The Broken Tray Koan and Commentary


There once was a little hut called Fei-t’ien, meaning rich field, where a monk lived for thirty years.
(Fugai: Maybe he did not know how to move.)
(Sitaram: Wherever we are is a “rich field” of experiences, Sukkha and Dukkha, in which we may find meaning and solve the Koan of Self. Wherever we are may be a sacred Tirth, if we cultivate the proper mood or bhava.)

He had only one tray made of clay.
(Fugai: Expensive things are not always precious.)
(Sitaram: All possessions are made of clay, in that they are temporary and we must relinquish them at death. We too are clay.)

One day a monk, who studied under him, broke that tray accidentally.
(Fugai: The real treasure appears from the breaking.)
(Sitaram: The real treasure, the only treasure, is non-attachment and the realization of the futility of the fulfillment of any and every gratification. This does not mean that we cease to gratify desires, but only that we cease to view gratification as our goal.)

Each day the teacher asked the student to replace it.
(Fugai: Why do you want another?)
(Sitaram: There is no end to desires. The fulfillment of one desire spawns dozens more. Nor do we ever escape regret.)

Each time the disciple would bring a new one, the teacher threw it out saying, This is not it. Give me back my old one!
(Fugai: I would open my hands and laugh.)
(Sitaram: Nothing ever satisfies us. We can always imagine a perfection which transcends any possible reality. This ability of human imagination to conjure impossible perfection is both a curse and a blessing.)

(Genro: If I were the disciple, I would say, Wait until the sun rises in the west.)
(Fugai: I will search for it before I am born.)
(Sitaram: Desire is the source of all suffering. Even desire for the cessation of desire is itself a desire).

Genro’s Poem

It is broken;
(Fugai: The whole tray remains.)
(Sitaram: The whole tray is our hope, our dream, our memory, our regret.)

Run fast after it.
(Fugai: The sword disappears in the water.)
(Sitaram: As the Gita says, there is never a moment when We cease our activity, nor is there a moment when God ceases activity. Were there such a moment, countless worlds and beings would perish. But we have some choice as to that activity which engages us. Abandon all fruits of activity.)

The disciple cannot understand it.
(Fugai: It has returned to him already.)
(Sitaram: All wisdom is subjective and experiential. Such wisdom can never be translated into words which can substitute for experience and manner of life.)

Call an iron kettle a bell.
(Fugai: You can call the earth heaven . . .what’s wrong?)
(Sitaram: Every word is a finger pointing at the moon, but the finger is not the moon.)



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