The merit of Hearing the Law

When in reverence this truth is heard even once,

He who praises it and gladly embraces it has merit without end.

THESE lines are still concerned with the virtue of the practice of zazen, but here, in particular, the merit of Hearing the Law. In the writings of Zen master Sho-ichi it is said: “This truth is the path to supreme liberation, and when once it has entered a man’s ear, he is a candidate for Bodhisattvahood.” The Mahayana is being spoken of, but the merit of Hearing the Law may be taken to apply to all the Law of the Buddha. In general, hearing the preaching of the Law is a most noble thing, and from ancient times it has been laid down that to acquire peace one must first hear the Law. There is a poem by one of exalted rank:

We should pass through flames to hear the Law—

What to say of rain, wind, or snow?

So he himself set out, disregarding the morning snow and the evening hurricane, to hear.

This hearing is one of the triad—hearing, thinking, practising—of which it is taught: by hearing, thinking, and practising we enter Samadhi. Samadhi is the heart of the way to enlightenment. Hearing means by the ear; thinking means pondering in the heart; and practising means the putting into actual practice.

Hearing with the ear, thinking in the heart, practising with the body,

Soon sounds the hell of entry into enlightenment, so runs an ancient song of the Way, and it is indeed so. It is important that we listen to this great Law, receive it deeply into our hearts, and so far as our circumstances allow, exert ourselves to practise it. In hearing the preaching of the Law the most important thing is faith. The scripture says: “By faith, know; by practice, prove.” Through faith the Law first enters, then it is pondered in the heart, and then practised by the body—this is the order in which enlightenment is attained.

Certainly there are those who say that a little hearing or preaching of the Law is of little account. But these are people who are well advanced on the Way, and have forgotten how it was that they entered upon it. Today they have left behind the stage of the mouth and the stage of the ear; they are at the stage of practice, and reject hearing and speaking. Still, when a man is asked, for instance, to subscribe for some lecture meeting, even though he wriggles out of it, he has to listen to quite a lot about it. And in whatever way it may be, as the first step in entering on the path, hearing is important. But we are warned that there are three kinds of hearing. The first is what might be called shot-gun hearing: that is, to receive something from one side and shoot it out on the other side, retaining nothing at all. The second kind is like a basket: when something is put in, the real substance leaks away, and just a residue remains. The third kind of hearing is like digestion: getting rid of the rubbish and absorbing only the substance. In listening to the Law we must take care to hear in the third way. If not, the bliss is only second-hand; the ear is in paradise, but the ear alone.

When this blessed truth comes to the ear, namely when as a result of past good actions one is enabled to hear it, then he who understands his good fortune and reveres the Law, his blessedness is boundless and his merit limitless. In Buddhism, reverence for the Law is a special virtue, and what is most wanted in daily life these days is reverence.

We sympathize with others when misfortune or calamity overtakes them. That is truly a beautiful thing. At the time of the great earthquake in Japan it was indeed moving how the whole world extended its sympathy. Among individuals too, when an acquaintance suffers a mishap, sometimes we are surprised how fellow-feeling bubbles up in us. But where it is a case of good fortune, for instance if someone goes up in the world, how is it then? With our speech we congratulate them and tell them how glad we are, but as to whether we are really pleased about it, there is an old verse which gets to the root of the matter:

Good friends, hut lately become distant—

This gentleman next door has built a new warehouse!

When the new warehouse is built, it is a sign of prosperity, and the neighbour pretends to be pleased for his friend, but really it is otherwise. Friends for a long time, but lately somehow they have become cold and distant. Pondering how it began, he realizes the cause is that “this gentleman next door has built a warehouse!” Isn’t it mean? Isn’t it narrow-minded? This is envy, the picture of a narrow and hateful human heart. Again, when we are confronted with virtue, with someone’s good action, it is not just that we cannot rejoice in it. Probably it is to cover up our own absence of good actions, but it is not unusual not merely to fail to rejoice over it, but instead to sneak round to put a spoke in the wheel, and by hook or crook do some harm. How hateful and sinful! We are warned in the sutras that there are many terrible sins in this world, but there is none so terrible as to be envious of wisdom and virtue, and to spoil another’s good action. Whereas there is no sin so terrible as envy of wisdom and goodness and spoiling a virtuous action, conversely it is needless to say what a noble and great virtue it is to revere from the heart another’s virtue. It is rather easy to sympathize with misfortune or calamity, but it takes a good deal of a man to be able to rejoice at another’s good luck or virtue.

It is not by chance that in the Buddhist code the virtue of rejoicing at the welfare of others surpasses even giving. Truly a noble thing, sublime and meritorious, the virtue of rejoicing for others. Now up jumps someone enthusiastically: “I agree, rejoicing for others is a fme thing. What you have said is right, and from now on I shall go in for it. Instead of striving for merit by giving money or breaking my bones helping those public movements or charitable activities which are such a nuisance, I shall watch the others doing it and afterwards rejoice and tell them how well they have done and how praiseworthy it all is! How fortunate that rejoicing rates higher than giving! What a wonderful religion Buddhism is!” This is the greatest of errors. He who can rejoice from his heart at the good deeds of another could never be satisfied unless he himself were performing them also.

The Song is referring to praise and rejoicing in connection with hearing the Law, but the real virtue is to feel them from the heart at all right actions. And the sin is not just a question of not doing right actions oneself, but being envious of them in others and wanting to spoil them, ending up as a mere tool of the passions arising from narrow selfishness, a mere slave to name and profit. The illustrious Emperor Kiso of the T‘ang Dynasty in China once made a visit to the Kinzanji temple on the Yangtze River. At the temple the scenery is exceptionally fme, and the throne was set at the top of the temple tower, giving the best view of the river. The emperor was conducted to his seat. He saw on the great river countless boats, some going up and some going down, some to the right and some to the left, so that it might almost have been mistaken for the sea. He was overjoyed to see the prosperity of the country he ruled: trade and commerce thus flourishing—what we should call today a fully developed country. At his side was standing the abbot of the temple, Zen master Obaku, and the emperor remarked to him: “How many flying sails on the river,

I wonder?” In other words, how many ships would there be on the water. The abbot smoothed his robe and replied respectfully: “Only two.” The emperor’s satisfied expression was wiped off his face. What did he mean, with his two ships? Even now in front of one’s very eyes were there not at least a hundred, perhaps two hundred? Two ships indeed! Was he making light of his emperor, laughing at him and making a fool of him? His face showed that the reply was not pardoned. “How two ships?” he asked. Zen master Obaku’s expression showed not the slightest disturbance. Respectfully he answered: “Here are only the ship of name and the ship of profit.” Name means seeking for reputation, and profit means seeking for gain. As Your Majesty sees, there are many ships on the river, but one half of them are sailing for fame, and the other half to make money. The ship of name and the ship of profit, only these two are on the river. Pondering the thought, the emperor gave a deep, deep sigh. It was as the abbot had said. In administration, in economic strength, in industry, in education, the culture of the T‘ang dynasty can only be called brilliant. But what of the people who participated in that culture? If their motive was not name, it was money; if not money, then name. Apart from these two they cared for nothing. Then like thunder from a clear sky the emperor gave sweeping orders for reform. In that moment he saw the truth, and from his determined policy arose the famous culture of the great T‘angs.

The parallel is not far to seek: is not the condition of Japan today like that? There is unprecedented prosperity, and it must be called a brilliant civilization. But of the people, there are hardly any who are not wrapped up in money or fame. Those who have obtained them are regarded as well off and fortunate, and are flushed with pride, and those who haven’t them are disappointed and discouraged, writhing with hatred of everyone and curses on the world. Isn’t it so? This philosophy of name and money is an all-important problem; ugly and narrow as it is, people make it supreme in their lives and depend entirely on those two things for their support. But we have to think of our real nature and get a right understanding. We must not lose the Way here. If we are lost in these things, the rejoicing at hearing the Law will hardly arise and paradise will be far away.

In whatever age, the problem of name and money has always been the worst. It is on this point that we go astray or are enlightened, that we sink or swim. There are only two alternatives: to be a king who can use name and money, or to be a slave rushing about in pursuit of them. Many people are entirely the latter. There is the following story: In a certain zoo, a famous tiger died. The owner of the zoo was worried about the effect on the popularity of the place, and finally formed a plan to have the skin taken off and get someone to go inside to play the tiger. It was not easy to find a man, but finally a drunken good-for-nothing took the job for a salary of thirty yen a day plus three quarts of the rice wine called sake. Every day this man used to don the tiger skin and go into the cage, where he attracted the gaze of the public by posturing lazily in front of them, from time to time having a drink of the sake he had with him in the skin. One public holiday the zoo was crowded. There was a tremendous mass of people in front of the cages of the tiger and his next-door neighbour, a lion. Among them were two merry students. One of them said: “There’s no animal so strong as a tiger. You know that old poem all about the tiger’s roar and the towering mountain and the moon above—well, it’s right. Look what a terrific one this is. …” The other retorted: “Nonsense! The lion’s the king of the beasts, and when he roars all the others tremble. Everyone knows that. And just look at this lion here, what a beauty he is!” From this a quarrel developed, which ended in their asking the owner of the zoo to pit the two beasts against each other, he to be indemnified for whatever loss he might incur. Hearing this, the ‘‘tiger’’ was terrified, but before he could do anything the lock on the door to the next cage was opened, and the lion bounded furiously in. The crowd held its breath. Shaking, the tiger got to its feet. For a little while the lion seemed to play with the other like a cat with a mouse, and in so doing its mouth came against the tiger’s ear. A voice came: ‘ ‘ You needn’t shake like that—I’m a three-quart man too!”

There is more here than just a satire on modern life. All modern people do wear a skin, it is true. But from the standpoint of Hakuin’s teaching that all living beings are from the very beginning Buddhas, this humorous tale has a special meaning. Lions and tigers, in different forms, they are pathetically posing before the spectators as exhibits in a show. But in them is living always a noble human being. There are only two alternatives: to live hidden by the skin, or to throw it off and live openly.

As the mind of its possessor

It becomes a treasure or an enemy—

The yellow gold.

The metal itself has no value; the thing is whether one is able to use it or not. There is a Western saying that money is the best of servants and the worst of masters. There is nothing noble in money; the nobility is in being able to use it. It isn’t difficult to get rich; the difficulty is to find the right Way. Hakuin tells us:

Until he is confronted by wealth,

who knows the inner heart of the virtuous man?

Until he is confronted by difficulty,

who knows the loyalty of the retainer?

Certainly most people these days prefer doughnuts to flowers.

What sort of cherry-viewing party is it without a drink?

What sort of husband is it without money?

Fuddled by dreams, they pass between tears and laughter. It is in the face of money that the Way is most difficult.

Desires on the heart, and snowflakes on the ground;

As they pile up, the Way is lost.


But with a keen eye for their share

Of the dead mother s possessions.

The latter poem, by Abbot Ikkyu, describes with brutal frankness the selfishness over money.

Don’t worry over it; deposit your money with the world.

The rascals who want it, let them work for it.

And if they get it with their sweat and elbow-grease and honest effort it is alright. But today it is just the reverse. People do not want to get it in the proper way by their sweat and toil. They think themselves hard done by unless they can get rich in some interesting, amusing, and pleasant way. An old woman put up a notice for certain of the customers in her wineshop:

You buy on credit and the accounts pile up and it’s bad business.

Come with ready money, and I will gladly serve you.

A customer quietly replaced this with another which read:

Buying on credit, I feel I am getting it free.

When I have ready money, I go elsewhere.

Nothing to choose between .them. What is needed today is to reflect on ourselves. The world is like a tub of water. When we want water, we keep scooping it to us and to us, and it comes rushing, but at once goes past and away round to the other side. On the other hand, if we push it away and away and away to the other side, it rushes away from us but at once is coming round to us again. So we are always trying to get money for ourselves, always for ourselves, but we do not get very much. As we get it we are losing it. But when we begin thinking for others and are doing everything for them, we lose everything, but in fact we are gaining it. The ideal is to see that our own interest is that of others; if we make our own interest the objective, we do not make a profit, and if we make the interest of others the objective, we do not take a loss. Gain in this world is like the water swirling round in the tub. When we realize in practice that our own interest is the interest of others, and can praise and rejoice in the Zen meditation of the Mahayana, for the first time we are freed from the wrong paths, and paradise can manifest itself.

© Trevor Leggett

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