Michael O’Neill remembers Trevor Leggett

An unscripted Dharma Talk – given by Michael O’Neill in January 2017

I’m going to tell a little story that I read in a book from Trevor Leggett called The Old Zen Master.

            Just by way of introduction, this really began before Christmas 2016. As we were leaving the Buddhist Society, we met the people from the Trevor Leggett group. They were a very serious group of people, about half a dozen mostly elderly gentlemen who obviously sat with Trevor Leggett back in the day. .

            I actually had come across Trevor Leggett already, as most of us have done over the years. I came across him very early on and his was probably the first or second book about Buddhism that I ever read. He also wrote books about judo and he was a very accomplished judoka. So many many years ago I had read Zen and the Ways, and that probably would have been my first introduction. I think the only other thing I had read up till then was Suzuki which I found heavy going. .

            But I resolved on the basis of having met this dedicated group, thatI must read some Trevor Leggett again. I read some of this book, The Old Zen Master. As it happens, we put away our practice for about a week over the holiday period. And in that strange way that the last song you hear on the radio in the morning buzzes around in your head all day after – I think they call them earworms – this little anecdote sort of stuck in my head. For the week that I was supposed to be not thinking about the practice or doing any practice, this little story stayed with me a little bit.  One of the points of taking a break from the practice is to notice what not doing it does to us. If I’m not doing my practice, if I’m not sitting, I notice little moments of inattention, because I start to break things, like glasses. I look away when I put something down and drop it. I don’t finish things. It’s just a very physical manifestation of loosening up on the practice.

            The story that I want to tell is from the section where Trevor Leggett is talking about helping and not helping. The story is about how a young person in the practice had a responsibility in the zendo at the end to gather up the cushions. Every class that would come in, they would organise the cushions in slightly different layouts. And the young student went to one of the senior students and said, “Listen, the next class is in only half an hour – there’s really no point in putting the cushions away for just ten minutes, is there?” And the senior student said, “Fine. What would you like to do?” And the junior student said, “Well, that thing that came up in the sermon earlier on about the Buddha who lives for a thousand years, and then there’s a Buddha who lives for only a day,” and the senior student said, “And there’s also a Buddha who only lives for ten minutes,” and he starts to pick up the cushions and put them away. And he had barely finished putting them away, and the senior student said, “And that Buddha’s life has now been fulfilled.” And the other people came in and they started to put the cushions out again.

            That story stuck a little bit. “That’s an interesting one,” I thought. In that way that when you’re not thinking about things, you think about things.

            In fact there’s a line, I think it’s from Basho, in that beautiful book The Narrow Road to the Deep North. In Japan it’s probably the only Buddhism that an awful lot of people ever come across, and of course there is no mention of Buddha in it. But he does hit one point: “It’s a rare man who sees a strike of lightning and doesn’t think of the transience of life.” Trevor Leggett’s commentary on that is just the need to keep at things, just the need to stay concentrated, to see that everything’s important, if necessary to go to the places you don’t like. And I think that’s really why a story like that starts to work away at you.  

            For example, I am a very lazy participant in martial arts.  I couldn’t go to aikido because I had this very heavy cold over the Christmas holidays. I found that I was desperately relieved not to have to go. I realised how much I hated it. I really hate it. My thoughts started up “I have to go along to this thing and I’m no good at it, and no-one ever says a good word to you.” The only person who ever gets praised is some poor unfortunate beginner, and everybody knows it’s ironic: “You’ve done very well today!” “And sometimes it’s actually scary, some of those high break- falls are high, you know, you hit the ground quite hard, and I really don’t like that much either”. I had talked myself out of ever going back to aikido again.

            And then as soon as I was well again I found myself in the car, driving to the dojo. All the way in the car I asked myself why I was doing this to myself. But it had already been decided that I was going to do this. There really is something powerful in that ability we have just to keep going even when something is very hard even if we don’t understand why it is we do it.

            I caught a snatch of something on the radio. Someone was reading a little piece of De Profundis by Oscar Wilde. Through the background noise I heard the phrase “Where there is sorrow there is hallowed ground.”

            Sometimes these things can bounce off you, but that really rocked me actually when I heard that. I think Wilde had a very Christian perspective, but the idea that out of suffering comes great knowledge is universal. Out of our difficulties we learn more, if we protect ourselves and don’t go to the difficult places, we protect our ego, we mollycoddle ourselves. We don’t get an opportunity to expand ourselves a little bit.

            When we’re in the godly realms or heavenly realms and all is well we want to stay there but learn very little. But when we have to put up with ourselves in the hell realms, we open up to our experiences. When we are in the hell realms, that’s really when the practice moves a little bit. We have to endure a difficult situation, when we can’t sugar-coat it or cushion ourselves from it. You know the practice is beginning to go to work on us. I think maybe that’s what I learn when I stick at all the bits I hate in aikido. We all like to imagine we are competent, and even skillful. To be reminded we are anything but, is tough. I have to go to those places because otherwise I don’t get good at all the other bits. There is no sense of progress, there’s just a sense of staying at it.

            On a slightly contrary and absolutely different example, we had a small family reunion back in Ireland between Christmas and New Year. My uncle was eighty and he’s the oldest living male in my family, ever. My family tends not to hang around a long time, so we had to celebrate this. All my cousins that I have known since childhood and many other distant relations were there. Very quickly someone said, “Let’s go to such a place and we’ll get a piano, and everybody will play something”. Before you know it, guitars come out, and ukuleles, and everybody’s got something – a tin whistle, anything. “Michael, they called to me, to the piano!” – “I can’t play the piano” – “What? Michael O’Neill can’t play the piano?” I was frozen in horror.

            My father was a very considerable musician in his day. I went to piano lessons for about a year when I was about nine. If you can you imagine little Michael sitting there pounding out Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, coming home to my father and he saying, “Are you playing The Well-Tempered Klavier yet?” “No” I would answer glumly and feel defeated. The gulf between where I wanted to be and where I was seemed vast and unbridgeable. So like most people at the age of ten I packed it in. But nobody at my family reunion would accept it: “Oh, no, you’re being modest.” And they were pushing me towards the piano. “No really, really, I cannot play the piano.” “Oh, just a little bit of Mozart then,” “No, no, nothing.”

            I felt so ashamed that when I came back home, I decided to give the piano another go. Every lapsed pianist has a little Yamaha keyboard under the bed in the spare room for this very moment. And as luck would have it, the book of music supplied with the keyboard actually had the very Bach Minuet in G that I was trying to learn when I had stopped playing when I was ten. You know the one if you have ever studied the piano. You will all have suffered the same fate.  I said I would have a go at this. In that moment I was transported back to being nine- or ten-year-old Michael.

            The same surge of thoughts and feelings came up constantly: “I can’t do this; I’m no good at this. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do it because I’m no good at it.” Why put yourself through something difficult? Why go to the hell realms? Well, nobody, or very few people at least, are born knowing how to do this. Everybody must go through this horror phase. And I know a little bit from the practice, that you just keep going. If it sounds terrible, no matter, keep going. Doing the little bit on the right hand took about two days to get, adding the left hand took about twenty-two days to get even close. One good thing about an electric piano is of course that you can turn the sound down, so nobody else in the building has to suffer as you torture the piano.

            And it was a very strange experience to keep working away at it, and see the piano developing a relationship with my fingers. Because “I” had no role in there, and every time I started thinking: “Oh, this is going well,” it would fall apart. Every time I tried hard and forced myself to really concentrate, it wouldn’t work. There was too much “I” in that. It really was an exercise in not thinking about it, not getting drawn into it, not letting the thoughts about playing get in the way of playing. I’s only role was to get my hands on the piano.  Of course, I cannot say that I can play the piano or that I play even this piece, but it made it a lot easier not to interpose “me” with this process.

            And that feeling came back to that story about the Buddha of the ten minutes. I started to think, well, actually this is the Buddha of the twenty minutes with the piano practice, and not even that, maybe there’s a Buddha of the semiquaver, or even the demisemiquaver. Whatever it takes, just to concentrate, to allow things to happen for the time that is necessary and no more. This is the practice.

© Michael O’Neill