Some of the Christian missionaries who went to Japan in the mid-19th century were scholarly men, who mastered the language both spoken and Classical, and also made a study of basic Buddhism. However, one such found to his dismay that he was sometimes unable to meet the arguments of Buddhists in public debates, and decided that he must go far deeper into Buddhism to find the refutations he sought. He heard that the greatest scholar of Buddhism was a Zen abbot living in semi-retirement in a tiny monastery.
He made inquiries, and found that the abbot never took any fee for his teaching and would not accept any money donations to the monastery. Scholars from all over Japan used to come to stay for two or three months in the nearby villages, paying rent, and the villagers served the tiny monastery in various ways: the local carpenters kept the building in repair, the mat-maker supplied mats when they wore out, the farmers presented fresh vegetables and so on. He would accept personal service, but never money.
So the missionary, rather impressed, presented himself and asked to be taken on for one of the courses in advanced Buddhism. “I should say at the outset,” he added, “that I have no intention of becoming a Buddhist. I am a missionary, following the teaching of Christ, and desire to compare Buddhism to it.”
“And not necessarily favourably,” replied the abbot amiably. “But that would not matter, and I appreciate your straightforwardness. Opposition washes the face of truth, as the rain and wind wash and polish the statue of Bodhisattva Jizo who stands outside the temple. But I need to know whether you would be able to follow. May I ask you some questions?” and he produced a series of technical terms and concepts, to most of which the missionary was able to make some sort of reply.
“Well, I see that you would be able to follow. Can you get three months to devote yourself entirely to the study, which will be hard work?” The missionary had already agreed this with his colleagues, and nodded.
“There is one more thing,” said the teacher. “If you were a pupil, the instruction would be free. But you are not a pupil. So the fee will be Twenty gold pieces, and if you agree to pay this, I ask that you pay it from your personal salary and not from the funds of your mission or Church.”
It was a considerable sum, and a double shock to the missionary, after all he had heard about this teacher. But he thought for a moment and then resolutely agreed. Next day he turned up with the gold coins which the teacher counted slowly, and then put into a little jar on a high shelf.
When the course began, it was indeed hard work, as the abbot had promised. But when the missionary felt tired he thought not merely of the value of what he was getting, but also that the money should not be wasted. During the course, he developed a great respect for the teacher, though he still had a nagging doubt about the demand for money.
On the last day of the course, the students presented themselves one by one to express their appreciation and thanks. The missionary in his turn came and sat in front of the teacher, and gave his own thanks.
“You are now fully armed with the Buddhist doctrines. But you have not become a follower of the Buddha,” said the teacher with a smile. He got up and reached for the little jar, still standing in the same place, and put it down in front of them.
“If you had become a Buddhist, you would not need this. But you have not, and I think that it can be useful to you now. I thought it might help you over the very arduous parts of the study course, and if it did, then it fulfilled its purpose. Money has nothing to do with the Truth which we both serve, and we may find in the end that the differences which seem to separate us are not so real after all. Blessings on all servants of Truth.”
© 1999 Trevor Leggett