A Tozen Parable: The sage and the money changer



Once a great Zen Master stopped by a money changers shop and asked for a good deal on some foreign coins. The money changer eager to make a fast profit by acts of deceit, regretted his first impulse and bowed deeply. He asked;

“Master, I know I serve the lowliest of trades, one that most probably will send me to the unbearable hells of hungry ghosts, but please, I ask you, what do you see in this wretched soul, that in its heart, desires to find the path you walk so effortlessly?”

The master looked first above his head and then at his chest area and uttered; “I see vast ignorance at play. The path muddled by the glimmering enchantment of form and value; kindled by a constant hunger as you so aptly put it. You are indeed already a mere ghost, one wandering among its equals seeking the food of satisfaction where there is none. How can such a beast expect to sit on the golden throne of nirvana? That is simply not possible.”

“But if I left my sinful trade and immersed myself in the dharma by your words, and studied the sutras I have gathered in the past, would that ease the entrance?

“No, not a chance!”, was the laughing answer from the master, as he turned and disappeared into the crowd of people.

A nearby monk having caught ear of the conversation, approached the saddened merchant and remarked; ” I see the great sage is generous today. Never did I dream him to treat your kind with such kindness. You must indeed be blessed with vast amounts of good merit from previous lives.”

best regards,


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2 Responses to A Tozen Parable: The sage and the money changer

  1. Jure says:

    This ‘grandmotherly kindness’ simile is used extensively in Zen stories. The ‘kindness’ factor comes partly from the master’s pointing at the foulness of this-worldly attachment; but partly also from the master’s pointing at the fact that changing one’s ‘worldly’ ways is not salvation, either; as to direct the student to a path of transcendence, not a path of changing profession. Changing profession and lifestyle – no matter how radical a change – will still operate within the same worldly framework. It’s like Shakyamuni who at first taught by asceticism and diet he can achieve Nirvana. He was still locked in the same framework, until his insight, that it’s not through ‘worldly’ betterment of oneself, that one achieves it: not though doing this or that with this body, but through ‘going within’, – the spirit sets one free.

    However, it’s also possible I misunderstand it. I don’t like parables and stories so much – I like clear language. I’m just too stupid to understand them sometimes. I even have problems with the stories Jesus recounted.

    Other than that, I wonder where the “coin” inspiration comes from … *wink wink*

    There’s nothing evil or lowly in “changing foreign coins” – as the story puts it, anachronistically. We tend to be too much immersed in our immediate experience, and forget how much abstract things are needed too in society. It’s not just the baking of the bread and the sweeping of the floors that is the actual work required for society to function. If someone wants to make a bakery, he either needs to have the money, or loan it. So, in order to loan it, he needs a bank. And now magically a need for banks appeared! Now these banks hold a certain currency – a currency the baker will be paid in for his goods. – And we have a currency! – Now there are many currencies, there are national currencies, and now there are even virtual, “Internet” currencies (like bitcoin) – and they all serve a good purpose. – Now someone who trades between them, buys Yen, sells Dollars, and so on, he serves to regulate the global financial markets. Otherwise the USA, or Japan, or China, could freely manipulate their currency and damage economies tyranically. But alas, this way, they can’t – because millions of speculators would “punish” them for it (by selling their “coins”).

    Thus, in the free market, someone’s personal greed (personal goals) also contribute to society as a whole.

    But this is another story, not connected to Zen or Buddhism.

  2. Jure says:

    A nice quote:

    “First, people fight that domineering listlessness with means which, in general, set our feeling for life at their lowest point. Where possible, there is generally no more willing, no more desire; they stay away from everything which creates an emotional response, which makes “blood” (no salt in the diet, the hygiene of the fakir); they don’t love; they don’t hate—equanimity—they don’t take revenge, they don’t get wealthy, they don’t work; they beg; where possible, no women, or as few women as possible; with respect to spiritual matters, Pascal’s principle “Il faut s’abêtir” [it’s necessary to make oneself stupid]. The result, expressed in moral-psychological terms, is “selflessness,” “sanctification”; expressed in physiological terms: hypnotizing—the attempt to attain for human beings something approaching what winter hibernation is for some kinds of animals and what summer sleep is for many plants in hot climates, the minimum consumption and processing of material stuff which can still sustain life but which does not actually enter consciousness. For this purpose an astonishing amount of human energy has been expended. Has it all gone for nothing? . . . We should not entertain the slightest doubts that such sportsmen of “holiness,” whom almost all populations have in abundance at all times, in fact found a real release from what they were fighting against with such a rigorous training—with the help of their systemic methods for hypnosis, in countless cases they really were released from that deep physiological depression. That’s the reason their methodology belongs with the most universal ethnological facts. For the same reason, we have no authority for considering such an intentional starving of one’s desires and of one’s physical well being as, in itself, symptoms of insanity (the way a clumsy kind of roast- beef-eating “free spirit” and Squire Christopher like to do). It’s much more the case that it opens or can open the way to all sorts of spiritual disruptions, to “inner light,” for example, as with Hesychasts on Mount Athos, to hallucinating sounds and shapes, to sensual outpourings and ecstasies of sensuality (the history of St. Theresa).* It’s self-evident that the interpretation which has been given for conditions of this sort by those afflicted with them has always been as effusively false as possible. Still, people should not fail to catch the tone of totally convincing gratitude ringing out in the very will to such a form of interpretation. They always value the highest state, redemption itself, that finally attained collective hypnosis and quietness, as the inherent mystery, which cannot be adequately expressed even by the highest symbols, as a stop at and return home to the basis of things, as an emancipation from all delusions, as “knowledge,” as “truth,” as “being,” as the removal of all goals, all wishes, all acts, and thus as a place beyond good and evil. “Good and evil,” says the Buddhist, “are both fetters: the perfect one became master over both”; “what’s done and what’s not done,” says the man who believes in the Vedanta, “give him no pain; as a wise man he shakes good and evil off himself; his kingdom suffers no more from any deed; good and evil—he has transcended both”— an entirely Indian conception, whether Brahman or Buddhist. (Neither in the Indian nor in the Christian way of thinking is this “redemption” considered attainable through virtue, through moral improvement—no matter how high a value they place on virtue as a form of hypnotism. People should note this point—it corresponds, incidentally, to the plain facts. That on this point they kept to the truth might perhaps be considered the best piece of realism in the three largest religions, which, apart from this, are religions so fundamentally concerned with moralizing. “The man who knows has no duties” . . . “Redemption does not come about through an increase in virtue, for it consists of unity with Brahma, who is incapable of any increase in perfection; even less does it come through setting aside one’s faults, for the Brahma, unity with whom creates redemption, is eternally pure”—these passages from the commentary of Shankara are cited by the first genuine authority on Indian philosophy in Europe, my friend Paul Deussen).* So we want to honour “redemption” in the great religions; however, it will be a little difficult for us to remain serious about the way these people, who’ve grown too weary of life even to dream, value deep sleep—that is, deep sleep as already an access to the Brahma, as an achieved unio mystica [mysterious union] with God. On this subject, the oldest and most venerable “Scripture” states: “When he is soundly and completely asleep and is in a state of perfect calm, so that he is not seeing any more dream images, at that moment, O dear one, united with Being, he has gone into himself—now that he has been embraced by a form of his knowing self, he has no consciousness any more of what is outer or inner. Over this bridge comes neither night nor day, nor old age, nor death, nor suffering, nor good works, nor evil works.” Similarly, believers in this most profound of the three great religions say, “In deep sleep the soul lifts itself up out of this body, goes into the highest light, and moves out in its own form: there it is the highest spirit itself which wanders around, while it jokes and plays and enjoys itself, whether with women or with carriages or with friends; there it no longer thinks back to its bodily appendages, to which the prana (the breath of life) is harnessed like a draught animal to a cart.” Nevertheless, as in the case of “redemption,” we also need to keep in mind here that no matter how great the splendour of oriental exaggeration, what this states is basically the same evaluation which was made by that clear, cool, Greek-cool, but suffering Epicurus: the hypnotic feeling of nothingness, the silence of the deepest sleep, in short, the loss of suffering—something which suffering and fundamentally disgruntled people are already entitled to consider their highest good, their value of values, and which they must appraise as positive and experience as the positive in itself. (With the same logic of feeling, in all pessimistic religions nothingness is called God).”

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