Zen Koans Roshi Polishes Brick

Case:

It is meal time at the temple’s Great Hall and a line of monks are performing ‘kin-hin’ – awareness walking – between their living areas and the Great Hall.  As the monks pass through the courtyard they notice Roshi sitting on a bench.  In his lap, he holds a rough-hewn brick selected from a stack of bricks used to make repairs to the temple walls.

The monks walk with absolute awareness – heel-toe, heel-toe…

One of the younger monks, a new arrival from a poor province, notices that Roshi is intensely rubbing the rough-hewn brick with a rag cloth.

The young monk, who has come to live at the temple in hopes of escaping his poverty and hard life, feels compelled to step out of line and speak with Roshi. “Roshi, why are you rubbing the rough-hewn brick?”

Roshi replied, “Can you not see the diamond?” Roshi paused sniffing in the air.  “The cook has been collecting vegetables all day.  He is making hot soup tonight. You go you eat!”

Pointer:

How difficult it must be to keep one’s focus on the path while the hot soup is wafting through the courtyard air. One must be “heel toe, heel toe…”

The young monk rejects Roshi’s compassionate teaching. He thinks this Roshi is not such a wise fellow. There is one less brick to support the temple walls and where is this diamond?

There is hot soup in the air and Roshi tries again.

Discussion:

Life is difficult and to survive one must realize the value in the way of things and relationships.  To be valuable in this difficult life means having the strength to hold one’s self steady like a temple wall in the eye of a storm.

How do we strengthen ourselves?

It is best to collect straw and aggregate like the maker of rough-hewn bricks, or vegetables like the cook; like Roshi, teach with compassion when possible; like the cook, serve the soup, and then be on our way along the path. Performing such tasks is working in the world with awareness. Sequestering one’s self behind monastery walls is not working in the world. Each has its time an place in our lives. Whatever our actions, they have an effect. No aggregate makes a weak brick; no vegetables a bland soup.

Today, Roshi Bernard Glassman calls this working in the world ‘Engaged Buddhism‘. Sometimes we call this our true work or ‘dharma’.  Not attaching to our work – having no expectations to fetter us along our path – creates a full and valuable life with every moment being a diamond in the rough.

Resolution:

The next evening at mealtime a line of monks were performing kin-hin on their way to the Great Hall.  Heel-toe, heel-toe… When they passed through the courtyard Roshi stood in a rage. He slammed his brick down breaking it into pieces and shouting, “Where is the diamond? Speak or go hungry!” The young monk did not step out of line but spoke calmly, “Can you not hear it? The cook is boiling rice water.” Roshi held back a smile and swept up his brick.  The young monk continued on his way.

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