Gift No Gift
All spiritual schools lay stress on giving. But to know how to give is a great spiritual virtue, and there are many gifts which are no gifts at all.
A grandfather came to visit his son’s family in another part of the country` and when he left` gave to the little grandson some special sweet cakes. That evening the manager of the company where the father worked came to see him for an emergency business consultation. It was the custom to put a display of cakes in front of a guest` who however by the same custom never took more than one.
The mother had no cakes in the house, and asked the child to give his cakes to entertain the ” uncle “.
The boy refused` but the mother pointed out that though the cakes must be given` the visitor would only take one and leave the rest.
” Well`” said the little boy ” if it will help father` and if it is only one . . .”
The cakes were put on a tray and he carried them in and said : ” These cakes were given to me by grandfather` but I want you to have them.” The manager was touched and thanked the child` who went out but secretly peeped through a chink in the screen. Sure enough the guest took just the one cake. But as they went through the business papers, they discovered something unexpected to which they had to find an immediate solution. Wrestling with the problem, the guest absently helped himself to another cake` and then to a third.
Their deliberations were interrupted by a tearful wail from behind the screen : ” Mummy` the uncle’s eating them all ! ”
In this way the gift which was in form only was revealed as no gift.
At the time of William the Conqueror` the great Lanfranc was Archbishop of Canterbury. He relates that when travelling in France as a young man, he was attacked by robbers and stripped of everything except his cloak. He recalled a Christian saint in Lombardy who had been similarly robbed` but who had pressed on the thieves the one thing they had left him, and then turned to his devotions. Those Lombard brigands had been finally so affected by the holy conduct of the saint that they returned to him all they had taken. In expectation of a similar happy outcome, Lanfranc ran after his own robbers and offered them his cloak also. They became furious` thinkingthemselves mocked, and beat him almost to death.
” And this,” he says, ” was not more than I deserved.For that saint gave that they might keep what he gave, but I gave with craft and cunning, in the hope that they might restore and not keep.” This gift of the young Lanfranc was made as a spiritual trick` and so also was no gift at all.
One of the great Japanese poet-painters of the eighteenth century was Ryokan, a monk of the Soto Zen sect. He spent most of his life as a mendicant, and refused commissions from rich men who desired his pictures. Once he was persuaded to make some paintings for a local noble but would not take payment. In the end the noble prevailed on him to accept the silver statuette of a cat. The whole court came to the palace door to see him off. Ryokan noticed a child playing in the dust at the gate, and gave the silver cat to him. Then he glanced back, and wandered off.
In this way a great lesson was given to the nobleman. He had known that Ryokan would inevitably give the statuette away, but assumed it would be for some charitable purpose-to found a school or hospital. The story would get around and some glory would be reflected on him. When his present was given to a child in the dust` he felt disappointed` and that meant his gift had been no gift. To retain a proprietorial interest in the disposal of a gift is a negation of spiritual giving.
A saint of the Vaishnava devotional sect in India was sitting on the bank of a river when a rich disciple presented him with two jewelled bangles. The saint showed great pleasure at the valuable gift` and began tossing one of them up in the air and catching it. As the disciple anxiously watched, the teacher missed the catch and knocked the bangle into the river. The rich man quickly jumped into the water and began to dive for it` but could not find it. He called to the saint` ” Where exactly did it fall ? ” and he replied,
” Child, it fell just there ! ” and threw the other bangle into the deep water.
The bewildered disciple` almost in tears at the loss of his gift` asked for an explanation` and the guru said :
” I could see your mind was disturbed` hanging on to those bangles even after you thought you had given them to me.
Now they are in the hands of God ; let us both rest our minds in peace.”
© Trevor Leggett