Editor of The Zen Gateway website and practitioner of Zen Buddhism.
The Widow and the Calligrapher
When life took its toll on a woman, who had become embittered and lonely, a chance encounter with a calligrapher gives her the key to turning it all around.
A woman with one son had fallen on hard times. His father had died and she had to make many sacrifices to look after him.
She felt bitterly disappointed with her lot and complained and grumbled to anyone who would stop to listen to her. The truth was that many of her neighbours were also in straitened circumstances and frankly did not want to listen to her so they started to avoid her.
Now she complained too about her loneliness !
Her son was very bright and did remarkably well at school.
In the town lived a master calligrapher who took an interest in the boy's education and as the boy reached an age to leave school, he went to the mother saying that it would be a sad waste if the boy did not go to University.
The mother began to complain that this would be quite impossible as they had no money for him to go; but the calligrapher said that he was a personal friend of the Chancellor of the University and would vouch for him so that he could get a scholarship.
The mother said that she could not bear to part with the boy as she would be too lonely without him and life would become unbearable.
The calligrapher finally managed to persuade her that this really was for the best in the long term so she reluctantly agreed.
The calligrapher said she was to come to his house at such-and-such a time and he would write the note of recommendation.
At the appointment time she arrived at the house and was shown into the working room where the calligrapher greeted her and sat her down by his desk. She looked around her at the beautiful scrolls and the expensive ink brushes and the delicate paper of his art.
So, she was surprised when the calligrapher opened the drawer in his desk and removed a scrap of cheap looking paper and the stub of an old pencil. Taking a penknife, he made two cuts onto the pencil stub and with it scribbled a few words onto the paper. He then took out the envelope, placed the paper inside, wrote a name on the front and handed it to her.
She was appalled, wondering what the Chancellor would think when he received this 'recommendation' on such a paltry scrap written with that old pencil stub?
The calligrapher told her to take it straight to the University; and even though she was embarrassed by the note she did as she was told.
The Chancellor took the note and read it, then, going over to the window to see it more clearly, sighed in delight.
"Oh, my dear! What a wonderful piece of calligraphy! Just look how he has made the pencil marks seem like the strokes of a brush. Such delicate handling, such beauty! Please, if you do not want to keep it, may I hang onto this note and this envelope as it is clearly a masterpiece!"
The woman was astounded but pleased when he said her son would be attending the university on a scholarship.
Although she was a bit lonely after that it was not as bad as she thought. But, more importantly, she began to change; she stopped complaining and now began to be most helpful around the town. Paying attention to others and making the most of every situation.
One day her neighbour came round and said to her:
"You know you really have changed. What sparked it?"
The old woman told her the story of the old pencil stub and the chancellor saying that the note was a 'masterpiece'.
"I just could not understand it? How could it be a masterpiece? It was just an old pencil stub after all! It preyed on my mind for days and I could not get it out of my head. Then one morning I woke up and suddenly realised - that pencil stub is ME! The scrap of paper is my life! If the calligrapher can make two cuts and create a masterpiece from those two things then maybe, if I make a couple of cuts in me with my selfishness and constant self-concern, then perhaps the Buddha could create a masterpiece out of my life? Ever since I have just tried to make those cuts to let the Buddha use me to see what happens."
This story was told originally by Trevor Leggett
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