There is a story that was told in times long past about two brothers that aspired to join a monastery situated in the mountains above their small village in Japan. These monks were not Buddhist, nor Jainist, nor Vaishnava, nor Christian. They had their own beliefs and practices, of which I will tell more of later. But generally they pursued four tasks.

First, they meditated on the true nature of virtue, and sang songs in its praise.

Second, they lived in severe austerity and self-denial so that they might not be tempted by worldly distractions.

Third, they gave moral instruction to any who visited the monastery in search of it.

And fourth and finally, they worked in their rice paddies and carried to market sacks of rice cakes, which they sold for a pittance on which to live.

The people of the village were not all of the same mind about the monks who lived so close by. In times of famine, all appreciated the sacks of rice cakes which could be had cheaply or (in the most dire times) at no cost at all. Everyone in the village who was over the age of ten could remember at least some dark winter during which there was little to eat besides those rice cakes.

But rice cakes are easy to agree on. The rest of the monks' daily program was not so universally appreciated. Some in the village grumbled that the monks should spend more of their day in tending the rice paddies so that they could have more to share with the village. For even the monks' rice cakes were not always enough to sustain life during the very worst famines, and in those years there were many funerals.

But there were also those who saw the value of the monks even beyond the rice cakes. These understood the value of meditation, of songs of praise, of austere living and self-denial, and of moral instruction. The two brothers in this story were such as these, and that is why they hoped to join the monastery themselves.

The two brothers were named Itsuki and Haruto, the older and the younger, respectively. For years they had waked while it was still dark and walked up the treacherous mountain path from the village to take instruction at the monastery, and every night after the sun had set they walked back down again to sleep in the house of their father and mother. In spring, summer, autumn, and winter alike--whether the path was lashed by rains, baked by the sun, or drifted over with snow up to their thighs--each morning saw the two brothers at the monastery.

At last, the two brothers had reached the end of their period of initiation and it was time for the final test to see if they would be accepted among the monks. They sat cross-legged before all the brothers of the monastery (all those who were not so deep in meditation they could not be disturbed, that is) in the breezy mountaintop temple, braziers of incense burning around them. Brother
Kenshin, who had the leadership of the monastery in hand until such time as he grew too weary of worldly affairs, indicated the apparatus of the final test.

"You have seen this before," said Brother Kenshin, "and I need not tell you what it is." The apparatus was not much to look at. It was simply a wooden dowel driven into the ground, on the top of which was delicately balanced a sturdy reed in a bow-like curve. On one end of the reed was fixed a small leaf cup, and on the other was fixed a bit of charcoal as might be used to scribble on parchment. Around the base of the apparatus was a large wooden disc, the perimeter of which was divided into 48 sections of equal size, and in each section was inscribed one hiragana kana.

There are fine technical distinctions which I do not intend to delve into, but it is enough to say that hiragana is a syllabary--a written language in which characters represent syllables or sounds, one per each sound--and that any native Japanese word can be spelled out using some combination of the 48 hiragana kana. It was the purpose of the apparatus, through some divine power, to take an offering of blood from an initiate in the leaf cup and then to foretell with certainty the manner of the initiate's ultimate cause of death with the bit of charcoal. By thus reading the deaths of the initiates, the monks could learn much about the lives that would precede them.

Itsuki, the older brother, took the test first. He approached the apparatus on his knees until he could reach out and touch the leaf cup if he chose. Brother Kenshin handed him charcoal and parchment, and for some moments Itsuki meditated. At last, he wrote many kana on the parchment, then folded it up and handed it back to Brother Kenshin. Then Itsuki meditated again.

A deep silence fell over the temple. This was the ultimate test of willpower, in which Itsuki would prove the mastery of his mind and spirit over the frailties of his body. When he felt he was in the proper mode of thinking, he suddenly picked up a sharp shell which had been lying on the wooden disc and sliced his hand open. Holding his hand above the leaf cup, he allowed several drops of blood to fall.
Then Itsuki retreated back to where he had been sitting before the test.

At first, nothing seemed to happen. But then, slowly, the curved reed lying atop the dowel began to quiver. The reed had been perfectly balanced at its exact equilibrium, so even the additional weight of just a few drops of blood was enough to put it into motion. Gracefully, the end of the reed with the leaf cup dipped, and the entire reed pivoted on top of the dowel as it did so. But when the leaf cup reached the ground and struck the wooden disc, the reed rebounded in the other direction. Now the leaf cup rose while the charcoal dipped.

Several times the reed swung back and forth, all the while pivoting on the pointed tip of the dowel. Each time the charcoal touched the wooden disc, it left a mark in one of the sections that contained one of the hiragana kana. In all, the charcoal made marks on three of the kana sections before the reed came to a rest.

Itsuki, of course, remained sitting, as though indifferent to the entire test. But after the reed came to rest, Brother Kenshin came forward and read off the kana in the order that they had been marked. "Ka," he read. "Ki. Tsu." Read together, the kana spelled "starvation".

Now Brother Kenshin unfolded the parchment that Itsuki had written on before the test. Inside was written, "After wearying of the material world, I shall die by denying myself food and nourishment of any sort." The assembled monks all leaned in together and conferred briefly. It did not take long before Brother Kenshin turned back to Itsuki and bowed in welcome. Itsuki bowed back as deeply as he could. After displaying such mastery over his own fate, he had been welcomed as a full monk.

After the apparatus had been balanced again and new leaf cup affixed, it was Haruto's turn to take the test. Though he had studied for years with the monks, he was not sure he had the necessary confidence and control to fix his fate as expertly as Itsuki had. He wished he could postpone the test for another year or more, but he and Itsuki had vowed as boys to make the attempt together, on the same day. Haruto could not bear to renege on a promise to his brother.

When Brother Kenshin gave him the parchment and charcoal to write with, he sat and thought for as long as he dared. Itsuki had picked a slow, painful fate for himself, the better to demonstrate his scorn for the world and his own body. Starving oneself took many weeks, during which one grew weaker and weaker every day. It was a true testament to Itsuki's immense willpower that he would be able to complete such a difficult task as his last act on Earth without succumbing to the temptation to eat.

Haruto didn't believe he would ever have the strength for such a feat, so after thinking a moment he wrote this: "After wearying of the material world, I shall die by driving a dagger into my heart." Such a death would take only seconds. If Haruto, at the very end of his life, could not muster the minimal control it would take to plunge a dagger into his own heart, he knew he could never be a fit monk anyway.

Haruto gave the parchment back to Brother Kenshin and then focused his mind on summoning the willpower to commit to this end. It would only happen after many years, after he had learned all he could as a monk, but that didn't make it any easier. It is too easy to half-heartedly commit to an unpleasant future task, to make a false promise even to oneself about something which one does not really intend to do when the time finally arrives. Haruto strove to make a true commitment to his chosen fate, but he could not be sure he was not deceiving himself.

At last, Haruto felt he could wait no longer. He snatched up the sharp-edged shell, slashed his palm, and squeezed his blood into the leaf cup on the reed.

At almost the first drop of Haruto's blood, the reed began to dip and swing. Its performance now was very different from the graceful way it had bobbed after taking Itsuki's blood. Haruto had to crawl back quickly to avoid upsetting the apparatus as it swung wildly around, each end of the reed bouncing violently off the wooden disc. The charcoal marked kana after kana, and it seemed to take forever for the reed to stop moving. At last, the charcoal broke off and the reed unbalanced entirely, slipping off the dowel and spilling the drops of blood collected in the leaf cup onto the wood disc.

Brother Kenshin had watched the antics of the reed gravely, and Haruto could not but feel ashamed. He did not know why he should feel ashamed, but it seemed to him that a fate should be short and demure--not long and full of wild gyrations.

But Brother Kenshin was already reading off the marked kana, spelling out Haruto's fate one syllable at a time. When he had finished, he turned and spoke the phrase again without pausing. "Over indulgence in luxurious gifts."

This time, the monks did not confer. There was no need to, for it was clear that Haruto would never deny the world or the passions of his body. Quite the opposite--he would indulge them so lustfully that the orgy of his life would bring about a surely ignominious death. Burning with shame, Haruto covered his face and began to crawl out of the temple. He would make the long walk back down to the village alone and then disappear into the world.

But then Itsuki spoke. "Wait," he said. Haruto and the monks all turned to Itsuki in surprise. It was odd and almost presumptuous for such a young and inexperienced monk to say anything at a time like

"What is it?" asked Brother Kenshin at last.

"If we send Haruto out into the world, he will quickly fall into the worst of indulgences. He will wreck his body and spirit with strong drink, games of chance, lecherous encounters, opium, frivolous books." Haruto felt his face flame as Itsuki retailed the list of his future failings. "But even though we cannot change his fate, why not keep him here? In the walls of this monastery, a luxurious indulgence would be a mouthful of smoked rabbit or a sip of green tea. Surely it is better to limit his corruption to these small indulgences, rather than allow him to be subject to the monstrous temptations of the outside world."

Brother Kenshin stood without answering for a long time. He seemed to be examining Itsuki's words from all angles. At last, he spoke. "You have heard what Brother Itsuki proposes," he said. "What do you say, Haruto? What would you do here if you stayed not as a monk, but as a slave in the rice paddies?"

"Oh, Brother Kenshin," said Haruto. "I would meditate on the true nature of virtue and sing songs in its praise."

"And what else?"

"I would observe the monks living in severe austerity and self-denial, and strive to follow their example."

"And what else?"

"I would listen to the moral instruction of the monks, whenever they would give it, and strive to correct the faults they find in me."

"And what else?"

"I would work the rice paddies, Brother Kenshin, planting and gathering under the instruction of the monks, and forming the rice into cakes, and carrying them in sacks to town."

Then Brother Kenshin smiled--a rare thing to see in a monk of this order. "Very well," he said.

But though Haruto's heart leapt with joy at the thought of living and serving in the monastery, even as a slave, still Itsuki was not satisfied. "Wait," he said again. Brother Kenshin looked with annoyance at the young monk.

"What is it now?" he asked at last.

"We do not know exactly what the apparatus might mean," said Itsuki. "Is it not possible that a time of deep famine might come, in which not just smoked rabbit and green tea would be called luxurious indulgences, but any food at all? And then suppose that every day during this famine, Haruto took his morsel of rice cake--all the food he had to eat--and gave it to somebody else. Before long, he would die, and it would be the result of over indulgence in luxurious gifts. But in the giving of them, not the receiving."

In almost every text in which this story is told, the parable ends here. The astute student asks what Brother Kenshin did or said in reply, and the teacher replies it is up to us to decide. Did Brother Kenshin decide to let both brothers become full monks, forgoing the test by the apparatus in Haruto's case because of its imprecision? Or did Brother Kenshin stick to his archaic rules, thus sending Itsuki
and Haruto out into the world to make their way together? For it is clear from the story that Itsuki would never leave Haruto, or even allow him to be called a slave.

But this is not the real ending. There is more to the story. For I have traced the story back to the original text it is copied from, and I have found an error. Two leaves of parchment stuck together as the copyist looked through the book, and so the ending of this story was never copied. Then copy after copy, the error was propagated until nobody remembered anymore the true meaning of the story.

Here, now, is the true ending.

"Brother Itsuki, is it not also possible," said Brother Kenshin, "that during this same deep famine that you speak of, that you will hoard up food for yourself in a cowardly way? And is it not possible that the starving people of the village will find out, and will break into your cell, steal your rice cakes, and rip you limb from limb? Would not, then, your fate of starvation be fulfilled, though your life be most

Itsuki bowed his head and said, "Brother Kenshin, I would not--"

"Of course not," said Brother Kenshin. "But no more would your brother Haruto do what you have suggested. The apparatus does not sport with us. It does not give us riddles to solve. It tells us whether we will have the strength to voluntarily abandon this world in the manner we choose when our time comes. You have that strength, but Haruto does not."

Itsuki said nothing. Brother Kenshin now turned to Haruto.

"Brother Itsuki wishes you to be a monk and not a slave," said Brother Kenshin. "Tell me what you will do as a monk here."

"Oh, Brother Kenshin," said Haruto. "I would meditate on the true nature of virtue and sing songs in its praise."

"And what else?"

"I would observe the monks living in severe austerity and self-denial, and strive to follow their example."

"And what else?"

"I would listen to the moral instruction of the monks, whenever they would give it, and strive to correct the faults they find in me."

"And what else?"

"I would work the rice paddies, Brother Kenshin, planting and gathering under the instruction of the monks, and forming the rice into cakes, and carrying them in sacks to town."

Brother Kenshin grunted. "Then you from now on will now be Brother Haruto," he said. Then he turned to Itsuki. "And you from now on will be a monk no longer, but rather the slave that works the rice paddies. For you heard Haruto tell me all he would do as a slave. And even though it was no different than what he or anybody would do as a monk, you could not be satisfied. You would argue for a mere title."

Itsuki bowed his head in shame, for this was true. Brother Kenshin continued: "And you, Itsuki, as a monk would grow prideful and vainglorious. Already, though a monk for barely an hour, you presumed to instruct the brothers, when it would have been better for you to show humility and to learn. Haruto knows he will fall into loathsome ways in the future--this will keep him humble for now. Meanwhile, the title of slave will do the same for you, even though you know will perform great and laudatory works of self-sacrifice in your death. This is not punishment or reward. It is only what needs to be."

And that, readers, is the true ending of the story. It is a difficult ending, for too often we are like Itsuki ourselves. Too often, we would rather the parable end with a clever argument that exposes an injustice or absurdity. We like to see old ways overturned and new ideas put in their place instead.

But this is not a parable that is on the side of justice or logic or progress. Instead, it is a lesson in humility, obedience, and self-denial. To the monks in the story, what is fair is not important. Instead, what is important is to accept the truth about themselves, even if it leads to what we perceive as unfairness. This is perhaps an idea that few people have ever agreed with, but putting such a strange and self-denying idea into practice is what makes these monks different from the rest of us.

The story is ended, but there is yet one question left unresolved, and which it is still up to the reader to decide how it should be answered. It is a question that concerns the copyist who made the original error--himself once a young monk at this same monastery. The question is this:

When were those two pages of parchment stuck together? Did it happen innocently before the young monk took down the book to copy it? Or did it happen only after he had turned the page and seen what the true ending was to be?

For even monks like that--not every one of them is so different from the rest of us all the time.