Tales from the Gosho

This tale from the Gosho is about Surihandoku Sonja (honorable
person), a disciple of Shakyamuni, and one of the sixteen arhats. The
details of Surihandoku’s life are taught in the second chapter of the
Hoku Hiyu Sutra and the 31st chapter of the Konponsetsu Issai
Ububinaya Sutra.
Once upon a time, there were two boys, sons of a Brahman, who lived
in Sharavati in India. The elder brother was called Makahandoku and
was very clever. The younger brother, named Surihandoku, was so
very dull that he could not even remember his name. Therefore, he
hung a board from his neck with his name on it. So people in society
began calling him, “Fool Handoku” or “Stupid Surihandoku.”
Before long, their parents passed away and Makahandoku and
Surihandoku were left alone. These brothers got along very well and
stayed together all the time. Later, they became disciples of
Shakyamuni. The elder brother, Makahandoku, eliminated all kinds
of desires and attained the state of arhat. Yet, for the younger
brother, Surihandoku, it would not be that easy. Therefore
Makahandoku encouraged Surihandoku to memorize a single verse:
“Guard your speech, govern your mind, do not do wrong in deed. One
who practices in this way will surely attain emancipation.” This verse
means one should not make any bad causes in body, words and
mind. One should maintain a correct feeling and detach from unwise
Surihandoku desperately tried to memorize this single verse yet he
could not after three years of trying. Discouraged, that his brother
was neither able to memorize a verse nor practice Buddhism in the
normal way, Makahandoku, hardening his heart against pity, told his
younger brother, “You are stupid. You are the world’s most stupid
person. What in the world will happen even if you become a priest!
It is absolutely useless. So just leave here right now.”
Surihandoku cried loudly when he was thrown out. Just then,
Shakyamuni passed by. Shakyamuni asked Surihandoku why he was
crying. Surihandoku said, “Since I was born, I have been stupid and
even now, I can not memorize even a single verse. I am crying
because my elder brother has abandoned me.”
Listening to Surihandoku, Shakyamuni did not reprove him. Rather,
Shakyamuni consoled Surihandoku that to forget things is
‘trustworthy.’ People easily forget important things but remember
too many worthless things. According to circumstances, it is
important to forget things.
Then Shakyamuni preached to Surihandoku, “When a foolish man
declares himself foolish, we call him a wise man. When a foolish man
recklessly declares himself wise, we call him foolish.”
Surihandoku was called a “wise man” for the first time from none
other than the Buddha! Then Shakyamuni gave Surihandoku two
verses to memorize:”I sweep off the dust, I remove the dirt.” Yet,
Surihandoku could not memorize even these two verses.
Looking at Surihandoku, Shakyamuni recognized how gravely deep
were Surihandoku’s sins from his past lifetime. In order for
Surihandoku to eradicate these sins, Shakyamuni gave Surihandoku
one practice. It was to wipe off the dirt and clean all the priests’
footwear every day. Shakyamuni told him to recite, “I sweep off the
dust. I remove the dirt,” over and over as he cleaned the priests’
As a matter of course, all the other disciples of Shakyamuni
memorized these two verses in one day. Moreover everybody who
practiced Buddhism in Sharavati memorized these two verses.
However, it was rather difficult for Surihandoku to memorize these
two short verses.
Even though it may have been humiliating to clean many priests’
footwear every day, Surihandoku was very obedient, and did not
hate to clean. He strived to practice as he recited, “I sweep off the
dust. I remove the dirt.”
Then Surihandoku’s sins from his past life were gradually eradicated,
and one day he attained enlightenment. The “dust” or “dirt” is not
simply the dust or dirt on footwear; it is the dust or dirt in the
human mind. Then what is the dust or dirt in the human mind? They
are three poisons of greed, anger and stupidity. Greed is the mind of
devouring, selfishness and desire. Anger is the mind of rage, and
stupidity is the mind of foolishness and egotism. Surihandoku
became enlightened to the fact that the important thing is to sweep
off and remove these three kinds of dust and dirt. Surihandoku
immediately went to Shakyamuni and reported this to him.
Upon hearing this, Shakyamuni was so very happy that he finally
permitted Surihandoku the state of arhat. Shakyamuni then ordered
Surihandoku to preach for the bikunis. A bikuni is a female priest or
nun. Among Shakyamuni’s disciples there were 500 bikunis and
some of the best disciples of Shakyamuni rotated in giving sermons
and teaching them.
Amongst the bikunis, Surihandoku was known as a “joke” so when
they heard this news, their arrogant nature emerged. They thought:
“I am senior to him,” or “I know more about Buddhism than he,” or
“Foolish Handoku couldn’t possibly teach me anything.” One of the
bikunis suggested, “Let’s humiliate and laugh at stupid Handoku by
saying, ‘I sweep off the dust, I remove the dirt’ before he starts his
sermon tomorrow.” Then everybody agreed.
The next day, Surihandoku arrived. All 500 bikunis had grins on
their faces, thinking, “I am going to humiliate him now.” After
Handoku Sonja washed his hands and mouth, he sat on the platform.
This was his very first sermon and his intensions and mannerism
were so incredibly sincere, that suddenly, all 500 bikunis who
planned to humiliate Surihandoku could not even open their mouths.
On the contrary, they started to shed big drops of tears, ashamed of
their impure and conceited hearts.
Handoku Sonja, who had no idea about the 500 bikunis’ thoughts,
preached the two verses of, “I sweep off the dust, I remove the dirt.”
He taught that the true way to practice Buddhism is not to have the
three poisons of greed, anger and stupidity in one’s mind. For
Handoku Sonja, this was the first lecture he ever conducted in his
life. Therefore, he was not proficient nor was it something new to the
bikunis. Yet, because Handoku Sonja preached from the bottom of his
heart, people felt as if Shakyamuni were preaching. Moreover, all the
bikunis who previously could not eliminate their earthly desires
were instantly able to do so; not from the words of a respectful
priest, but from a sermon given by Handoku Sonja. All 500 bikunis
attained the state of arhat, and thereafter adored Handoku Sonja
from bottom of their hearts.
One time when Shakyamuni and his disciples gathered, the disciples
asked about Handoku Sonja. “Handoku Sonja seemed to be the most
stupid person in the world – he could not even remember his name.
However, once he attained enlightenment, he immediately became
one of the best disciples, like Shariputra. What kind of karma does he
Shakyamuni answered as follows,
Once upon a time, there lived a Buddha called Kashohabutsu, who
had 20 thousand disciples. At that time, Handoku Sonja was the best
and cleverest disciple of this Buddha. Handoku Sonja memorized all
the teachings and he was respected as a great monk by everybody.
However he gradually developed an arrogant nature and started to
make a fool of the other disciples. He became selfish and stopped
preaching the Law. In other words, he thought, “I am clever and
others are foolish. I do not want to preach for such foolish people.”
Therefore he committed two sins – the sin of arrogance, that one will
not preach for others, and the sin of selfishness. Then he passed
away. In his next lifetime, he was born when the Buddha did not
exist. Of course there was no Buddhism. During this lifetime, Handoku
Sonja got work killing wild boars and selling their meat and skin to
make a living. He killed innumerable wild boars, but did not even
manifest a feeling of pity. Rather, he only intended to earn more
money. One day when he was drowning in the water, an engaku
(man of realization) rescued him. Then Handoku Sonja, thinking to
repay this kindness, went to where the engaku lived. However there
were 500 engakus and he could not remember which one of them
rescued him. Therefore, he repaid his gratitude by serving all 500
engakus. He then passed away and was able to be reborn at this
present time. When he was a great monk, he despised others and
created the sin of not preaching for others and the sin of killing
beasts. Because of these sins that he created in the past, he was born
as a dull-witted person so that he could not even remember his
name. Therefore, you should never be unwilling to preach Buddhism.
You should preach for people with a pure mind. Moreover, you
should have the heart of pity for all the living beings.”
Shakyamuni, wanting everybody in the society to know that
Handoku Sonja had eradicated his past sins and become a great
priest in this lifetime, went to the castle of Hashinokuo (Prasenajit)
with Handoku Sonja and 300 disciples as attendants.
At this castle, there was a gatekeeper. This gatekeeper let
Shakyamuni and his 300 disciples into the castle. However, when he
saw Handoku Sonja, he made a fool of him and did not let him in the
Handoku Sonja was left alone outside the gate and he thought, “I
came to serve Shakyamuni today, but I am separated from him. If
this is so, I will serve Shakyamuni from out here.” Then he started to
remember Shakyamuni’s form and began serving him as if he was
A gatekeeper who was watching Handoku Sonja thought, “Stupid
Handoku has started doing strange things again.”
At this time, a significant thing happened inside the castle. When
Shakyamuni got to the castle, a basin full of water approached
Shakyamuni in the air. When one looked closely, one saw that this
basin was attached to human arms. Next, a glass of water and a clean
towel approached Shakyamuni in the air. Shakyamuni used these,
too, washing his hands and mouth as a matter of course.
Hashinokuo, watching all these things, was very surprised. Thus, he
asked Shakyamuni, “What are all these things? Who’s arms are
Shakyamuni said, “These arms are my disciple, Surihandoku’s arms. I
brought him here to have him serve me today. However, because he
was criticized by the gatekeeper, he now is outside the gate. And he
is serving me from outside the gate. No matter how far apart
Surihandoku and I are, because our hearts are acquainted, we can do
such a thing.”
Hashinokuo hurriedly invited Handoku Sonja in the castle. Then he
asked again, “Excuse me Shakyamuni, from what I heard,
Surihandoku is so very dull that he could not memorize even a single
verse after three years and he barely memorized two verses just
recently. How on the earth did he become such a respectable priest?”
To this question, Shakyamuni replied, “No matter how many sutras
one memorizes, it is much more noble to practice the sutras. No
matter how many sutras one might memorize, if one does not
understand them in one’s heart, there exists no benefit. Even if only
one sutra, if one correctly understands and practices it, there exists
great benefit.”
By listening to this, all 300 disciples were able to attain the state of
arhat. Moreover, the king, queen, prince and ministers were very
happy, and all the people in the country never again called Handoku
Sonja, “Stupid Handoku,” but admired him as, “Shakyamuni’s disciple,
one of the sixteen arhats, respectful Surihandoku Sonja.”
Later, when Shakyamuni preached the “Lotus Sutra,” Handoku Sonja
had no doubt in the Lotus Sutra and believed in it. Because of the
great benefit of honestly believing in the Lotus Sutra, Surihandoku
received the kibetsu (the Buddha’s promise of his disciple’s
enlightenment in the future) of Fumyo (Universal Brightness) Nyorai
Incidentally, around the grave of Handoku Sonja, unusual grasses
grew. It was said that one who eats this grass will forget things.
Therefore, people said Handoku Sonja appeared here as grasses.
Because when Handoku Sonja was still young he carried his name,
people named this grass “Myoga” (Japanese ginger). Myo of Myoga, in
Chinese characters is written with the crown part of the character-
“grass,” and “name” under it. Ga of Myoga is written “carry.” This
“Myoga” relates to “Myoga” (divine protection) meaning benefit of
the Buddha. We should learn from Handoku Sonja about benefit of
the Buddha who indicated the great benefit of the Lotus Sutra, and
practice with pure faith.

Encouragement to a Sick Person
Even those people who commit the five cardinal sins, the ten evil
acts, or innumerable other wrongdoings may attain the Way if only
their faculties are keen. Devadatta and Angulimula are
representative of such people. And even those of dull faculties may
attain the Way, provided they are free of misdeeds.
Shuddhipanthaka is an example. Our faculties are even duller than
those of Shuddhipanthaka. We can discern the colors and shapes of
things no better than a sheep’s eye. In the vast depths of our greed,
anger, and stupidity, we commit the Ten Evil Acts every day, and,
although we may not commit the five cardinal sins, we perpetrate
similar offenses daily. (M..W, Vol. 6, p. 22-23; Shinpen, p. 322)

©1995 Nichiren Shoshu Monthly