The Stone Sermon

In the Lotus Sutra (one of the old ones), there is the story about a sort of Buddhist prodigal son. He is not actually prodigal, but he wanders away from the King’s palace when he is small and forgets. And then he wanders back again when he is much older — as a beggar. The King recognizes him from within the palace and sends out a guard to bring him in. But the beggar runs away when he sees the guard. So the King has to take him on in the humblest capacity and in the farthest corner of the kingdom, gradually promoting him up until, finally, he declares: ‘You are my son! You are the heir, and everything here is yours.’

The son has always been the heir to great power and wealth, but because he is a beggar, because he has forgotten his inheritance and who he is, he is afraid when invited to come into the palace. Now, he has nothing. He sees the guard and knows what guards do to beggars — if they simply move them on they are lucky — so naturally he runs away. If he had something, some little money, something to show, some sort of status, he might be able to go with the guard into the palace without fear where he would be recognized.

* * *

These little pieces which I am offering are only words. There is nothing real here. So in a way they are sort of imitation money; they are imitation pearls cast before someone perhaps only one person who thinks that he or she is a beggar. And it might give that person the courage and the faith to make the jump and go directly to the palace.

* * *

The title of this talk is The Stone Sermon. Outside many temples in Japan, there is a stone statue of the Bodhisattva Jizo represented as a child of about six years old in a robe which has very long sleeves. There is no crown or anything like that; he simply has a rod with some rings on it in one hand, and a rosary — and it is all stone.

When a temple is built, it might be quite magnificent. Generally it will be made of wood and have beautiful Buddha images inside made of wood and metal, and splendid golden decorations. Outside, however, there is this stone child, Jizo. When the rain comes, he is not under a shelter. When the storm comes, he is exposed. When thieves come — they may steal anything from the temple

  • but the stone is too heavy for them to carry away. When the temple is burnt to the ground, all the artistic wonders within the paintings, the wooden sculptures and the Buddhas of wood

  • become ashes, and the Buddhas of metal are melted. All that remains is the stone Jizo. If you have ever seen a temple after a great fire, you will see this one thing standing.

Now, the image is speaking to us. There is something in us which is unmoved, untouched by storm and fire, something that cannot be stolen by thieves or struck by lightning. What would that be? There is a message for us here. Part of the message is that the stone Jiz5 will outlive the temple, will outlive the wooden images and the decorations. We can say, ‘Well, how does this apply to my life?’

One historical example is Bodhidharma who went from India to China by sea and founded Zen there. An Indian tradition has it that he was persecuted in India and almost driven out and that when he did leave, Buddhism began to decay there. When he got to China, on the other hand, it is said that those who had the spiritual eye recognized him, whilst those who did not, saw their interests threatened and they also persecuted him. It is said that they tried to poison him six times, and six times he stopped eating. Six times they bribed the cook, or perhaps threatened the cook, or they got one of their own men in as a monk to act as cook, and six times he stopped eating. He lived to the age of a hundred and twenty. The poisoners all died, of old age. He outlived them like the stone Jizos outliving the storms, outliving the fires, outliving the temple, outliving the people.

A sermon I heard in Japan likened this message, this stone sermon, to a mountain. The preacher said, ‘A mountain attracts storms and rain. Rain comes down on the mountain — with lightning, with thunder — pouring rain on to the mountain. The peak of the mountain is above it, but the slopes, the sides of the mountain, are attacked by the storm. Attacked, yes, but when the storm has passed over, the mountain slopes are fertile, and the streams which run down from the mountain, water the land for a long way around.’ Then he said, ‘Spiritual eminence attracts envy and venom and spite and persecution, but there is something which is above them. Still the persecution comes, but the end result is that the teaching becomes very fertile and gives life to many people and to a large area.’

* * *

The stone, what else is the stone telling us? Jizo, though represented in stone, this stone child, is active sometimes and goes into the hells with his long sleeves. The guardian demons cannot, of course, stop a Bodhisattva going into the hells. There is one he goes into where the souls find themselves to be small children. They are on a sort of river bank where there are lots of stones, and they are building up little pagodas with these stones. They are not sure why they are doing this, but there is a general impression among the children that if they can get these pagodas high enough, somehow they will get out of this hell. When the pagodas get to a certain height, however, one of the demons rushes out with an iron rod and knocks them all down — then the children start again.

Well, this is a parable of our life. We feel that if we pile things up enough, somehow that will get us out of hell. Just a little bit more … Some people’s pagodas are very big — they have got name, they have got reputation, they have got a lot of money and influence — but still they feel there is something more to be added to their pagodas, because they are not out of hell yet. Then, just as they are about to achieve, as they think, their objective, something comes along and knocks it all down.

So Jizo enters that hell and sees the babies building their little pagodas. The demon guards — their teeth are grating together, but they pass him through — they must. And as he passes amongst the children, he stuffs some of them into his long sleeves. Then he comes out with his face as good as gold, like when we were children standing before our parents with sweets in our mouths: ‘Have you been eating chocolate?’ We shake our heads, ‘Oh no!’ The guards cannot challenge him. They look at those bulging sleeves — seems a bit funny — but they can’t search him, and he leaves. The Jizo can take the souls from this hell of meaningless effort and rescue them.

Another lesson from the Jizo is this. He stands in front of the temple by the wayside with his staff and his rosary and his child’s face. And the people come, and the people go. It is a figure of blessing. He never interchanges any remarks or greetings with them — and they pass by. Now, there is a practice in Buddhism of watching passing thoughts. One method of doing this is to take oneself to be the Jiz5 — the stone Jizo, unmoving, blessing — the thoughts coming and going. There is no interchange of greeting, no argument, and no recognition, as they pass. They come and he blesses them all equally without moving.

* * *

Well, this is the first little section on the stone sermon. The illustrations (they are taken from various sources) show how this one thing — if it is meditated on — will begin to speak to us; the stone, this image, will begin to speak to us.

* * *

In the fourteenth century in Japan, one of the great generals wanted to take a Jiz5 image with him and his army. It was a famous image, and he had the idea that if he took this with him, his strategies would be successful. So he applied to the temple, interviewed the abbot, and asked for permission to take the Jizo. The abbot said in a polite way: ‘This will be meaningless and useless for you.’

But,’ said the general, ‘this Jizo has a great reputation and I believe in him, and I would like to take him with me.’

If you take the stone image with you, you will take nothing. This is not the way to take Jizo with you.’

Well then, how do I do it?’

Find the Jizo standing in your own heart — a child, six years old, the staff and the rosary — then you will take him with you.’

* * *

A saying of the Way is this: ‘When you do a right action, don’t cough.’ When I put a gold piece as an offering, I must not flourish it. Don’t cough when you do a good deed, to call attention to it.

* * *

There is a tendency for us to fix on something. We want to have some one definite thing. The the Devil comes along, he sees a house and he sees the name of the owner of the house (which has to be put up outside). Sometimes also there would be a devotional tablet with a spell on it, or something like that. So the Devil sees the name and he sees the tablet, and then he knows what to do to get in. If the actions of the occupants are inconsistent with what is on that devotional tablet, the Devil can get in. So, the trick was to write up the name in ordinary characters, and then on the devotional tablet to write up very complicated signs that looked like Chinese characters, but in fact were not; they simply looked like extremely complicated Chinese characters.

The idea is, then, that the Devil comes along, reads the name and thinks, ‘Oh yes, now the tab … oh! Can’t read that! This must be the home of some incredibly learned and probably holy man, and it would be very dangerous for me to try to get in,’ so he passes on because he can’t read the spell. But of course there is nothing there at all. The idea is to simply fool the Devil by his liking for something definite.

So the Lotus Sutra was regarded by several great Lotus Sutra, to which I referred earlier, has a great name as a sutra. The name, the reputation, the majesty and the sort of magic of the sutra leads gradually to the feeling that this is the one, and this is the only one. Provided there is a name and a fixed thing which we can practise and rely on — this is definite, this is clear — then there is a great tendency for the mind to go to that. Nothing else matters; this is what matters. To know the name is very important and this means to have a concept also.

Now, there are about forty thousand Chinese characters in the total Chinese language. Nobody, of course, can possibly know them all, but they exist. The ordinary educated person knows, or used to know, some four thousand, and then the specialists know one or two thousand in addition in their own field by which they recognize each other like magic passwords. Of course, the Bodhisattvas in China know them all; and the Devil knows them all too! He’s been around, and he’s got these forty thousand off — or he thinks he has!

One of the ways of baffling the Devil could be seen occasionally in rural Japan. The idea is that sects in Japan as the one definite and reliable thing. And a saying went round Japan in about the fourteenth century (and for all I know still is) that in these degenerate days the dharma has become polluted, that people might try to attain the dharma from all sorts of traditional sources, but it is polluted; it has been poisoned and Buddhism is falling deeper and deeper into degeneration and decay, so the dharma must be strained through the Lotus Scripture. All the defilements will then be strained off and you will have the pure dharma. Therefore, study the Lotus , and the Lotus Sutra alone!

Well, a man — it doesn’t say he was of the Lotus Scripture persuasion (perhaps he was just someone who thought he would have a bit of fun)

  • took this idea to a Zen master and said to him, ‘The Lotus Scripture — people are saying now that the dharma has become polluted and the only way to get the true dharma is to strain it through the Lotus Scripture. Do you agree with this in your Zen sect?’

Oh yes, it’s a fine teaching. Just one more thing

  • strain off the Lotus!’

He meant that it is a fine thing to have a practice, but the idea that this, and this alone contains everything, must be strained off.

* * *

We tend to get carried away by irrelevances. I knew a very learned scholar who had studied Sanskrit and Pali from the philological point of view. But gradually he became interested in what was in those languages as distinct from the grammar and the borrowings of the vocabulary from the Dravidian and other sources. So he asked me one day whether I could suggest a teacher or a place for him to go to in order to study Indian Buddhism or Vedanta. He didn’t much care which it was, so long as he did some of the training he had been reading about.

Looking at him, I said, ‘On no account study Indian Buddhism or Indian Vedanta.’

He was very surprised by this: ‘What, then?’ ‘Study Japanese or Chinese Buddhism.’

But I already know many of the Sanskrit and Pali texts. I know a great deal of the history; I know a lot of the Indian Buddhism; and yet you are saying leave all that?’

So I told him that, in my opinion anyway, if he took a teacher of the actual practice, every time the teacher opened his mouth, he (that great scholar) would criticize him. If the teacher came from Bengal, for instance, he would be pronouncing maitrl as moitrl (it is the way they pronounce it in Bengal). And every time the teacher exhorted him to practise friendliness (moitrl), the first of the Brahma Viharas, he would think, ‘Oh dear, oh, that hurts, oh!’ He would not be thinking ‘friendliness’; he would only be thinking that it was a mispronunciation of maitrl and a replacement of that diphthong with another diphthong which does not and cannot exist in classical Sanskrit at all! Then, again, when the teacher said that maitrl is the first of the Brahma Viharas (the four Brahma Viharas which are supposed to be very ancient in Buddhism), instead of thinking of these four Brahma Vihdras — friendliness, compassion, cheerfulness with somebody who is happy, and indifference to someone who is evil — he would be thinking, ‘Oh no! These aren’t Buddhist in origin at all. They are found in the firstpada of Patanjali’s Yogasutradarsana. The teacher is wrong!’ He would not be thinking of the content, but only of the pronunciation and the historical associations. ‘So,’ I said, ‘much better to study Chinese or Japanese Buddhism where you will know nothing whatever, and you can come forward like a child and actually learn something.’

* * *

Instructions are given, and often we cannot understand the reasons for them. There are many practices for which only experience can tell us the reasons for the form of them, but the intellect — especially of people who are proud of their intellect — demands an explanation. So occasionally reasons are invented to satisfy the mind of those who demand reasons for everything. When a technique is explained to Japanese judo students, they accept it and practise it for a few months. Then, when they have had experience in that movement, it can be explained to them why the hand is turned this way and not that way; and they can understand it. But with Westerners, the moment we say, ‘Turn it this way,’ they say, ‘But why not that way? Wouldn’t that be better?’ Well, it is only experience that will provide the true reason, so we sometimes have to invent a series of sort of pseudoscientific explanations which are not really true but which will satisfy them enough to start practising. And then later on they will find out the true reason.

When I was very small, about four years old — and I can still remember it now — we had one of those big clocks in the kitchen which went tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. And I can remember asking my mother: ‘What’s it saying? Why does it do that?’ Well now, it isn’t so easy to explain that tick-tock is what it says, but I was the third son and she had had experience of this sort of question before, so she said, ‘Oh, it says tick-tock because it likes that.’

Oh! Doesn’t it say anything else? Why doesn’t it say anything else?’

And then, again, ingeniously, she said, ‘You know your drum? You like just banging it don’t you? Oh yes, God, how you like banging that drum, just banging it! Well, it’s the same with the clock, it likes saying tick-tock.

Well, I understood that. Yes, liked beating my drum, and it liked going tick-tock, on and on and on … It was a good reason!

Now, recently I have had a similar experience. I have a small computer, the mechanism of which I don’t understand, and I have a lesson once a week. But my computer has an anomaly. In one operation you have to manipulate it in a way which is contrary to the instructions in the textbook. When this first came up I said, ‘Oh, but the textbook says that; why do we have to do thisT And I could see this fellow (he is a young fellow who teaches me), I could see he was thinking, ‘ Y-e-s…’ and then he said just what my mother had said, he said, ‘Well, it likes that!’

We are given various practices and disciplines, and our intellect — especially if we are a bit lazy — will make all sorts of objections. But it is worth remembering that it is unreasonable to expect explanations of things which depend on experience.

We must rely, not on our intellect justifying the practice, but on the experience of the teacher who gives it.

* * *

A teacher once pointed out that there is an instruction in Buddhist training about going on one straight line, about keeping to one thing, and yet at the same time: ‘You’ve got to accept things; you’ve got to be flexible.’ The example he gave was of a spinning top or gyroscope. If you have ever played with a gyroscope as a child or seen one spinning, you will know that its balance is so good that when it is revolving, it can travel down a string on the little notch at its base whilst keeping a balance on that string. It couldn’t do that unless it was spinning. But because it is revolving about its centre, it can keep a perfect balance. And if you blow the gyroscope it will bow, but come back to its balance again; it will give way to passing things, but will come back very strongly to its point of balance and settle itself.

Then the teacher said, ‘In the same way, there is something in the training which keeps on the same line and keeps perfectly balanced, but at the same time it can adapt quite freely and softly to the impulses — the momentary impulses from outside — and adjust to the circumstances. Then it will resume its balance and go forward.’

Another teacher said, ‘The gyroscope adapts gently but comes back firmly,’ and he added, ‘It does not react forcefully.’ Then he gave the example of a man trying to calm a lake, or perhaps the waves in his bath. The man wants the bath water to be calm so he smacks down the waves as they come up. The teacher said, ‘That’s like trying to smack down your thoughts as they arise. But that will just create new ones! If, instead, you simply keep still and watch the waves, they will die down of themselves.’

Once Ananda asked the Buddha, ‘How is it that out of all these countless worlds and all these countless people in this world, the Buddha is giving teachings just to us here? It seems sort of, well, arbitrary. How is it so?’

And the Buddha said, ‘I want to write something. Please get me a reed.’1

Ananda went down to the bank of the Ganges, plucked a reed and brought it back. The Buddha then held it up and said, ‘How many of these reeds do you suppose there are on this stretch of the Ganges?’

Oh-h-h-h…’

And how many do you suppose there are on all the rivers of the world?’

It’s inconceivable, unimaginable.’

And how many do you suppose there are in all the countless worlds?’

Oh, can’t be thought of.’

And yet here and now, this is the reed the Tathagata is going to write with.’

There is a saying about Kobo2 (ad 800) whose calligraphy is regarded, even today, as amongst the greatest examples of this highly developed art: ‘This wonderful calligrapher does not choose his brush. Kobo Daishi, Great Teacher Kob5, does not choose the brush.’ There are several brushes there. Most of us, if we had to write something, would take a good look at the brushes, choose the best one and reject the rest. But Kdbo is the great master and he can write a masterpiece with any of the brushes, however imperfect. Kobo does not choose the brush; he just picks one up and writes the masterpiece with that.

This is extended to mean that just because we are not endowed with great intellect, with great power in the world, with great political adroitness, with great artistic talent, we are to think we cannot manifest the dharma.

* * *

If I begin to think I have great talents, well, then I become a target. And if I begin to think I cannot be bribed . . . Perhaps not now; there is nothing much I particularly want, and nobody is trying to bribe me, but…

A judo champion was offered a quarter of a million pounds to become a professional wrestler. That would today be nearly a million. He accepted and the whole of the judo movement cried, ‘Oh, how disgraceful!’ He had to be expelled from the judo movement which strictly forbids public performance for money.

But when we were all saying how disgraceful it was, we were not ourselves being tempted. Supposing somebody offered me half a million pounds. Well, I am very comfortably placed at the moment. I live in one big room and sleep in a bunk above the kitchen, but I have a rear balcony overlooking the garden of a very pleasant place. Confronted with that amount of money, though, I might start to think, ‘Yes, with half a million . . . No, no, I reject that absolutely!’ And then I might think, ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind a dog! Yes, I would like a dog. I would like a big dog, a Chow or an Alsatian, and that would mean a garden.’ Of course, as I am now, I can’t afford a garden, and there is no temptation at all. But if I’m offered half a million, I could afford a garden and somebody to exercise the dog. And then, who knows? I stand straight now; I can’t be bribed. But perhaps the Cosmic Archer will aim and — pyoo-oo-ooh!

In the same way, I cannot be accused of undue aggression or anything like that. There’s old Cumberbatch at the office, you know, and he’s an absolute tartar — but gradually I’ve become patient with him. Sometimes I even say, ‘Poor old boy! He’s, you know, he’s getting past it so he’s got to sort of exert himself, show off and exercise his power in his last few years.’ I’m getting patient; I’m getting forgiving. Well, they don’t teach it now in judo, but they used to when people got to a fairly high level. There are methods of killing people without leaving any mark or trace. It takes quite a lot of skill, but it can be done. Suppose I suddenly learn that. Now I look at old Cumberbatch — he’s carrying on — and I suddenly think, ‘You know, we could do without him!’ The Cosmic Archer shoots — pyoo-oo-ooh! I’ve been shot.

The teacher tells us that we don’t know what is in our own hearts. Never think, ‘I’m above that; I’m finished with that.’ But don’t get to feel crushed either. Without any of those great virtues or graces or talents, still ‘Kobo does not choose the brush.’ The Buddha did not pick a reed; he just took one that happened to be there. And in the same way, this large bell that I have here is to tell people

  • who are not here and who don’t want to listen

  • about Buddhism. I can go out and I can ring it; I can ring Buddhism into their ears, and perhaps they will listen. But tomorrow somebody will be ringing another bell in the other ear; and then they will move off it. The dharma does not have to be a great noise. People today are starving. We think, ‘Oh yes, they are starving just for food.’ No, they are starving for a spiritual training too. The people who are throwing bombs are not starved of food, but they are starved of a spiritual vision. And the teacher says, ‘When people want to hear, even the tiniest bell will convey the dharma to people who want to hear.’

1They would pluck off a reed, cut it diagonally, and then write with it.

2The founder of the Shingon sect in Japan who also invented of one of the Japanese alphabets and was a master calligrapher.

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