The Two Things Required

(Note: These Zen stories some times take many different forms, and change over time. I cannot seem to find the original source of this story. I first read this story likely 10-15 years ago, and it has stuck with me, but if someone knows, please email and I will update this page accordingly. Thanks.)

The Conversation

There once lived a young man who was very despondent and unsatisfied. He went to visit a Zen center to inquire about studying Zen. “You must know that I am quite useless,” the boy explained on meeting the abbot.  “I have never committed myself to anything for any length of time, and I have no real skills. But I want to learn Zen and I wonder if there is any way for someone like me.”

“Well,” said the Zen master, “there is, but it is not easy. First, tell me what you have you studied?”

“Not much. I grew up wealthy so I never had to work. The only thing I was really interested in was chess.”

“Ah,” replied the Abbot, and he summoned one of his assistants. “Fetch me a chess board, now,” he commanded, “and bring a very sharp sword too.” To this the young man became quite nervous. What on earth could the Zen master want with a sword?

The Game of Chess

When the assistant returned, the abbot announced, “Now, the two of you will play a game of chess. If you lose,” he said, looking at his assistant, “I will cut off your head, but don’t worry you will be reborn in a heavenly realm. And if this young man loses, I will cut off his head, for he will deserve it. Chess is the only thing he knows how to do and if he can’t win a single game of chess, what use is he?”

The two players were horrified. They hoped he was joking, but one look at the abbot’s face revealed that he was serious.

Once the game started, the young man had never before been so focused. His entire life depended on this game, and his complete attention was on it. As such, he played well, and soon took control of the board. But as he neared victory, he realized the repercussions of a win: his opponent would die. He peered at the abbot’s assistant across from him, and thought of the effort this man had put to studying Zen and the allegiance he had to his teacher that he would embark in such a game of life or death. How much trust he must have in his teacher, the young man thought, it is not fair for him to die. The young man then started intentionally making mistakes to give his opponent the victory.

The Teaching

At this, the abbot knocked over the board. The two players looked at him, aghast, uncertain what was next. “No one will die here today,” the Abbott announced, directing his gaze at the young man. “Only two things are required on the path: complete concentration and complete compassion. You have learned them both here today. You had complete concentration on the game and you had compassion for your opponent.”

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