Notes and Anecdotes (1989)



These are short, disconnected bits, perhaps.  Maybe there is a connection, but I haven’t given it a title.

The first thing to say this evening is that, shraddha, faith, is a word used a lot.  There was a pupil of a Zen master in the capital, Tokyo, in whose school they were expected to penetrate deeply into truth, in the world and in themselves.  He had to go to the countryside, the deep country, on a business trip and he stayed overnight.  He attended the service in the local temple.  When he came back, he saw the teacher and one or two other fellow pupils and he said, “You know, it was so impressive in that little country temple. They’re poor farmers, but the atmosphere of faith, the complete faith there.  As I sat there and I heard that firm resonant voice of the priest intoning the holy texts, I thought of all my doubts and all my queries and intellectual enquiries, I felt so bad about it.  The vibrant voice of truth and the complete faith of the peasants.”  The teacher said, “Yes.  It’s very impressive, that faith.  The only one there that might have had his doubts would be the priest himself.”  This is called faith without investigation, without observation, without going deeper; and it can be very impressive, but this is not the faith which the Buddha wanted.  Faith begins, but it’s to go on to enquiry.

Enquiry too can become a sort of slogan, like blind faith can become a slogan.  One of our science pundits on the radio (it was quite a time back) wrote to say that religion takes things on trust and takes things for granted, on authority; but in science even the greatest authority is not decisively accepted.  Nothing is taken for granted.  Everything has to be investigated.  The man wrote a letter to one of the papers the next day to say he’d been very impressed by (I think it was) Dr. Magnus Pyke’s talk about science taking nothing for granted.  He said it had changed his attitude to his cat because, when the time came to put the cat out, if the night was wet when he was putting the cat out the front door, the cat would break loose and dash to the back door and mew there, apparently in the hope of finding better weather conditions at the back.  He said, “I realise now that my cat has the true scientific spirit of taking nothing for granted, investigating everything; whereas I admit before I used to think my cat was a bit of a fool.”

So we have these two extremes – blind faith without enquiry and enquiry which is no ral enquiry at all, it’s just endless sort of doubt.  It has to be focussed.  These are three things given by some teachers: instruction, observation, experience, but they have slightly unexpected applications.

If you teach a somewhat risky physical activity, you tell the pupil, “Don’t do this (in a particular throw) because it can lead to a serious accident – you can dislocate your elbow”.  That’s an instruction, and the most intelligent pupil can accept that instruction from an experienced, perhaps a famous, teacher; and he no longer makes that dangerous move.  But a lot of pupils don’t.  They have a sort of little wire among themselves: “Oh, they tell everybody that.  You know some idiot once made a mistake.  You don’t have to take it literally, we’re all different…”  Then they see it happen.  Some idiot does it, and his arm starts sticking out from his elbow.  Then they’re convinced – but there are still some who even then think, “Well, he was always clumsy that chap.  I can get away with it.”  With such pupils the teacher sometimes has to arrange a little accident, not a serious one.  They can only learn by experiencing the disaster themselves, and this is the worst way of learning.  You’re told and you don’t believe it; you see, and you still don’t believe it, and finally through the most bitter experience, then you believe it.  The best way of learning is to accept the instruction, but not to stop there.  Not simply to say, “Well the teacher says so…”,  but then to observe.  We can observe what happens when people don’t follow the teacher and also we can observe the hidden advantages of following the teacher, which the teacher often doesn’t state overtly, but they can be observed.  Those things are observed in other people, but more than that, finally those instructions are accepted, confirmed by their observations in other people, and finally it’s experienced for himself.  These three things then – instruction, observation, and experience – for the worst pupils they don’t believe the instruction, they don’t believe the observation and reluctantly by force have to agree with the experience.  The best pupils believe the instruction but don’t stop there. They go on to confirm it by observing, and finally confirm it in their own experience.

There’s an Eastern saying: “The arrow flies with alien feathers”.  The arrow flies and often hits the target, but its feathers have come from somewhere else.  The arrow flies with alien feathers – the bird flies with its own feathers.  The commentator says the arrow flies with alien feathers, and it often hits the target; but it gets nothing.  It’s pulled out and shot again; the arrow gets nothing.  But the bird, which flies with its own feathers, comes to the nest, and the mate, and the young ones and can feed itself.  There is a tendency to want to fly with alien feathers, and to read and be satisfied with reading about great figures in the tradition.  This is not bad, but it’s trying to fly with alien feathers and one can end up with a tremendous lot of information about something, but not have anything of one’s own.  It’s all borrowed quotations and borrowed experiences and borrowed memories.  The bird flies with  its own feathers.

One example that’s given is about meditation.  Sceptics say that in meditation you’re simply sitting there and basically you’re dreaming, or falling asleep sometimes completely; and no more can come out of the meditation than you began with.  This is put by Mephistopheles very powerfully in Goethe’s Faust.  Faust sits in meditation and Mephistopheles comes up and he says, “There you are.  You’re like a sort of frog, blowing yourself up, bigger and bigger and bigger; and at the end of it, you’re just a frog and you’ll have to come down again, won’t you, and be what you were?”  Nothing new can come from the meditation.  Maybe you’re not doing much harm to anybody, but that’s about all that can be said.

One teacher gives this example – it’s a modern example.  The Romans and the Chinese knew about magnets, and so did the Greeks.  If you have a magnet and it hangs free, if something comes near it there’s attraction, but it can also be repulsion.  Repulsion or attraction, one of the two.  The teacher says they’re generally listed together in the classics – love and hate, because they both depend in fact on interest.  You can’t hate someone you’re not interested in.  It means that the mind is charged, it becomes a magnet.  Most minds they say, it’s just a question of what is the nearest source of attraction or repulsion – to go to that, or go away from that, and most minds simply revolve like that.  That was all the Romans saw – they hung up these natural magnets, these loadstones, by a thread.  That was all they saw.  They never noticed that if the magnet was isolated, it would gradually settle down and it would give a direction.  The Chinese noticed it – they noticed if the magnet was hung free in isolation would give a direction.  Of course, the Chinese are so different from us in every way – they thought it was the south-pointing needle; whereas we know, of course, that it points north.  But still, the principle holds – they discovered it.  There’s nothing there but the magnet, but if it’s sheltered from outside influences and if it’s left long enough to settle down, then there’ll be new information – information that can save your life.  That is in everybody, not just in the brilliant, the clever, the eloquent, the powerful, the strong characters, but in everybody.

In the Burma jungle those who were going on the Chindit expeditions against the enemy they were given little cigarette lighters, and they were very, very poor – they were semi-rusty when you got them.  The lighter wheel was so bad they would just about work; so they were not worth stealing, they were so poor.  But underneath the wadding there was a tiny little compass.  So if he was caught by some of the villagers and his things were taken, they wouldn’t take that because to start with they’d have no petrol to use it and secondly it was partly rusty.   But inside that there was a secret, giving the north-south, using which he could escape from the jungle and get free.  But it had to be made very, very poor, because otherwise it would have been stolen from him.

One teacher said that the burglar when he’s looking for the money, where it’s hidden, he doesn’t go to the central place in the room; but he digs under the coffee tin.  Under the coffee there’s an envelope with a hundred-pound note – that’s where it is.  A dirty, rusty pot with stale coffee and that’s where the treasure is, so that it won’t be discovered and stolen easily.  He said you should think of that.  The outside of people gives no clue as to what’s inside, that there is a treasure inside.

Then the next point is about effort.  There are two trains of instruction, which sometimes people notice.  One says that in the highest consciousness, the highest awareness, there’s no effort; and the other says you have to put your whole heart and soul into it.  They say, as one does say when one wants to get out of something, “You’re told these things are effortless and you try to attain them by making tremendous efforts.  Isn’t it absolutely ridiculous.  It’s a self-contradiction.”  So they either go in for meditation which practically is falling asleep, or else they go in for [?] meditation and they never attain any calm at all.

One teacher gives this example – when you’re tired, you get home and you’ve been working very hard and you’re tired.  You’ve just managed to have your meal and you’d like to go to bed, to sleep.  Going to sleep is no effort, but you have to make the effort to get up and go into the bedroom and turn the blanket and get into bed.  Without those preliminary efforts you either won’t fall asleep because you’ll be uncomfortable, or you’ll sleep very badly.  So he says the efforts in meditation and following the discipline and not to attain a new state of consciousness, but they’re to remove the obstacles to that consciousness.  Just as it’s not that getting up and going to the room and turning back the bedclothes produces sleep, but it simply removes the obstacles to our natural sleep.

Another example is given. In Japan the Emperor is often retired traditionally, and when they retired they had to make a sort of formal act of abdication.  We had one in this country in ’37 when the king abdicated.  To abdicate means to give up all the royal powers entirely and they’re considerable.  When he abdicates, the instrument of abdication is presented to the king and he seals it and signs it – but those are assertions of the royal power.  So he’s doing the opposite of what he wants to do – to give up that royal power.  But it’s by this assertion of the royal power that he can give up the royal power.  In the same way, the teacher said, by these actions of the mind, body and following the discipline we are enabled to give up the enslavement to the things and circumstances which surround us.

In Japan inspiration has come through those who sit in silent meditation.  We can think, “What would they produce?”  The great Kobo Daishi, the great saint, Kobo, he invented the Japanese alphabet in his meditation.  In this way the Chinese language was brought, and the Japanese didn’t have to learn Chinese as they could adapt the Chinese to the Japanese language.  That could have been done by any very bright analyst, but Kobo devised the alphabet to cover each of the syllables of the Japanese alphabet once and once only in a rhyme which is used today.  Then he made that rhyme mean the essence of two lines of the Nirvana Sutra.  It says that all things are transient, this is the law of all existence, but we can pass beyond that transience and we can be in the peace of nirvana.  Now Kobo, this great genius in 700 A.D., he had the inspiration by which he composed a rhyme in which every syllable of the Japanese language comes once and once only, and it has the meaning of the Nirvana Sutra.  When we recite our alphabet, we just say each letter in order without any meaning.   Kobo through his inspiration produced this rhyme in which the meaning is; “The blossoms are fragrant, but alas they fade.  In this world of ours who can remain for ever.  This day, crossing beyond the mountains of illusion, we see no more shallow dreams, nor are we intoxicated by them.”

So in his inspiration he made a new alphabet, the first alphabet in the Japanese language, and it had this wonderful rhyme which puts the words of the Sutra into poetic form.  And to this day, if you go to a traditional Japanese theatre, the rows are numbered, not A, B, C, D…, but according to Kobo’s alphabet.  So as you enter the theatre you are reading ‘The blossoms are fragrant…’ – then, “Oh, here’s my seat!”  This was an example of wonderful genius which arose from meditation, something entirely new in three fields came out of that.  When people say, “Oh meditation, you just go into meditation and there’s nothing new. You come out the same as you went in.”  No – such things can come out, like the magnet that becomes a compass when it’s isolated and gives the true direction of north.

One would like a Western example, and there is one, but it’s not well-known in the West, because the West failed to recognise the genius.  Christ died and gradually the popular belief grew up that he would come again, and he was to come again in 1000 A.D. at the end of the first millennium.  There was widespread expectation that Christ would come again.  As a matter of fact, the pope in 1000 A.D. was a really great man – one of the greatest men that the West has ever produced, Pope Sylvester the Second; but he is not well-known.  In the West, have you noticed that we apply the word ‘Great’ to mass-murderers generally, starting with the mass-murderer Herod the Great and going on to Frederick the Great of Prussia and Alexander the Great; and if you look through the history of the ‘Greats’ in the West, you’ll find only two, Albertus Magnus, not very well-known today as a Mediaeval philosopher, and Pope Gregory the Great.  But Sylvester the Second was a most remarkable man.  I don’t know of a life of his in English, but there’s one in French.  He went to Cordoba and met the moors and he brought back the Indian numerals and he tried to get Europe to adopt them.  If you’ve ever seen the calculations for the Roman system of numerals, which was then the way in which calculations were made, you’ll know.  For instance, 7 x 7 – it’s VII x VII and the answer is XLIX – even professional accountants couldn’t memorise the tables more than 5 x 5.  They had mnemonics and special means of calculating.  So the introduction of what we call the Arabic numerals, which are in fact Indian which came through the Arabs, would have been of immense benefit to Europe, as big a benefit as the introduction of the alphabet in Japan.  He introduced them into the monasteries.  He nearly united the Western and Eastern churches – and then they poisoned him.  So this had to wait for three or four hundred years before those numerals came in and the civilisation of Europe could approach that of the Middle East.  So this was a great inspiration, equally as great as that of Kobo in Japan, which was not accepted.  But the monasteries kept these things going and there are references to it.  It’s not simply to have a genius with new ideas, but to have people who can follow and understand that genius.

In some schools there is a view that there is a sort of cosmic flow, a cosmic current in the whole universe; and that, by living in accordance with calmness, serenity, disciplined activity, reduction of desire and prejudice and meditation, we can come into this flow.  That flow will in the end be the Self, the Self will be the flow.  There is a view that we have an ideal role that we can play in life and, if we play it, we will have inner serenity – even in very difficult circumstances.  There will be an inner serenity and there will be an inner peace – not continuous for some time, but it will be there and will return.  But we don’t know what the results will be of the inspirations which come to us from this flow.  We can perform the actions, but we don’t know what the results will be.  We can’t see the grand pattern as it were.  However, one view is that it is possible in meditation – and it can happen naturally – that the great pattern begins to unfold, a much wider pattern than our own little actions.

The comparison is made and, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this, but there is a game called living chess.  It’s played on a huge lawn, and sometimes in university campuses.  They mark out the enormous square with blacks and whites and the students dress up as knights; and the black queen is a tall girl with magnificent black hair going down there, and the white is the same with blonde hair and a white dress and it all looks very realistic.  They glare at each other when they’re opposing, or look at each other when they’re on the same side.  The game is played out with two experts who sit at each end.  The board is too big for the expert to see and be able to play with those pieces, so he has a little board in his hand.  He works out his move on that and says it – and the crier calls, “Knight to King’s Knight Fifth” – [and this is played out by the pieces, with any captured piece being carried off on a stretcher].  Some of the students have a long time to wait before they move, and some don’t move at all through the whole game – but they enter into the spirit of it.  When you see this, you notice that some of them have got a little board of their own and they are intensely interested.  They can see not only their surroundings and their own moves, but they can see the whole board in miniature.  So they understand the role of their moves in the strategy.  The particular teacher I’m quoting says it transforms the interest of life when you begin to see that there’s a grand flow of life, which is available and possible to see in the meditation.

Now another example of almost the same thing, but it’s given in completely different terms, in more modern terms – that living chess is very  old and was played in India.  Sometimes maybe naïve people, or perhaps they want to do some flattery for their own purposes, they tell a pianist, “Aren’t you pianists wonderful”, and the pianist [tries to shrug it off with (false) modesty].  But the person says, “No, I think you’re wonderful because, you see, those people on the flute, they’ve only got one line of music, they just play one note.  But you’re playing with two hands, chords, lots of different notes, and no mistakes, and you can sight-read it.  It’s almost unbelievable.”  Well, pianists like that, and they always say “I won’t hear a word against flute players.  They’re very good musicians in their own way and some of my best friends are flute players.”

But this is not the real answer.  The real answer is that if there were two lines of music, just two lines – no chords – which had no connection with each other, he couldn’t do it.  It can’t be done, sight-reading two.  It’s because the chords and the full activity of the hands is integrated, it forms a unity.  The pianist can look along these two lines and he can see the whole thing as a unity, and he plays it as a unity and so he can do it.  In the same way the teacher says through your meditation, if it is done well, it will often come that you begin to see life as a unity.  When you begin to see life as a unity, you will be able to play your part in it, even if it is very difficult and it requires a lot of activities.  Or if there’s just one line, you’ll be able to play that, he says, when you begin to see unity.  Otherwise, when life is a number of quite separate things, with different activities required for each, then you can’t do it.

He said people today and always sell themselves cheap.  Someone is always saying, “I’m no good”.  They won’t try at anything, because “… things are always going wrong for me – and if I do succeed in something it’s never appreciated.  It always goes badly – and is life worth living anyway?”  They’re selling themselves cheap.  They have a treasure in them.  The Koran verses: “I am a treasure concealed, and I desire to be revealed.”  There’s a treasure within and they sold themselves cheap.  He said Napolean sold himself cheap – the Emperor of Europe but what was within him was worth much more than that.  He said, of the people of the world, the most successful and the most unsuccessful and despairing, they’re all selling themselves cheap.  They’re worth more than that.

He says, people want to see a miracle, but they don’t know that if they saw a miracle, it would upset them and might paralyse them for life.  You see this sometimes in people who are superstitious, who believe in lucky and unlucky days very strongly. They become paralysed, because on unlucky days it’s no use trying to do anything, it’s unlucky; but on lucky days, there’s no need.  Don’t do anything – it’s going to turn out well. So he said we make a mistake in looking for the miracle.  One example that’s given on these lines [is to hear a well-known extract from a piece by Wagner] and we can predict what the next note will be.  So we feel, “Well, there’s nothing miraculous about that, because we know what the next note will be.  It’s like dropping a ball, we know what’s going to happen.”

But we ourselves know, that’s quite a wrong view.  Every note of this is a free action by the members of the orchestra.  The miracle is that they do all play together. You don’t need a miracle where one cymbal bashes someone over the head just to show that he can.   The miracle is that Siegfried’s journey to the Rhine is put reliably on this tape, and through this tiny machine it can be reproduced, but not perfectly.  We fail to see that’s the miracle, so we fail to see the miracle of life around us.  Something is holding the things in order.  They don’t hold themselves in order.  The notes follow – if you’ve got the score you can predict what will happen, but it’s not mechanical.  In the same way he said we fail to see the miracle of life.

Nowadays some of the scientists are saying the world is uniquely adapted for human life and experience.  There are too many coincidences to overlook – the distance from the sun and gravity; if it’s a little bit stronger all the stars would be blue giants, and if a little bit weaker all the stars would be red dwarfs, and no possibility of life.  There are too many fine coincidences making life possible.  He said, this is the miracle and if we open our eyes and look, we will see the miracle, and we will see our own part in it.

[Going back to the use of numerals], in the Middle Ages, before the Indian numerals were introduced, to multiply 7 x 7 was thought to be too difficult, even for professional accountants to work out.  They knew their tables up to 5 x 5, but no human being could be expected to learn them beyond 5 x 5 – it was ridiculous.  So they had them painted up on the walls and, if they were separated from their little lists, they had methods of calculating [on their hands].  Now, everybody can do this [in their heads], the faculty’s been brought out.  We no longer think, “You’ve got to be quite someone to know that!” and in the same way in the Middle Ages and quite a bit beyond (and this applied to other parts of the world too) they could only read by verbalising.  That was the only way they could read – they couldn’t read silently. No human being could do that.  St Augustine was a genius because he could do that (another great saint, of course).  Now everybody can do it; and we have to ask ourselves, the spiritual qualities that we think are so impossible, steadiness in meditation, detachment from these different magnetic pulls – are they so impossible?  They seem to be.  People say, “I can’t, I get interrupted in my meditation, you see.  I can’t concentrate.”  “Oh, what a shame, you can’t concentrate.”  But you put that person in front of a television, and somebody comes in with something important and ‘Shush!’.  They say, “It’s something important’ – “Shut up!”  They can concentrate then.  The teachers give us these little examples; they’re only little examples, but they can be quite helpful.

Thank you for your attention.  I’m afraid I’ve been a little vague, but I’m full of drugs that give some side effects, and one side effect is that sometimes I’m a bit woolly.




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