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Kathalaya: Saint Nagarjuna and the Thief

A great Indi­an Yogi and mys­tic, Nagar­ju­na, used to live naked. He had only a beg­ging bowl and that was his only pos­ses­sion. But he was per­haps the great­est genius to have been born on this earth; his lev­el of intel­li­gence and sharp­ness of mind were incom­pa­ra­ble! Great kings, queens, great philoso­phers were his stu­dents. One queen was very much devot­ed to him, and she had made a gold­en beg­ging bowl stud­ded with dia­monds. When he came to her cap­i­tal and arrived at the palace to beg, the queen said, “First you have to give me a promise.” Nagar­ju­na said, “You are ask­ing a promise from a naked man who has noth­ing but his beg­ging bowl.” The queen said, “That will do. I wish to ask of you for your beg­ging bowl.” Nagar­ju­na said, “You can take it.” The queen said, “As a replace­ment, you will have to take my beg­ging bowl.” Nagar­ju­na said, “There is no prob­lem, any beg­ging bowl will do.” Nagar­ju­na was not at all aware of what she was hid­ing. It was a gold­en beg­ging bowl stud­ded with very valu­able dia­monds. But, he took it, and went on his way.

As he was going back to the ruins of the monastery where he was stay­ing, a thief saw him and could not believe his eyes! The beg­ging bowl was shin­ing like a star! But what was it doing with this naked man (naked, but such a mag­nif­i­cent man!)? For how long could he keep it? Some­body was sure to take it away, so why not he? And so,the thief fol­lowed Nagar­ju­na. Nagar­ju­na went inside a room, which was a hum­ble lit­tle shed with only the walls left intact. The whole monastery was in ruins, and there was a win­dow by the side. The thief was hid­ing out­side the win­dow know­ing that Bud­dhist monks eat only once a day. Soon,he would eat, and then he would have a lit­tle nap. And that would be the right moment to steal the pre­cious gold­en bowl! Nobody lived in this monastery. It was thou­sands of years old.

But, before giv­ing the thief a chance to steal the bowl, Nagar­ju­na ate his food and threw the bowl out of the win­dow where the thief was sitting,and plan­ning his moves. The thief could not believe it. He was real­ly shocked! For a moment he could not think what to do- what kind of a man was this naked monk? He had eat­en his food and thrown away this immense­ly valu­able bowl as if it was of no use to him — and exact­ly where he was sit­ting!

He stood up and asked Nagar­ju­na, “Can I come in just to ask one ques­tion?”

Nagar­ju­na said, “To bring you in, I had to throw the bowl out. Come in. The bowl is yours; don’t be wor­ried. I have giv­en it to you so that you will not be a thief. It is a gift, a present. I am a poor man. I don’t have any­thing else, only that bowl; and I know I can­not keep it for long because I will have to sleep, some­body will take it away and you have tak­en so much trou­ble to pro­cure it. From the cap­i­tal you have fol­lowed me, and I have been watch­ing. It is a hot summer’s day. Please don’t refuse. Take it.”

The thief said, “You are a strange man. Don’t you know how expen­sive it is?”

Nagar­ju­na said, “Since I have known my own self, noth­ing is expen­sive.”


The thief looked at Nagar­ju­na and said, “Then, I ask of you one more present: how can I know myself, in com­par­i­son to which this pre­cious bowl is noth­ing?”

Nagar­ju­na said, “It is very sim­ple.”

The thief said, “Before you say any­thing I wish to intro­duce myself. I am a well-known thief.”

Nagar­ju­na said, “Who is not? Don’t be con­cerned with triv­ia. In this world every­body is a thief because every­body comes naked with­out any­thing, and then lat­er every­body pos­sess­es some­thing or the oth­er. All are thieves, so do not be wor­ried. That’s why I live naked. It is per­fect­ly fine. What­ev­er you are doing, do it well. Just do one thing: when you are steal­ing, be aware, be alert, be watch­ful. If you lose watch­ful­ness then don’t steal. That is a sim­ple rule for you.”

The thief said, “It sounds very sim­ple. When I can see you again?”

Nagar­ju­na said, “I will be here for two weeks. You can come any day, but first try to fol­low this rule.”

For two weeks the thief tried to observe the rule, and to his amazement,found that it was the most dif­fi­cult thing in the world! Once he even broke into the palace, opened the door of the roy­al trea­sury, but the moment he tried to take some­thing, he lost his aware­ness that very instant! And the thief was an hon­est man-he was true to him­self, in fol­low­ing the rule that the monk had giv­en him.

So he left what­ev­er he intend­ed to take behind, because it could not be tak­en with­out being aware. Observ­ing the sim­ple rule was extreme­ly dif­fi­cult: when he was aware, there was no desire to take any­thing; and when he was not aware, he want­ed to take every­thing in the trea­sury!

Final­ly he came emp­ty-hand­ed to Nagar­ju­na and said, “You have dis­turbed my whole life. Now I can­not steal!” Nagar­ju­na said, “That is not my prob­lem. Now it is your prob­lem. If you want to steal for­get all about aware­ness.” But the thief said, “Those few moments of aware­ness were so valu­able. I have nev­er felt so at ease, so peace­ful, so silent, so bliss­ful in my whole life – all the trea­sure of the entire king­dom was noth­ing com­pared to it.”

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