Knocking on Stone Doors
(18 August 1986)
These are things I’ve collected, and will teach us, since I’m among friends, not just for your entertainment, I hope, but that you’ll be able to find something in them. They’re not a connected chain or a logical and ordered exposition of anything. They can be compared to striking sparks. You have to prepare the flint and then you put the tinder very carefully prepared and dried on the edge of it, and then you take the steel and you strike. A spark will occasionally come, and still more occasionally, that spark will ignite the tinder. Then tinder begins to smoulder and you have to protect it, blowing it very, very carefully. Finally, you can light a cigarette from it or a piece of paper. If you get bored with it, you start striking the steel like that [movement of the hand]. Then you don’t get any sparks at all.
In the spiritual analogy of this, striking a spark from our heart, the teachers devise subsidiary methods to produce a certain liveliness into our practice if it has lapsed. The preparation, all has to be done very carefully by the study and the discipline and the daily life practice. When all that’s been done, if one begins to get a little bored or slack, then the chance of a spark arising is not so great.
Just to give an example from the physical world, there is a small part of an exercise of a particular form of Chinese exercises for vigour in which a man has to stretch his arm up as high as he can, fingers out, then make a fist, bring it down, hold it level. Then he pushes out this hand as far as it will go, then he suddenly opens the fingers.
Now, when you’ve done that a few hundred or a thousand times, you certainly do the stretch up, but the teacher then says, “No. Stretch up as far as you can go.” Well, you say, “ For God’s sake, I am as far as I go!” “I know, yes, now stretch out the fingers.” “Yes, yes, yes.” “Make a fist and bring it down.” “Yes, we know all that.” “Bring it down.” “Yes, yes, yes, we know.” “Get it level.” “Yes, quite, quite quite!” “Then stretch this one out. Push. Go on.” “Yes, all right, I’m pushing.” ‘Now, suddenly..” “Yes, quite”.
It becomes dead. Now, the teacher might say this: “Stretch up and try and grab hold of a star. Bring the star down. Push this hand through the wall. Now you’re going to shoot the star above the hand.” Then your movement becomes alive, and it actually does you some good. Whereas when you simply – it does no good at all.
It’s a little bit similar to these illustrations or stories that are given. They’re meant to enliven our practice. Again, if he keeps on saying the same thing about the star, that too begins to lose its effect, and he thinks of another one, or there are other methods too which we need not go into. Well, I’ve collected one or two of these: knocking on stone doors.
Some Zen masters like taking a phrase from other scriptures and commenting on it. This one is from the New Testament:” Knock and it shall be opened. Seek and ye shall find.” The Greek grammar boys tell us that there are several imperatives in Greek, only one in English: “knock”. This is not the aorist imperative, [tense] but it means a continuous action. It’s more like “be knocking, keep knocking, and it will be opened to you. Keep seeking, and you will find.”
The Zen master commenting on this said, “Well, you go on knocking, expecting it to be opened. Perhaps there isn’t a door. Supposing it’s a stone. Might be a door, might be a stone door, but you’re going to hurt your hand. How will you knock on a stone door? Get another stone, knock on it. On a wooden door, not with your hand – it hurts.”
“Seek and you will find.” There’s an Indian story on this. A king who was fond of glory, but he would also have an impulse to spiritual training, he was seated in his palace thinking about the great pageants the next day, and he heard people moving about on the roof. Couldn’t be anyone up there because of the guards around. Anyway, he put his head out to the window and called out, “Who’s up there?” and a sort of spirit put his head over. He said, “We’re up here, and we’re searching.” The king said, “Oh, what are you looking for?” They said, “Elephants.” He said, “Well, whoever sought for an elephant on a roof?” They said, “Then why are you seeking spiritual realization seated on the throne of glory?” The account goes on, but like the Buddha, the king renounced his throne. The master says when you seek elephants, you’ve got to go where the elephants are. If you seek water, you’ve got to go to the lowest place where the water is. You, yourself, must become a little like what you’re seeking. You won’t find water at the top of the dome. You must make yourself a little bit like what you are seeking. He says hence the necessity for the purification in the spiritual practice. He quotes the phrase, “The Buddha nature is everywhere.” The question then, “Why isn’t it seen?” He says, “Because the bowl of the heart has been broken by sins.” It doesn’t hold the water, pure calm water of meditation, and the moon is not reflected in it. It is when the bowl is filled with the water of right living and then calmed by the practice of samadhi, then the moon, the brilliant moon of the Buddha will be reflected in it. He must live this life fully.
There is a Chinese classic: “Discourses of a hermit living on vegetables and roots.” A very famous one which the roshi told me that he has given two sets of sermons in Kyoto in the past. One of the verses says the good man who has calmed his heart, his peace overflows, even into his dream. Bad man who has assumed the wolf nature, there is a growl even in his merry laughter. The purification must go right through. The bad man, even when he’s laughing, his growl will show itself. Now, there’s a passage on imitations which I’ve translated from this text. This was written by a very famous Zen master in 1930. A man becomes a Zen monk because he’s impressed at the freedom of the monks he sees walking in the street, carefree without responsibilities.
Another man becomes a Zen monk because he’s been sometimes to the temple to worship and he experienced peace there. Another man becomes a Zen monk because he’s impressed with the contribution that they make to society by their strict morality and their wise behaviour. He says all these will be disappointed. The first one, the man who’s impressed with the carefree stride of the monks he sees in the street, he won’t be able to endure the harsh life. Not carefree at all.
The second one, who feels this peace when he goes to worship, he’ll find the abbot is always nagging him, and he’s seems more worldly than the worldly people. The third one, who is very impressed with their strict morality and outward behaviour, he finds that some of them are rather casual when they’re in the temple about keeping the rules and they don’t respect the Buddha or the Dharma inwardly.
Then he says even if they stay on, and they solve two or three of the koans, they can’t help showing their pride and contempt for outsiders, and then they get hated for it so they end up with their minds more disturbed than when they were outside the temple. This is why since 1930, the numbers of the Zen monks are decreasing.
These people are like youngsters who see actors, gorgeously dressed, dancing on the brightly lit stage, and want to go in for the stage themselves. It’s not Zen only or the stage alone. From outside, everything looks fine. To become a successful businessman, or a soldier, or a politician, or a scholar. People are attracted by the outer image. They think that they can just walk onto the stage or whatever it is and become a star. In this way, they are liable to waste their lives.
A Hungarian actor, this is in the 1930s, very brilliant man, who knew English pretty well, but not good enough to go on the English stage, came to this country. He finally got a pretty good job in that line. He told me when he first came, he was hard put to make a living. He said, “I became an efficiency expert.”
I said to him, “But did you know anything about efficiency?” He said, “Oh, no.” I said, “Well, how did you manage to get the job?” He said, “Well, I’m not of course an efficiency expert, but I am an actor. I simply acted the efficiency expert.” I said, “but they must’ve caught on to you almost at once.” He said, “Oh, they did. But they found they needed me because the real efficiency experts often don’t look like what the public expects an efficiency expert to look like. His tie is all awry and he’s perhaps buttoned up the waistcoat with the wrong buttons and his hair isn’t properly combed.” He said, “They used to send us out in pairs. I was supposed to be the boss, very smartly and beautifully dressed. This chap did the actual work, and then I simply presented the report at the end and signed it. They needed me.”
One can imitate very convincingly. When the Chinese literature was sweeping over Japan, the men all went in for imitating Chinese poetry. It was the women, women poets, many of them, who saved the Japanese language. They didn’t write in Chinese. The men were imitating Chinese poetry, and there are many Chinese poems in praise of tea, tea drinking, but tea had not yet arrived in Japan. Some of the Japanese poets began writing poems in praise of tea, which they’d never seen or drunk in their lives. These are all imitations, but they can’t last for very long. When the reverse comes, there’s a corresponding fall. Hakuin reports meeting an old monk who talked like a waterfall, absolutely ceaselessly.
Finally, there was a tiny little gap – perhaps the old man was coughing while making tea – and Hakuin said to him, “Don’t you think that silence too has perhaps a role in life?” The old monk enthusiastically agreed. “Silence, absolutely. You can’t tell me anything about silence. I kept a vow of silence for 20 years when I was young.” Hakuin said all the things that that man hadn’t say during those 20 years were now coming out in a waterfall.
Another paragraph of Zen master Mamiya: he says in the old days, the farmers used to begin their day with a short prayer to the sun. They called the sun ‘Good Master Sun.’ He said, “Now people never think of the sun at all, except when they curse the day for being cloudy so they can’t see it. They’ve no sense of gratitude at all.”
The classic of the master who lives on roots says, “When you do a virtuous action, don’t expect the virtue of gratitude from the people you’ve helped. If they only don’t actively hate you, that’s sufficient virtue in them – and it’s probably all your original virtue was worth anyway!” Then he has a passage on having something in your heart when you do things or when you don’t.
We have a fairy story which I’ve tried to check with some members of the audience because my own memory now is pretty vague. Today, we’ll say it seems that there were a sort of demon spirit called Rumpelstiltskin who terrorised the neighbourhood. His power could only be overcome if somebody learned his name, but he never spoke his name, and nobody could find out.
He was well set up. He had the whole countryside in his magical power. One of the villagers goes for a walk in the mountains and sees this sort of spirit dancing with joy and saying, “How good it is that nobody knows my name is Rumpelstiltskin.” Once the name is known, they can work the counter spell, and they can dispel his power.
There’s a little story slightly similar to this in Japanese which is quoted by the master: “When things are just as they are, we add something on with our thought. He says, ‘Good that nobody knows the secret of my power, my name,’ and it’s that extra thought that kills him.” He says we add something. ‘Mushin’ – which is translated quite often as ‘no mind’, doesn’t mean ‘no mind’, it’s nearer what we would call ‘not minding. ’That’s to say not putting extra thoughts on top of the existing situation.
I had an experience of this myself, doing a translation for a Japanese company. They wanted this very much, and I didn’t want to do it. They were very persistent, and they asked me to name a fee. I thought I would rule them out by naming a ridiculously high fee, which I did, and they accepted this and increased it. Well, after that, I did it.
All the time I was translating this text, I did a page or two each day, I couldn’t help thinking to myself like Rumpelstiltskin, ‘It’s pretty good money, this!’ Each line of Japanese characters began to look like a 10 yen note running round. Some kind friend told me – I told him what fee I was getting – he said “Well, you know, you’re getting that for a thousand words? I hear that there’s now another chap getting not far short of that for a thousand.” Immediately, I began to feel exploited. Now, as I translated each line, I thought, ‘I’m underpaid. It’s practically a sweat shop!’ Then the friend came back again, having made another enquiry. He said, “No, actually. He’s [the other chap’s] being paid for the thousand words in Japanese.” Well, that expands very much when it comes into the English. I was being paid 1,000 words in English. He had to work much harder to get the same fee than I did. Well, then I was thinking… All this is what the Zen master quotes. These are the added thoughts that we’re putting on to quite a simple action, and they destroy the purity of the action. That leads in the end to a suffering. He quotes another thing about what people say they’re asked to give up. You’re asked to give up all sorts of luxuries and sensual pleasures and indulgences and so on. You think you’re being asked to really give up everything.
He quotes the example of a man meeting some beautiful girl. He suddenly thinks, “No, I’m not supposed to do this.” He says, “Isn’t that dreadful?” As a matter of fact, when you look at that man, you realize he hasn’t got a hope of attracting the interest of that girl, very beautiful girl, because he’s not particularly attractive himself. He’s not being asked to give up the girl. He’s been asked to give up the delusion that he could under any circumstances whatever meet her!
Another example. At that time, table tennis was extremely popular in Japan. The schools used to have these interschool championships. Then there were middle school championships and high school championships. Some of these kids really went in for it. They wanted to get the glory of winning a championship.
A man who was talking about the terrible sacrifices that he had to make for his Buddhist practice, was expected to make, as he understood it. The teacher took him along a street where there were a couple of kids playing table tennis at about ten o’clock in the evening, just two of them. They were practising particulars of a deceptive shot which looks as though it’s going over there, but at the last minute, the bat is released so that although the hand movement is exactly the same there, [demonstrates a handposition] the ball in fact shoots out there, and it can leave the opponent completely standing. These kids were practising this endlessly. Picking up the ball, practising, picking up the ball, practising.
The teacher said to the man, “You see these kids doing this, and they do it hour after hour because they hope to get into this school’s championship.” He asked one of the boys, just for a moment, “Don’t you feel that you’re making terrific sacrifices? You never go out to films, you never go out with your friends to parties. You stay in this shed, don’t you, practising your table tennis for hours, all your spare time. Don’t you feel the loss of all these other things, the sacrifices you’re making for it?” The boy looked at him and said, “What are you talking about?” He was completely wrapped up in his game. These weren’t sacrifices at all. These things simply didn’t exist compared with his interest in table tennis.
Another example he gives is this. You got there, but you don’t really know the way. He says a spiritual state can be attained sometimes, but it has happened to some extent by chance, and it can’t be repeated. He gives an example that this is here. The man came from here, and by chance, he arrived at the centre. The next day, he finds himself down here. He doesn’t know the way. He does what he did before, going in that direction, but he misses it. The teacher says the approach when the man is in anxiety or when he’s in dejection and failure, or when he is in excitement, or when he is very successful, the approach to peace is a different direction and he has to know what to do when he’s in a state of excitement, when he’s in a state of dejection, when he’s in a state of anxiety. Most difficult of all, when he’s just had a terrific ovation, and an enormous success, then it’s more difficult than ever to come to peace because he feels, ‘Hmm, pretty good up here.’ The teacher quotes that example: you’ve got there a chance from one of these directions, but you don’t actually know the way. You have to be able to approach it and move towards it from any location, not just from one which you found.
I remember an example of a prize dog which the owner was training and was going to show. He had just not long ago acquired him. He took him for a walk. I went with them. Though there was a very big park near the house, the owner took him in the other direction to a derelict street. A most unsavoury place, all puddles and tumbled, falling down buildings, and he let the dog sniff around in there. Then they went to the park, and the dog had his exercises and came home. I said, “What did you do that for?” He said, “He has to know the whole neighbourhood for a quarter of a mile around this house, so that wherever he is, he’ll know how to get back home.” Not just the park, not just the good places, but he has to know. If he’s been there once, he’ll know how to get back home from the bad places.
Then, the teacher has one on karma. We had a learned discussion on karma, which I listened to with great interest. He was pointing out that you can’t say one thing is the cause of another, but in fact, there’s almost an infinity of causes of any particular situation. The whole universe is the cause of the next state of the universe. Still, by and large, if somebody throws something at me, I can say he’s the cause of this hitting me. Although it’s impossible to specify exactly where this’ll land if somebody throws something at me, I can say, he’s the cause of this hitting me. Although it’s impossible to specify exactly where this’ll land because there’s a certain vagueness in physics, you can’t exactly specify that it’ll land on my face. To that extent, I called him responsible. I have heard the argument raised by a driver who had crashed into a stationary car, who maintained that it was at least as much the fault of the stationary car owner as his own because he was there. If his car had not been there, the accident would not have taken place. The police did not accept this view.
The karma was summed up quite amusingly for me by a famous chess master in Japan who wrote on a fan, “Look ahead three moves.” The Japanese chess is a lot more complicated than ours. He said, “This applies to life.” He said it’s the doctrine of karma. If I do this, that’s the first move. There’ll be a reaction from the universe, that’s the second move. ‘What am I going to do then?’ That’s the third move. He said, “If you examine your life in those terms, just look three moves ahead. I do this, it’ll come back on me, and then ‘What am I going to do?’” The Roshi left me a little request. We were talking, and he said, “Well, I’ve finished my sermons, but you’re giving a talk next week, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Put this in the talk, you see, with one of your ironical stories.” This is what he said, “I’ll leave you to make up the ironical story.” He said, “People think that Zen went to Japan because it suited to the Japanese character. Similarly, when we take out things, we should take out what is congenial to us, what suits us.” He said that’s quite a wrong idea. Zen requires you to stand on your own feet alone, which is something that Japanese people don’t like to do. They like to be a member of a group.
Hakuin gives this example of Japanese psychology. He said, “The trees, the branches interlace, and so the trees support each other. Even if the roots all wither, the trees will still remain standing like a table with many legs. There’s no root, no working root, but then when the first typhoon comes along the whole thing gives away.” He said, “This is like the Japanese people, their religion, their faith tends to be relying on the other people. They seem to be full of faith, so I feel full of faith, too. Then they look at me, and they think, ‘Oh, well, he’s full of faith.’” In that way, they support each other, but none of them has really got any faith at all, and so the whole thing is liable to be blown away. The Roshi said that in Zen, people have to stand alone and put down roots of their own. He told me that the Japanese people don’t, in general, like to do this. They want to depend on each other. Then he said, “And they want to depend on me.” He said, “Here, I can be very friendly, and meet people very easily because I can see in most of them there’s a willingness and a realization that they must try to stand.” He said, “In Japan, I have to be much more distant and austere, because otherwise, they would cling on to me and try and get support from me.” He said, “Zen is good for Japan just because it’s the weak point.”
Then he said, “Do you think the same thing applies in the West?” I said, “Well, yes – ‘Love one another, this commandment I give to you,’ but we have been rather free with burning each other at the stake in order to keep the words of the scriptures absolutely pure, so perhaps, we need a religion of love because of this.” Well, he made some sort of comment that Zen was being or would be (the Japanese is ambiguous) or it is being presented in the West with a great warmth. In Japan, it’s often very austere. It’s regarded as austere like a mountain peak.
The last point is about dissatisfactions. He was talking about the sun. We don’t appreciate the sun at all, as I mentioned to you. We don’t pray in gratitude for the sun which comes every day. We only curse when it happens to be clouded over. In a play by Strindberg called “The Dream Play” the daughter of the gods comes to Earth. She’s given the mission by Indra to find out whether there’s anything in these perpetual complaints which arise from this beautiful earth made by Brahma, from these human beings living on it. She comes down, and she investigates and enters into the lives of the people. All of them are dissatisfied and profoundly disappointed with various things.
There’s one old man, and she talks to him for a bit, and he says, “You know I’ve had I suppose a hard life, and I always dreamed of the time when I could retire. I just wanted to fish in the lake with a green fishing net and I thought, if I could just have that, I would be happy. That’s all.” The daughter of the gods manages in her human form at least to get that, and the old man does have his green fishing net. When she goes back, she’s going to ascend to heaven again. Carrying all these plaints and moans and tears and sighs and then passing, she says to him, “You at least got what you wanted, didn’t you?” He said, “Yes, I know. I know. It had to be green, but not that green!”
The Roshi, when he comes here, he says, it’s almost like heaven, your country. With your freedom and your open spaces and your facilities for the old and your marvellous adult education facilities here and the general kindliness of people – almost like heaven. He said to me, “Don’t the people here feel these green fields in their heart?” I said, “If they could see under the complaints, they might be able to find them.”
We live in a bed of roses, but the trouble is, some of the leaves are crumpled, aren’t they? We don’t like pink. Well, we are angels. We ought to be living in heaven, but the Chinese, who knew the British well, they said, “Yes, there is a lot of goodwill among them.” He said, “They are angels,” but he said, “but they’re lazy as hell.”
With that anyway, thank you for listening.