Letter from Tokyo
October 5th 1953
Just returned to Tokyo from Kyushu, stopping at Kyoto on the way back. Kyoto seems almost the same, and I went round some of the temples. I expect you remember the Moss Temple of Saiho-ji, with its garden designed by Muso Kokushi, and made by arranging trees, rocks, and little lakes without any flowers or shrubs, but with moss covering the ground everywhere. This was a most peaceful place, without the magnificence of Nishi-honganji but in fact more impressive.
At the Myoshin-ji temple I had an introduction to one of their scholars, who is a Zen man as well as a philosopher. He was a very nice man, who received me with almost embarrassing kindness. He reads English but does not speak it. However, I managed to follow him in Japanese as he speaks slowly, and he spoke to me for over an hour on the Zen tradition.
He said that Buddha must not be thought of simply as a man who lived three thousand years ago in India, but there is a living Buddha who is the true self of every living thing. The true self is formless; it is eternal and infinite, not in the sense of an unlimited extension of time and space, but in the sense that both time and space are appearances in it. The ordinary man is not conscious of it, and to become conscious of it is enlightenment and release. He said that though it is described by using the word “ Not ” or “ Nothing ”, it is not nothingness as the word is generally understood, but it is something positive. In this sense the true self can be described as freedom and universality.
The true self, he said, is imprisoned in forms, both physical and psychical, but in fact these forms, everything other than the true self, is a lie, a deceit. To escape from the forms is release. First illumination, and that leads at once to release.
As an illustration, he said that that which sees must in the ultimate analysis be formless. It is true that the eye
has a form, but it has a form only as something seen, not that the seer has a form. The seen eye may have a form, but the seeing eye never.
The Zen tradition was that enlightenment cannot be had by books or any other method except transmission from heart to heart by a teacher. The Zen line stretches back to Buddha himself. There always has to be the relation of pupil and teacher. In this sense the Zen tradition claims to be “ outside the Scriptures.”
He sat in the full meditation posture to show it, and in fact remained sitting that way for the rest of the interview. He said that experience had shown that to adopt it was a good way of harmonizing the body and mind, but that of course it can not be taken as an essential condition of meditation. In the Soto branch of the Zen sect, they quieten the waves of the mind and as the waves are quietened the waves return to water, so to say. In other words the mind becomes the true self which was always its substratum. I asked him how the waves could be quietened, in view of the natural activity of the mind. He replied that meditation is not a question of the head, but of the whole body so to say. In the waves the water is to be known, and then the waves return to the water. “ They actually do it,” he added.
In the Rinzai branch, to which he himself belongs, they meditate on the traditional riddles—“ the sound of one hand ” and so on. Again he said the meditation is not simply a matter of the head. He said in this branch they attach more importance to keeping up the meditation during one’s activity in the day. When walking, one should consider “ who is walking ? ” The walking in fact is an appearance in the absolute self. He said that the difference between the two branches is roughly that in the first, the Soto branch, they want to quieten the waves and so return to the water, the absolute self. In the Rinzai, they want to realize the waves to be the water even when they are at their most active, without first necessarily seeking to calm them.
In both branches the fundamental method is the same : first to produce a concentrated state out of the distracted mind of the ordinary man, and then when unity has been attained, to release the mind again. Even concentration was a bondage, though it was of course better than the bondage of the ordinary man.
He showed me a picture of Daruma by Hakuin. The strength shown in the face must not be thought of as simply an extension of any human strength ; it shows absolute freedom and is the strength of complete freedom from limitations.
I asked him about the Buddhist principle of “ No Self ”, and he said that this refers to the ego, which is false. I asked him whether he thought there was a difference in principle between the Zen tradition he had outlined and the philosophy of Shri Shankara, and he said there was, in that in Shri Shankara’s thought the substratum (he used this English word also in addition to the Japanese) is real. I enquired whether the absolute self in Buddhism is unreal, and he said that it is unreal in the sense that it is formless and cannot be described. He did not claim to have read Indian philosophy extensively, and I left it there.
I am enclosing a few little cards of Kyoto which will help to bring back some memories. A priest of Nishihonganji took three of us round the temple, and showed us the beautiful tea-house of Hideyoshi, the Flying Cloud Pavilion. They made some tea for us, and we were able to enjoy it in the cool of the autumn afternoon. In that pavilion is a picture by Kano Tannyu, called “ Viewing the Moon ”. It shows a small party on the verandah looking upward, but the moon is not visible in the picture. The priest told us that Hideyoshi was disappointed that the moon was not shown, and asked the painter why he had not shown it. The painter told him to get down and bow to the picture, and then look up. When this is done, the beholder brings his head to the same level as the viewers in the picture, and then if one looks up in the same direction as they are looking the full moon appears faintly in the sky. Once seen, it can just be discerned even when standing, but not clearly seen. The priest told us that Hideyoshi’s retainers, who had not heard the conversation with the painter, were amazed to see Hideyoshi, the proudest of the proud, bowing to the picture. …
© Trevor Leggett