One time when the Master was washing his bowls, he saw two crows fighting over a frog. A monk also saw this and asked, ‘Why does it come to that?’ Tung-shan replied, ‘It is a gift for you, honored one’.

Adapted from the Record of Tung Shan, case 98

During this holiday season of gift giving and receiving, it is hard not to enter into the calculus of value: time and treasure spent, thoughts and intentions communicated. Dropping all the math, sometimes the best gifts received may not only be those that have little value, but ones which the giver does not even own.

A few years ago I heard a touching interview with the writer Jeanette Walls, who grew up in a wandering family that for a time was homeless. Her father was often unemployed, drunk and sometimes abusive toward his wife and children. One of her most cherished childhood memories was a Christmas when she was just five. Her father did not have any money, so as a present he gave each of the kids a star in the night sky. Jeannette chose the bright planet Venus. Years later, at their father’s funeral, her older sister commented that ‘Wasn’t it just like that SOB, to give us something he did not own!’ Jeannette felt very differently.

In the story above, which sometimes translates Tung-shan’s response as ‘it is for your benefit’, the master was giving the monk as a gift the dance of the fighting crows and hapless frog, though he certainly was not the choreographer.

Last week I had lunch with a dear friend and I gave him as a present a stick of firewood, which he seemed to enjoy. I rather like firewood too. I don’t think my father-in-law will notice it missing