Zen came by historical accident to Japan, when the whole of the Far East was under a tremendous thundercloud – the Mongols – and Japan was facing this threat for a long time. The role of the warrior was of supreme importance to Japan at that time. They knew they were going to have to face this, but they didn’t know when it would come; and, even after the second invasion had been repelled, they were still preparing for the third.
One great teacher in Japan, his name is Omori Sogen, is the teacher of the Jesuit who recently wrote the book, ‘Zen and the Bible’. He is a great calligrapher. He was a very good fencing master, before he took up Zen. He makes his pupils write characters in water on the paper every day; and, at the end of every week, they write a few in ink. He told me that one of his main methods of teaching is through the characters. He said that he doesn’t insist that the form of the character should be perfect because, after all, it would never be as good as the great master’s, whose characters appear in the book. But he looks at the character and he says to the pupil, “You see, you started off with a big bang and then you became hesitant.” And to another pupil, he’ll say, “Look how dull and spiritless this is”, and to another one, he’ll say, “Yes, it’s beautifully formed, but on rather a small scale.” He says, in this way, they’ll accept the statements about the character, and their state of mind as reflected in the character. They can accept that very easily; but, if I were to say to one man, “You’re dull,” or another one, “You start off everything with a big bang and then suddenly have doubts about it,” or to another one, “You do everything on a tiny little scale,” they would not find it so easy to digest. But through the medium of the character, he said he can give spiritual instruction much more easily in the general run of the training. Well, this is an example of one of the things which developed in Japan.
We had a very good woman artist over here not long ago, and one of the things she was saying was that when she does a picture, which she does in about 10 seconds, she said, “I have to confront the paper.” And then she said, “Your Western artists,” and she made an imitation of someone peering at a painting, “they go up to the picture and [peer]; but with us we have to face it with our whole being.” Well, this is another example.
Zen came by historical accident to Japan, when the whole of the Far East was under a tremendous thundercloud – the Mongols – and Japan was facing this threat for a long time. The role of the warrior was of supreme importance to Japan at that time. They knew they were going to have to face this, but they didn’t know when it would come; and, even after the second invasion had been repelled, they were still preparing for the third. They didn’t know that Kublai Khan, by then, was unable to mount a third one. So by historical accident, Zen came in at this particular time; and that meant that the warrior class, who were attracted to Zen because of its enlightenment on the conflict situation, gave a colouring to Zen.
It wasn’t all warriors. There are two ways in which a tradition can come. One is for a native of the host country, so to say, to go to the other country and to steep themselves in its traditions; and then come back. And the other way is to invite teachers from that country to this country. You can see that both of these methods of transmission have advantages and disadvantages. Dogen was one of the greatest figures in Japanese spiritual history. He went to China where he trained. The tradition that he finally established in Japan has renunciation of the world as its background – isolation, transcendental loneliness. His teacher in China wrote a poem, “In which”, Dogen says, “the whole of the spiritual practice and realisation is summed up.” This poem is translated in different ways, but I’ve seen a picture by a disciple of a very good Soto Zen teacher, depicting this. The poem is this:
“The whole body, like a mouth hanging in emptiness; not caring whether the wind comes from east, or west, or south, or north; equally declaring the prajna wisdom. Te-ting. Tong. Yung. Te-ting. Tong.”
The picture is of a bell that hangs on the eaves of a temple; and it has some sacred texts on it. When the wind blows from the north, or the east, or the west, or the south, this is caught and the bell rocks. When the wind doesn’t blow, it hangs in perfect silence. ‘The whole body, like a mouth hanging in emptiness; not caring whether the wind blows’ – the wind of hostility, of patronage, of kindness, of learning, of ignorance; ‘to all equally’ – to the enemies and the friend – ‘declaring the prajna wisdom. Te-ting. Tong. Yung. Te-ting. Tong.’ In Eihei-ji, the remote monastery, he retired far from the city, ‘hanging in emptiness’. When the people came, the whole body became a mouth to declare the prajna wisdom.
The other branch was brought mainly by Chinese who came to Kamakura, the head of the effective, executive government and to Kyoto, the cultural capital. And this had a great effect on the rulers, and the warriors, and also the women of the warrior class and others – there was no discrimination. But the conflict situation was one of the main means through which Truth was expressed – because the pupils were people who were going to have to face an attack which, if successful, would destroy them and most of their country. So, by this historical accident, a conflict situation became important.
You know, perhaps, some of the doctrines about the Ways. In Zen, meditation and practice show itself as inspiration in a small area of a particular Way and that can then be extended. It’s much more easily seen in that small area. If you see a first-rate ballerina walking, her walking is different from that of other people. But it’s easier to see her skill when she is dancing in that field. In the same way, the inspiration can show itself very easily in the field. But here, there is no field to demonstrate, so we have to go and look at the wider field, although it’s harder to express and not so clearly seen.
One of the things that the warriors learned in Zen is exemplified in a phrase of Mencius originally, “Don’t have your dealings with men; have your dealings with heaven.” The word I’ve translated means a partner or an opponent – one who stands opposite you, vis-à-vis; he can be an opponent or a partner. The word is used in both senses, and in the phrase of Mencius, “Don’t have a man as your opponent or your partner; have heaven as your opponent or partner.” And this Confucian phrase was used.
People often want to know what happens when two inspired swordsmen meet. The phrase is, “In the victory of the one, heaven wins; and in the defeat of the other, heaven yields.” It’s not so easy to understand. My hands are fighting to get the pen. The left hand with a steady pull is lifting upward; the right hand is pulling downward. But a man can only pull downward with his own weight; with a steady pull upwards he can raise considerably more than his own weight. So the left hand wins, and the right hand is left with nothing. But the purpose of this pulling was to uncap the pen, so, in fact, in the victory of the one, I have won; and in the loss by the other, I have yielded – and then the cooperation. It’s not so easy; it sounds simple but, in actual fact, it’s not so easy when the time comes.
Some little committee that was formed in a sports club long ago gave an old member something to do. So he kept the minutes and they made little decisions that didn’t matter; and he’s done all the minutes with all the discussions – even the weather. It’s been beautifully kept in the minute book. Then I come along, and I think, “No, we’ll just put the decisions.” The man says, “Oh, it’s been kept up for 20 years.” And I think, “It’s a waste of time”, and out of devilment I scrap all the old minute books and just put the decisions in. Well, I’ve won, but heaven has not won. He hates me for it, and he is had to yield; but heaven has not yielded.
Then the time comes, perhaps, that I’m an expert gardener, and in the little lake at the back of the clubhouse I’ve raised some rare plants – there’s a floating plantation in Hokkaido that’s terribly difficult to cultivate. And I do it with infinite pains – I keep it going in the English climate. Then somebody comes along, and they say, “We don’t want a lake at the back. Let’s have a putting green.” Then I must remember; and if I can remember and yield, perhaps heaven yields – if I can remember. In many of the Kamakura texts, this comes in: “In the victory of the one, heaven wins; in the defeat of the other, heaven yields.” And we’re expected to apply this in our lives. It’s not very easy.
Now, I just give an example. I saw in the Judo hall in Japan a man who, in my time, was very, very good indeed – almost a Judo genius. About 20 years later when he was 45, well, sometimes people falsify, they forget momentarily that they are 45, and then it’s almost as though they were young men again. I saw this man against a young student of about 20 or 21, who was good. I could see that the senior began to pitch in, which is quite rare. It was a marvellous demonstration of different techniques but, with the passage of years, your balance and your speed, are a tiny bit affected; and he couldn’t quite throw him. The younger man was good, but nothing like is good. It was tragic, in a way, to have seen this man at the peak of his ability, and then 20 years later, it was almost the same, but it was just not enough against the youth. He came off, and as I knew him fairly well before, I said, “Twenty years ago you would have murdered that fellow,” and to my surprise, he looked very satisfied. He said, “No, he’s coming on very well. He’s my best pupil, and I wanted to see what he could do. He’s coming on very well.” Then I realized that in that tremendous set-to they’d had, there was a unity; and, in a sense, the teacher was seeing his own skill beginning to be reflected in the pupil – and that’s why he tried so hard with those quite dangerous tricks. There was heaven in the victory of the one, and heaven in the defeat of the other.
Well, this was a good lesson and a good demonstration. We can say these things, ‘heaven wins, heaven yields’, but in the Kamakura koans there are tests – and they are tests as to whether one is qualified to say these things, or to do these things. This is not a Japanese story, although there are parallels to it. Because it’s very clear, I’ll give it in the Indian form. The usual form is a king and a minister. They’re generally chosen because they both have choice. The king worships God and performs his duties very successfully. The minister is his spiritual advisor – a man far advanced on his spiritual path. The king gets to know, by chance, that the minister doesn’t worship God, that the minister meditates on shining space – on himself as shining space. The king thinks he would like to do that too; and he says this to the minister, who says, “No – you are performing your role. Worship God; offer the fruits of your struggles to God, without being elated or depressed; and you’re practising your austerities. This is your path, this is your role.” But the king said, “No. I want to do this which you do. I can say this too – ‘myself, my true nature, is shining space’.” The Minister says, “You can say it; but it won’t have any effect.” And the king says, “Why not?” So the minister calls the guard, who is always present on the far side, even when the king is talking to a close friend. He beckons the guard, who comes running up and stands to attention. The minister says, “Slap his face” and the guard’s jaw drops. He said, “You heard me. Slap his face.” But the guard shuts his mouth and stands to attention. Then the minister says to the king, “You say it.” And the king says softly, “Slap his face” and the guard, with evident satisfaction, gives the minister a tremendous slap. The king says, “Not so hard, not so hard.” The guard goes back and the minister says, “You see, the king was qualified, but I was not qualified to say it.”
One can say, “With a command, yes – one’s always got to be above, and one below; but not with the declaration of the Truth.” But, no – we have to be qualified to speak it, and we have to be qualified to hear it.
The minister and the king dress up in poor clothes and go out. They see some children playing and the minister says, “The king is here making an inspection. What would you like?” The little girl says, “Where’s your elephant? The king comes on an elephant – where’s your elephant?” The king says, “Well, I haven’t got my elephant with me now. What would you like?” The little girl says, “When you come again, come on your elephant.” The minister gives them a coin, and he says, “You see, they’re not qualified to hear it. I’m qualified to speak it, but they can’t take it in. They know the meaning of the words, ‘The king is here’, but they can’t take it in.”
Then they go to the market and the minister finds a cheeky little boy and gives him a coin. He says, “Stand up in the middle of the market and shout, ‘The king’s here on inspection. Stand by your stalls’.” The little boy jumps up and shouts the top of his voice, “The king’s here on an inspection. Stand by your stalls”, and somebody just cuffs his head with a “Clear off”. He comes back and gets a coin. The minister says, “You see, they were qualified to hear it, but he is not qualified to speak it.” Then, in his poor clothes, he goes to the middle of the market and shouts, “The king is making an inspection. Stand by your stalls.” Although this man is in his poor dress, there is an unquestionable authority in his voice, and they all stand by their stalls. The king goes round and finally they recognise him. He makes a few purchases and they go. The minister says, “You see, I was qualified to say it, and they were qualified to hear it; so it had an effect.”
The training qualifies to say these things and qualifies to hear these things; but the training is not absolute. In one of the Kamakura stories, there’s a drought and people come to come Kamakura to drink from two wells – the well of youth and the well of life, which give fresh water even in a drought. The warrior is talking to the teacher about this, and the teacher says, “There’s another well in Kamakura which, even in a drought, is not one drop lessened.” He says, “Open your mouth and I’ll give you a drop from it.” And the warrior says, “I can’t open my mouth to that water.” The teacher says, “Why not?” and the samurai says, “I suppose I haven’t done enough training.” The teacher says, “What has training got to do with it? Open your mouth – it’s your own mouth!” And he bows and goes home, and then he has a realisation, and he makes the poem:”
“What I thought was only in the well of Kamakura, when I went home, I found it was in the well in my own garden.”
The training is essential, but it’s not absolute. If we think there has to be so much training, a long process, ‘Not there yet! Never will be there, maybe…’ – then, to that extent, it’s pushed away. So many of these riddles have this double sense – the training is essential, but it’s not an absolute fixed quantity that has to be gone through. It can happen anytime. Well, we can say, “What’s the nature of the inspiration that will come?” When people generally give these great examples of Tokimune facing the Mongol invasion; and we think, “Oh well, yes. A great general and a hero, but what about the tiny problems of everyday life?” There are examples given of this. It’s shown in the way things are written; it’s shown in the way things are done; and it’s shown in the way things are not done.
Well, there’s one small story that I came across, and this is the sort of thing that can very easily happen. A good son made a promise to himself and to the spirit of his dead mother, that every year on the anniversary of her death he would put the flowers on the grave and meditate there. He did this faithfully and then, one year, he had a chance to go to a festival, which was very difficult to get into. He had an invitation, and it was on that day, all that day. He went to his teacher and said, “What should I do? I’m sure if mother was alive she wouldn’t want me to miss this festival, it’s a great thing.” The teacher said, “Go”. So he said, “Well, I have asked you and you told me”, so he went to the festival. He said, “I’ll put the flowers on mother’s grave tomorrow. She’ll understand.” Then he went to the festival, and he had a great experience there. He came back the next day and saw the teacher, and said, “I’m going today to mother’s grave.” When he went there, he found flowers already there, so he added his own. He came back and the teacher said, “I went to your mother’s grave yesterday. You did go that day, but you did it through an agent.” And the son said, “You’ve freed my heart. I went to that festival and I felt it was alright, because you told me to go. But there was something in my heart that was, and would have remained, dissatisfied; but you freed my heart.” And the teacher said, “I went and meditated on the grave. I never met your mother, but I saw your mother’s face!”
Well, this is an example of the sort of inspiration in everyday life. These things seem small, but they’re not small to the people to whom they occur. Such examples, and there are many of them in the Japanese accounts, are not so much like the Indian accounts, which deal with great and general principles. These are the concrete applications of these principles; and when it came to Japan, the concrete applications were very important. To that extent, the tradition showed itself in the application to these individual instances.
Well, I think this is what I wanted to say. Thank you.
© Trevor Leggett