The old woman and the pencil stub

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’.

This story was taken from a talk by Trevor Leggett