inflate teachers ego, create jealousy and rivalry, hinders understanding of true nature of suffering and negatively affect motivation. Living a life of a beggar frees the practitioner from these negative forces.

  • alex

    Zen has a history of teachers testing prospective students like this. This is actually a very mild version of it. The 2nd chinese ancestor, Eka, cut off his own arm to become a student of Bodhidharma, after standing waist deep in snow for quite a long time. (or so the story goes)
    In many japanese monasteries, applicants are required to sit in zazen for 3 days in a special area outside the main monastery while the other monks heap abuse on them, repeatedly telling them to shove off, etc.

  • DDM

    It seems death made the student uncomfortable – he could not sleep. Also he may have feared the food was not fresh (spoiled), or the food was contaminated by the dirty/sick beggar? So the student could not “do as I do for even a couple of days” to become Tosui’s disciple. Needed more mental ripening.

  • Tiffany

    How can you discipline yourself to not let death affect you? Especially when it’s someone you have known for a long time is a good friend or even a spouse? It is only natural to cry and mourn and loose some sleep, are you not suppose to and just continue on and hold on to what was left behind? Was it two things this disiple did wrong? Both morning the death by not getting rest and not accepting the gift that was left behind, which would have been questionable about contamination, but still food is merely one thing of many, he could have used the clothing in the story instead of the food, Do you understand what I’m saying, like taking the mans coat after he died to keep warm. Would the student have rejected that too? Different, thank you.

  • mvr prasad

    This koan illustrates the ultimate in the pursuit of love, concern and the conquest of all aversion to the mean, lowly and the dirty.

  • andre

    Surely the point is that all of our answers are wrong, This is a koan, therefore we keep exploring within ourselves and within the story. Only when we have given every answer from every point of view then we will have accumulated the range of paradigm shifts such tales are meant to achieve.

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