A Japanese master of calligraphy retired to the country and he took an interest in the schoolchildren in their education and there was one boy there who was being brought up by his grandmother because both his parents had died and the teacher of calligraphy saw this boy and saw his schoolwork and he told the grandmother, he said: ‘when the time comes he ought to go to college in the capital and sure enough the grandmother made great sacrifices for bringing up the boy and made it clear that she was making great sacrifices and that she did not have very many friends.
People complain a lot if they don’t have many friends. When the time came, the teacher said: well now, he should go to the capital to study, and the president of one of the main universities is a friend of mine and I can write you a letter of introduction and he has a special hostel for students from the country who don’t have any money and I believe that with my recommendation he will accept the boy.
So the grandmother said: well, I shall be very lonely of course but for the boy’s sake I agree.’ So the master said: alright, I will write you the letter of introduction.’
She really expected to see something because this was a great master of calligraphy and he had these rare brushes from China, made with special hairs. But instead of these brushes he took an old pencil stub, blunt, and he just made two little cuts and picked it up and scribbled something which she couldn’t read. And he didn’t sign it or seal it which is absolutely compulsory in Japan. She was so terribly embarrassed but she couldn’t say anything.
He took the envelope and addressed it very carefully to the President. She thought ‘I can’t show this to the President. Anybody could have scribbled this. Anyway, she took it and they went up and the master gave her the money for the railway ticket and when they went in. The President saw them immediately and he was holding this letter of introduction and he said: ‘This is a masterpiece, you know.
He is using an old, blunt pencil but he has such control that he can imitate the brush-strokes. Who else could have done that? I am going to keep this as a treasure and of course I’ll take the boy.’ So he took the boy and she went back. She wasn’t quite as lonely as she expected. People started dropping in and bringing her little presents and talked to her for half an hour.
One day one of them said to her: ‘Do you know why people like me come and see you? I’ll tell you. In the old days you used to complain rather a lot and it was a bit tiring but now you hardly speak at all. But when we leave here after being with you for half an hour, we find we’ve got a new courage and a new sort of inspiration for facing life and I’m only saying this because I want to ask you, what made the change in you?’
So the old lady told her the story about the pencil stub.
She said: you know I kept thinking why did he do it? He had all these wonderful brushes there and could have brushed wonderful things. Why did he do it?
And she said: I kept on thinking; why? why? Pencil stub, pencil stub, and I woke up one morning and I suddenly realised: ‘I am the pencil stub.
My life is practically at an end now. My mind is dull and blunt but there are just two little cuts cutting away my selfishness. The Buddha can write a masterpiece and since then I felt a strength holding me and peace within’.
Different schools have methods for attracting and stimulating the mind and one of these is to set riddles. In the different sects of the Zen, one of them relies mainly on the sitting and the other tries to engage all the faculties of the mind by setting these riddles. This system, as a formal system, arose in China. It is like the parables of Christ. There are parables in the Old Testament but Christ was the first teacher to use them systematically as a method of instruction.
The Chinese are not primarily intellectual people. They are intelligent but they are not terribly interested in intellectual things for their own sake. When the Buddhist logic went to China, it was enormously highly developed in India. The Indian tradition is to rejoice in intellectual subtlety and analysis. The Chinese are not so interested. They only translated one of the books on logic one of the classics on logic. They didn’t translate the others into Chinese. The Chinese are more practically-minded and so they tend to quote from the scriptures without understanding what they were quoting and to get over this, the Zen teachers in China began to formulate these riddles to which there is no answer in the scriptures. You can’t find an answer.
For instance, ‘is there Buddha-nature in a dog?’ Well, the scriptural answer is yes. The Buddha-nature is in everything, isn’t that beautiful. The famous master Joshu was asked ‘Is there Buddha-nature in the dog?’ and he said ‘No’. Well now, students have said this, what does it mean? It is against the main principle of Buddhism. Buddha-nature is everywhere. Why did he say ‘no? What does it mean? Now they set this riddle.
Dr. Suzuki reports he was set such a riddle for three years. He came back with all sorts of answers but he didn’t find them. You can think of clever answers, you can say: ‘Well, you see, Buddha-nature is universal, so the Buddha-nature is not in the dog, the dog is in the Buddha-nature.’ The teacher has a bell and he rings you off. Well now, these riddles engage the mind. You really do start to think ‘Why the devil did he say ‘no’? What does he mean? The two hands make a clap. What is the sound of one hand? Well, you think, it is silence. Then what is the difference between one hand and the sound of no hands? Oh! In these ways the mind can be attracted and when we study holy texts, we should be alert in these cases.
We think, well that does not exist in Christianity. They do but we don’t notice them. Look at the parable of the sower from Mark, from the New Testament. Listen carefully please. When he was alone the twelve and others were around him and questioned him about parables. He replied: ‘To you, the secret of the Kingdom of God has been given but to those who are outside everything comes by way of parables so that, as scripture says, they may look and look and see nothing. They may hear and hear but understand nothing. Otherwise they might turn to God and be forgiven. So he said: ‘You do not understand this parable, how then are you to understand any parable?’
If we think of that, he says: those outside are his general public. Everything comes by way of parables so that they shall look and look and see nothing and listen and listen and understand nothing. Otherwise they might repent and turn to God and be forgiven. What is he doing? That is saying he is teaching in parables so that they won’t understand. Because if they did understand, they might turn to God and be forgiven.
If you look at the books of commentaries on the New Testament, you won’t find much about this. It is conveniently sort of ‘well, you know, perhaps he wasn’t quite on full power when he said this’, but the scriptures are full of these and if we read it with attention, it will come to a realisation in a flash. It is a very good way of concentrating the whole feelings and the mind on a text and that is a great help in these meditations.
We can say: ‘inspirations come but you see the only inspirations you hear about are famous scientists or famous artists or writers or so on’ but we are not Einsteins, except that Einstein was regarded as an absolute fool when he was young. The school almost gave him up and his teacher of mathematics, Minkowski said about him: ‘very poor student, especially weak in mathematics.’ Einstein as a matter of fact only just scraped through his finals. What does it mean about the inspiration, for ordinary people in ordinary life?
This was taken from a public talk by Trevor Leggett
© Trevor Leggett