At one of the biggest Zen training temples in Japan situated not in some great city but in rather a remote place ‑ in spite of which they get quite a lot of pilgrims and have about 200 monks ‑ they insist that pilgrims stay overnight and attend the 3.30am service which goes on sometimes for a couple of hours. Those who preside and take these great ceremonies wear magnificent gold and silver embroidered robes ‑ masterpieces of the art
On one occasion the head monk, whom I had come to know, was conducting the service. I was sitting in the front row of what one might call the ‘resident guests’. In fine presence and making a splendid spectacle he passed before us in this gorgeous robe ‑ catching my eye as he went. But of course he gave no sign of recognition. Two or three days afterwards I was talking to him in his room where he was wearing the usual plain robe of the ordinary monk in spite of his high position in the temple. He mentioned the ceremony of the other day and remarked: ‘You know, those wonderful robes that I sometimes wear for the ceremonies, they are not mine, and tomorrow somebody else will be wearing them. They belong to the temple, not to me; they are just on me for the ceremony, and afterwards I take them off, deposit them, and come back into my room ‑ and now I am myself.’
That was all he said, but he meant it as a lesson. Not only the robes in the ceremony but the robes of honour in the world ‑ they are not ours, they are only on us for a time and then they have to be returned. While we are wearing them, we are not ourselves; we have to be able to take them off, deposit them, and then be ourselves.
A master who trained Tsuji Somei, who was a prominent roshi of this century, lived to nearly a hundred; he brushed two Chinese characters which he presented to me: they mean ‘like a fool’ ‑ robes of honour are not appropriate to a fool; but if they do happen to fall on him and he prides himself on them, he is worse than a fool. So we should just keep ‘like a fool.’ This has certain advantages: to be a fool is to have no reputation, nothing to keep up, no obligations, and is in this sense an indicator for our spiritual and worldly life.
When you are wearing magnificent robes, you can’t really do anything in them except look magnificent. You can’t very well go gardening in full evening dress; your gleaming wing collar and shirt are quite unsuitable. In fact, evening dress is meant to separate you entirely from work or activity. This does not mean that working clothes necessarily have to be dirty or untidy: they just ought to be appropriate. It is not wrong to put on a robe just occasionally, but if we take to wearing one all the time, it hampers us; We become tailor’s dummies for the robes to hang on.
Furthermore, many of the so‑called honours in fact are false. For example, a man is listed in the Guinness Book of Records together with his photograph and is understandably proud of his achievement. But when he enquires the following year whether his record still holds for a listing in the new edition he is told not only that his record has been beaten, but that it had in fact been smashed by a man in New Zealand prior even to his entry last year. However, unable to get all the details before going to print the editors had used his ‘second best’ as substitute. ‘Of course,’ the editors tell him, ‘there will be an apology in the new edition saying that the reported record last year was no record at all’
So our moment of glory in these robes of honour is temporary and often a false one. Achievements in the world are of a similar nature. I knew a very good judo man in Japan in the 1930s who later became a good engineer and business man. After the war he became a millionaire and once took me to the ‘millionaires’ club’ in Tokyo. I looked round at the other millionaires and said to him, ‘What is the common element between all these people?’ He looked and said thoughtfully, ‘Luck. I don’t say some of them haven’t worked very hard, or aren’t very clever, but there are others who have worked just as hard and are just as clever, but have not done so well. These people here were in the right place at the right time. That is just. luck. Some small success comes from work and cleverness, but the biggest element of their great success has been luck.’
We think that the success we have in life is us and the Lesson of the Robes ‑ or one of the lessons ‑ is that it is something that comes to us, something that doesn’t belong to us and which will leave us. If we hang on to robes of success we shall not merely be disappointed when they go, but we shall also not be able to do much that is useful while we are wearing them.
The ‘aura’ of the robe can be false (as in the example of the Guinness Book of Records) but sometimes it is not so simple to decipher. When I was a student I was very keen on chess and some of the Arab fellow students used to say that Western chess players didn’t really know about chess; and the Persians used to claim that it was ‘their’ game: the word ‘check’ deriving from Persian shah meaning ‘king’, and ‘checkmate’ from the Persian shah‑mat meaning ‘the king is dead’. ‘You copied the whole game from us,’ they used to say, ‘just as you copied so many other things such as al‑jabr [calculation] from the Arabs.’ However, one day I finally cornered one of them and he had to play against me. I suggested tossing a coin to decide who would be White and have the first move, but he waved his hand: ‘I will take Black. All the masters prefer Black.’ So I made the opening move, and I made it a cautious one.
Now he adopted a very risky policy, which contains traps for both sides: he mirrored the moves I was making, so that the Black and White formations were symmetrical. One would’ve thought that White would have the advantage, but as a matter of fact it can be very tricky ‑ there are some subtle traps. I therefore felt quite nervous, not knowing all the traps but knowing they would be there. He meanwhile was making his moves quickly and with confidence, still echoing mine. When I played pawn to queen’s rook three, he instantly played the same move from his Black side.
The position was getting more and more tense. Not knowing what to do, I moved my bishop and gave a rather futile check! I knew it could give no advantage; he could meet it easily by interposing. But to my amazement, instead of interposing, he moved his own bishop and said check! This was against all the rules of the game. I stared at the board. One of the other Arabs who had been watching us burst out laughing. ‘Fooled you there, didn’t we ‑ I told him to copy your moves for as long as he could.’ I realized that this ‘master’ I had been playing had no idea of chess at all. I laughed too and we shook hands.
I was sixteen at the time, and it was quite a little lesson for the future. Sometimes in Judo a man will come forward holding out just one hand instead of the usual two. This can mean he is either very good or very bad; and although you soon find out, to begin with you don’t know. However, the point underlying this uncertainty is that although these robes may be either imitation or genuine, in both cases they are not the real person and you need to find out who is.
Except perhaps in the dictatorships, chess is always encouraged by tyrants. The mock Chinese saying is: ‘You cannot at the same time work out a difficult chess problem and plan a revolution!’ So tyrants have always encouraged chess in all the schools in their dominions. In the constitutional monarchy of democratic Japan, every Japanese newspaper has a sizeable chess column. Every day there is a long commentary on the moves of the current tournament. These are big national events, and the man who for ten years won almost all of them dominated the whole field for that time.
His name was Oyama, and I knew him quite well. He had an interesting history: when he. was a small boy of 12, he was fascinated by shogi (the Japanese form of chess, played on a bigger board with more pieces), and he wanted to be a chess master even then. He lived in the Osaka area, so he went to the chief dojo (centre) in Osaka and managed to get an interview with the head teacher there ‑ a famous master who had trained champions. In response to his request to become an apprentice, the teacher gave him a few little tests, watched him play, and then said he could not take the boy on as a pupil as he did not have the talent. The little Oyarna wept and begged and kept coming back. The teacher spoke to him seriously: ‘I won’t take you as a pupil and raise false hopes in you. It would not be fair to you, and it would not be fair to me and the reputation of this dojo. Think of something ‑ table tennis perhaps ‑ where you might do well, but you haven’t got the talent for shogi.’ Well the boy cried again and continued to haunt the place.
Finally the teacher said: ‘I won’t take you on as a pupil. But if you want, after school, you can come here and wipe the tables and help serve the tea; you can also watch the play and maybe someone will give you a game or two.’ The teacher probably thought that the boy would lose his crazy idea after a year or so.
However, Oyarna did not lose his commitment; and soon showing extraordinary aptitude for the game, the teacher willingly enrolled him as a pupil. Ultimately he became a star of stars, unbeaten for ten years. It is an example of a very, very experienced trainer ruling out as talentless a potential superchampion.
When Oyama achieved his 100th tournament victory there was a big celebration in his honour. I wasn’t in Japan at the time, but read his acceptance speech. In it he said: ‘In my career I have scored one hundred major victories, that is quite true. However in my career I’ve also scored two hundred defeats. But happily we are not talking about that now, are we?’ I very much admired the fact that he was not deluded by the tremendous acclamation which was showered on him; he was able to rise above it in a humorous way.
© Trevor Leggett