My Own Special Path

(16 August 1987)

This title, My Own Special Path, is from a remark made by a teacher, who said, “People come here for me, basically, to get rid of their egoism; and in six months they’re talking about ‘MY path’.  So, from the very beginning, you will know this is not a special path that I’ve discovered. The path where you take bits from here, and a bit from the Sufis that you happen to like, but not the bits you don’t like, and then another bit from Tibet, and another bit from Ceylon – and then do basically as you like with some sort of scriptural sanction, is no good. I’ve tried it, and it’s no good.

My own special path is the traditional path. There was a woman disciple, who had a strong impulse to a particular form of training, and she had a great reverence for an Abbess who taught it. She’d never done meditation, so she asked to be given their meditation step. This was kindly agreed after she’d done some preliminary practice. She said, rather anxiously, “I’m not very ordinary, perhaps, I’m a bit special and I do ask that the practices will be ones that suit me.”  The head disciple said, “Well, they will, yes. Yes, we understand that.”

She had this form of meditation conferred on her, and she was told not to tell anyone about it, that it would be best not to tell anyone about it. Of course, she never did, but somehow these things leak out and to her surprise, and annoyance, she found that all beginners were given these same practices. She saw the head disciple and said, “But I specially asked that I should be given practices that would suit me.” The disciple said, “They will. They’ll suit you perfectly.”  She said, “Well, but I’ve found that everybody’s given them and we’re all different.” The head disciple said, “Well, here we find we’re all the same.” The new one said, “But everybody says we’re all different, so we must be all different.” The disciple said, “Well, if everybody says the same thing, it shows we’re all the same.”

Now, I’ve just given an example from life and want to make it clear that in any examples I give, of course, no-one would ever behave like this.  Please treat them just as fictitious, but they are examples.  There was a very brilliant doctor, who was a member of the same sports club as I was. He was a consultant psychiatrist to one of the big London hospitals and he’d been a fellow worker with Stekel, who was one of Freud’s pupils. He saw me writing shorthand one day – I read back something he was interested in which I’d taken down. He thought to himself, “It’s a very good idea.” He said to me, “I’m going to learn.  I’m going to learn shorthand.” I told him where he could learn it, and how long it would take, which is not very long.

I didn’t hear anymore and then after a bit, he told me that he’d found there were three systems of shorthand, there was the Pitmans, and Gregg, and one other one, which has now I think disappeared, but anyway at the time it was popular. He was a brilliantly clever man. He decided that rather than learn a system – which obviously would have good points, but also clearly had some defects, because they were rival systems – he would get the textbooks of the three systems and take the good points from each and put them together and make his own system and learn that.  I didn’t hear any more for a bit. But then I saw him writing at a certain point. [He was taking down the word ‘going’ in his shorthand.  He wrote ‘g’ – ‘o’ – ‘ing’, and only the ‘ing’ was given a shorthand symbol.] That was the extent of his system of shorthand.   It was quite good example for me, that you may be very, very clever, but you may be a bit of a fool at the same time. His argument seemed all right, but when you think it over, you realize that no one inexperienced in high-speed writing is going to know which are the good points, and which are the bad points.

I’m only citing this because it applies to spiritual training.  Choosing the bits that suit you and not the bits that don’t suit you is based on the fallacy that I know the bits that are going to suit me, not the bits that suit me now. If I learn a sport, which requires the whole body, I may be strongly right-handed.  If I’m left to myself, I’ll use the right hand more and more and more and this [left side] will become practically dead, because this suits me.  The first thing a coach will do is make me use the left hand only, to balance the body and the movement, but that doesn’t suit me. “Coach doesn’t understand me.”  So I can’t judge.

You could say, “Well, I don’t want to become a sort of intellectual slave.” No, we’re free – until we choose.  We’re free to choose, but having chosen, then we’re not free. Then we must follow the details of the training and the discipline, whether we understand them or not – and probably we won’t understand them, because the thing developed is quite different from the thing at the elementary stage.

If I want to learn to touch type, they used to cover the keyboard, and then you had to get the plan of things and feel for the key. It seemed terribly slow; but the ‘clever’ ones, they used to have a peek. They’d say, “This is faster; it’s obvious, isn’t it?”  But in the end, not a very long end either, the ones who train properly can touch type and the others are just using their forefingers, like a couple of mad hens and they never make progress. They say, “Oh, you don’t want these restrictions. You start with two fingers and develop naturally to three fingers, four fingers.”  But that’s not what happens. You’ll never progress.

The Classical Chinese account is that having chosen, we must go through with it.  In the beginning, we’re free.  Free to choose this, choose that, not to choose any, but having chosen [we must go through with it].  The king of a state in China in around 200-300 B.C. had a great general as his Minister of War.  He said to the general, “Men are born soldiers, I suppose.”  The general said, “No, anybody can be trained to be a good soldier.” The king said, “Anyone?” The general said, “Yes, anyone.” The king said, “Could you train the ladies in my harem to be good soldiers?” The general said, “Yes.” The king said, “All right, let’s see you do it. I order you.”

They got out thirty and the king set up this stand before the parade grounds and he and his friends watched. The general divided the thirty into two groups of fifteen and appointed two of the most beautiful ones as officer here, officer there. Then the general explained, said, “We’re going to start the basic manoeuvres – right turn.” He explained exactly how they were to turn.  Then came the drum roll and the general shouted, “Right turn.” They all burst out laughing and started talking to each other and fanning themselves.

The general said, “If the orders of command are not clear, if they’re not understood, then it’s just the fault of the general.” He repeated the instructions again, very, very carefully, very clearly, and then the drum rolled and the general called, “Right turn,” – and again they all burst out laughing. Then the general said, “If the orders are clear, but they’re still not obeying, then it is the fault of the officers.” He called his lieutenant and said, “Take off the two heads of the officers.”

Then the king sent a message down saying, “I don’t wish the training to continue. I don’t want to see the heads of my two most beautiful girls cut off.” The general said, “Having accepted your Majesty’s command to train the harem as soldiers, I cannot now lay it down – and the heads were cut off.  There was dead silence. Then the general gave a signal and the drum rolled and the general shouted, “Right turn.” On that basis, he trained them in the basic military manoeuvres for an afternoon.  Then he said to the king, “These now can be trained in the use of weapons, and they will be an efficient fighting force.” The king was displeased. He said, “Oh no, this has gone very wrong. I’m displeased.” The general remarked afterwards, “The general does all he can, but the king is too weak.”

Now this story is used for ourselves. We’re the king, we choose, we say to the general, who is our will, “Can you train this lot?” The general says, “Yes.” We say, “Go on, let’s see then.” Then he does it. By these methods of austerity, of cutting off something which we dearly love to do, sleeping on the ground once a month, missing a meal occasionally, some favourite habit, breaking it for a time for three weeks, like a furious smoker, breaking it for three weeks. By such methods, the control is established.

Now the king will send messages down, ‘I don’t wish this to continue’.  Then the spiritual will has to say, “Having accepted the command, having chosen, I dare not renege.”  Well, we are free to choose free, free, free.  But when we are actually doing the training, we can’t look at each item of training and say, “Well, I choose to do this. I don’t choose to do that. I want to be free, free, free. If you tell me to put my little finger on the semicolon, no I don’t fancy you that. I’ll put this finger on. I want to be free, free, free.”  No, I’ll make no progress.

A teacher was tackled by somebody who said, “Well, of course, in the spiritual things, it’s very easy to train people because they do everything the teacher says.”  The teacher replied, “Well, they do everything I say if they agree with it; but if they don’t agree with it, they interpret it away to mean the opposite. As what I tell them is nearly always against their deepest inner convictions, they do everything I say, except what I actually do say.”

Now how do they interpret?  Well, for instance, the Buddha said practise as if you were tearing something blazing from your head. Well, everybody thinks, “I’ve got my such-and-such on Thursday.   I always watch Level Crossings or whatever it is that you do watch on your televisions.  So I’ve got to have that evening off – and the Grimsells come round on the Saturday, but apart from that I’ll practise.”  No.  ‘As if your head was on fire’, as if you were tearing something up. “Oh no, it’s fanatical.”  But these are the very words of the Buddha.  “Yes, but you see the Buddha was an Indian teacher, 2,500 years ago. Now, as we know, Indians are very fanatical people.  I mean, you see this, the bed of nails and the fakirs and so on, they’re fanatical people.  So he had to use the language of fanaticism to get them to do anything at all.  He meant to do quite a bit when he said, ‘Snatch off your head, as if your head was on fire.’ He meant do quite a bit. You’ve got to realise that to apply it to modern times.”

Then it comes up again, of course. The teacher says what I’ve said, “Be mad on this [spiritual training].”  “Oh,” they think, “This is fanatical. Of course, Indian people are very lazy. We all know that. Trains don’t run the time and so on. They’re very lazy. To get the people to do anything, he had to talk the language of fanaticism.  When he wanted them to move just a foot, you see, he said, ‘Run a mile.’ He had to do that, because they were so lazy, and when he said, ‘Be mad on this,’ he meant to give it a certain amount of attention.”

Now the teacher said in that way, they interpret it. If they agree with it, they say these are the holy words of the Buddha. If they disagree with it, they interpret it to mean the opposite.  We have to apply the words to ourselves and that’s quite difficult thing to do. Even intellectually, it’s quite difficult. When Franco was dying at about 90, I believe, a lot of his supporters met in big gatherings in the great square in front of the palace where he was dying and they cried, “Goodbye, Franco. Goodbye.” Franco beckoned the doctor and whispered, “Where are all these people going?”  He couldn’t apply it to himself.

Now, the Japanese story on this is in the medieval times, about 13th century.  When old people became rather senile, unable to do any work, they used to take them up to a mountain and expose them and leave them to die there.  In one household, the grandfather was not able now to pull his weight, so the father said to his son, a small boy, “We’re going to take a grandpa to the top of the mountain and leave him there. It’s kinder, really. Grandpa’s getting old and tired and confused.”   The little boy was fond of his grandfather and he said, “Oh no, don’t let’s do that, let’s keep grandpa here. He’s going to die. Let him die here.” The father said, “No, this is kinder.”

The father looked around, he found an old sort of rather dilapidated abandoned sedan chair, something like that, and they bundled grandpa in, who didn’t quite know what was happening and then the little boy put his end on the shoulders and the father held his end and they went up to the top of the hill. The father said, “Right now, it’s a good way now. He’ll never be able to come down by himself. He’ll just go then, he’ll fall asleep. This is best.”

The little boy said, “Well, we’d better take him out, hadn’t we?” The father said, “No, leave him in the chair.” The little boy said, “Well, we’re going to take the chair down.” The father said, “No, that’s an old chair. It’s no use to anyone.” The little boy said, “But I’ll need it for you when the time comes.”  It’s nice to record that the father then said, “I think we’ll take him down.”

They’re just little sidelights, but one teacher remarked that the mind is a cat and it’s got to be transformed into a dog. The dog looks at you and his look says, “How wonderful you are, how I love you, how can I serve you?” The cat looks at you and says with his look, “How wonderful I am. How you love me. How are you going to serve me?” Well, this is what our mind is saying to us. “How wonderful I am. How do you love me? How are you going to serve me?” He says it’s transforming the cat mind into the dog, which is loyal and far more intelligent than the cat, because it associates with the human being much more closely and recognizes the superiority of a human being and is much happier.

Now, when we enter a system of training, we do so with trust in the teacher; but the teacher will do things we don’t agree with or that are pointless.  These are absolutely unreal things, but a man who was a member of the same sports club to which I belonged, was a brilliant architect, but he was becoming a heavy drinker. Of course, this was ruining his sport.  He asked me once about it and suggested that we should go and see the teacher, which is not a thing I would do today. Anyway, I took him along and he met the teacher. He was rather impressed and then we went back.

Later, the teacher said to me, “If you have any influence with him at all, try to get him to stop drinking. It has already begun to affect the causal body, I can see.”  Well, I knew there was no possibility of anything I could say making that chap stop drinking, not the faintest possibility.  So I thought, “This is ridiculous. I’m not going to say this, he’s only going to say, ‘Don’t preach at me, please’.” I knew he wouldn’t stop, so in a sort of rather a shamefaced way, I said, “The teacher said, you know, ‘I’m not terribly keen on people drinking’. I Don’t know what you think about that?”  Of course, he paid not the slightest attention and I just noted that as a little event.  Some years later, I’d made up my mind to do something which I knew was wrong, but I was going to do it. A devout old lady, who was a disciple of the same teacher, came up to me in a rather sort of nervous way.  She gave a little hint, clearly not knowing what it was I was going to do, but there was a little hint that one should try to keep very strictly to the discipline, didn’t I think?

Well, I managed not to blast her out of existence; but of course, it had no effect whatever – so I did it and the result was disastrous. There was not the faintest chance that anything she would say to me could have any effect on my actions; but, afterwards I was very conscious of the fact that I had been warned. I knew that no warning could’ve made any difference to me, I was determined to do it – but I had been warned and that was a great help later on when the teacher [gave unpalatable advice].  Some things that the teacher does may seem rather pointless, but sometimes, very much later, we shall find a meaning in them.

There’s another thing which often comes up and it’s a very ancient idea in Buddhism. It’s the hidden treasure and to give a possibly new line to those of you who don’t know it, there’s a story that goes around the East.  It’s very ancient and the latest form I saw of it was it had become a traditional Jewish story.  It’s about a man who lives in Baghdad and he’s very, very poor. He persistently dreams of a particular house in a street in Cairo, where he’s never been and under that house is a buried treasure.  The dream keeps returning so persistently that in the end he begs his way, with enormous effort, from Baghdad to Cairo and there he finds the street and there he sees the house. But, of course, he has no way to get in, so he loiters in front of the house trying to think what to do.  Then the owner of the house, a big man, comes out and arrests him. He says, “You are laying out plans for a burglary, aren’t you?”  Well, the poor fellow’s so terrified that he blurts out the story. “Yes, well the fact is I’ve had this dream,” and the big man roars with laughter. He says, “You poor mug. Dreams! Well, I have dreams of a house in Baghdad, a rotten little house on a rotten little street.” He describes it. “I have persistent dreams there’s a treasure under that house but I’m not a fool enough to go to Baghdad. You poor idiot.”  He even gives him a little money, he’s so sorry for him.  So the man, he gets back to Baghdad, digs under his house and finds the treasure.

Well, now he has to go to Cairo and hear it from a foreigner before he finds the treasure in his own house. There was a recent example of this. Segovia has just died. I went to his last concert, wonderful, and he was about 90. The place was full of his pupils, and his pupils’ pupils, and the pupils of his pupils of his pupils.  When he came in, we all stood up. When he sat down, we all clapped. When he was handed his guitar, we all clapped.  He could still play, he could still do the interpretation.  Single-handed, he put the guitar on the map as a concert instrument. He said in an interview that, after he’d convinced the whole world with his arrangements of Bach and Haydn for the guitar and given these triumphant recitals over the whole world for 50-60 years, he still had to convince his own countrymen.   To the Spaniard, he said the guitar was something like a banjo, an accompaniment to songs or dances, but hardly any musical value. There were no classes in guitar playing in the music academies of Spain, when he was young. The Spaniards had this musical treasure which they didn’t recognize. Segovia went abroad, and the applause of the foreigners finally awoke the Spaniards to the treasure in their own house.

This sort of story is used as an example that we have a treasure, but we don’t believe in it. We hear of other people’s treasures, wonderful things. The Buddha, the great Buddha – we think it’s over there, and we go there, and then they tell us, “Go back home and dig and you’ll find it.” They’re pointing to something already existent, not something we have to create.  Young people might benefit from this. One of the ways of establishing the control by the will is to take a cold bath every morning in the winter. In the first year, believe me, it can be, if you’ve never done it, quite an undertaking; but the second year it becomes quite bearable. The third year, it’s a very pleasant stimulus and the fourth year you have to have it, or you feel awful. The great obstacle is to feel at the beginning, “Oh God, it’s always going to be like this.”  But it changes completely and it becomes not merely bearable, not merely a heroic endeavour, but a necessary stimulus and it brings up the whole organs.

A teacher in Japan remarked that, if you consider smoking and alcohol (I heard him say this in a sermon), they are two of the strongest addictions, but both of them are unpleasant to start with. People only start to smoke because they’re afraid not to smoke. They want to keep up.  They don’t want to be laughed at, so they start smoking.  They can get absolutely caught on something, which at first was quite unpleasant.  It makes you cough, it makes you sick.  It’s the same with alcohol.  People don’t like the taste of whiskey when they first drink it. Takes quite some getting down, but you don’t like to say, “I don’t like whiskey.” He gave that as an example. He said the spiritual discipline can be like this, but in the upward sense. At first, it seems as almost nothing. You may get a little spiritual exultation from it, but hardly anything at all.  But these things can blossom and they can become mighty trees.

There are doctrines which are given, such as the Doctrine of Karma. Motoori, one of the great Shinto philosophers in Japan, remarked about karma, “The doctrine is that if you do evil, evil will visit you; and if you do good, good will result.” We have the same in our Old Testament, “As you sow, so shall you reap.” He said, “This is a very good doctrine. We teach it to the children, and it does help to control behaviour, but it’s not what actually happens.”  A Buddhist priest took up this remark by Motoori and said, “People don’t recognize what’s happening.” There was one incident he quotes, “Some young samurai, they were discussing whether, if you commit a sacrilege, heaven will punish you, or the Buddha will punish you.” Some thought that there would be a punishment and others thought there wouldn’t be.

To test this out in a pretty extreme form, they urinated on the gate of a temple and then waited to see what would happen. Nothing happened.  A great Zen priest, Suzuki Shōsan, was passing and they put this case to him. They said, “We did this, but actually, nothing happened.  What is supposed to happen with a sacrilege?”  Shōsan said, “Well, it could be birth in an animal incarnation.” They said, “Oh, that’s something in the future.”  But then they thought – they’d become animals when they were doing it, this is what a dog does. He said that we expect some thunderbolt, or something like that, but the effect of karma may be just as great.  We don’t recognize it. They had become animals.

We’re given various instructions and sometimes those instructions are rather difficult to carry out. They are rather like that instruction given by the king in Alice in Wonderland to the Hatter. The Hatter comes into the court, if you remember, and he’s terribly nervous and the king says, “Don’t be nervous. I’ll have your head off if you’re nervous.” That makes the Hatter more nervous than ever.  How do we control that? ‘Don’t be nervous’. What do you do?   I saw this thing actually happen. There was quite a big Zen class in Tokyo run by a curious man. He got quite a following and there were a lot of foreigners went in the summer around this big hall. It wasn’t as big as this place, but they were all sitting around there. His style of meditation was that you faced the wall, and he used this stick.  They tap on the shoulders and then they bring the stick down and it can hurt quite a lot.

This was a new intake, and I thought I would go there just to see what happens. He said, “If you don’t sit properly, I’ll hit you with this stick.” One of his assistants was there and he gave him a terrific whack on the shoulder. Well, everybody in the audience [hunched their shoulders]. Then he said, “Now, don’t raise your shoulders like that. Don’t be nervous like that. Drop your shoulders. I shall walk slowly behind you. Don’t be nervous, drop your shoulders.”  Then he said, “If I see you sitting there calmly, your shoulders dropped, I won’t hit you at all.” Everyone [relaxed]. Then he said, “Or perhaps I’ll hit you twice as hard!”  We have to consign ourselves to the teacher. In the end, he says that there has to be a complete willingness to go right through with anything. Not everybody is asked to do this, but those who are really determined are asked to do it.

An Indian teacher quoted there an example from a history of the last century.  The Nawab of Lucknow, I think it was, a very wealthy man.  A Brahmin poet, a brilliant poet, came in and he composed some verses.  He presented them to the ruler, who was a Muslim, at the assembly. They were read out and they were highly appreciated, and the ruler was most impressed.  The Brahmin looked very poor, but he was a wonderful poet, clearly. The Nawab ordered silver to be piled up.  The Brahmin said, “The gift to a Brahmin must be made in the traditional fashion. That is to say, the one who gives must bow as the gift is made.” Well, the Nawab, being a Muslim, couldn’t possibly bring himself to bow a Brahmin. He said, “No, this is my reward for you, for your poems.” The Brahmin said, “If it’s not presented in the traditional way, I will not accept it.”  Now, the teacher told us this was recorded in the court record. The ruler said, “Think well, O Brahmin; where will you find a patron like this?” He pointed to the pile of silver. The Brahmin said, “Where will you find an independent man like this?” and he kicked it over and walked out.

Now we are not asked to do this, but the teacher said, “We are asked to do something like this, sometimes regularly, in our lives – to take something which is very attractive to us, and then to assert the independence of it and kick it.  Not all the time, but to show independence and to feel the independence of it.”

Well, these were the main points I wanted to make. Thank you for listening.


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