Good day, team,
The following story is one of my favorites. I don’t know where it came from, and I can’t remember who told it to me, but I often find myself relating it to my clients, friends and family. The story describes a good lesson about who’s responsible that is your challenge this week (it’s a bit lengthy so give yourself some time to read it).
Once upon a time, there was a Buddhist monk who lived in the monastery of the great Buddha. He had lived there for 15 years, and in that time he was privileged to be taught directly by the Buddha, whom he had grown to love as his teacher, his friend and his master.
As was the case with all monks who lived with the Buddha, after a period of time, this monk had students of his own. He was responsible for teaching his students the Buddha’s teachings and for encouraging them to put into practice what they learned.
One day, the monk found himself knocking on the door of the Buddha’s room, in hopes of gaining an audience with him. He stood there with a worried expression on his face, wondering how he would say what he had to say to his teacher. After a few moments, the monk heard the Buddha say, “Come in,” and so he entered.
The room was dimly lit with butter lamps, and the scent of incense wafted up to the wooden rafters of the small and sacred space. The monk approached the Buddha in his most respectful posture, with his eyes downcast and his hands clasped in front of him. The Buddha’s face brightened into a broad smile as the monk came forward.
As the monk knelt in front of the Buddha, he looked at the Buddha’s face and could not hide how troubled he was. This concerned the Buddha, and he asked the monk, “My son, you look so sad and worried, what troubles you?”
With a sorrowful voice, the monk replied, “Dear Master, I have come to tell you that I must leave the monastery because I have failed you.”
The Buddha looked surprised and asked, “What has happened that would make you think so?”
“I have been your faithful student for many years, and in that time I have partaken of your wonderful teachings and friendship. In doing so, it has been my responsibility to impart to others what I have learned from you to carry on your teachings. I have worked diligently over the years with my students to do that. But in one case, I have failed miserably. One of my students seems to be sincere and hard working much of the time. He meditates regularly, attends to his duties in the monastery kitchen, and even helps the other monks when they don’t understand some of the teachings. He has a loving nature and is very smart. But just when I think he has been doing all the right things, I discover that he has gone into town and been found drinking with the townspeople, playing cards late into the night and even visiting the house of prostitution on occasion. When he returns he asks nothing but forgiveness and swears that he will not do these things again, but it has happened four or five times now, and I don’t see any way to help him change his ways.
“At first, it made me angry, and, although I forgave him, I resented his behavior. But then as I worked to feel compassion for him, I realized that it was really not his fault at all but actually my fault that he was prone to these indiscretions. He is in my keeping, and I have failed him. Worse than that, I have failed you by not being able to prevent him from veering off his spiritual path. So I finally realized that he would be better off with someone else as his teacher and I must leave this holy place, since I have not been able to carry out my greatest responsibility as your devoted student. ”
The Buddha looked upon the monk with great compassion. He could see that the monk was in great pain and that coming to this decision had been extremely difficult for him.
The Buddha reached behind him where a small ginger jar was resting on his tea tray. He picked up the ginger jar and held it out to the monk.
“Take this ginger jar,” he said, “and for three days do your most earnest and devoted work. Fast, meditate and serve your fellow monks, and when three days are done, return and give the ginger jar back to me.”
The monk’s expression immediately changed to reflect his feelings of hope and salvation. Was it possible that he might be able to stay if he was able to do what the Buddha requested? There must be some magic to what the Buddha was asking, some kind of absolution that would occur if he did all the right things over the next three days, so that he could stay and continue to live the life he had grown to love so much. Perhaps by doing these things, his student would see how important it was to be perfect in one’s behavior and would change his ways as well. Whatever the solution was, the monk was relieved to think that by doing what he was asked to do, all would be well.
He eagerly stood, took the ginger jar from the Buddha and bowed to him, while exclaiming how grateful he was for the Buddha’s compassion. As he exited the room, he looked to the next three days as his opportunity to redeem himself and left the Buddha with hope in his heart.
For the next three days, the monk did all of his best work. He fasted, he meditated twice as much as usual, he offered his assistance to his fellow monks and even went into town with his begging bowl and shared what he had been given with some of the town’s poorest. At the end of three days, he felt purified and hopeful that upon hearing that he had done such good work, the Buddha would assure him that he could stay at the monastery and that his student would no longer behave badly.
He returned to the Buddha’s doorway on the morning of the fourth day and knocked.
“Come in,” said the Buddha.
The monk entered the room with a large smile on his face, holding the ginger jar tightly to his chest. He approached the Buddha with a renewed vigor, and as he sat across from his teacher, he carefully put the ginger jar in front of him, and bowed his head respectfully.
“My son, have you done as I asked you to do?” the Buddha inquired.
“Yes, Master. I have fasted and meditated. I have helped my fellow monks and given my offerings to the poor. My heart is cleansed with love and compassion. And I am returning the ginger jar to you, as you asked me to.”
The Buddha smiled. He said to the monk, “Give me the jar.”
The monk reached down, picked up the jar and handed it to the Buddha.
But the Buddha didn’t take it.
The monk was puzzled. He held the jar out even closer to the Buddha, but still the Buddha wouldn’t take it. The monk thought, oh dear, perhaps I have done this wrong. Did I hear his instructions correctly? He asked me to return the jar after three days of doing my best work, and I am doing what he asked. But he is not taking the jar.
The monk became more and more uncomfortable as the moments passed and still the Buddha did not take the jar. After some time, the monk stood up and walked backwards to the door. Perhaps he had come into the room with too much pride in all the work he’d done. I know, he thought, I’ll go out and try again, this time with the right amount of humility. He quickly exited the room, stood on the other side of the door for a moment to collect himself, and knocked again.
“Come in,” said the Buddha.
This time the monk entered the room with his eyes downcast and his head bowed in reverence to his master. He clasped the jar to his chest as he slowly made his way across the room and knelt in front of the Buddha, carefully making sure that his head was below that of his master as he sat on the floor.
The Buddha again said, “Give me the jar.” And the monk complied.
But again the Buddha would not take the jar, and the monk was even more puzzled as he sat holding the jar out in front of him without a response from his teacher.
Smalls beads of sweat began to gather along the brow of the monk’s forehead as he struggled to figure out what he was doing incorrectly. After some time, he again rose and hurriedly exited the room. Standing now on the other side of the door, the monk desperately tried to figure out what he was doing wrong. All was at stake here, and, although he thought he had done what was requested of him, something was obviously not right, because the Buddha was not taking the jar.
As he thought upon this, he suddenly realized what the Buddha was trying to teach him. A small tear fell down his cheek, because the realization greatly saddened him. But he was also grateful for the clarity it brought. Now, he knew what he had to do.
He knocked one last time on the Buddha’s door.
“Come in,” said the Buddha.
This time, the monk entered the room on his knees. He wanted his master to know that even though he was not worthy of staying, he loved the Buddha more than he could say and that whatever humility and respect he could show him was the least he could do. He approached the Buddha and set the jar down in front of him.
With bowed head and tears in his eyes, he said to the Buddha, “Dear Master, I now understand why you would not take the jar. You are trying to show me that I cannot do the simplest of things. Just as I cannot teach my student. I was too prideful in thinking that I had done all that you asked me to do with great success for three days. And then, the simplest thing you requested of me—asking me to take the jar, keep it for three days and afterward return it to you—I could not do. With this simple jar, I have seen the great lesson you are trying to teach me. I am not worthy to be your student, and I must leave. Thank you for all that you have given me and for using a simple ginger jar to show me that I am not worthy to stay.”
The Buddha sat silently. After a few minutes, he said to the monk, “Give me the jar.”
The monk was beyond reasoning and picked the jar up to hand it to the Buddha without any thought in his mind about what any of it meant. He was broken-hearted that this might be the last time he would be in the presence of his master.
Still, the Buddha did not take the jar, but this time, he asked the monk a question. “Tell me dear, monk, if you hand me the jar, and I don’t take it, who does it belong to?”
The monk sat with the jar in his hands, wondering what the Buddha was asking him. After a few moments of confusion and frustration, the monk realized that he was still sitting there holding the jar.
“I guess it belongs to me,” replied the monk.
The Buddha smiled. “Yes, the jar belongs to you. And just as it is when your student brings you his bad behavior and his apologies, if you don’t take them, who do they belong to?”
Suddenly, the monk looked at the ginger jar. If the Buddha didn’t take it, it still belonged to him. And if he didn’t take his student’s indiscretions, they didn’t belong to him either, they belonged to his student.
A smile broke out on the monk’s face. Tears of joy replaced those of sadness. He understood that he didn’t need to leave the monastery, his teacher and his friends. And he didn’t need to take his student’s problems, his bad behavior and his apologies. All of that belonged to the student, not to the monk. If the monk took them from the student, he was not only doing a disservice to himself but also preventing the student from taking responsibility for himself.
The Buddha said to the monk, “Take this ginger jar back to your room. Place it where you can see it each day to remind you. We do not do ourselves or anyone else a favor by taking on what is theirs. Each is responsible for his own.”
As the monk left the room, he hugged the jar closely to his grateful heart.
Your challenge this week? Examine who brings you jars full of their stuff for you to fix, excuse, hang on to or take ownership for. Ask yourself, does this really belong to me, and if I take it, does it prevent this person from dealing with what is really his or hers to begin with? Do I really want to take this on if it doesn’t belong to me in the first place? Remember the ginger jar.
Have a good week!
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