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Nagarjuna and the Thief – A Zen Buddhist Spiritual Story by Anthony de Mello

The great Buddhist saint Nagarjuna moved around naked except for a loincloth and, incongruously, a golden begging bowl gifted to him by the King, who was his disciple.

One night he was about to lie down to sleep among the ruins of an ancient monastery when he noticed a thief lurking behind one of the columns. “Here, take this,” said Nagarjuna, holding the begging bowl. “That way you won't disturb me once I have fallen asleep.”

The thief eagerly grabbed the bowl and made off — only to return the next morning with the bowl and a request:

“When you gave away this bowl so freely last night, you made me feel very poor. Teach me how to acquire the riches that make this kind of lighthearted detachment possible.”

This is from The Heart of the Enlightened, a book of spiritual stories by Anthony de Mello.

What is the Spiritual Message / Moral of the “Nagarjuna and the Thief” Story?

The spiritual lesson gleaned from Nagarjuna's act of giving away his golden begging bowl speaks to the transformative power of detachment. In relinquishing his prized possession without hesitation, Nagarjuna demonstrates a profound understanding of the transient nature of material wealth and the freedom found in letting go. This act of detachment invites us to reflect on our own attachments to possessions and the liberation that comes from releasing the grip of materialism on our hearts and minds.

The story of Nagarjuna and the thief also underscores the principle of generosity and compassion as pathways to spiritual abundance. Despite being confronted by a thief, Nagarjuna responds with an open heart and a selfless gesture, offering not only his material possession but also an opportunity for the thief to awaken to a deeper truth. This act of generosity illuminates the notion that true wealth lies not in accumulating possessions but in the richness of the human spirit, cultivated through acts of kindness and benevolence.

Furthermore, the encounter between Nagarjuna and the thief highlights the importance of humility and receptivity in the pursuit of spiritual growth. The thief, humbled by Nagarjuna's generosity, seeks guidance on the path to inner riches. His willingness to acknowledge his own poverty and seek wisdom reflects a readiness to embrace transformative change. This aspect of the story reminds us that true spiritual evolution begins with a humble recognition of our own limitations and a sincere desire to learn and grow.

Nagarjuna's simple yet profound response to the thief's request illuminates the principle of spiritual teachings transmitted through direct experience rather than intellectual discourse. Rather than offering complex theories or elaborate practices, Nagarjuna embodies the essence of his teachings through his actions, inviting the thief to witness the truth of detachment and inner freedom firsthand. This aspect of the story underscores the transformative power of lived wisdom and the profound impact of authentic embodiment of spiritual principles.

Moreover, the thief's return with the golden begging bowl symbolizes a turning point in his spiritual journey—a moment of awakening and seeking guidance from a realized master. This pivotal moment invites us to reflect on our own moments of awakening and the teachers, mentors, or experiences that have guided us on our path. It reminds us that spiritual growth often unfolds through encounters with wise beings and transformative insights that catalyze our evolution.

The thief's request for guidance also underscores the universal longing for spiritual fulfillment and the recognition that material wealth alone cannot satisfy the deeper yearnings of the soul. In seeking instruction on the path to inner richness, the thief embodies the innate human impulse to seek meaning, purpose, and connection beyond the material realm. His quest reflects a deep-seated longing for spiritual nourishment and the realization that true fulfillment arises from within.

Ultimately, the story of Nagarjuna and the thief serves as a profound reminder of the inherent interconnectedness of all beings and the potential for spiritual awakening in every moment. It invites us to contemplate the ways in which our actions, attitudes, and choices shape our spiritual journey and influence the lives of others. Through its timeless wisdom, this story inspires us to cultivate generosity, humility, and detachment as we navigate the path toward inner freedom and spiritual abundance.

Personal Reflection Questions

Spiritual stories are an opportunity to reflect on your own life. Here are 10 questions you can use to go deeper with the teachings in this story:

  1. What emotions arise within you as you contemplate Nagarjuna's act of giving away his golden begging bowl to a thief in the dead of night?
  2. How does the thief's response to Nagarjuna's gesture challenge your perceptions of wealth and poverty?
  3. Reflect on a time in your life when you experienced a profound shift in perspective, akin to the thief's realization of his inner poverty. What insights did you gain from that experience?
  4. In what ways do you personally relate to Nagarjuna's embodiment of lighthearted detachment, despite his possession of a valuable golden bowl?
  5. Consider the significance of the thief's return with the bowl and his request for guidance. What do you think motivated him to seek spiritual wisdom after experiencing Nagarjuna's act of generosity?
  6. Reflect on the role of humility in the thief's journey toward spiritual awakening. How does his willingness to acknowledge his own poverty pave the way for transformation?
  7. Contemplate the metaphorical significance of the golden begging bowl in the story. What deeper truths or symbolic meanings might it hold for you personally?
  8. Explore the concept of spiritual wealth as depicted in the story. How do you define true abundance and richness in your own life?
  9. Reflect on the ways in which acts of kindness and generosity, like Nagarjuna's, can ripple outwards and inspire transformation in others.
  10. Consider the overarching theme of awakening and enlightenment present in the story. How do you envision your own path toward inner richness and spiritual fulfillment unfolding?