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Chapter 2: Trading Dialogue for Lodging

There is an old tradition in some Japanese Zen temples that if a wandering monk can win an argument about Buddhism with one of the resident monks, he can stay the night. If not, he has to move on.

There was such a temple in northern Japan run by two brothers. The elder brother was very learned and the younger brother was rather stupid, and he had only one eye.

One evening a wandering monk came to ask for lodging. The elder brother was very tired as he had been studying for many hours, so he told the younger brother to go and take the debate. “Request that the dialogue be in silence,” said the elder brother.

A little later the traveler came to the elder brother and said, “What a wonderful fellow your brother is. He has won the debate very cleverly, so I must move on. Good night.”

“Before you go,” said the elder brother, “please relate the dialogue to me.”

“Well,” said the traveler, “first I held up one finger to represent Buddha. Then your brother held up two fingers to represent Buddha and his teaching. So I held up three fingers to represent Buddha, his teaching, and his followers. Then your clever brother shook his clenched fist in my face to indicate that all three came from one realization.” With that the traveler left.

A little later the younger brother came in looking very distressed. “I understand you won the debate,” said the elder brother.

“Won nothing,” said the younger brother, “that traveler is a very rude man.”

“Oh?” said the elder brother, “Tell me the subject of the debate.

“Why,” said the younger brother, “the moment he saw me, he held up one finger insulting me by indicating that I have only one eye. But because he was a stranger I thought I would be polite, so I held up two fingers congratulating him on having two eyes. At this, the impolite wretch held up three fingers to show that we had but three eyes between us, so I got mad and threatened to punch his nose - so he went.”

The elder brother laughed.

All debates are futile and stupid. Debate as such is foolish, because no one can reach the truth through discussion, through debate. You may get a night’s shelter, but that’s all. Hence the tradition.

The tradition is beautiful. In any Zen monastery in Japan, for many centuries, if you ask for shelter you have to discuss. If you win the debate, you can stay for the night - this is very symbolic - but only for the night. In the morning you have to move on. This indicates that through debate, logic, reasoning, you can never reach the goal, only a night’s shelter. And don’t deceive yourself that the night’s shelter is the goal. You have to move on. In the morning you have to again be on your feet.

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