The Master Thief of Japan – A Zen Buddhist Spiritual Story by Osho

There is a Zen story; Zen Masters have loved it tremendously. When you come across it for the first time you will feel puzzled about the story — it is about a master thief.

A man was known as a master thief in Japan; he was well-known, famous, all over the country. And, of course, he was a master thief so nobody had ever been able to catch hold of him. He was never caught red-handed — although everybody knew that he was the one who had stolen — even from the treasury of the king he had been stealing.

And he was always leaving marks of his so everybody would know who had been there.

In fact, it had become the fashion to BRAG about it, if the master thief had thought you worthy to steal something from. It became an aristocratic bragging! People would brag, saying, “Last night the master thief has been to our house.”

But the man was getting older, and one day his young son said to him, “Now you are getting older, teach me your art!”

The father said, “Then come with me tonight — because this is not something that can be taught. You can only imbibe the spirit of me; if you are intelligent enough you can catch it. I cannot TEACH it to you, but you can catch it. I cannot give it to you, but you can get it. We will see. You come tonight with me.”

Naturally the son was afraid — the first time! The wall was broken, they went into the palace. Even in his old age the father’s hands were like a surgeon’s, unwavering, unshaking, although he was becoming very old — with no fear, as if he was working in his own home, breaking the wall. He did not even look here and there he was so certain of his art. And the young man was trembling — it was a cold winter night and he was perspiring! But the father was doing everything silently.

Then the father entered into the house. The son followed, his knees trembling, and he was feeling he might fall any moment. He was losing all consciousness because the fear was such…if they were caught, then?

The father was moving in the dark house as if it was his house and he knew everything about the house, and even in the dark he could move without stumbling against the furniture, against the doors. Making no noise at all, noiselessly, he reached into the innermost chamber of the palace. He opened a cupboard and told the son to go in and find whatsoever was valuable. The son entered it. The father locked the door, shouted, “A thief! A thief! Wake up!” and escaped through the hole that they had dug in the wall.

Now this was too much! The son could not under-stand it. Now he is locked in the cupboard, trembling, perspiring, and the whole house is awake, people are searching for the thief. “What kind of father is this? He has murdered me!” he thought. “And what kind of teaching is this?” This is the last thing he would have ever imagined: he has created a living nightmare for him! Now he is certain to be caught! And he has locked the door from the outside; he cannot even open the door and escape.

After one hour he reached home — the son — and the father was fast asleep and snoring! He threw aside his blanket and said, “What kind of nonsense is this?!”

The father said, “So you are back! No need to tell the whole story — you also go to sleep. Now you know the art, we need not discuss it.”

But the son said, “I have to tell you the whole story, what happened.”

The father said, “If you want to tell it you can, otherwise I don’t require it. Just that you have come is enough proof! Now from tomorrow night you start on your own. You have got the intelligence, the awareness that a thief needs. I am immensely happy with you!”

But the son was so overflowing, he wanted to relate the whole thing — he had done such a great job. He said, “Just listen, otherwise I will not be able to sleep at all. I am so excited! You almost killed me!”

The father said, “It is hard, but that’s how a master has to act many times. Tell me the whole story. What happened?”

He said, “Out of nowhere — not from my intellect, certainly not from my mind — this has happened.”

The father said, “This is the key to all mastery in all the fields of life, whether you are a thief or a meditator, whether you are a lover or a scientist or a painter or a poet, it doesn’t matter. Whatsoever the field, this is the master key — that nothing happens from the head, everything happens from somewhere below. Call it intuition, call it no-mind, call it meditation — these are names, different names for the same thing. It has started functioning, I can see it on your face; I can see the aura around you. You are going to become a master thief! And remember through being a master thief I have attained to meditation. So remember: this is the way for you to attain meditation.”

The son said, “When I was standing inside that damned cupboard and people were searching for the thief, a woman servant came with a candle in her hand; I could see from the keyhole. Something from nowhere…I started making noises as if I was a cat — and I have never done it before! The woman servant, thinking that there was a cat in the cupboard, unlocked it. As she unlocked it — I don’t know how I did it and who did it — it happened! I blew the candle out, pushed the woman away, and ran! People followed me — the whole house was awake, the neighborhood was awake. And they were coming closer and closer and I was on the verge of being caught.

Then suddenly I came across a well. I saw a rock just by the side of the well — I don’t believe that I have that much strength to pick that rock up now, but it happened.”

When you are in such situations your whole energy becomes available to you. You don’t live only on the superficial level. When life is at stake, your whole energy becomes available.

“I moved the rock, picked up the rock — I cannot believe that I could even shake it now! — and threw it in the well, then ran away. The noise, the sound of the rock falling in the well…and all the people who were following me stopped following me. They surrounded the well; they thought I had jumped into the well. That’s how I am back home.”

The father said, “Now you can go to sleep. I am finished! Never ask me anything again. Now you start on your own.

Osho – “Be Still and Know”

What Is the Spiritual Moral / Meaning of Osho's “The Master Thief of Japan” Story?

This story underscores the importance of tapping into intuition and inner wisdom, rather than relying solely on rational thought or conventional wisdom. This highlights the spiritual principle that true wisdom often arises from a deeper, more intuitive source within ourselves.

The father's unconventional teaching method challenges the conventional notion of how mastery is acquired. Instead of imparting knowledge through verbal instruction or theoretical learning, he creates a situation that requires his son to tap into his intuitive wisdom and inner resources. This emphasizes the spiritual principle that true mastery is not just about acquiring knowledge, but about embodying a deeper understanding that transcends intellectual understanding.

The story also illustrates the transformative power of facing challenges and pushing beyond our perceived limitations. When the son finds himself locked in a cupboard and pursued by the household, he taps into a source of strength and resourcefulness he didn't know he possessed. This mirrors the spiritual principle that challenges and obstacles are often opportunities for growth and transformation, leading us to discover hidden reservoirs of strength and resilience within ourselves.

The son's journey from fear and confusion to empowerment and confidence reflects the spiritual process of awakening and self-realization. Through facing his fears and navigating challenging circumstances, he undergoes a profound transformation that deepens his understanding of himself and the world around him. This highlights the spiritual journey as a process of awakening to our true nature and potential.

The story also emphasizes the importance of trusting in intuition and inner guidance. When the son finds himself in seemingly impossible situations, he learns to trust his instincts and follow the guidance that arises from within. This underscores the spiritual principle that true wisdom often comes from a place beyond logical reasoning, and that we can cultivate a deeper connection to our intuition through meditation and inner reflection.

Finally, the story invites us to consider the deeper meaning of mastery and enlightenment. Rather than viewing mastery as a purely intellectual or academic pursuit, it encourages us to see it as a journey of self-discovery and spiritual awakening. This highlights the spiritual principle that true mastery is not just about acquiring knowledge or skills, but about embodying a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

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. Reflect on a time when you faced a challenge that seemed insurmountable. How did you respond? Did you rely solely on your intellect, or did you tap into a deeper source of wisdom within yourself?
  2. Consider the role of fear in the story. How did fear affect the son's perception of the situation, and how did he ultimately transcend it? Have you ever experienced a similar transformation in the face of fear?
  3. Explore the theme of trust in the story. How did the son learn to trust his instincts and intuition, even in the midst of uncertainty and danger? Have you ever had to rely on your intuition in a challenging situation?
  4. Contemplate the idea of mastery as something that arises from a place beyond intellectual understanding. How does this concept resonate with your own experiences of learning and growth?
  5. Ponder the role of spontaneity and intuition in the son's actions. How did he access a deeper level of awareness that allowed him to respond creatively and resourcefully to the challenges he faced?
  6. Consider the father's guidance to his son about the nature of mastery. How does his teaching transcend conventional notions of learning and expertise?
  7. Reflect on the idea that true mastery arises from a state of no-mind or meditation. How might this principle apply to other areas of life beyond thievery, such as art, science, or relationships?

Explore the theme of empowerment in the story. How did the son's journey from fear to empowerment mirror your own experiences of growth and self-discovery?

Contemplate the significance of the son's encounter with the woman servant and his unexpected actions in the cupboard. How did this moment symbolize a deeper level of awareness and resourcefulness within him?

Consider the broader spiritual implications of the story. How does it challenge our understanding of mastery, intuition, and the nature of reality? What personal truths or insights can you glean from this tale?