Cloth against cloth, or stone against stone

Cloth against cloth, or stone against stone:
No clear result, and it is meaningless.
Catch the flung stone in the cloth,
Pin the wind-fluttered cloth with a stone.

This verse comes in a scroll of spiritual training belonging to one of the knightly arts in the Far East. In these traditions, instruction is given in the form of vivid images, not in terms of logical categories; it is meant to be a stimulus to living inspiration, not dead analysis. The apparent exactitudes of logic turn out to be of very limited value when applied to life, because then the terms can never be precisely defined.

In the verse, the catching cloth stands for what is technically called ‘softness’, which is not the same as weakness; the stone stands for hardness, not the same as strength.

Softness has a special meaning: it is not merely giving way or doing nothing. There is a strength in softness, but it is not the hard strength of rigidity which has an inherent weakness, namely incapacity to adapt.

There is another verse which illustrates these distinctions:

Strong in their softness are the sprays of wisteria creeper,
The pine in its hardness is broken by the weak snow.

How do these things work in practice? Here is an example from one of the schools of self-defence. You stand on the edge of a cliff and suddenly you see a powerfully built man rushing at you with outstretched arms to push you off. However you may brace yourself, the impetus of his rush will overcome your resistance, and after a brief check you will inevitably go over. To brace yourself is hardness, and it loses to greater hardness. This is meeting stone with stone. Yet if you do nothing, but just stand there – weakness – he will easily push you over.

Now suppose that just before his arms touch you, you fall in a heap at his feet. His impetus, not meeting the expected resistance, carries him on unopposed; he trips over you, and goes over himself. This is softness and it defeats hardness. Softness is controlled, skilfully directed, inwardly calm, and prompt. To rate as true softness, it has to be effective in application.

Softness must be carefully distinguished from weakness. In the second verse, the snow falls on the wisteria creeper. When it piles up a little, the flexible creeper bends and the snow drops off. It should be noted that the creeper does not give up its root. It retains an inner integrity, but is able to give before the external pressure by changing its posture, so to say. The branches of the pine tree, however, stiffly retaining their fixed attitude, hold the snow as it piles up, and they may be broken. (The fact is sometimes a surprise to those who have never seen it happen.)

Hardness too has a role. but it has to be used skilfully, just so much and no more. Pin the wind-fluttered cloth with a stone’: the cloth unguided by human hands stands for weakness, and then the hardness of the stone is needed to hold it steady against the wind.

What is the application in life? ‘Cloth against cloth, stone against stone: no clear result, and it is meaningless.’ The sense is, not to meet weakness with weakness, nor oppose hardness with further hardness.

Do not meet cloth with cloth. They are those who, when they become aware of some undesirable characteristic in themselves which hampers their development, say with lethargic resignation, ‘Well, that is how I am.’ Sometimes they say, ‘That is how God made me – it is His will.’ This is meeting weakness with further weakness, and as the verse says, there is no result and it is meaningless.

Some IQ tests have shown Chinese and Japanese children as the best in the world at them. If it is accepted that to solve such little brain-teasers is important for life, the answer for the rest of us is to work harder. The weakness, if it exists, is not to be indignantly denied or resented, but overcome by controlled and skilful hardness. Many great champions in sport began with an inferior natural endowment; they took it as a challenge, and finally surpassed the ‘naturals’, most of whom get their successes too early, become complacent and do not practise enough. Maria Callas did not have a first-rate natural voice: she trained a second-rate instrument. But the intensity of training gave her performances a magnetism which great natural singers have often lacked, and her impact on the world of music was enormous. Michelangelo was early on producing juvenile masterpieces, but the works attributed to Leonardo’s youth do not foreshadow the genius that was to come; he drew it forth out of himself by persistent endeavour – ‘ostinato rigore’ as he says in his notebooks.

The hardness of the stone of will is absolutely necessary to pin the mind-cloth, fluttered by a wind of feeling of inherent limitation. The experience of spiritual teachers is that there are almost infinite potentialities in the mind of each man, which can be unfolded by faith and persistent application.

Again, when the gale of desire, whipped up by conventional acceptance – ‘everyone is doing it’ – tries to bear away all self-control, reasonings and counter-persuasions are often helpless; the stone of will to follow tradition must be used to hold it steady. Observation, too, shows how a released cloth, riding on the wind, seems at first free and glorious in its flight, but rain comes, and the sky-borne cloth begins to fall. It catches on a bramble. Now when the wind blows more, it is torn. Finally it always ends up, sodden with slime, in a ditch. The cloth that has been pinned by a stone is not carried away; it remains clean and useful, perhaps to fulfil itself one day by washing the face and hands of a bodhisattva.

Whether it is an inner wind or an outer wind that blows, the cloth of mind has to be held firm by the stone of will. Do not meet cloth with cloth.

Now the other case: do not meet stone with stone.

A young boy loses his father and finally enters a training monastery to try for spiritual realization. An elder pupil resents his keenness, persecutes him, and one day hits him hard on the arm with iron tongs. As it happens, this comes to the notice of the abbot. What is to be done? This is, so to say, a stone flung at the very heart of the young aspirant: a spiritual training centre, and then an actual physical attack by another pupil.

One way would be for the teacher to transfer the boy to another temple for a time, until the elder pupil had finished the obligatory three years training and left. That would be meeting the situation, the flung stone, with weakness. It does not catch the stone at all, but runs away.

Another solution would be to say, ‘You must simply endure this. All the spiritual heroes of the past have endured such persecutions.’ The teacher speaks from the heights: ‘Sit here beside me and let us meditate on endurance.’ This meets hardness with hardness, stone with stone. It can work, but it is liable to produce a hard character.

What other method is there? How is the stone of persecution to be caught in the cloth? How is softness to be applied here? One answer is given in ‘Iron Rods’. The teacher finds a means to come down from the mountain-top, and really sit beside the pupil in his distress.

© Trevor Leggett