A master who trained Tsuji Somei was a prominent roshi

A master who trained Tsuji Somei was a prominent roshi

One of the biggest Zen training temples in Japan gets quite a lot of pilgrims and has about two hundred monks in spite of the fact that it is situated in rather a remote place. They insist that pilgrims stay overnight and attend the 3.30 a.m. service which sometimes goes on for a couple of hours. Those who preside and take these great ceremonies wear magnificent gold and silver embroidered robes—masterpieces of the art.

On one occasion the head monk, whom I had come to know, was conducting the service. I was sitting in the front row of what one might call the ‘resident guests’. In fine presence and making a splendid spectacle, he passed before us in this gorgeous robe, catching my eye as he went. Of course, he gave no sign of recognition.

Two or three days afterwards I was talking to him in his room. He was wearing the usual plain robe of the ordinary monk, despite his high position in the temple, and he mentioned the ceremony of the other day. He said, ‘You know, those wonderful robes that I sometimes wear for the ceremonies, they’re not mine. Tomorrow somebody else will be wearing them. They belong to the temple, not to me; they’re just on me for the ceremony. Afterwards I take them off, deposit them, and come back into my room. And now I am myself.’

That was all he said, but he meant it as a lesson. Not only the robes in the ceremony, but the robes of honour in the world—they are not ours. They are only on us for a time. Then they have to be returned. While we are wearing them, we are not ourselves; we have to be able to take them off, deposit them, and then be ourselves.

A master who trained Tsuji Somei was a prominent roshi. He lived to be nearly a hundred, and he brushed two Chinese characters which he presented to me. They mean: Like a fool. Robes of honour are not appropriate to fools, but if they do happen to fall on such people and they pride themselves on them, they are worse than fools. So we should just keep like a fool.

This has certain advantages. To be a fool is to have no reputation, nothing to keep up, no obligations, and is in this sense an indicator for our spiritual and worldly life.

When you are wearing magnificent robes, you can’t really do anything in them except look magnificent. You can’t very well go gardening in full evening dress; your gleaming wing collar and shirt are quite unsuitable. In fact, evening dress is meant to separate you entirely from work or activity. This does not mean that working clothes necessarily have to be dirty or untidy; they simply ought to be appropriate. It is not wrong to put on a robe just occasionally, but if we take to wearing one all the time, it hampers us. We become tailors’ dummies for the robes to hang on.

Furthermore, many so-called honours are false. For example, a man is listed in the Guinness Book of Records together with his photograph. He is, understandably, proud of his achievement. But when he enquires the following year whether his record still holds for a listing in the new edition, he is not only told that his record has been beaten, but that it had, in fact, been smashed by a man in New Zealand prior even to his entry last year. Unable to get all the details before going to press, the editors had used his ‘second best’ as a substitute. ‘Of course,’ the editors tell him, ‘there will be an apology in the new edition, saying that the reported record last year was no record at all.’

Our moment of glory in these robes of honour is temporary, and is often a false one. Achievements in the world are of a similar nature. I knew a very good judo man in Japan in the 1930s who later became a good engineer and businessman. After the war he became a millionaire and once took me to the Millionaires Club in Tokyo. I looked round at the other millionaires and said to him, ‘What is the common element between all these people?’ He looked and said thoughtfully, ‘Luck! I don’t say some of them haven’t worked very hard, or aren’t very clever, but there are others who have worked just as hard and are just as clever, and who have not done so well. These people were in the right place at the right time. That’s just luck! Some small success comes from work and cleverness, but the biggest element of their great success has been luck.’

We think that the success we have in life is us. The lesson of the robes, or one of them, is that it comes to us, it doesn’t belong to us, and will leave us. If we hang on to robes of success, we shall not only be disappointed when they go, but we shall also not be able to do much that is useful while we are wearing them.

The aura of the robe can be false—as in the example of the Guinness Book of Records—but sometimes it is not so simple to decipher. When I was a student I was very keen on chess. Some of the Arab fellow students used to say that Western chess players didn’t really know about chess. And the Persians used to claim that it was their game—the word ‘check’ deriving from Persian shah, meaning ‘king’, and ‘checkmate’ from the Persian shah-mat, meaning ‘the king is dead’.

You copied the whole game from us,’ they used to say, ‘just as you copied so many other things, such as al-jabr (calculation), from the Arabs.’

One day I cornered one of them and he had to play against me. I suggested tossing a coin to decide who would be White and have the first move, but he waved his hand, ‘I’ll take Black. All the masters prefer Black.’ So I made the opening move, and I made it a cautious one. Now, he adopted a very risky policy, which contains traps for both sides—he mirrored the moves I made, so that the Black and White formations were symmetrical. One would have thought that White would have the advantage, but as a matter of fact it can be very tricky; there are some subtle traps. I felt quite nervous, not knowing all the traps, but knowing they would be there. He, meanwhile, was making his moves quickly and with confidence, still echoing mine. When I played pawn to queen’s rook three, he instantly played the same move from his Black side. The position was getting more and more tense. Not knowing what to do, I moved my bishop and gave a rather futile check! I knew it could give no advantage; he could meet it easily by interposing. But, to my amazement, instead of interposing, he moved his own bishop and said checkl This was against all the rules of the game. I stared at the board. One of the other Arabs who had been watching us burst out laughing. Fooled you there, didn’t we. I told him to copy your moves for as long as he could.’ I realized that this ‘master’ I had been playing, had no idea of chess at all. I laughed too, and we shook hands.

I was sixteen at the time, and it was quite a little lesson for the future. Sometimes, in judo, a man will come forward holding out just one hand instead of the usual two. This can mean he is either very good, or very bad. You soon find out, but to begin with you don’t know. The point underlying this uncertainty is that although these robes may be either imitation or genuine, in both cases they are not the real person, and you need to find out who is.

Chess is always encouraged by tyrants. The mock Chinese saying is: You cannot work out a difficult chess problem and at the same time plan a revolution! So tyrants have always encouraged chess in all the schools in their dominions.

Even in the constitutional monarchy of democratic Japan, every Japanese newspaper has a sizeable chess column. Every day, there is a long commentary on the moves of the current tournament. These are big national events, and the man who for ten years won almost all of them dominated the whole field for that time. His name was Oyama, and I knew him quite well.

He had an interesting history. When he was a small boy of twelve he was fascinated by shogi the Japanese form of chess—played on a bigger board than ours, with more pieces. And he wanted to be a chess master, even then. He lived in the Osaka area, so he went to the chief dojo (centre) in Osaka and managed to get an interview with the head teacher there, a famous master who had trained champions.

In response to his request to become an apprentice, the teacher gave him a few little tests, watched him play, and then said he could not take the boy on as a pupil as he did not have the talent. Little Oyama wept and begged and kept coming back. The teacher spoke to him seriously, T won’t take you as a pupil and raise false hopes in you. It would not be fair to you, and it would not be fair to me and the reputation of this dojo. Think of something else, table tennis perhaps, in which you might do well. But you haven’t got the talent for shogi.’

Well, the boy cried again and continued to haunt the place. Finally, the teacher said, ‘I won’t take you on as a pupil. But if you want, after school, you can come here and wipe the tables and help serve the tea. You can also watch the play and maybe someone will give you a game or two.’ The teacher probably thought that the boy would lose his crazy idea after a year or so.

However, Oyama did not lose his commitment, and soon, as he showed extraordinary aptitude for the game, the teacher willingly enrolled him as a pupil. Ultimately, he became a star of stars, unbeaten for ten years. It is an example of a very experienced trainer ruling out as talentless a potential super-champion.

When Oyama achieved his hundredth tournament victory, there was a big celebration in his honour. I wasn’t in Japan at the time, but read his acceptance speech. In it he said, ‘In my career I have scored one hundred major victories, that is quite true. However, in my career I’ve also scored two hundred defeats. But happily we are not talking about that now, are we?’ I very much admired the fact that he was not deluded by the tremendous acclamation which was showered on him. He was able to rise above it, in a humorous way.

The great Zen master, Bukko, said that if you get to the heights of anything, you are like a man who is on top of a mountain with all his possessions. When you and your things are on the top of a mountain, you have to keep hanging on to everything for dear life in order to prevent your possessions rolling down into the valley. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘best not to be on the heights, therefore, but to be down below where you can have the things and keep them.’

When we can’t wait for other people to honour us, we tend to put robes of honour on ourselves. There is one story about the great Saigo—the samurai who was absolutely free from the fear of death. He was also politically active, a prominent figure in the Meiji Restoration in Japan of 1868.

These were dangerous times in Japan and three men in Tokyo, who fanatically opposed his policies, decided to assassinate him. Not knowing where he lived, and assuming his house would be guarded, they approached a prominent Tokyo politician, Katsu Kaishu, who had once been an opponent of Saigo but who was now his friend, and with whom one of the assassins had an acquaintance. They concocted a plausible story, and asked Katsu for a letter of introduction to Saigo, which would give them the address and get them past the guard. Katsu agreed, but he had his doubts about their story. He went out to his study and came back with a sealed envelope, addressed to Saigo. He wrote his own name across the seal, and said impressively, ‘Hand that in.’ They took it confidently, but he had actually written to warn Saigo against them.

Unaware of this and well satisfied, they made the journey. They were slightly disconcerted to find that Saigo apparently lived still in a smallish, slightly shabby house in a far from fashionable quarter. Despite becoming a leading figure, Saigo had never moved into any sort of mansion. Moreover, he would not wear fine clothes. So when a burly man in a cheap robe came to the door in answer to their ring, they thought he must be a servant. They handed over their letter of introduction, ‘This is from the noble Katsu Kaishu to the noble Saigo Takamori, to introduce us. You hand it over to him.’

To their amazement, the supposed servant said, ‘I am Saigo,’ and opened the letter and read: I think the bearers of this note may be intending to kill you. Please take precautions. Saigo looked at them, ‘So you’ve come all the way from Tokyo to kill me, it seems,’ he said conversationally, ‘You must be tired after the long journey.’

A neighbour who saw the incident said that they were so taken aback by his perfect calm that they looked at each other and then left without a word. This was the sort of man he was.

He wrote some maxims for handling life. One of them is along these lines:

When a man sets about some undertaking, he generally completes seven or eight tenths of it, but rarely succeeds with the remaining two tenths. This is because at the beginning a man fully restrains his egoism and respects the work itself. Results begin to come and he gets some reputation. But then egoism stirs, the prudent and restrained attitude is relaxed, pride and boasting flourish. With a confidence born of his achievements so far, he plans to complete the work for his own ends. But his efforts have become bungling, and the end is failure, all invited by himself. Therefore, restrain the self and be careful not to heed what others do or say.

In these ways, we put robes of honour on ourselves, and they hamper us and we can’t do the job properly.

In judo there is a certain grading contest called ‘one-against-ten.’ You have to take on ten men—one after another. They are generally a couple of grades below you, and with luck half of them are so terrified of you, that it is easy to dispose of them. But one or two of them think, ‘Everybody knows I’m going to lose anyway, so I’ve nothing to lose,’ and they come shooting at you, taking fantastic risks. Because you are so sure of your own superiority, which he doesn’t seem to recognize, and because he comes straight at you—‘whoosh’—you can’t get the robes of self-conceit and assurance off in time, so that, once in a blue moon, he scores. Then you know what it is like to look an utter fool. This has happened to some rather famous contest men who were not fully alert because they felt it was not necessary. They had already put on the robes of their coming victory. No longer simply the judo champions they ought to be, they became judo champions combined with something restricting—judo champions in cumbersome robes of honour.

In the wider sense, putting robes on ourselves infects even the best actions. I may be being philanthropic by putting a gold coin in the bowl, but if I cough while I’m doing it, then the action is infected. I’m using it partly for my own sake and partly as a generous action. I get the illusion that, somehow, if the offering is worth more, it is more generous. But that is not so at all. I have been lucky; I happen to have more money, so I put a tiny bit more money in. That is not more generous than someone who has been unlucky, has very little, and puts in only a copper.

We know this in theory, but it is extremely difficult for a wealthy man not to feel that he can buy his way into everything, including the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ said that a rich man had no more chance of getting in than a camel of getting through the eye of a needle, and in India the saying is used of an elephant.

One Indian teacher, echoing his whole tradition, used to say, ‘When you find that you are becoming respected and honoured, that’s the time to leave.’

Echoing this view, the Chinese recount the case of a Taoist master who had a very promising pupil. The pupil finally attained enlightenment, and the enlightened pupil became a teacher, a very famous one. Often, on the veranda outside his house, many shoes were to be seen deposited by pupils. One day his own old teacher happened to pass that way and he saw all the shoes. He waited, and when they had all gone he went in to visit his pupil. He told him, ‘Get away at once! Don’t hang about here a moment longer.’

Well, this is one tradition; it may not be the same in all traditions, but it is worth remembering. Do what you are to do, and then go! Don’t hang about.

A chess champion in this part of the world isn’t regarded as a particularly remarkable human being. He is thought of only as extremely good at chess. But in the Far East the training tries to cultivate a sort of inner balance, courage, and inspiration. Some famous masters have written best sellers on this inner training; it is not just working out chess combinations.

In Japan I was permitted to go in and watch one champion, Kimura, playing in a big tournament. They don’t play championships in public; they do it in a private room. However, it is recorded on a huge board in a neighbouring hall where the public can see it and ask questions of a commentator-master. They think it is ridiculous to have hundreds of people watching two men playing chess, as we do. Is there any game with less visible action to watch than chess?

During the tournament that I sat watching, there was only one move that Kimura could make. But he didn’t make it. He just sat there. I thought, ‘Has he fallen asleep?’ He was playing against a much younger man who had a brilliant future before him. Kimura had only one possible move. His opponent was fanning himself, drinking tea, going to the toilet, coming back and settling himself carefully on the cushion, and fidgeting generally. After about ten minutes Kimura made the move he had to make. His opponent responded in a flash. Then Kimura went into a trance again . . . And he won. He won because the young man made a blunder in his impatience to move the game on.

Afterwards, I met Kimura, and to my astonishment he was a fast talking wisecracking Tokyo cockney. I said to him, ‘How is it that your chess personality is so different from your ordinary personality?’

He said, ‘When I was young, I played many games against an old master who did what you saw me doing. Although sometimes there was only one move to make, he didn’t make it. He would just sit there. I used to get so impatient and felt, ‘Oh, anything to speed things up!’ Consequently, as he played slower and slower, I was making moves quicker and quicker. I would reply instantly, and in my impatience I would make a blunder. I realized that although I was better than he was, I was always going to lose to him.’

Many of us can recognize this problem in some form in our own lives. In the West, when chess masters are impatient—and some of them are—they are told to sit on their hands so as not to make a quick impulsive move. But this is just a makeshift solution. Kimura found something quite different. He said, ‘I realized I would always lose. So next day I took out an empty chessboard and put it in front of me. Then I sat in front of it for an hour without moving. I did this for a few days. Then I sat in front of it for two hours without moving—no pieces on it—I just sat there. For a good time I was just seething inwardly, watching the clock. But, suddenly, in the second week, I felt a sort of calm. Now I can sit here; and now I can out-sit any of them.5

I watched Oyama, a later champion, in one of his big games. He had Black which meant that he had the opening move. In our chess we always decide what our opening move is going to be beforehand, and we make it immediately because there is a time limit. But when the timekeeper said ‘Begin’, Oyama simply sat, and he sat for what seemed like ten minutes. And then he played. I asked him afterwards, ‘Why do you sit before there are any moves made at all?’

He told me, ‘When you go to play chess, or anything else, you have an idea of how you are going to win. When I sit there, I give that up entirely; I give up those thoughts. I sit without thoughts, hopes and fears. And then I begin to feel what he is feeling and thinking. There’s a current across the board, and if I have cleared my mind of how I’m going to attack and defend, then I begin to feel how he is—whether he’s nervous, whether he’s confident, whether he’s energetic that day, whether he’s dull that day. This I can begin to feel, and then I can adapt my game.’

Another thing he said was, ‘One of the difficult things is to win a “won” game.’ In shogi and chess, and at many times in life, you get into a position where you’ve got such a big advantage that you can definitely win. So why should this be difficult? Shogi or chess or any other such endeavour often leads up to a crisis whereby one side turns out to have the advantage, at which point it’s a question of driving home that advantage. Yet, once you realize you have won the game, you are no longer that same person, putting in all the effort to win. Instead, complacency sets in as you prematurely assume the robes of honour, or place the laurels of victory on your head. Your efforts are impeded and your judgements affected. Because you are in a position of superiority, complete effort is no longer required, which tends to lower or impede what could be achieved. It is difficult to forget the coming victory and think with force, judgement and clear-sightedness. The coming victory in which we crown ourselves hampers our movement.

It can sometimes be doubted whether there is really anyone at all inside a set of magnificent ceremonial robes. All their stiff embroidery and the wonderful effect on those that see them can be at the expense of the true point of the ceremony. We may all know this, but we are often impressed by things we don’t fully understand.

I had an early experience of this as a small boy. At the end of term, the clergyman-headmaster used to read in a deep voice a short chapter from the Book of Ecclesiastes of the Old Testament. The words were sonorous and they seemed to reverberate in the head. I thought, ‘How wonderful! It’s all in the Bible, so it must be true.’ But as to what it actually meant . . ? ‘When it’s holy,’ I thought, ‘I don’t suppose one can expect to understand.’ This is the main part of the passage that the headmaster used to read to us at the end of every term.

While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

Also, when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern;

Ecclesiastes 12, v 2-6

The mere words painted pictures:.. the almond tree shall flourishWhere?.. he shall rise up at the voice of the bird… Why?.. the strong men shall bow themselves the keepers of the house shall tremble

. . silver cord loosed . . . What for? . . or the golden bowl be broken … Can it be?.. pitcherwellwheelcistern

The old translation has a wonderful swing, and paints magical but disjointed pictures, with golden bowl and silver cord, and daughters of music and almond trees. But we were never told what it meant. And we never asked! Scriptures are full of passages like this. It was years later that I discovered that these are beautiful allusive descriptions of old age. The almond tree blossom is white: this is the white hair of age. The keepers of the house will tremble, means that the knees will begin to shake. Strong men shall bow themselves, means the back will become bent. Those who look out of windows will be darkened, is the failing sight. These are periphrases, surpassingly beautiful and perceptive of old age. But we didn’t know. He shall rise up at the voice of a bird, is the people waking up very early.

Perhaps our headmaster thought some of the explanations might be embarrassing. The clouds shall return after the rain, is a riddle. I have heard a clergyman say he thought it meant that when you are old and you get some little ailment, you recover and think it’s passed, only for it to return again. But, of course, it has a much more literal meaning than that. The words are very beautiful, wonderful, verbal robes, but they half conceal what is really meant. We have to find the deeper meaning in them.

Robes of Honour from the Old Zen Master

© Trevor Leggett


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