Rocks that Talk

By Keith Varnum

One day Chung-tzu and a friend were walking along a riverbank.
“How delightfully the fishes are enjoying themselves in the water!”
Chuang-tzu exclaimed.
“You are not a fish.” His friend said.
“How do you know whether or not the fishes are enjoying themselves?”
“You are not me,” Chuang-tzu said.
“How do you know that I do not know that the fishes are enjoying themselves?”

– Taoist Mondo

I had always believed rocks were inert, dead, a non-entity, simply background in nature’s cornucopia of living plants and animals. I didn’t usually even notice their existence unless I tripped over one while walking down a path in the woods. Imagine my chagrin when my beloved spiritual teacher, Michio Kushio, started taking me on all-day excursions to Japanese Zen rock gardens around Los Angeles.

Now I’m talking ROCK gardens. These gardens contained nothing but stones—and sand! And sand is really only tiny, ground-up rocks. Once in a great while, one lone bush or tiny tree would grace the austere landscape. But, for the most part, the gardens were either three, or five, large boulders placed artistically in a bed of artfully raked sand.

To a kid in his early twenties, these were the most excruciatingly boring and physically painful outings I ever endured in my life. From dawn until dusk, Michio and I sat in one place within the garden observing lifeless blocks of granite. I was afraid to ask my revered teacher why we were there because I sensed it should have been obvious to me. Somehow, in Michio’s world, I was supposed to know. Besides, I learned Michio wasn’t about to tell me something he knew I could discover directly for myself.

Nonetheless, the truth was, I didn’t have a clue why we were sitting all day with a few nondescript stones in what amounted to oversized sandboxes. I guessed the purpose might be for me to appreciate the simple natural beauty of the rocks and their asymmetrical setting in the patterned sand. Or maybe the intent was simply to teach me how to quiet down and be still for a while in my whirlwind of a life.

Oddly, I didn’t really feel a need to know our mission there with the stones. I’d developed a deep trust in my friend. Under Michio’s tutelage, I’d experienced many wondrous and even miraculous events. I grew vegetables in the desert with no water, fertilizer, weeding or toil. I witnessed Michio levitating in the air. I assisted him in healing scores of people of serious physical ailments. So there was a magic about this man, and I wasn’t about to question his actions at this point in my odyssey with him. I knew in my heart, this was the right thing for me to be doing. That was enough for me.

At the time, I’d never meditated in my life and never wanted to. I absolutely hated sitting in one place for more than two minutes. I was a man of action and movement who required constant diversion. Now I was spending long, tedious hours watching slabs of granite with my friend Michio, for no apparent reason. Hey, I consoled myself, Michio could have asked me to roll a boulder up and down a hill endlessly like Prometheus in the Greek myth. All he was asking me to do was sit and stare at a boulder. I was fortunate!

Months passed before I unveiled the meaning behind this maddening meditation. Finally, as I was admiring the pattern and beauty of the various strata in one particular boulder, the stone spoke to me! I “heard” the rock speak in the same inner way I hear the plants in my garden talk to me. I surmise now that it took me longer to hear the rock because my belief that “rocks don’t talk” was stronger than my belief that “plants don’t talk.” In my old mode of thinking, plants were at least alive, while rocks were dead, inert, inanimate objects.

I received the “message” of the boulder in one complete communication. Its “speech” was in the form of vibration, a direct transmission of essence from heart to heart, from the spirit of the rock directly to my spirit. I received the total sense of what the rock was conveying to me in one precise package of energy, a succinct capsule of knowing.

The essence of the stone’s message to me was:

“All forms of life are alive, conscious and highly intelligent. This includes rocks, trees, insects, reptiles, viruses, rivers, planets and stars. Everything that exists has a spirit and is very aware. Everything that exists can communicate with all other forms of life. Most importantly, everything that exists has its own, unique story to tell. These stories are the gift each aspect of life has to share with whoever is receptive. Your purpose on the planet is to learn to love and communicate with all forms of life.”

After receiving this transmission, I realized why Michio and I spent months mediating in Zen rock gardens. He knew I needed to open to communication and appreciation of the mineral kingdom. He knew I needed to connect in a conscious, vital way to what I considered inanimate and dead material in order to understand that all forms of life are alive and aware. It was the breakthrough I needed to learn to commune and exchange energy with all aspects of life.

At the exact moment I allowed myself to “hear” the boulder, Michio suddenly popped around the corner and said, “We go.” We left.

Michio never took me to another rock garden. And we never spoke about our many visits with the boulders. Michio knew I had received what my soul needed that last day. Since then, the Spirit of Stone has been one of my most helpful and wise counsels on my life’s journey.