We sweep up the leaves


One of the phrases is when you do a right action don’t cough. When I put 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. So 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. So 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!’

Now, 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. Now, the great Lotus Sutra to which I referred earlier, this 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 practice 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 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.

Well, 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.

Now, the Lotus Sutra was regarded as something definite by several sects in Japan, and one of the sayings that was going round 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. Well then, 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. So 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?’
So 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.

© Trevor Leggett

Talks in this series are:

Part 1: Stone Sermon

Part 2: Jizo, the stone child

Part 3: We sweep up the leaves

Part 4: Brahma Viharas

Part 5: Ananda asked the Buddha

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