A thief stayed hidden beside a road, preparing to ambush any unaccompanied traveler. When a lone man came up the road, the thief sprang out to surprise him. “Give up your gold or your life!" said the thief after drawing his knife. "Make your choice.”
“I am an ascetic from nowhere. A sage keeps no gold and nothing of commercial value,” replied the sage. “But I do have something more valuable than any riches of man,” he said, holding up one hand and reaching for his pocket with the other. “I carry a gift that no merchant could ever hope to possess. Something that surpasses all treasures. If I offer it to you, do you promise to spare my life?”
The thief thought for a moment before nodding his consent. The sage pulled something from his pocket to cup it between his hands, then proffered it to the thief. The thief quickly stepped forward to spread the hands of the sage. When the hands were open, the thief saw nothing.
The sage then recited his verse.
“What can be taken from a man?
From he who owns everything, everything can be taken.
From he who owns nothing, nothing can be taken.
What can be given to a man?
To he who owns everything, nothing can be given.
To he who owns nothing, everything can be given.
How can a man be given everything?
He who wants to be given everything must give up everything.
Nothingness gives him everythingness.”
The sage lastly said, “So, you see? He who has no attachments has no need.”
After hearing the empty piety of the sage, the thief became angry. “Easy for you to say! You’ve merely indulged in simplicity. Austerity is a mask for passivity and sloth. You have no responsibility!” The thief gestured behind him. “My wife is deathly sick, and my children are hungry. I already have nothing.” He pointed to the sage. “You are no wise man. To the need of medicine and food, will you only offer words?”
The thief’s reply rendered the sage speechless, and the sage became enlightened to his own uselessness. From that day, the sage vowed not to speak until he had paid recompense to the thief. The sage traded his travel gear to a net weaver, and the two men fished the shores until the thief’s wife recovered and his children were plump.
Good spirituality is more about getting us grounded than it is about granting us ascension to the heavens.