Obstacles in the Practice


Revered teachers and members of the Sangha, these are just short fragments, but I hope some of them will be useful to you as they have been to me. The first one is a traditional story from Japan of a sort of bird-monster which terrorized,   It didn’t seem to do much harm, but it terrorized the district by its frightening appearance. A great warrior was asked if he could drive it away or kill it, and he agreed.

I’ve seen the picture of the bird. It’s sort of a human with a bird’s head and wings, and it has a terrifying aspect. The warrior went up and he shot arrows at it, but the arrows didn’t pierce it, they stuck to its body. Then he took a lance, but the lance was deflected and just stuck. Then he drew his sword, the sword somehow didn’t make contact, but just stuck. Then, being a warrior, he knew all of the judo-jujitsu means as they were then, so he tried with his hands.  But his hands stuck to the body and he was helpless.  The bird head said, “Now, do you surrender?” He said, “No.” Well, then the bird is transformed – we need not go into it, but it’s the God of the martial arts – “You tried with various means; with the arrow, with the lance, with the sword, and with your techniques, and all these failed. There was nothing left. You were naked, so to say. Nothing, but still…”

Now, this story was taken by a Zen teacher to illustrate something. When we approach something like Zen (but he didn’t restrict it to Zen), we first of all try shooting arrows of opinion at it, or of information which we have, or guesses, or inferences. We try from a distance, a safe distance, shooting arrows at it to try to find out what it is, and to pierce it.  But the arrow flies with alien feathers – the feathers in an arrow are not its own, they’ve come from somewhere else. The arrow may pierce its target, but it never gets anything. Taken out of the target and perhaps used again, shot again. The arrow never gets anything, but the bird which flies with its own feathers finds the nest and the mate and the young ones when it has made its flight.

He said, “The arrows of opinion, they won’t pierce the target. They’ll just stick. The same with the lance”, and he gives the illustrations: the sword, and finally, the technique. He said, “You have to approach this finally. It’s not wrong to try these things, but finally, there has to be nothing there but you. If you’re still determined, and not daunted by the failures, then there’ll be a transformation.”

This story appears in many forms in different cultures and traditions. Sometimes they can add a little something. It’s a very old tradition in India, possibly before the Buddha, where the gods win a victory over the titans, their enemies. There’s something strange about the victory, but anyway, they won it, and they take all the credit to themselves. Well, in the celebrations, a report comes that something mysterious has been seen in a particular place in the Himalayas. Something mysterious which they can’t make out the form of it. It seems to have no form, and yet it’s there.

Indra, the king of the gods, sends the god Fire who symbolizes various things, including speech, to find out what this wonderful being is, and Fire goes, and he can’t make out. There’s no form. There’s no actual form, but there’s something, and the question comes from that wonderful being, “Who are you?”  He said, “I’m a god of fire.”  “What can you do?”  “I can burn anything.”  The voice says, “There is a straw there. Burn that.” Fire, with all his splendour, concentrates on the straw but can’t burn it, so he returns and he reports to the king of the gods, “I couldn’t find out.”  Then Wind goes, and the same thing, “Who are you? What is your power?”  “Wind, I can move anything? It’s energy, it’s impetus.”  “Move that straw.”  He can’t move it.

Well, the story continues.  Finally, Indra has sent all his messengers, all these great powers, irresistible powers which serve him, and they can do absolutely nothing. Then he goes himself.  The interview which follows doesn’t matter now. The main point of the story is that even our most powerful instruments and agents will fail before that which is formless. They can affect anything that has form, but before the formless, and what is blessed by the formless, they are completely helpless.

These things are sort of abstractions in a sense, but they have very practical applications. What is formless? We have this also in the Christian tradition. In Exodus, they went up the mountain and they saw the God of Israel – His body as it were, the clearness of heaven, space, clearness of space. That part is generally hastily passed over, but it’s a little hint perhaps, the same experience and teachings there.

I’ll give an example from judo with which I’m familiar. We have many different techniques in judo, very many – far more than any other such activity.  But what happens in practice is that people specialize on the high levels in one or two. It very often happens that they become extremely skilful in one technique, and they build all their contest record on that technique. They gradually adopt a special posture for that technique, so that when they face a normal posture, the distances are slightly different.  But this side knows and is familiar with these new distances, and the other side doesn’t know, so they have an advantage.

What happens is that they get more and more the idea, “This is how I’m going to win with this. Of course, the other man has this technique too, and I must watch out for that, but this is how I’m going to win.”  If there’s no good teacher to correct it, the man becomes a sort of specialist, and he misses all the other opportunities. He never sees them. There are opportunities for other techniques, he doesn’t see them. He’s only waiting for his own, and he’s very clever at bringing it about; but it means the whole purpose of the judo, which is the free movement and free adaptation, is lost. That man’s judo is not much help him in life.

It’s not wrong to have these specialized techniques, but they have to be our slaves. The time comes when the master can’t do without that slave, and then the slave has become the master. These are expressions that judo teachers use. When the stage is reached that the master has become the slave, then the teacher will say, “Now give up that technique for six months.” He tries giving it up, but of course, he doesn’t. He’s not very good at the other ones, and he begins to look a fool. If he’s had considerable successes in his contest record, then he doesn’t like looking a fool.

Many of them try for a month, and then they gradually go back. “Anyway, this I can do. The teacher doesn’t really understand me. We’re all different, and this is the one for me.”  But those who can give up the strong point and open themselves up to something quite different – to be able to look a fool, and yet not such a fool – people who really know, they know what’s happening, and they admire those people.

There has to be something which is not a technique, which is not an instrument. The teachers say that in life, we tend to develop one technique which we use for life: bullying people down, shouting them down, arguing them down, plotting them down, a designed helplessness. “Oh no, I could never do that.” Then people rush to do it, don’t they? They want to show that they can do it. Oh, it’s quite an effective technique.

I had two brothers who were keen on do-it-yourself’s when we were all young. I always said, “I can’t do anything like that,” then they would mend all the things. When I was alone, I could mend them, but not in public. Now, we shouldn’t become slaves of a technique, which means in life, a set of ideas, a set of feelings, a set of possibilities which we always go for, which we have to go for to be able to do them.

As I told you, this is not a connected talk, but anyway, there is a relation between the parts of it. One example given was this, people say, “We meditate and we do practice, and there’s no response. There’s no response from the true face within ourselves.” The example he gave was this.  You’re an electrician, a household rings up to ask for an electrician to go around to make an electrical repair. The chap goes around, and after time, he comes back and says, “There was no one in.”

They telephone the house, and the householder says, “I’ve been in all the time, I’m waiting for the electrician.”  They ask the electrician, “Did you go?”  He says, “Yes. I rang that bell and rang that bell and rang that bell, and there was no answer.”  Well, the teacher said in the same way, this repairing of the bell is our immediate task. When we practice, then there will be a response.

Another thing on the same lines is that this air is full of radio waves, isn’t it? We know this theoretically. We’re quite familiar with that theoretically. People could say, “Well, where are these waves? They’re not here.” We can say, “Oh well, but they are here.” Then one can want to listen to them, and one’s banging and shouting, and one can’t hear anything [on the radio].  If I’m banging and shouting, of course, I can’t hear it. Well, he gave that example. It’s delicate, it’s not perfect for a long time, but the sound is there.

He said in the same way, we are spitting at the Buddha all day, and then in the evening, we’re shouting at the Buddha.  [We should] reduce the noise, reduce the shouting, reduce the banging, reduce the saying, “I don’t see anything”.

There’s all the difference in the world when a man is inviting the Buddha into his own home but standing in the door, taking care that the Buddha can’t come in and when he stands aside, becomes nothing, the Buddha can come in. He said in the same way, while we are standing up in our practices – in our meditation and daily practice – we’re in the way. Although, with our words, we invite him and seek him, we’re actually in the way. The thing is to become, to melt into, a vacancy through which the Buddha can come.

He said that the practices are not very attractive. They’re attractive at first, and this is one reading he gives of the beginner’s mind, why the beginner’s mind is highly prized. Because at the beginning, we’re thinking and pondering about it all the time. We can hardly wait to get back to do the practice. We can hardly wait to exercise our patience or whatever it might be in daily life. We shouldn’t forget that, because the time will come when one says [reluctantly], “Ugh– Well, I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” Think back to the beginning. He gave that example.

People have this enthusiasm, then they have a dead period, and they think it’s always going to be like this; always going to be uphill, and it’s always going to be somehow dreary and dull. Where is the joy in this? There isn’t, really, and what you feel at the beginning isn’t actual joy, it’s hope. The examples he gave are cigarettes and whiskey. He said, nobody likes the first cigarettes they have. They only smoke them in order to try to appear more grown up than they are. Nobody likes the first whiskey or alcohol, but these too can become the strongest addiction. Well, it’s not a particularly elevating example, but it is a powerful one.

He said in the same way, the Zen practice and the Buddhist practice can open up, and it can become a joy like no other joy. Quite soon, with these things, it always comes to faith. The general reaction to faith is that you are told that the things won’t work unless you already have faith in them, but this is not life. Life is not like that. They’ve got to show the things working, and then you have faith in them. That’s reasonable, but it’s ridiculous to be asked to have faith in something you don’t know about.

A city man who was under a good teacher had to go make a visit to the deep country, and he had to stay overnight. There happened to be a service on at the Buddhist temple, and he went there. When he came back the next day, he saw the teacher and one or two disciples there, and he said it was a wonderful experience. That there was this resonant voice of the priest reciting the holy text and the holy truth, and the absolute faith of the poor peasants who were there. He said, “I could feel there was not a quiver, there was absolute faith in that sonorous voice and the holy truth. I was profoundly moved by their faith. I thought of how, in the city, we have our doubts, and we’re not sure. We’re half keen on it and half doubting.”  The teacher said, “Yes, it is a wonderful thing sometimes, that faith is absolutely complete, so the only man there who might have his doubts would be the priest.”

There was a Western example of this. One of our science pundits at the end of a talk pointed out the difference between science and religion. He said, “In religion, you have these articles of faith that you’ve got to believe in, dogmas; but in science”, he said it very strongly and powerfully, “We have nothing taken for granted. Nothing. Everything is tested.” The next couple of days, a letter came from a listener who said how impressed he’d been by this.  He said, “It’s given me a new respect for my cat, because when I put the cat out at night – I put it out the front door – if it’s raining, it breaks away. Then it runs to the back door and mews there, apparently in the hope of finding better weather conditions at the back.” He said, “I now realize my cat has the true scientific spirit, taking nothing for granted. Before this, I admit, I thought our cat was a bit of a fool.”

Well, I give these two stories about faith. You can have blind faith, but you can also have the other blindness, an equally blind clichéd scepticism. A very learned Zen priest who is a great historian in Japan has just published a history of the founder of Kenchō-ji, which is one of the oldest of the Zen temples in Japan. In this, he’s done a tremendous amount of research, and he’s discovered some remarkable things. There was one text which this great Chinese master, who came to Japan in about 1250, wrote immediately he arrived in Japan, before he’d had any experience with the Japanese people.  So it’s reckoned that it gives a good impression of what Zen was like in China at that time – he was a well-known Chinese master.

This hasn’t been known as a Buddhist text. It was only discovered not too long ago, and it’s never been studied, but this chap has really studied it, and he’s filled in the gaps where the worms had gone through, and all that. It’s sort of an unknown document, and when one comes across that, one always gets the feeling of, “Now we’re really going to hear it, because this hasn’t been known before.” You get that sort of, ‘what the butler saw’ feeling, don’t you?

Well, it’s not quite like that, but there are some original forms of presentation. I extracted a few of them, which I thought I could just read a little bit of in the time that remains. He says that there’s an impression in parts of China that it [Zen] is secluding yourself. He says, “If you do this, you become a sort of insect which burrows in and just stays there in the wood,” whatever it might be.  Zen has to be something that can go out among your brothers and sisters, not something that’s only held within.

Then he says the precepts. Well, we know what the precepts are, but he gives quite an interesting little comment on that. He says, “The essence of them is respect.”  It could be translated, ‘respect’ or ‘good manners’ or ‘behaviour’, good behaviour, ‘self-control’, and so on. He says, “If you have respect for your food, you’ll eat properly. If you have respect for the different phases of your life, you’ll do them properly, and you’ll find that you’re following the precepts accurately.” He said, “Don’t go about more than you can help with people who have no respect for things and no respect for people, and then you will be on the right lines of fulfilling the precepts.”

One of the features of the thing is, he says that samadhi or control of thought will go through various stages until finally, you come to the great vastness. This is a feature of this text. It could be emptiness – not vastness – emptiness, the great expanse; and he says it’s the spiritual wonder to come to that.  He says, “This mustn’t be forgotten in our endeavours.” At the end, it comes to that.

Then before that, there are the six brigands.  Well, I just mention this because, by historical accident, the Zen in Japan that was brought from China tended to come, a good deal of it, through the soldiers who rated highly in Japan.  It’s thought that there’s an attitude of a knightly code about it, something like chivalry, and it was equally so evidently in his school, at least in China.

He talks about the brigands, and he says, “You have to be serious about fighting them.” Then he says, “You can’t do it if you’re half-doubt and half-belief.” Then he makes four statements: “Handling your heart – it’s easy, but not easy; it’s difficult, but not difficult; it’s clear, but not clear.”  It’s easy, but not easy. It’s difficult, but not difficult. It’s clear, but not clear. A modern teacher made quite a good remark, adding a little something to it. He said, “It’s much easier to get rid of a burglar than a ghost, because the burglar is real.”

You have a burglar. Well, maybe he finds you out of your house; but, sooner or later, you’ll get the police, or you’ll get 12 good strong men and you’ll get rid of the burglar. Or perhaps the burglar will simply go himself if nothing else is done. You’ll be rid of him, he’ll be gone. He said, “But the ghost, no. Whatever you do, you can’t get rid of him, because he’s not real.” All the real measures you apply won’t get rid of him.

Well, Daikaku in this, he says, “It’s easy, but not easy. Difficult, but not difficult. It’s clear, but it’s not clear.” Then he says, most of us, in thinking of handling the heart, feel we’re beating the air.” You do make your blow, but it goes through. He said, “With Zen, people wait to receive it from the teacher, but the teacher can’t pick it up and pass it.” He can do this, pick up space and sort of pass it across, but the space is already there. The pupil receiving it, he can feel he is receiving something, but there’s nothing there. It’s emptiness. Difficult, but not difficult. Clear, but not clear.

Then he says, “This can’t be forced, but it must be practised without interruption. It’s like a mother bird sitting on the eggs, it must be done.” Then again, he says, “It’s like a tree. People think that the spiritual advance in practice is the leaves and the branches of the tree, but the roots, they don’t see.” When we draw a tree, as you know, we draw the trunk, and then all the branches and leaves.  The Chinese character for a tree shows them on top, but it also shows the roots. We never draw the roots, but the roots are sometimes three or four times the size of what’s above the ground, and they can be much more.

He said it’s a question of going into the roots, not making brilliant the leaves, and the branches, and the blossoms, and so on. They can come or go according to the season and to the necessity and so on. The root is the essential thing. Then he says (and this must apply to China at the time), “There are many of my younger brothers, who after years of practice, feel that they have satori, enlightenment. They go round, and anyone who says anything to them, they give a big shout, and then they return home. It’s impossible to teach them. They are satisfied with their own one year’s practice.” He says, “It’s very difficult to find anyone these days who hasn’t got satori.”

Then it’s developed at some length later on. He said, “In outer life, it’s coming into the great life of the universe, or the great flow of the universe,” which in different forms is put in various poetic forms. It corresponds a little bit to what we would call inspiration, but with us, the inspiration is only in a limited sphere.

Beethoven had an absolutely filthy temper, and his behaviour to publishers and other people was not exactly on the best moral basis. He just thought they were there to be exploited for the sake of his genius. We have these experiences, even absolute sceptics have these experiences, but we have no tradition, nothing to include them in.

Bertrand Russell, who hated religion, really hated it, he writes that in his early days when he was living life as a Puritan, he was very unhappy, but he was creative. He said he had to give a series of lectures. He had the material, but he couldn’t see how to put it together to present it. He spent some days of real agony, he says, trying to get the form in which to present it, and he couldn’t do it. Then he momentarily sort of gave up. He had to put this in tomorrow, and he gave up and went for a long walk.  As he came back into the hall, he suddenly saw the whole thing clear before him, and he had nothing to do but write it down.

Now, Russell describes this, and his comment is very interesting. He said, “Well, I suppose I put it into the subconscious, and it germinated there.” The seeds were there, and they germinated, but if you think, when you put seeds down, they come up as what those seeds were. You know what’s going to come up. It’s as though Russell had scattered seeds with white, blue, and red at random, in no order, and they come up in the Union Jack. A new order had come from nowhere, and Russell couldn’t admit that, so he made a very feeble comment. He said the seeds must have germinated, but he failed to explain where the order came from.

France’s great mathematician, the glory of French mathematics, Poincare, he had these experiences, much more intelligent than Russell.  He said, “It means, I’m afraid, that there is something in my subconscious which is much more clever and intelligent than I am. I hate to admit this.”

Well, we have these experiences in very dedicated lives, in a limited field, in their own limited field, but we have no general tradition to put them in, and they only cover this limited field. If you’ve ever seen the game of living chess, it’s played on a lawn, a huge lawn.  I’ve seen it down at the university sometimes. It’s marked up in squares like a chessboard.  The students dress up, and in one of the games I saw, they got two girls, two tall girls, one with black hair going right down, and the other girl with blonde hair going right down, and they looked the part, the white queen and the black queen.

The knights are dressed in tinsel, and they’ve got axes. Then there’s a crier who calls the moves, and on each end, there’s a master, a local champion and an invited master who’ve got a little board that they’re looking at. When they make a move, they tell the crier, and he calls out, “The king’s knights fifth takes pawn,” and the knight jumps up with his battle axe and goes to king’s knight fifth and he smashes it down on their head. Of course, it’s only made of silver paper, but it looks quite good. The pawn cringes and then collapses, and the stretcher-bearers carry him off, and the knight shakes.

Well, if you’re moving, of course, it’s great fun, but some of the pieces don’t move at all, they’re just standing there. They tried to act their part, but I noticed of some of them had a little board of their own, so they could follow the game. They knew their own part, where it lay in the grand strategy of the game. For them, of course, it was much more interesting, because if you’re the queen’s rook’s pawn that doesn’t move at all in the whole game, but nevertheless, the existence of that extra pawn is decisive for the game, then the game is very interesting for you although you’re not moving.

In a little bit the same way, Master Daikaku says that you will have an awareness of the, well, he calls it, ‘wonder’, something like this – the wonder of the great life of the universe.  If you practise, you will become aware of your own role in it. As an example of such an inspiration, Kobo Daishi was a great Buddhist – he wasn’t a Zen man because he was long before Zen came to Japan. The Japanese didn’t have an alphabet then, so he invented the syllabary alphabet that they use. Not only A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, no meaning at all. He composed a poem of just over 50 syllables, which expresses in the most beautiful terms the four lines of the Nirvana Sutra. Things are passing, this is the law of all existence, there is a way out of the suffering, Nirvana is peace.

In that poem, each syllable comes once, and once only.The blossoms are fragrant, but alas, they fall. Who in this world can remain forever? This day, crossing beyond the mountains of illusion, we see no more shallow dreams, nor are we intoxicated by them.”  In a traditional theatre, or in a Japanese [one] of course, the rows have letters on them. When we go down, we go A, B, C, D, E, F, G.  But in the traditional theatre, the Japanese is reading, “The colours are fragrant, but alas, they fall. Who in this world can remain. Oh, this is ours, let’s go in…”

Well, it’s an example of an inspiration that has brought not simply the literacy, but also this Buddhist culture and a wonderful poem to many people. It’s now time to shut up, so thank you for your attention.


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