The Japanese Master and the House

About twenty years ago, my architect brother shared with me a legend from the Japanese tradition that was meaningful to him. This story made a big impact on me as well, and I have shared it many times over. This is the story:

“A long time ago In Japan, there was a seeker who went to an
enlightened master. The master told him to build a house. He worked
really hard, and it took him a long time. Finally, it was finished.

Shockingly, after looking at the house from top to bottom, the master told him to tear the house down. The seeker was crushed and confused, but he grudgingly tore it down. After a few days, the master told him to build the house again.

The seeker rolled up his sleeves and put his whole heart and mind into it. The thatched roof curved gently up to the heavens.  The interior was made of fine wood, bamboo, silk, and rice straw mats. He knew that he master would be most pleased.

The master came to see this new house, nodded to himself as if he was in a private conversation with the ethers, and told the seeker to tear down the house.

This went on and on until the 10th house was built. When the master told him to tear it down, the seeker finally refused and ran away to look for a new master who could be possibly more helpful and less insane.

He found a new master. However, when the new master found out that he had left his old master, the custom dictated that he must send him back.

When he met his old master again, he begged with tears and asked, "Why did you do this to me...asking me to build houses and then tear them down? What is the
purpose?" The master said, "You are the houses, and the houses are you. If you would have torn down the 10th house, you would have been free.’"

This story speaks of starting over and of the fortitude to stay on the paths that we embark on despite the challenges that may arise. It also reminds me of how we keep trying to build our perfect houses and perfect lives. Then they crumble, and we have to rebuild. How many houses, dreams, stages, iterations have we built up that have then been torn down?

If we can learn to trust in providence/universe/consciousness/our higher power/God, and try to trust that everything is unfolding for our own upliftment (even though it may not always look that way), we may come closer to the peace, love, and freedom that we seek.

Each day is a new opportunity, a fresh start, a new house to build that will gently crumble with our nightly dreams. We have to stay the course and give each day, and each chapter of our lives, our best.

The ancient Rig-Veda says:

“May you awaken like the sun at daybreak,

ready to make your sacred offering.

Set forth with delight, like a pilgrim on his journey.


O heroic one, move forward with resolve

to make this sacred offering of yourself to life.

May you plant the banner of victory

in the service of humankind.”


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