Once upon a time on a hillside overlooking the Volga River in Russia, I ran into five little boys. Because I could not speak Russian well and they could not speak English, I took some coins out of my pocket -- Russian coins and American coins -- and laid the rough equivalents side by side: a 10-kopek piece next to a 10-cent piece and so forth. When I had finished, I gave each boy one American coin.

As I walked away from our meeting point, the leader of the group came running after me. He was maybe 10. Solemnly, he reached into his pocket and brought out a piece of string that was about a foot long. It was black-and-white twisted strands and had tassels at either end. He clearly valued it. He gave it to me with a smile. Because of the value I could see he placed on it, I did not want to take the string. But I could not refuse. This was a serious matter.

With regret, I recalled the warnings the tour-group leaders had given: Russians do not give gifts lightly or as political barter. They give gifts from the heart, so do not play the Christmas game, giving only because you think you ought to or because it seems OK at the moment. I was ashamed of myself for being so forgetful, for giving a gift to which I had given less than complete attention. I was ashamed to have been only "kind." I treasured that string for years afterward and treasure it still in my mind.

In Zen, there are words that encourage us -- no giver, no receiver, no gift. To give freely and thoroughly is a wonderful thing, but I think this may not be so easy to do. Habits built up over time are hard to break. I have even seen those who are called Zen masters by others ... their gifts come with strings attached, with expectations, without a smile. But this is their business. My business is responsibility and attention, care that is not just warmed-over sentimentality or chilly you-owe-me distance. It may not be easy to give a gift or receive one, but I think it is part of our practice.

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