The Buddha said, “Analyse your lives carefully and you’ll see what’s at the basis of it. Look carefully,” he said. I translate texts, and there was a rather involved text that they wanted translated and I said, “No”. I didn’t really want to do it. That’s a very strong position to be in. So, they upped the fee per thousand and finally I agreed it. Then, every time I sat down to do it I thought, “It’s good. I’m getting a lot for this.” Then, I heard that somebody else was getting the same per thousand and, immediately, I started to feel exploited. I thought, “I can earn a lot more than he does. I should be doing better.” Then, when I sat down to do it I thought, “I ought to be getting more than this.” Then, I realised, or heard, that I was being paid per thousand words of English and he was being paid for a thousand characters of Japanese. Japanese expands a lot, so I was getting much more than he was. Then, immediately when I sat down I thought, “Well, good going, good going.” These are comical examples, but the Buddha said, “Look carefully at your lives and see your whole life can be based on envy, on spite, on the desire to dominate, on laziness, on prestige. These things can dominate the whole life and so we have no freedom.”
He said that these things are very small and they’re laughable, they’re comical. “It doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t really matter now.” Then, we get power. We’re all against tyranny, aren’t we, absolutely all of us? If I got power I’d be fair and passionate and generous, unselfish, hardworking… Would I? Yes, I’m against tyranny, terribly against it. The ruler should be a servant of the people. The Buddha gives this example. We’re all against it when we haven’t got the power, then when we get the power…
Read the early speeches of Mussolini, of Hitler, of Stalin, of Kim Il-sung, they’re all against tyranny, all of them, sincerely. It’s worse in the west reading the life of Nero. When he was eighteen he was an artist. When he became the Caesar, one of his first actions was a new act under which any slave who was mistreated could show the mark to a magistrate, and the magistrate must, then and there, be satisfied that it was mistreatment by the master and order a compulsory transfer. Now, at a stroke, Nero vastly improved their lives and freed from fear, perhaps, over a million people – slaves. A marvellously compassionate man, he wanted to replace the Roman military bloodstained triumphs, under which the captives were paraded in the triumphal procession of the victor and then executed, or tortured to death. He wanted to replace that with triumphs of art where the victors would be artists, would be musicians – a most civilised and cultured man. But, in a few years, he was taking part in the tortures personally, himself.
This is a fundamental point in Buddhism; we don’t know what’s in our own heart. There is a Zen story of a hermit who practised austerities in the mountains. He became able to read the thoughts of others, what was in the heart of others. He came down to see a famous Zen master. He said, “I have spent ten years in the mountains enduring the cold, sitting in meditation and my mind has become so penetrating I know what is in the heart of others.” The Zen master said, “Well, I have spent 20 years studying the wisdom of India.” So, the magician said, “What has that given you?” He said, “It’s given me the ability to see what’s in my own heart, which is much more important than knowing what’s in the heart of others.”
I asked a man who was a supporter of the so-called liberation theology, and he was saying you can’t be a real Christian unless you’re actively engaged in overthrowing the tyrannies in particular parts of the world. He was, himself, engaged in it. I said to him, “What guarantee have you got that when you get power you’ll behave any better?” He said, “I’m absolutely against these things.” I said, “Yes, you are now. What guarantee have you got that you’ll be better?” He said, “I never thought of that.”
So, one of the important things that the Buddha says is that no manipulating other organisations and circumstances is going to bring peace until we bring peace to our own heart. Nirvana Shantam. Nirvana – the blowing out of these compulsive passions in our heart – gives peace, and only that. Otherwise, the quarrels will rise again and again, and the murders will arise again and again.
Here’s an example: the head of a very big sect which has 15,000 temples under it was interviewed by a reporter – this is a Buddhist sect. He was to give a sermon on a particular anniversary occasion which the primate did. He gave a sermon and one of the things he spoke about was the dangers of power. He said, “There is a detachment from power when you haven’t got it and have no chance of getting it. You’re perfectly honest until you get the chance of taking a big bribe, and then you find out how deep the honesty goes. You’re perfectly honest until then.” He gave examples like this. After the sermon, the reporter, he reported this in the paper. He asked the primate, “You, yourself, sir, have a lot of power, don’t you? You’re the head of these 15,000 temples with many millions of devout followers, and a lot of money. You’ve got power.”
Well, I knew the old boy quite well and I asked him about this. He said, humorously, “Well, I said to him, ‘Yes, but you see the fact is that I’ve got this official position, I’m stuck up here. They’re all watching me like hawks. If I were to do anything, even the smallest bit wrong, there’d be criticism and they’d all be down on me. The fact is in this position I’ve got to be good. I’ve got power and, of course, I have to be a little bit careful. The fact is there’s no chance of doing anything else but behaving properly.’”
© Trevor Leggett
(Continued in ‘He said, “I had real power once.”)
Titles in this series are:
Part 2: He said, “I had real power once