"Teaching a Thief" is taken from Kindness, A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom by Sarah Conover and Valerie Wahl (Boston: Skinner House, 2010). Availavle from inSpirit: The UU Book and Gift Shop. All rights reserved.
Bankei was a famous Zen teacher in Japan long ago. Students from all over came to his monastery for months of study and meditation. To make it through such intensive training is not an easy thing: There is much hard work to be done, many hours of meditation, little sleep, and only small, spare meals.
Once during the time at the monastery, a student found that all he could meditate on was his empty stomach. It was also all that he thought about during work and all he thought of even when eating! Finally, he could not stand it a day longer. In the night, ever so quietly, he sneaked into the kitchen, hoping to make off with something tasty and filling. But the head cook—always alert even when asleep—awoke and caught him.
The next morning, the matter was brought to Bankei in hopes that the student would be forced to leave. However much to the group's dismay, Bankei thanked them for the information and acted as if nothing had happened.
Just a few days later, the same pupil was caught stealing food from the kitchen again. The students were even angrier. It was in the middle of the night when the thief was apprehended, but they wrote a petition right there and then to their teacher Bankei. They each vowed to leave the monastery the next day if the thief was not expelled.
When Bankei read the petition the next morning, he sighed. He went outside to the monastery gardens and paced thoughtfully. At last he asked that all the monks and students—including the thief—be brought together. They gathered in the temple hall, becoming quiet when Bankei entered.
"Many of you have come from far away to be here," announced Bankei. "Your hard work and perseverance are to be praised. You are excellent, dedicated students. You have also clearly demonstrated that you know wrong from right. If you wish, you may leave this monastery and find another teacher. But I must tell you that the thief will remain, even as my only student."
The students were appalled! A murmur of discontent hummed about the room. How could their teacher ask them to leave?
Who had done the wrong thing? Only the thief! Feeling anger of the other students, the thief in their midst hung his head in disgrace.
"My friends," Bankei gently continued, "this thief does not understand the difference between right and wrong as you do. If he leaves, how will these things be learned? He needs to stay here so he can also understand."
When the thief heard these words, he felt profoundly moved. Tears sprung to his eyes. But even through his shame in front of the others, he felt Bankei's deep compassion. He knew he would not steal anymore.
Bankei ended his speech. He left the hall, leaving the students to make their individual decisions. The thief immediately took a spot on a meditation bench and set about meditating. Many of the students stood right up to leave the monastery. Somewhat confused by Bankei's speech, they discussed things among themselves. All except for the presence of one student—the thief—the great hall emptied for a time.
When Bankei returned an hour later, it was so quiet he assumed all the students had left, just as they had vowed. But much to his surprise, every last student had returned. All were quietly sitting, composed in meditation. The wise and kind Bankei smiled at such a wonderful sight.