An old lady who every day used to take her little grandson to pray at a Buddhist altar5 min read

There is a story about an old lady who every day used to take her little grandson to pray at a Buddhist altar. One day the boy noticed the candlesticks on the altar, which were in the form of a crane and a tortoise. He opened his eyes very wide and asked: ” Granny, why are the crane and the tortoise there? ” The grandmother replied: ” Well, you know, the crane is supposed to live for a thousand years and the tortoise for ten thousand, and they’re very lucky creatures, and here they are on the beautiful Buddha altar, like the Pure Land paradise.” The little boy asked: ” When the crane’s thousand years are over, what happens to him then? And the tortoise, when his ten thousand years are gone, what happens to him then? ” She said: ” What big questions for such a little boy! Surely you know that. After a thousand years, the crane dies, and the tortoise after ten thousand years dies.” The grandson opened his eyes wide again and asked: ” After they die, where do they go?” The old lady was getting out of her depth, but she couldn’t say she didn’t know, so she said: ” I’ll tell you. The crane and the tortoise are lucky creatures, and the moment they die they go to the Pure Land.” Her grandson’s eyes were like saucers as he asked: ” Granny, when the crane and the tortoise go to the Pure Land, what happens then? ”                The old grandmother was now in deeper than ever, but she said firmly: ” This little boy doesn’t know anything, it seems. Why, when they go to the Pure Land, they turn into candlesticks! ”

The boy innocently swallowed it and subsided. Nevertheless, his question was a penetrating one, and how is it to be answered? The question remains for us. Certainly it seems all right to say that when the crane and tortoise go to the Pure Land they become candlesticks, but after they become candlesticks, then what? . . . and then what ? It is not just the problem of the crane and tortoise. When we ourselves go to the Pure Land, then what ? Are we to stand in rows there for ever, like dolls ranged on the shelves of the Pure Land? Do we just sit on the flowers of the lotus-lake there, rocked by the breeze? In short-then what? There is an old popular song:

Your foolish ” then what ? and then what?” The more you ask the stupider you get. But the fact is that we have got to penetrate to the ultimate, beyond all words. The Chinese verse says

By travelling, at last you will come to the end of the stream, By sitting patiently, finally you can see the formation of the clouds.

What happens in the end! Unless we inquire ” what then, what then? ” in our coming and going, and finally rest in the ultimate, lasting peace will be hard to find. Our hopes are always like wanting to climb up a hundred-foot pole. When we have climbed it we have the problem, then what?

Masashige Kusunoki, after his last great battle at Minatogawa when all his resources were spent, was going to turn his sword on himself, but on an impulse rushed with his sword still bloody to Zen master Soshun at the nearby Kogonji temple where he used to attend in times of peace, and asked: ” At the meeting of life and death, what then? Now the last moment has come. This instant when life and death meet, how am I to meet it?”

To which Master Soshun replied: “Cut off both the heads; the one sword gleams cold against the sky ! O Masashige, you are a monster with two heads, living and dying, sprouting from your shoulders. With that sword you bear, quickly cut off both the heads of living and dying. Then that single brilliant sword will be glittering in the heavens.” Masashige could not grasp the meaning, and asked again ” What is the end of it all? ” and the Zen master gave a shout:

” Katsu! ”

The hero broke into a sweat from head to toe as the realization came to him, and galloped back to the battlefield. The story is well-known how after the last furious fight he and his younger brother, vowing to return to serve the loyalist cause for seven more lives, serenely ended their lives here and entered life eternal.

This great cry of ” Katsu ! ” in answer to the “and then what? ” is from the state transcending words. It is from the realm of realizing one’s own nature. Sho-ichi in one of his Zen sermons speaks of the living communication beyond words and phrases. ” The sacred syllables of the scriptures are not mere letters, but the true mind of all living beings. For the sake of the one who has lost his true mind they present various similes and words so that the true mind may be realized and the delusion of birth-and-death may cease. But the one who awakens to the true mind, who returns to the source of his being, is able to read the real scripture. The words are not the real sutra. If we maintain that mere verbal recitation is all, well, are we able to keep warm in the cold weather by saying’ fire ! ‘, or to keep cool in the heat by saying `breeze ! ‘ ? By shouting the word ‘food’ can we satisfy our hunger and be filled ? In fact we do not get warm by calling ` fire ‘ or find whining self-pity will avail. What matters is the present: what are we to do? Many people these days, however urgent a question may be, put it aside and think, ” Well, let’s get on with earning our living.” There is a verse by someone

When hunger and cold are set against love, I blush to say it, but hunger comes first. True, one cannot set aside the stomach; its cry is keen and worthy of our sympathy. We must practise material benevolence, and mutual help. But the great mistake is to think that by providing bread and jobs all our problems can be cleared up. The basic problem is that our present culture, concentrating solely on the conventional and material side and ignoring the mental and spiritual side, ends in tying ourselves in knots, and even in suicide. As a first step in the matter, let me ask: When you get your food and jobs, what then?