Now, one of the things the Zen people say is that most of us are like ice. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried, if you want to load [a container] – say you’re going on a journey, or picking up something, where there isn’t going to be any water – you have to put the water in a container. Quite often they freeze it first but these blocks are often, sort of, square. When they go in, you don’t get very many of them in, because they’ve all got these angles and, so, you get a lot of space between the different blocks, you see. Generally, you have to melt it a bit. Then, when it’s liquid, you can fill the thing. Now, life is like that, it’s said. If we’ve got these angles of, “Why the hell should I? Why should you dictate to me?” “Well, why shouldn’t you do what I say?” “It wasn’t like this when I was young.” “Well, you ought to be shot dead when you’re forty. You’re no good any more”. They’re all angles and they’re sticking out.
It means that the house is not big enough for the people, because they’ve got so many angles. They’re frozen into these attitudes. So, the sons, they make a lot of noise and the parents don’t like it and the parents can’t be tolerant of this and that, and so on. They [the spiritual teachers] say, “We have to learn in meditation to melt these things.” The Yoga says, “Our likes, our clutching desires, and our hates and fears are ghosts”. The Zen people know from the very beginning what the yoga says later on, that the man himself is a ghost. For a time, every day, they ‘die’, so the ghost is laid to rest. Then they can spring up, fresh and new – all the memories gone, all the fixed attitudes have gone, they’re loosened. So, this is one of the things they stress.
Now, they try to put these things, as they do in Yoga, into physical practice. Although Zen doesn’t attach much importance to scholarship and learning as a means to realisation, they are mostly learned men. They don’t attach importance to it, for realisation. It’s important, later on, for spreading the Buddhism. If one is a scholar, then scrub the floor. Otherwise, you start freezing into this scholar – “I don’t scrub floors, I serve in other ways”. The man who scrubs the floors is liable to freeze into the, “Well, where would they all be without me? I’m the one who actually does the work around here.” Strutting and posturing on the stage, “It’s our stage hands who put the thing up. Where would they be?” That’s frozen too.
He should bring out the potentiality in him, and he should not think, “Oh, study is not for me. Painting pictures is not for me.” These attitudes are freezing, but the liquid water can take any form. So, we should practice to dissolve, every day, the fixed attitudes, prejudices, the boastings and, also, the feelings of, “Oh, no, I can’t do that, I could never do that.” To dissolve them and become liquid. Then, to take it up again.
The Abbot makes a point in most monasteries of sweeping the ground, somewhere in front of the gate. That can become an attitude too. I had the job of sweeping one time. It’s quite difficult to sweep because they cultivate moss. We think moss here is dirty but they cultivate it as a symbol of spiritual enlightenment. It can’t be forced off, but you remove the weeds. When you sweep it, if you press too hard, you tear up the moss, and if you don’t press hard enough, you don’t get the leaves up. Well, I had quite a sizeable area to sweep and, as you do, when you’re foreign, you think, ‘I’ll leave this spotless. You’ll see, I may not be so good on the chanting of the text in Chinese, but I’ll make this really good.’
Well, you sweep it absolutely clear and then the wind goes, “Shhhh.” Then you come down, [and see] where you’ve swept, you think, ‘Oh, for God’s sake!’ Anyway, you go back and you pick them up and then a few more come down here. Well, that means that, when you leave, there are always a few leaves there, which means the job hasn’t been done. So, what I did, I took hold of the trees and went, “Rrrrr”, like that. I know how to use my strength and I was fairly strong then, so all the leaves that were a little bit loose came down in a terrific shower and then I swept them all up. They all [fell] and the whole thing was absolutely spotless. I finished then, but as I came off, one of the monks who was watching me, said, “Leggett-san, don’t you think that was a bit extreme?” I said, “Well, it got the leaves up, didn’t it?” He said, “Yes, it got the leaves up, but there’ll be some more down tomorrow and we sweep every day, and a few come down.”
Well, I still didn’t understand. Then later on, much later on, I came across a poem, a two-line poem: “We sweep the leaves up every day; but we don’t hate the trees for dropping them”. I realised I had hated those trees. Well, it’s a clue for life. When there are people who are dropping leaves all over the place, we sweep them up – but we mustn’t hate the trees for dropping them. Then, when I look round, I find that about myself as well. Well, that’s the, sort of, example they give.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: Yoga, Zen and Peace
Part 2: Ethics and the Cosmic Self
Part 4: Gifts, sacrifice and austerity
Part 5: The merchant’s way
Part 6: The job of the King
Part 9: Melting Ice
Part 10: No distinction