Does Zen training have to be changed for the West?

Trevor Leggett is interviewed by David White.

D.W : Does Zen training have to be changed for the West?

T.L : Ultimately, in any field, the point is whether a thing works. But for the training, there is the question, how much the intellect needs to be satisfied.

In Judo for instance, if you tell a Japanese to pull in a particular way, he will do it, and he is prepared to go on doing it for perhaps six months without asking fussy questions about it. If the teacher is a good one the student will begin to get results, and only then will the teacher explain why it had to be that way and no other. But Western  people often cannot keep their minds settled.

The Japanese view is that until you have practised and experienced something you cannot possibly understand the reason for it. But many Westerners are a bit like a dog taken into a new house ‑ he cannot rest until he has explored every room and all round the garden. Western people want to know intellectually. Zen is not so forthcoming in this respect ‑ it says by practice you will come to know and then your knowledge will have some meaning.

The Indian systems of training are closer to the Western; they believe in giving you a theoretical outline. But this outline is tentative, and will have to be modified in the light of practice. Although it is not untrue, your understanding of it now, without having practised it much, makes it untrue, because you are super‑imposing your preconceptions on it.

When Chinese poetry came to Japan, a lot of it had to do with tea. The Japanese had never seen or tasted tea, but they could appreciate the poems, and some of them even wrote poems about tea without ever having seen it. Right through their history the Japanese have been used to the idea that there are all sorts of things you do not know and cannot know yet, which you have to take on trust.

D.W : The Westerner may be prepared to do Zen, keep on sitting or walking or whatever…

T.L : … But he will keep on asking his intellectual questions. He’s trying to get answers. This can make a split in him: increase the internal friction.

D.W : Is this a good thing?

T.L : It depends what one can stand. It may mean that the failure rate is higher. But it will, I suppose, mean that the ones who are successful will be strong.

Let me give you an actual case. I knew a Japanese woman, who was a Christian, whose mother had trained in Zen under a great teacher, at the end of the last century. The daughter told me a story about her mother (which the mother had related to her once, very privately).

She became very ill, and she went to her Zen teacher and told him that the doctors had hinted to her that she was going to die, that the illness was fatal.

The teacher said, “After three years nobody will miss you.” She said, “I’m going to die. Can’t you help me?” He shouted, “If you’re going to die, die quick!” ‑ pushed her out of the room and slammed the sliding doors behind her.

So she went into the mountains to die quick.  She went to a cave. On the second night she had a vision of Bodhisattvas, standing in a vast space.

Something changed inside her and she came down and recovered. She became a very famous figure in Zen and the daughter told me that people came from all over Japan to meet her.

The teacher might not have said that to just anyone – it’s a pretty tough reply. Although I may say that phrase has been useful to me once or twice in serious crises. “If you’re going to die, die quick!”

Another case.  A man who had a lot of internal illnesses wanted to go into a Zen monastery for a time to train there. But he had heard that the food was very bad (which it is ‑ about 1300 calories a day. The U.N. poverty level is around 2,200 calories). He asked the teacher if he thought his condition would allow it. The teacher simply said, “Your condition ‑ give it up”.

In the Indian tradition, a teacher would say to someone seriously ill: “This illness ‑ perhaps this death soon ‑ is the result of your past karma. You can minimize it or maximize it. Try to minimize it by devotion to the Lord, and by doing something for other people every day. The Lord is compassionate. You must accept this thing from the Lord. However it is, you must see, and feel, His finger in what happens”.

With a particular pupil at a particular time, a good Zen teacher might say almost the same thing. And with a particular pupil at a particular time, an Indian teacher might tell him or her to die quick. But one could say that their general traditions are somewhat different.

There are people who are stimulated, sometimes to greatness or to realization, by remarks, like “If you’re going to die, die quick!”. But others might be crushed. It is one thing to consider these things when you are sitting comfortably in an armchair; it is quite different actually confronting it. I would have thought there is a fundamental difference in the  training as a whole.

D.W : Must we take all the ritual chanting etc. of Zen – “take the package” as the traditions have come to us in the West? Or can we leave these things out?

T.L : When Zen went from India to China, it changed.  When it went from China to Japan, it changed.  These changes were in accordance with the character and traditions of the people. For instance, in India and in Japan the warrior rated highly as a candidate for spiritual training; in China he did not.

But it takes a teacher of great experience to supervise these changes.  He must know both of the traditions well.  If people try to take certain things, and discard others, before they have real experience of the training, they will simply reinforce their own preconceptions.

And it may be that at a moment of crisis – great fear, or great temptation, when that moment comes – the tradition is all that is left to you to uphold you.

This is the record of T’ien‑shan Ch’ing:

Whenever I attempted to utter a word, the master would at once declare, ‘Something lacking!’ One day when deeply absorbed in meditation, I came across this ‘something lacking’. All the bonds that had hitherto bound my mind and body were dissolved at once, together with every piece of my bones and their marrow.  It was like seeing the sun suddenly bursting through the snow-laden clouds and brightly shining.  As I could not contain myself, I jumped down at once from the seat, and running to the master took hold of him, exclaiming, ‘Now, what am I lacking?’  He gave me three slaps and I bowed to him profoundly.  Said the master ,’O T’ien-shan, for many years you have exerted yourself for this very thing.  Today at last, you have it’.

( from Essays in Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki.  Vol. 2 p121-122. Rider & Company).

© Trevor Leggett