An old English proverb goes, "Rolling rocks don't grow moss." This is analogous to someone who is discontent in the same position, who therefore has a hard time attaining any success. Similarly, moss cannot collect and grow on the surface of a rolling rock. This aphorism is not teaching people to stagnate, be entrenched in old routines and refuse to evolve. Rather, this saying instructs us to take one honest step at a time and cover the basics, whether studying or working; we must not be overly ambitious and be greedy for efficiency or quantity.
How does one take one honest step at a time? One begins anything cautiously and ends respectfully, working with the utmost earnestness. If you always go after the novel, your mind will already be on a different topic before you master the first subject. How could your arms and legs be able catch up? When your arms and legs lag behind your mind, your eyes are aiming too high and your hands are reaching too low. While you rush headlong without coordination, you further miss your target. You become akin to a parrot that constantly imitates others without a language of its own.
How does one cover the basics? One clears away externalities and goes directly to the source. If you only collect extraneous ends, then before you take one step, minutia has already sidetracked and trapped you. How can you possibly expand your horizons? When you can't expand your horizons, you end up creating a cocoon that constricts. Finally, you end up seeking dharma outside of the mind and receiving no true benefits. Discourses on the Roots of Vegetables said it well, "A well-written article contains nothing; it's just right. A well-developed character has nothing odd; it's fundamentally natural." To be just right is to be moderate. To be good denotes staying with the mean. Since we were pure to begin with, purity denotes returning to what is natural and true. If you're good and true, then you rediscover the beauty that is already within you! How can anything we do then be considered inappropriate?
We must cover the basics and be honest, whether in our studies or at work. Don't let the colorful flowers and foliage confuse you. Furthermore, don't let those choppy reports and poorly-written essays lock you down!
A Chinese calligrapher who deemed himself the best had heard that elsewhere there was another calligrapher with the title, "Number One in the Universe." The first Chinese calligrapher couldn't resist stealing a look. When he got to the main thoroughfare in town, he saw someone on stage with writing material. Staked on the side of the road was a flag headlined, "Number One in the Universe" that fluttered about in the wind, challenging and intimidating all passersby. The calligrapher saw Mr. Universe swing his strokes right on the spot and the observing calligrapher returned home without a peep. From then on this man practiced in seclusion for three years. What kind of outstanding stunt was he doing during these three years? None! You wouldn't believe it if I told you! He didn't have any clever tricks at all; he simply practiced drawing circles. During those entire three years, he drew one circle after another until he was able to pick up his calligraphy pen and draw circles that were equal in size, width, and proportion. Then he went to visit that still undefeated Mr. Universe. When the challenger reached the table, he lifted up the pen and in one breath drew several circles. As it is said, "The expert simply stretches and you know whether he has it or not." While observers were still at a loss, the reigning calligrapher glared and remained speechless out of shock at first, and then he embarrassingly packed up his stuff, rolled up the "Number One in the Universe" banner and left without a word.
The moral of this story is that, first of all, you can accomplish anything if you concentrate. Second, the greatest trick is a trick that uses no tricks. The cleverest technique is a technique that isn't considered a technique. So how do you study so that you may concentrate? The ancients mentioned the "three presences" and the "three tops." The three presences are the presence of the eyes, the presence of the mouth and the presence of the mind. Having your eyes present means that you read each and every word earnestly; having your mouth present means that you enunciate each line clearly; having your mind present means that you are clear about every word and each line. The three tops refer to being on top of dining tables, on top of beds and on top of toilets. Not only do you study with your eyes, mouth and mind present while at your desk, but you do not let up on your studying during meals, bedtimes and even in the bathroom. Toilets during ancient times were bare and smelly. If you can sit there and still read, you really have severed your false thoughts—your success is inevitable. Contemporary bathrooms are bright, clean and quite cozy, so it's cooler and easier for people today to work in there. However, precisely because modern men have been liberated from many physical restraints and are so comfortable—some individuals really work in their restrooms now! How? They'll sometimes sit in the lavatory for an hour or two. What kind of work are they doing? They're reading newspapers, magazines, romance novels or kung fu books. I honestly don't know whether they save or waste time.
We must know that life is brutal and short. To live an average and mediocre existence is one life; to live a fulfilled and perfect existence is one life too. If we're afraid to work hard and only pick what's most convenient, perhaps to the point of complete indolence and vice, severe difficulty will likely follow. More specifically, we reap what we sow; we will end up circulating endlessly in the sea of suffering.
During the Qing Dynasty in China, a beggar named Wu Xun lived in Tangyi, Shandong Province. He lost his father at the age of three and lost his mother at the age of seven. He could only beg for a living because his family was so poor. Wu Xun had personally experienced the pain of illiteracy, so he aspired to establish a school to benefit the poor. He endured hardships to save his money. He saved every penny he had received from begging continuously for several decades. In his old age, he indeed purchased land and established a school. Furthermore, he went from one household to another beseeching poor families to send their kids to school, then beseeching the educated to teach. If teachers refused to teach, he would kneel at length; if students refused to learn, he would cry nonstop, pleading with them. Finally, he moved an entire village of people to dedicate themselves to teaching and learning. At his death he had established three schools.
Similar cases also exist in early American history. Before education in the U.S. became prevalent and when racial discrimination was rampant, an ambitious young African American named Booker T. Washington worked in the mines during the day and studied at night school during the evenings. At his graduation, the school saw he was very hardworking and had excellent grades, so they asked him to be an instructor. However, he wasn't satisfied with his own livelihood and rising status; he aspired to improve the quality of life for all African Americans. Later he borrowed money to purchase straw huts and land. Washington enrolled about thirty students and founded an elementary school for African Americans. He personally led the students in chopping wood, burning bricks, and constructing classrooms. He also taught students to plant grains and vegetables, and raise chickens, ducks, cows and sheep to subsidize the school. Not only did the production gradually pay for the school itself, but students also acquired knowledge and production skills through these daily routines. Later, more and more students enrolled, and more and more teachers enthusiastically came to help. Eventually, this school became the world's largest and most famous school for African Americans.
Once Washington was invited to Iowa State for a speech. That night, as he was talking to many famous people in the hotel's reception room, a drummer with a large copper drum saw Washington. Taking him for a bellman, the musician called out, "Bring me a glass of ice water! Then bring my luggage upstairs!" Washington answered, "Yes, sir!" When Washington came down the stairs, all the honored guests were in a panic, but he smiled, saying, "I accepted that man's tip of a dime to avoid embarrassing him. Furthermore, this one dime will help educate my impoverished students." He served as a role model through his behavior, tirelessly working for the sake of education throughout his life. At his death, newspapers worldwide commemorated him with front-page coverage. Also, one hundred thousand African Americans set up a bronze statue and a stone tablet for him. On the tomb is the inscription, "He eliminated ignorance among the public; through the paths of education and industry he guided the public."
The Three Character Classics states, "Unpolished jade cannot serve as a vessel; the uneducated person cannot understand integrity. Students who do not learn go against the grain. What will become of youngsters who do not study?" Think about it: since we're fortunate enough to live in the modern era of public education, abundant books and school supplies and a more conducive environment than that in the past, why don't we study hard while we're still young so that we may help ourselves and help others? Let's not allow previous generations take all the glory; furthermore, let's not be ridiculed by future generations!