The Stone Sermon

The Stone Sermon


In the Lotus Sutra, one of the old ones, there is a sort of Buddhist prodigal son. He is not prodigal. He wanders away from the king’s palace when he’s small and forgets, and wanders back again when he’s much older – as a beggar. The king recognises him, when he sees him from the palace, sends out a guard to bring him in, but the beggar, when he sees the guard, runs away, and the king then has to gradually take him on in the humblest capacity in the farthest corner of the kingdom and gradually promote him up and then finally he declares, ’You’re my son, you’re the heir and everything here is yours!”  The son is really the heir to this vast power and wealth, but because he’s a beggar, and has forgotten his inheritance, and who he is, he’s afraid. Although invited to come and claim it, now he has nothing. When he sees the guard he knows what guards do to beggars, if they simply move them on, that’s very lucky, so naturally he runs away.  If he had something – some money, something to show, some sort of status, then he might be able to go with the guard, without fear, and into the palace where he would be recognised. So, these little pieces which are offered, are only words, nothing actual there. In a way, they are sort of imitation money, they’re imitation pearls, cast before someone, perhaps only one person here, who thinks that he is a beggar and it might give him the courage and the faith to make the jump and go direct to the palace.

The title of the talk is The Stone Sermon. Outside the temple in Japan there is a stone statue of the bodhisattva, Jizo, represented as a child of about six years old, in a robe with very long sleeves – no crown or anything like that. The child has a rod with some rings in one hand and a rosary, and it is stone.  When the temple is built, it may be very magnificent. It’s generally made of wood. Inside, there may be many beautiful Buddha images of wood and metal. Splendid golden decorations and outside there’s the stone child, Jizo. When the rain comes, he is not under shelter. When the storm comes he is exposed. When thieves come, they may steal anything from the temple but the stone is too heavy to carry away.  When the temple’s burnt to the ground, and all the artistic wonders in it – the paintings, the wooden sculptures, the Buddhas of wood, the Buddhas of metal are melted. All that remains is the stone Jizo and, if you have seen a temple after a complete fire, there is this one thing standing.

This image is speaking to us. There is something in us which is unmoved, untouched by this storm, by the fire. What would that be? It can’t be stolen away by thieves, can’t be struck by lightning. There’s a message for us. Now, one of the messages is this, that the stone Jizo will outlive the temple, will outlive the images and the decorations.  We can say, ‘How will this apply to my life?’ One historical example is Bodhidharma who went to China by sea and founded the Zen there. The Indian records say, incidentally, that he was persecuted in India and almost driven out of India, and after he was driven out, Buddhism began to decay.  When he went to China, the records in China say those who had the spiritual eye recognised him, but those who did not saw their interests threatened and they persecuted him. It’s said that they poisoned 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 an hundred and twenty. The poisoners all died of old age. He outlived them, like the stone Jizo, outliving the storms, outliving the fires, outliving the temple, outliving the people.

A sermon, which I heard in Japan, likened this message, this stone sermon, to a mountain, and the preacher said, ‘The mountain attracts storms and rain. Rain comes down on the mountain; the lightning, the thunder, pouring rain onto the mountain. The peak of the mountain is above it but the slopes of the mountain, the sides of the mountain are attacked by the storm. But when the storm has passed over, the mountain slopes are very fertile and the streams which run away from the mountain water the land for a long way around’. And he said spiritual eminence attracts venom and spite and persecution. But there is something which is above them. Still they come, but the end result of that persecution will be that the teaching will become very fertile and will give life to many people and to a large area.

The stone, what is the stone telling us? Our western gardens are like our western minds. I say western minds – of course, it doesn’t include anyone here! We tend to see things in terms of triumph or defeat or disaster and our gardens are like this. They are a riot of splendour and colour in the spring and summer, then they become depressing in autumn when everything falls, and in the winter they’re just sad. If you read an account of a garden like Sissinghurst, you will see that. It says in the winter, Sissinghurst, alas, is sad. But the purpose of the Japanese garden is quite different. It’s not to create exaltation with a mass of flowers and brilliant colours and splendid design patterns, Italian garden, symmetrical lake.  A Japanese garden is not symmetrical. A Japanese once said to me, ‘Your Italian gardens are completely symmetrical, aren’t they? If you had one quarter of it and two mirrors, you’ve got the whole garden!’ Every part of the garden has its own importance and in the rock gardens there is just sand, raked sand, and rocks. But if you sit and watch it, then, without knowing why, you begin to feel at peace and that peace is conveyed by the garden even in winter when the snow covers the stone. Still the form of the stone is seen under the snow. And still the same peace comes.

This is the message of stone. Jizo, the stone child, is represented as a stone, but he is active sometimes, and he goes into the hells with his long sleeves. The guardian demons, can’t, of course, stop the bodhisattva going into the hells. And there is a hell in which many human beings are, where the souls are small children. They’re building up little pagodas of stones. They are on a sort of riverbank with a lot of stones and they are building up pagodas. They are not sure why they are building them up, but there is a general impression among the children that if they can get it high enough, somehow they’ll get out of this hell, and when the pagodas are getting quite high a demon rushes out with an iron rod knocks them down, then they start up again. And this is a parable of our life. We feel if we pile things up, enough, somehow it will get us out of hell. Just a little bit more… Some people have got a very big pagoda – they’ve got name, they’ve got reputation, they’ve got a lot of money and influence, but still they feel there’s something more to be added to their pagoda – they’re not out of hell. And just as they are about to achieve, as they think, their objective, something comes and knocks it all down.

Jizo enters that hell, and he sees the babies building their little pagodas, the guards, their teeth grating together, but they pass him through – they must. He goes in and, as he passes among the children, he stuffs some of the children into his long sleeve. Then he comes out with his face as good as gold, like when we are children and we have got a sweet in our mouth and we just stand before our parents. ‘Have you been eating chocolate?’ The guards can’t challenge him. They look at those bulging sleeves – seems a bit funny – but they can’t search him, and he goes out. Jizo can take the souls from this hell of meaningless effort and can rescue them.  Another lesson from the Jizo is – he stands in front of the temple by the wayside with his staff, his rosary, his childish face, and the people come, and the people go – it’s a figure of blessing, but he never interchanges any remarks, or greetings with them. They pass by.

There is a practice in Buddhism of watching the passing thoughts. One method of practising this is to take himself to be the Jizo, the stone Jizo, unmoving, blessing and the thoughts, coming and going. There is no interchange of greetings, of no arguments, no recognition as they pass; he blesses them all equally without moving.  Well, this is the first little section on the stone sermon and it’s an illustration. They are taken from various sources, of how this one thing, if it’s meditated on, then the stone will begin to speak to us; this image will begin to speak to us.

In the fourteenth century in Japan one of the great generals wanted to get, to take, one of the Jizo images with his army. It was a famous image. It had, in some way, become famous and he had the idea that, if this was taken with his army, his strategies would be successful. He applied to the temple and he interviewed the abbot and he asked for permission to take the Jizo.  The abbot said in a polite way, “This will be meaningless and useless for you.”  The general said, “But this Jizo has a great reputation and I believe in him and I would like to take him with me.”  The abbot said, “If you take the stone image with you, you would take nothing. This is not the way to take Jizo with you.”  The general said, “Well then, how do I do it?”  The abbot said, “Find the Jizo standing in your own heart, a child, six years old, a staff and the rosary, then you take him with you.”

Now, the next section. One of the phrases is when you do a right action don’t cough. When I donate a gold piece, don’t cough, when we do a good deed, to call attention to it. And the other phrase related to this – success not triumph.  Now, a concrete example. In the temples, some of the temples, the ground is covered with moss. Moss is taken as a symbol of spiritual progress, because its growth can’t be forced but if the weeds are removed then it grows surprisingly quickly. But it needs shade and so there are always trees and those trees are chosen. They’re not big ones, they are small trees, but they are chosen so that they have leaves most of the year round. The moss needs a certain amount of shade and that means the leaves are falling different times from different trees.

In the temples one of the tasks is to sweep up these leaves. It has to be done carefully, because if you sweep too vigorously with the broom you injure the moss and if you do not sweep vigorously enough you don’t get all the leaves up. You’re told, “Sweep this courtyard free of the leaves which have fallen during the night.” Well, I was given this task and I thought I’ll get all these leaves up. But at the time, when the leaves are falling, as you sweep, new ones are coming down. Not very many, but a few, and you sweep quite a bit and then you see two or three more down there. So, you go back. Go on a little bit… oh another one! Well now, I wanted that it should be absolutely clear of leaves. I wanted triumph. I went up to the trees, and I was fairly strong then and I knew how to apply strength, so I shook the tree until all the leaves that were even remotely loose all came down, and then I swept every last leaf up, so that it was complete! As I was finishing the section a monk came up and he saw what I was doing and he came across and he said something to the effect, “Leggett-san, don’t you think this is a little bit brutal?” He said, “We sweep the leaves that have fallen. If a few more fall tomorrow, we will sweep those. Success but not triumph!”

Some years after that incident, I read a poem by a great Zen master in the early part of the century – just two lines. Because I had that experience, because I was so annoyed at the trees, the poem meant a lot to me and it just said:

We sweep up the leaves/But we don’t hate the trees for dropping them.

There is always a tendency to fix something and have some one definite thing. The great Lotus Sutra, to which I referred earlier, has a great name as a sutra, and 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.

There are about forty thousand different Chinese characters in the total Chinese language. Nobody, of course, can possibly know them all but they exist, and the ordinary person knows, well, used to know, three or four thousand and then the specialists know one or two thousand in addition, in their own field, by which they recognise 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 has got these forty thousand of them. Well, one of the ways of baffling the devil, used to be, in the country, the devil comes along and he comes to a house and he sees the name of the owner, which has to be put up outside, and then sometimes there is a devotional tablet or something like there, and he sees the name and he sees the tablet and he knows what to do. If their actions are not consistent with what’s on that devotional tablet, he can get him.  They used to write up the name, and on the devotional tablet they used to write very complicated signs that looked like Chinese characters, but in fact, weren’t. They look extremely complicated Chinese characters and the idea was that the devil comes along, reads the memo. ’Oh can’t read that, this must be the home of  an incredibly learned and probably holy man and it would be very dangerous to me to try to get in because I can’t read the spell.’ So he goes on, but, of course, there is nothing there at all!  And the idea is to trap, fool the devil by his liking for something definite.

The Lotus Sutra was regarded as something definite by several sects in Japan, and one of the sayings that was going around about the fourteenth century in Japan, and for all I know still is, was that in these degenerate days the Dharma has become polluted, and, therefore, people try to attain the Dharma from all sorts of the traditional sources but it’s polluted, it’s been poisoned, and so Buddhism is falling deeper and deeper into degeneration and decay. The Dharma must be strained through the Lotus Scripture and then all the defilements will be strained off and you will have the pure Dharma, so study the Lotus Sutra alone. This was being said, and the man, well, it doesn’t say he was of the Lotus Scripture persuasion, perhaps he was just a man who thought he’d to have a little bit of fun. He took this idea to a Zen master and he said to him that, “The Lotus Scripture people are saying now, the Dharma has become polluted and the only way to get the true Dharma is to strain it through the Lotus Scripture, and strain off all the impurities. Do you agree with this, in your Zen sect?” The Zen teacher said, “Oh yes, it’s a fine teaching, just one more thing –  strain off the Lotus!”  He meant, it is a fine thing, the practices, but to think this and this alone contains everything must be strained off.

Now, is the next one. We tend to get carried away by irrelevancies. I’ll tell you one personal story here. I knew a very learned Sanskrit and Pali scholar who had studied the languages from the philological point of view and gradually he became interested in what was in these languages, as distinct from the grammar and the borrowings of the vocabulary from the Dravidian and other sources. And he asked me whether I could suggest any teacher, or place to go, to study the Indian Buddhism or the Vedanta. He didn’t much care which it was, so long as he did some of this training that he’d been reading about. Looking at him, I advised him, I said, “On no account, study Indian Buddhism or Indian Vedanta.”  And he was very surprised at this, “What, what, what then?”  I said, “Study the Japanese or the Chinese Buddhism.”  He said, “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 you’re saying, leave all that?”

I told him, that in my opinion anyway, if he took a teacher of the actual practice, every time the teacher opened his mouth, that great scholar would be criticising. Because if the teacher, for instance, came from Bengal he would be pronouncing ‘maitri’ as ‘moitri’ – it’s the way they pronounce it in Bengal – and every time the teacher exhorted him to practice friendliness, the first of the Brahma Viharas, moitri, he would go, ‘Tssp [indrawn breath or gasp]. Oh no!’ He would not be thinking of friendliness, he would only be thinking that it was a mispronunciation of ‘maitri’ and a replacement of that diphthong with another diphthong. Then when the teacher said that ‘maitri’ is the first of the Brahma Viharas, the four Brahma Viharas, which are known, very ancient in Buddhism, instead of thinking of these four Brahma Viharas –friendliness, compassion and cheerfulness with somebody who is happy, and indifference to someone who is evil, instead of thinking of those four, he would be thinking ‘Oh no, these aren’t Buddhist in origin at all! They’re found in part one of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The teacher is wrong!’ He will not be thinking of the content at all, but only of the pronunciation, only of the historical associations. “So, much better”, I said to him, “study Chinese or Japanese Buddhism where you know nothing whatever. And you can come forward like a child and actually learn something!”

Reasons are given to us which we can’t understand. Instructions are given, we can’t understand the reasons. Although, sometimes, reasons are invented to satisfy the mind of people who begin to practise, if they are such that they demand reasons for everything. There are many practices which only experience tells the reason for the form of the practice, but the intellect, especially of the people proud of their intellect, demands an explanation.

Well, in judo sometimes, we explain something. The Japanese students will accept it and practise it for a few months then, when they’ve got experience in that movement, you can explain why turn this way, and not that way, then they can understand it. But the Westerners, the moment you say turn it this way, they say, “Why not that way? Wouldn’t that be better?” Well, it’s only experience that will provide the true reason, so we have to invent a series of sort of pseudoscientific explanations which are not really true, but which satisfy them enough so that they can practise and then, later on, they’ll find out the true reason.

When I was very small, but I can still remember it, about four, I went into the kitchen and they had one of those big kitchen clocks which go 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’s not so easy – tick, tock, you see, that’s what it says, but I was the third son and she had experience of this sort of question.  She said, “It says tick, tock because it likes that, you see!” I said, “Oh, does it say anything else? Why doesn’t it say anything else?” And then she, again, ingeniously said, “You know your drum, you like, don’t you, banging it, don’t you? God, how you like banging that drum! Just banging it. Well, in the same, the clock likes saying tick, tock, tick.” I understood that. Yes, I liked beating that drum and it liked going like that.  Recently I have had the same experience. Then I couldn’t understand the mechanism of the clock or why this would happen. Now I have a small computer and I have a lesson once a week and my computer has one anomaly in a way. Anyway, you have to manipulate it in a way contrary to what the textbook says for a particular reason. When this first came out I said, “Oh, but the textbook says that… Why do we have to do this?” and I could see the fellow, he’s a young fellow who teaches me, thinking, ‘Yeees’, then he said just what my mother said: “It likes that!”

We’re given all sorts of practices and disciplines and our intellect, especially if we are a bit lazy, will put up all sorts of objections and so on, and it’s worth remembering that it’s unreasonable to expect explanations of these things which depend on experience, and we must rely, not on our intellect justifying the practice, but on the experience of the teacher who gives it.

A teacher said about the idea in the Buddhist training: go on one straight line, keep to something, and yet, at the same time, it says you’ve got to accept things, you have to be flexible. The example he gave was of a gyroscope or spinning top. If you’ve played with one as a child or you’ve seen a gyroscope spinning, its balance is so perfect when it’s revolving that it can travel down the little notch at the bottom, it can travel down a string, and still keep its balance on the string. If it was stationary it couldn’t do that. It’s revolving about its centre and can keep a perfect balance on that string. And yet if you even blow, the gyroscope will just spin, but it will come back to its balance. Again, it will give way, the passing experience. It will come back very strongly to its point of balance again and settle itself. He 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 the adjustment to the circumstances and then it will again resume its balance and go forward.

Another teacher gives, as an example, that the gyroscope adapts gently, but firmly comes back, and he said it doesn’t react powerfully against it, and he gave as an example of that – a man who is trying to calm a lake or even in his bath. If he wants the bath to be calm and he tries snacking down the waves, as they come up, he [the teacher] said that’s like you trying to smack down your thoughts as they arise. You create new ones. But if, instead, you simply keep still and you watch the waves, then they’ll die down of themselves.

Ananda asked the Buddha once, “How is it that after all these countless worlds and all these countless people in this world, the Buddha is giving teaching just to us here? It seems sort of arbitrary, how is that so?”  The Buddha said, “I want to write something. Get me a reed.”  So, Ananda went down to the bank of the Ganges to pluck off one of those reeds – they’re cut diagonally and then can be written with. The Buddha held up the reed.  He said, “How many of these reeds do you suppose there are on the stretch of the Ganges?”  Ananda said, “Oh…”  “And how many do you suppose on all the rivers of the world?”  “Inconceivable, unimaginable.”  “How many do you suppose in all the countless worlds?”  “Oh, it can’t be thought of.”  “And yet here and now, this reed, the Tathagata is going to write with it.”

There is a saying about Kobo, who is the founder of the Shingon sect in Japan and one of the master calligraphers. He was 800 A.D. and his calligraphy is still today regarded as one of the greatest examples of this very highly developed art. He invented one of the Japanese alphabets and it says this wonderful calligrapher does not choose his brush. Kobo doesn’t choose the brush. There are several brushes there. Now, most of us, if we have got to write something, we have a good look at the brush and choose the best one and reject others. But Kobo is the great master and he can write a masterpiece with any of them, however imperfect. Kobo doesn’t choose the brush. He just picks one up and writes the masterpiece with it. It’s extended to mean that we are not to think that because we are not endowed with great intellect, with great power in the world, with great political adroitness, with great artistic talents, that we can’t manifest the Dharma.

If I begin to think I have great talents, well then, I become a mark. If I begin to think I can’t be bribed – perhaps not now, nothing much I particularly want. But nobody’s trying to bribe me. A judo champion was offered a quarter million pounds to become a professional wrestler. That would now be nearly half a million. He accepted it and the whole of the judo went “Ohoooo.. how disgraceful!” He had to be expelled from the judo movement which strictly forbids public performance for money. But we were all saying this when we were not being tempted! But supposing somebody offered me half a million pounds. I’m comfortably placed – one big room. I sleep in the bunk above the kitchen but I’ve got a rear balcony overlooking the garden of a very pleasant place. Yes, but then I should start thinking, ‘Yes, half a million, yes I reject that absolutely!’ Then I think, ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind a dog, and I like a dog. I like a big dog – a Chow or an Alsatian. And that would mean a garden. Of course, I can’t afford a garden now, there’s no temptation at all. But the half million? I could afford a garden and somebody to exercise the dog and then who knows?’ I stand: I can’t be bribed… and perhaps the cosmic archer will aim and pheeew.’  ‘I can’t be accused of undue aggression or anything like that! There’s old Cumberbatch at the office, you know, he’s an absolute tartar. But gradually I got patient with him. Sometimes I even think, ‘Poor old boy, he’s getting past it so he’s got to sort of exert himself and show himself off and exert his power in these last few years.’ I’m getting patient, I’m getting forgiving… and then the cosmic archer goes pheeew!’  They don’t teach it now, but in judo when people get 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. Supposing I suddenly learn that! Now old Cumberbatch he is carrying on, and I suddenly think, ‘You know, we can do without him!’ Pheeew! Good shot.

This is another thing the teacher said: not to think – we don’t know what’s in our own heart – not to think, oh well, I’m above that, I’m finished with that. But, without any of those great virtues or graces or talents, still Kobo does not choose the brush!  The Buddha didn’t pick a reed. He just took one that happened to be there and in the same way this thing is to tell people (bell rings) who aren’t here who don’t want to listen about Buddhism. You go up and ring Buddhism into their ear and perhaps they’ll listen. But, tomorrow, somebody will be ringing another bell in the other ear and they’ll move off it.  It doesn’t have to be a great noise. People today are starving. We think, ‘Oh yes, they are starving for food.’ No! They are starving for a spiritual training and people who are throwing bombs are not starved of food. But they’re starved of a spiritual vision and the teacher says when people want to hear, even the tiniest sound will convey the Dharma. The people who want to hear.

Well, thank you for listening to me.




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