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Nagarjuna and the Thief – A Zen Buddhist Spiritual Story by Osho

Nagarjuna and the Thief - A Zen Buddhist Spiritual Story by OshoA great master, Nagarjuna, was asked by a great thief…. The thief was well known over the whole kingdom and he was so clever, so intelligent that he had never been caught. Everybody knew — he had even stolen from the king’s treasury, many times — but they were unable to catch him. He was very elusive, a master artist.

He asked Nagarjuna, “Can you help me? Can I get rid of my stealing? Can I also become as silent and blissful as you are?” It happened in a certain context.

Nagarjuna was the greatest alchemist that the East has given birth to. He used to live naked, with just a begging bowl, a wooden begging bowl, but kings worshiped him, queens worshiped him.

He came to the capital and the queen touched his feet and said, “I feel very much offended by your wooden bowl. You are a master of masters; hundreds of kings and queens are your followers. I have prepared a golden bowl for you, studded with beautiful diamonds, emeralds. Please don’t reject it — it will wound me very much, it will hurt me very much. For three years great artists have been working on it, now it is ready.”

She was afraid that Nagarjuna might say, “I cannot touch gold, I have renounced the world.” But Nagarjuna did not say anything like that; he said, “Okay! You can keep my begging bowl, give me the golden one.”

Even the queen was a little shocked. She was thinking that Nagarjuna would say, “I cannot accept it.” She wanted him to accept it, but still, deep in her unconscious somewhere was the old

Indian tradition that the awakened one has to live in poverty, in discomfort, as if discomfort and poverty have something spiritual in them. There is nothing spiritual in them.

Nagarjuna said okay. He didn’t even look at the golden bowl. He went away. The thief saw Nagarjuna moving outside the capital, because he was staying in a ruined temple on the other bank of the river. The thief said, “Such a precious thing I have never seen — so many diamonds, so many emeralds, so much gold. I have seen many beautiful things in my life but never such a thing, and how did this naked man get hold of it, and how is he going to protect it? Anybody will be able to take it away from him, so why not me?”

The thief followed Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna heard his footsteps, he knew somebody was coming behind him.

Nagarjuna reached the temple. The temple was an absolute ruin, no roof, no doors; just a few walls were left. He went inside a room without a roof, without a door, without windows.

The thief said, “How is he going to protect such a precious thing? It is only a question of hours.” He sat outside the window, hiding behind a wall.

Nagarjuna threw the bowl outside the window. The thief was very much puzzled. The bowl fell just near his feet. He was puzzled: “What has this man done?” He could not believe his eyes, he was also shocked. He stood up — even though he was a thief, he was a master thief and he had some dignity. He thanked Nagarjuna. He said, “Sir, I have to show my gratitude. But you are a rare man — throwing out such a precious thing as if it is nothing. Can I come inside and touch your feet?”

Nagarjuna said, “Come in! In fact I have thrown the bowl out so that you could come in.”

The thief could not understand what he was saying; he came in, he looked at Nagarjuna — his silence, his peace, his bliss — he was overwhelmed. He said, “I feel jealous of you. I have never come across a man like you. Compared to you, all others are subhuman beings. How integrated you are! How gone beyond the world! Is there any possibility for me too one day to attain such integration, such individuality, such compassion and such nonattachment to things?”

Nagarjuna said, “It is possible. It is everybody’s potential.”

But the thief said, “Wait! Let me tell you one thing. I have been many times to many saints and they all know me and they say, ‘First you stop stealing, then anything else is possible. Without stopping stealing you cannot grow spiritually.’ So please don’t make that condition because that I cannot do. It is impossible. I have tried and I have failed many times. It seems that is my nature — I have to go on stealing, so don’t mention that. Let me tell you first so you don’t make it a condition.”

Nagarjuna said, “That simply shows you have never seen a saint before. Those must have all been ex-thieves; otherwise why should they be worried about your stealing? Go on stealing and do everything as skillfully as possible. It is good to be a master of any art.”

The thief was shocked even more: “What kind of man is this?” And he said, “Then what do you suggest? What is right, what is wrong?”

He said, “I don’t say anything is right or anything is wrong. Do one thing: if you want to steal, steal — but steal consciously. Go tonight, enter into the house very alert, open the doors, the locks, but very consciously. And then if you can steal, steal, but remain conscious. And report to me after seven days.”

After seven days the thief came, bowed down, touched Nagarjuna’s feet and said, “Now initiate me into sannyas.”

Nagarjuna said, “Why? What about your stealing?”

He said, “You are a cunning fellow! I tried my best: if I am conscious, I cannot steal; if I steal I am unconscious. I can steal only when I am unconscious. When I am conscious the whole thing seems so stupid, so meaningless. What am I doing? For what? Tomorrow I may die. And why do I go on accumulating wealth? I have more than I need; even for generations it is enough. It looks so meaningless that I stop immediately. For seven days I have entered into houses and come out empty-handed. And to be conscious is so beautiful. I have tasted it for the first time, and it is just a small taste — now I can conceive how much you must be enjoying, how much you must be celebrating. Now I know that you are the real king — naked, but you are the real king. Now I know that you have real gold and we are playing with false gold.”

The thief became a disciple of Nagarjuna and attained to buddhahood.

Osho: The Dhammapada – The Way of the Buddha

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What Is the Spiritual Moral / Meaning of the “Nagarjuna and the Thief” Story?

At its core, this story isn't about the dichotomy of right and wrong, nor is it about the triumph of righteousness over wrongdoing. It delves deeper into the realms of human consciousness, inviting us to explore the intricate layers of awareness and the subtleties of perception.

In the journey of the thief seeking guidance from Nagarjuna, we witness a reflection of our own internal struggles. It's a portrayal of the human condition, where the dichotomy between our actions and our consciousness creates a profound inner conflict.

The master, Nagarjuna, embodies a profound wisdom—an understanding that surpasses conventional morality. He doesn't impose judgments or conditions but offers a path illuminated by consciousness. He doesn't condemn the thief's actions but encourages a conscious approach, inviting the thief to explore the depths of his own consciousness.

This story carries within it the essence of spiritual growth—a journey from unconsciousness to consciousness. It reveals that the true transformation lies not in the external acts but in the awakening of consciousness itself. The thief, driven by habitual unconsciousness, finds himself caught in a dilemma where his actions conflict with his newfound consciousness.

In the thief's journey, we witness the revelation of consciousness. As he attempts to steal consciously, he experiences a profound shift. Consciousness brings forth an awareness that renders his actions meaningless and absurd. In that moment of awakened awareness, he transcends the allure of material possessions, recognizing the futility of his pursuits.

The thief's realization is not merely an awakening but a transformation—a shedding of layers that shroud true understanding. He experiences a glimpse of the profound joy and freedom that consciousness brings—a joy far surpassing the lure of material wealth.

Ultimately, this story encapsulates the spiritual journey—a passage from darkness to light, from unconsciousness to consciousness. It doesn't merely advocate for the cessation of actions but emphasizes the transformative power of consciousness itself. It teaches us that true spiritual growth isn't about adhering to external norms but about delving into the depths of our own consciousness.

Nagarjuna doesn't condemn or judge the thief's actions but offers a doorway to self-realization—a realization that transcends the superficial constructs of right and wrong, leading to an awakening that liberates the soul.

The thief's transformation into a disciple and his attainment of buddhahood symbolize the ultimate triumph of consciousness over unconsciousness. It illustrates that the true treasure lies not in the accumulation of external wealth but in the richness of an awakened consciousness—an awareness that illuminates the path towards spiritual fulfillment and inner peace.

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 the symbolic significance of the golden bowl and its transition from the queen to Nagarjuna. How does this exchange foreshadow the deeper spiritual lessons that unfold in the story?
  2. Consider the thief's initial perception of Nagarjuna based on external appearances and the precious bowl. How does this contrast with his later realization of the true richness that Nagarjuna possesses?
  3. Explore the unconventional response of Nagarjuna in throwing the precious bowl out of the window. How does this action challenge conventional notions of possession and wealth, and what deeper message might it convey?
  4. Contemplate the thief's reaction to finding the bowl near his feet and his subsequent desire to express gratitude by touching Nagarjuna's feet. How does this moment mark a turning point in the thief's perception and understanding?
  5. Reflect on Nagarjuna's invitation for the thief to come inside and touch his feet. How does this gesture symbolize an acceptance beyond societal norms, and what does it reveal about Nagarjuna's compassion and openness?
  6. Explore the theme of integration and spiritual growth as expressed by the thief's admiration for Nagarjuna's silence, peace, bliss, and nonattachment. How does this theme resonate with the reader's own aspirations for inner transformation?
  7. Consider the thief's candid admission about his nature and inability to stop stealing. How does Nagarjuna's response challenge traditional moralistic views and introduce a new perspective on conscious living?
  8. Reflect on the advice Nagarjuna gives to the thief: to steal consciously and report back after seven days. How does this guidance encourage mindfulness and self-awareness, challenging the dichotomy of right and wrong?
  9. Contemplate the thief's realization after seven days of conscious stealing and the impact it has on his perspective. How does this experience lead him to question the meaning and purpose of his actions, ultimately leading to a shift in consciousness?
  10. Explore the transformation of the thief into a disciple of Nagarjuna and his attainment of buddhahood. How does this journey from a master thief to an awakened being emphasize the potential for radical change and spiritual realization in unexpected ways?