Much like “The Young Archer,” a short version of this tale seems to be a part of every second Buddhist story collection, none of which seem to disclose source information (viewonbuddhism.org).
Spoiler Alert: This is one of the stories found in When It Matters Most.
Back when civil wars rocked feudal Japan, invading armies struck terror as they stormed into towns. Some villagers were forced into service, others killed outright. Buildings and fields representing generations of work were set to ruin in the space of a day.
Which is why the people of this particular village fell into panic when a rider galloped through town, warning of an approaching force.
Meeting in the central square, they quickly agreed that those too elderly to fight should take the children from the village and go into hiding. At all cost, the youngest needed to be kept safe. The rest would remain to face the army.
Having arrived late because of her slow pace, an old Nun from the temple asked the remaining people how they planned to fight. In response, the villagers showed her the weapons they had assembled.
The old woman took one of the spears in her hand, commented on its fine quality and weight. She asked how many of them are trained in its use. No one stepped forward.
She knew in her heart that the army would cut through them as easily as if they were a stand of young bamboo. “In your willingness to fight, you display great courage. At the same time, you will not find triumph in the face of their experience. These men have spent their lives practicing the art of war. All of you must leave with the children and the elderly.”
The people protested that if no one stays to protect the village, the army would take what it wanted and set fire to the rest.
Signalling for the people to settle, the Nun offered, “I will stay and do my best to prevent this from happening.”
Thanking the old woman for her wisdom, but placing little hope in her success, the villagers fled as quickly as possible, making their way into the hills before the arrival of the army.
Sitting on the mat of the open porch in front of the temple, the Nun set out two cups and a pot. She waited.
The village filled with the sound of thundering hoofs before the horses came into sight. The troops were disciplined, entering homes to ensure that the occupants weren’t waiting in ambush. The pillaging wouldn’t begin until the town was secure. It wasn’t long before the old woman was discovered.
Word reached the General that the people had fled, but an old Nun remained. Intrigued, he made his way to the temple.
As the General approached, the Nun showed no sign of submission. Instead, seated, she poured tea. The old woman’s lack of concern irritated the General, who’d become accustomed to inciting fear. With measured reserve, he tipped over the Nun’s cups and pot, one at a time, with his foot. The woman slowly rose. Facing each other, the younger towered over the older.
The General asked, “Are you going to fight me on behalf of your village, old Nun?”
“If it is the only way to save my people,” she replied.
Drawing his sword, the General said, “Then you should get your weapon.”
“I won’t be needing a weapon. I do not intend to harm anyone.”
“Then how will you prove yourself stronger than me?”
“You will decide,” the Nun calmly replied.
“Are you mocking me?” the General’s temper soared. “Don’t you realize that you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye?!”
The Nun allowed but a moment before replying in a still voice, “General, do you not realize that you are standing before a woman who can be run through without blinking an eye?”
Raising his sword, the General saw that the old woman did not flinch. Knowing that if the roles were reversed, he would not do the same, he recognized the superior strength of the Nun in this unusual battle.
The General ordered his army to depart, leaving the village intact. As he was about to leave the temple grounds, he stopped in his tracks, faced the Nun, and bowed.
The people returned to find the old Nun sitting on the mat of the open porch, sipping freshly brewed tea.