Tao Living

The Thief and His Son

by Derek Lin

To explain the study of Zen and Tao, the Fifth Patriarch told this story:

"The Zen we have here is like an old thief who led his son into a mansion and instructed him to go into a walk-in closet to steal some clothes. As soon as the son went into the closet, the father closed the door and locked him in. He then ran through the hallway banging on doors and walls, making a loud racket before fleeing into the night.

"The residents got up, looked around and realized that there might still be a thief in the house. They banded together, lit a candle, and started searching room by room.

"The son, still trapped in the closet, was in a bad situation. Out of desperation, he made mouse noises, which attracted the searchers' attention. The master of the mansion ordered his servant to unlock the closet. The young man sprang out, blew out the candle, pushed the servant aside, and ran for his life. The residents regrouped and gave angry pursuit.

"The young man couldn’t shake them, but suddenly he saw a well up ahead and got an idea. He pushed a large rock into the well, and ran in a different direction. The residents heard the loud splash, assumed he fell in or jumped in the well, and went looking for him there.

"Thanks to this ploy, the young man was able to get away cleanly. He returned home to tell his father what happened. After he completed his report, his father said, 'You're ready to be a thief now.'"

Okay. What was the point of this rather long-winded story? What did the Fifth Patriarch mean when he said Zen was like these characters above? Think about it for a few moments before you read the next paragraph. Can you guess the meaning of this story?

The main point is that ultimately, Zen and Tao are concepts for each person to grasp individually. A student of Zen and Tao is like the young man in this story, and the master is like the father. A true master will provide a certain amount of guidance and lead the student along the path to a personal trial. For every piece of wisdom one gains, there is a corresponding trial which takes place in one’s heart as well as the mind.

When you undergo this process, you start out just like the young man, trapped, alone and in the dark. The lock that keeps you trapped isn’t a physical lock. Rather, it represents an obstacle to comprehension, and you need the key of insight to unlock it. In this critical juncture, it is entirely up to you to make a breakthrough. No one can help you.

Now why is that? By the above we have described the process, but not the reason. Why is this something that you must do by your lonesome?

By their very nature, Zen and Tao are highly personal. If someone were to explain them to you, all you'll get is a version of his understanding, expressed through the imperfect medium of his words. It still won't be your own understaning, because something is always lost in the transition, and his understanding is tied to his intuitions and perceptions, which are not and can never be your intuitions and perceptions.

The only way to make Zen and Tao uniquely your own is to find a way out of this maze in the heart and make your escape to realization and oneness. During this mental flight, your pursuers are the forces of ignorance and misconception, and when you succeed in getting away from them, understanding dawns, and a light bulb comes on in your mind. You experience that golden "eureka" moment and win another piece of the Truth.

That’s what the study of Zen and Tao is all about - personal breakthroughs leading to personal enlightenment. In the context of our story today, it's all about qualifying to be a thief… which, in turn, means taking another step toward becoming a true master.