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Koan: The Stingy Artist

Koan: The Stingy Artist

Gessen was an artist monk. Before he would start a drawing or painting he always insisted upon being paid in advance, and his fees were high. He was known as the “Stingy Artist.”

A geisha once gave him a commission for a painting. “How much can you pay?” inquired Gessen.

“Whatever you charge,” replied the girl, “but I want you to do the work in front of me.”

So on a certain day Gessen was called by the geisha. She was holding a feast for her patron.

Gessen with fine brush work did the painting. When it was completed he asked the highest sum of his time.

He received his pay. Then the geisha turned to her patron, saying: “All this artist wants is money. His paintings are fine but his mind is dirty; money has caused it to become muddy. Drawn by such a filthy mind, his work is not fit to exhibit. It is just about good enough for one of my petticoats.”

Removing her skirt, she then asked Gessen to do another picture on the back of her petticoat.

“How much will you pay?” asked Gessen.

“Oh, any amount,” answered the girl.

Gessen named a fancy price, painted the picture in the manner requested, and went away.

It was learned later that Gessen had these reasons for desiring money:

A ravaging famine often visited his province. The rich would not help the poor, so Gessen had a secret warehouse, unknown to anyone, which he kept filled with grain, prepared for those emergencies.

From his village to the National Shrine the road was in very poor condition and many travellers suffered while traversing it. He desired to build a better road.

His teacher had passed away without realizing his wish to build a temple, and Gessen wished to complete this temple for him.

After Gessen had accomplished his three wishes he threw away his brushes and artist’s materials and, retiring to the mountains, never painted again.

12 comments to Koan: The Stingy Artist

  • Anonymous

    It seems to me that many of these Zen koans or parables have a sort of gotcha attitude. I don’t think Gessen did anyone a favor by concealing the virtuous intention of his apparent money-grubbing nature. When/if the truth comes out, he has made people feel bad about their incorrect assumptions rather than giving them all of the information so they could feel good about supporting his noble efforts.

    Of course, people shouldn’t make assumptions without adequate information, but I think that’s just human nature.

  • “The Virtues of Means

    The Buddha gave five reasons why a moral person should desire to be possessed of means. Firstly, by his work, diligence and clear-sightedness he could make happy himself, his parents, wife and children, servants and workpeople. Secondly, he could make happy his friends and companions. Thirdly, he would be able to keep his property from the depredations of fire, water, rulers, robbers, enemies and heirs. Fourthly, he would be able to make suitable offerings to his kin, guests, deceased, kings, and devas. Fifthly, he would be able to institute, over a period, offerings to recluses and others who abstain from pride and negligence, who are established in patience and gentleness, and who are engaged in every way in perfecting themselves. At the same time, whether his wealth increases or whether it does not, he should not be disturbed in his mind if he knows that his reasons for trying to amass it were good.

    — Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics”

    Still, I rather doubt this koan is about the proper place of wealth, in Buddhist life, at all; nor do I think its point is merely the truism that things are often not what they appear, and we should not make harsh judgements based on appearances alone.

    Perhaps, it is about persisting in one’s dharma, DESPITE how it may be misunderstood by those who know only what it appears to be?


  • ZenYen

    I think, had Gessen spent time defending or explaining himself, he’d have:

    A) rebuked and possibly insulted someone who was about to pay him money that would further his cause, possibly losing the money;

    B) pointed out that our free-spending geisha is the one obsessed with money and possessions, and made her look bad in front of a patron who is the source of her livelihood — maybe even costing her employment;

    C) Wasted time that could be better spent doing more work toward his goals or in meditation;

    D) Possibly precipitated an ugly, pointless and time-wasting discussion with the geisha.

    I’m with Gessen — stay focused on what is important.

  • ZenYen

    Good comments, Dana.

  • Jeffrey Smith

    A good case of judge book not by appearence, but on the content of pages held within.

  • ZennyJen


    “Do your work… and walk away. That is true serenity”

    It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, peoples’ perceptions are based on ego-centric views of how the world is serving them at the time. He didn’t owe anyone any explanations, he did what he thought right and then let it go. Inspiring!

  • Matt

    This seems a good meditation on not having attachments to appearances, in that Gessen avoided praise by not tooting his own horn. But, the explicit exclusion in spirit, within the koan, of the practice of not deceiving prompts a secondary reflection on that very omission. The author seems to be unconcerned with appearances, too. I assume he realizes his exclusion.


    Does what you do in the shadows count more than what you do in the light? What if it is drivin by ego! Good koan to meditate on, or not.

  • Walt

    I think Gessen did not want to be seen as “doing good” so much so that he would rather be seen as greedy or with a “filthy mind”. The geisha, on the other hand, is someone who, having judged Gessen to be impure, is nevertheless willing to pay him what he wants. She seems to speak to the duplicity of human nature.

  • I think the story Gessen is a lot like the enigma of modern multi-million dollar art pieces today. Consider the works of Jackson Pollock, Damien Hirst, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol. Some of these works are simple and not that complicated to produced but are associated with big time ultra wealthy art collector’s investments. It seems to me a lot of these artists have to hide their generosity to attract some of the most greedy and materialistic customers.

  • Kevin M.

    Gessen wanted to maintain the simplicity of his own activity, uncomplicated by social relationships, and in so doing maintain a kind of purity of action. He was not actually goal-seeking, but centered in his meditative practice. He did not want to become attached to his wishes, and this why he separated his actions from his goals. We should be careful to understand that painting enabled Gessen to achieve his three wishes, but he did not paint so that he could achieve these wishes. This is the central lesson in this story.

    While this is a relatively common theme in Buddhist teaching stories, we should be careful about taking this kind of story as a literal example, as in “what would Gessen have done?” Open and honest communication within the Sangha is nurturing of spiritual growth. While remaining centered in our practice, we should be careful of assuming that our spiritual practice justifies sowing confusion.

    Is this considered to be a koan? I probably would have called it a teaching story.

  • Jane

    Even after reading the koan, here we sit, judging the geisha.