The 10th-century Chinese Zen master Hogen spent a number of years living alone in an old temple. One day, four monks on a pilgrimage came to his hermitage and asked if they could stay overnight in the temple courtyard. Hogen agreed, and while the four were building a fire, they got to arguing about philosophy, including matters such as subjectivity and objectivity.
Joining their discussion, Hogen said to them, "Imagine a very large stone. Does it exist inside or outside of your mind?" One of the monks answered, "According to Buddhist teaching, everything is a projection of the mind. So the stone is in my mind." Hogen responded, "Your head must be very heavy carrying around a stone like that in your mind."
Hogen was not denying Buddhist philosophy, nor was he affirming it. He was simply pointing out the burden of trying to understand life according to a philosophy rather than seeing things as they really are and just being present with them without adding our own spin.
He was also pointing out the irony that even while the bodies of the traveling monks were moving from place to place, their minds were stuck: heavy, dense, and stubborn like a stone.
This story illustrates how people fool themselves by trying to gain understanding through intellectual gymnastics. The mind, being elsewhere rather than in the present moment, becomes immovable and dense as a mountain.
In the late 1970s, when a group of us were establishing our present meditation center, we recognized the need to create a garden in place of the gravel parking lot that existed in front of the building.
It was a major project. About six months after removing tons of gravel and moving in yards of topsoil, we discovered one morning that someone had left a huge pile of stones in the center of the garden area. We understood the smooth, beautiful creek stones, varying in shape, size, and color, were left for us with good intentions. We had been given a gift.
I figured we had four options: Ask the fellow to take back his stones; haul them ourselves to a vacant lot; try to sell them to a local rockery; or put out a "For Free" sign, inviting neighbors to help themselves.
After a few weeks, I finally understood how to take care of my so-called "problem": Build a stone wall as part of the garden. It took two years to build the wall (there were a great many stones).
Today, the wall creates a welcoming feeling, leading visitors from the street to the garden path. Through the process of accepting them as an unexpected gift, and turning them from a burden into something useful, I discovered the fluid, moving nature of stones.
Mountains and stones are always appearing in our lives. Changes occur and unwanted things show up; we cannot prevent their happening. If we try to avoid changes, push them away from ourselves, they become heavy and our minds become immobile. We have to understand the moving nature of all things. This is the best way to resolve the question of heavy stones.
In one of his typically enigmatic sayings, the famous Japanese Zen master Dogen declared, "Green mountains are always moving, the stone woman gives birth at night."
How do stones give birth, become alive rather than dense and unmoving? When the mind is present and open to various possibilities. Only then is it free from preconceived ideas, ready to respond creatively to whatever appears before it. Otherwise, changes, problems, and unexpected events become heavy and burdensome.
Mountains walk when the mind walks; stones give birth when the mind gives birth. We have to be careful not to let our minds become burdened with the idea of "stones." As Hogen pointed out to his youthful visitors, we have to unburden our minds of stones each moment. This is the nature of spiritual practice.
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