Our fears can be illusory


Learning can become a mask like all the other masks over the original face.

There was a story from Poland of the system called the Kabbalah, which has some secrets. A teacher of this visited a village where the rabbi was locally well-known as a spiritual figure. The Kabbalist stayed the night there and met this rabbi. They talked for a little bit, and the most famous sentence in the Old Testament is, “Hear, oh Israel, your God is one. You shall worship the Lord with all your heart and soul and strength.” Every pious Jew has to recite it twice every day.

The Kabbalist said to him, “You know, there is a secret in these words.” The rabbi said, “Oh?” The Kabbalist said, “It can never be spoken out loud, but I could whisper it to you so that, when you’re saying it, you would know the secret.” The rabbi said, “Oh yes.” The Kabbalist whispered into his ear the secret meaning of ‘the Lord is one’. The rabbi said to him, “Oh.” He said, “I never thought of anything like that when I recited.” The Kabbalist said, “Well, how do you recite it then?” He said, “Well, I throw myself into the presence of the Lord, into the light of the Lord and then I recite: “The Lord is one”, and the whole village shook. The Kabbalist whispered, “I can’t say it like that.”  This is the difference between learning and actual experience. This is an example from Europe. There are many. It’s a pure story on the Zen line.

There are many riddles in our own texts, and we must wake up and not read the holy texts simply nodding. In the New Testament, for instance, there are two different accounts but in one of them, Jesus is asked, “What is the first commandment?” He quoted the most famous text in the Old Testament, “Thou shalt worship God with all thy heart and soul and mind and strength.” He changed it. The original is, “With all thy heart and soul and strength.” Jesus changed it. It’s never been explained.

If you look in the commentaries, you will find no explanation. Most of them don’t even notice it. Why did He put in, ‘mind’? These are riddles in our own tradition. We don’t have to find riddles necessarily from the Zen tradition although they can help us. Then there are masks over the original face. Some of them come in masks of passion, masks of hatred, and then masks of pride, masks of learning, even masks of virtue. They tell us that we must try to take off these masks: ‘This is me.’ ‘I’m like that.’ ‘Some people are always looking for the opportunities, inching ahead. When they play a game, when they play chess, they’re boxing them – that’s me.’  ‘In business, he’s always looking for another chance.  He walks down the street, sees a half-open gate and he just looks inside, “Anything there? No? Fine”.  He’s always like that.’ Then there are others who, “No, no, no.” They don’t want to get excited over things. “Just wait. Just wait and see.” When they play chess, they play a defensive game. “Just sit back, let him attack. Yes, yes.” Then you counter. “That’s me, just the same. His boxing’s the same – just wait for the counter, block, block, block. Waits for the counter. That’s me.”

Those masks have to be taken off. There are people who are constantly talking. They say, “I must express myself.” Then a man comes and he’s going to commit suicide. Now say something. “Oh, oh, I don’t know what to say then. Oh, it’s terrible for you. Isn’t it? Oh, dear.” They talk and talk and talk, but they can’t really speak. He must be able to speak, and he must be able to keep silent for years together. Forcibly keeping silence, again, is no good.  Hakuin reports he met a man who talked continuously, and he said to him, “Brother, do you think perhaps you might try silence sometime?” The man said, “Oh, I did.” He said, “I kept a vow of silence for 20 years when I was young.” All that has been bottled up under that vow, now is coming out. The suppression by force is no good.

I’ll give two main methods. One is to see that our desires and passions and the hates and the arrogance, are based on illusions. We can agree with that theoretically, but when we agree in practice, we should become gradually more free of them, more independent.

The bullet train in Japan is called the Shinkansen. It’s very famous, even now. When it first came in, it was of course, a tremendous thing. The children in the distant villages had all heard of this famous, wonderful Shinkansen. The parents of the children in one village arranged an expedition to the capital and they took them to the nearest big station. They put them on the train, which was the Shinkansen but, by some mistake, the children weren’t told this.  The parents described how they were in this train. They were shooting through the countryside and then they saw another one. The kids all crowded to the windows and said, “Look, the Shinkansen. The Shinkansen.” One of the parents said, “You’re in the Shinkansen now. You don’t need to look at it, you’re in it.” That was an illusion, that they hadn’t realised it. There was something in themselves, which was as great as anything they could see.

A Zen student is expected to find in himself something which will set him free from the passionate grasping for things outside. The Upanishad says, and the Gita says, “He who has his light within, and his joy within, and his sport within.” Not just an isolation, but light within and joy within and sport within.

I heard a Japanese teacher give an address in Japan about the famous star, Alain Delon, the French actor, who was much appreciated. He said, “You see, the Japanese wife, she spends the afternoon perhaps looking at the television instead of doing the household chores, and she’s looking at Alain Delon. Then, about five o’clock, she thinks, “He’ll be back soon,” so she starts working and she puts on the apron and she works hard. She greets him in the apron still and she thinks he’ll think, “What a hard-working wife I’ve got.”  He comes in and she thinks, “Why aren’t you more like Alain Delon?”  But he’s been reading, in the train on the way back, a magazine article about Alain Delon. He looks at her and he thinks, “Why aren’t you more like the glamorous women that Alain Delon seems to come back to.”

He said both of them had brought something into their lives, which is an illusion – because there is no such actor, as you see on the screen. It’s a creation of make-up and lights and camera shots. He said that when you meet the film stars, they’re nothing like that at all. This is something quite illusory, but they’ve brought it into their lives, and they’ve given it reality.

Our fears can be illusory. One example that’s given from India is of a girl who has an appointment in a park with a close friend. A scholar happens to come there, and he sees her. He looks at her rather maliciously and said, “I suppose you don’t mind if I sit here to do my study?” She thinks, and then she says, “Oh, no, it’s all right now. There was a terrible dog, but he’s gone. Since the tiger came, the dog absolutely vanished, so it’s all right now.” The scholar goes.

The fear can be illusory and if the fears are examined and we go deeper and deeper, the damage is done to the masks, not to the original face. We have to be able to take off the masks and not think, “This is me.” This is one great method and in some Buddhist schools, this is the main method to examine the passions and to see their illusoriness and to discard them.

One method that’s given for people who are really sincere, who really want to do something, is to go before the dawn and sit on a hilltop and collect a bag of small stones. Then to sit on the hilltop, looking towards where the sun will rise and to sit in meditation. As the thoughts come up, they take a pebble and thinking, “Not wanted, not wanted” and throw it down the hill. Another thought comes up: “Not wanted”; another one: “Unreal. Not wanted, unreal.”

Well, these practices are given to us, and we can practise them or not as we like. If we have a crisis in life, when we actually want to do something or find something, then those practices can be done to free ourselves to some extent from the illusion, to get a little bit of freedom of independence, instead of feeling, “Oh, I must constantly do this. I’m like that. I always do that.” “Oh no, I never do this.”

The second one is to create a focus. We have the feeling, “Oh well, I would like to choose. Who can I choose now?” It’s not like that. The devotee doesn’t choose the god or the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva chooses the devotee, and the devotee must study widely or read with a certain width, not obsessively, different traditions and finally, one will jump out at him, and he will find, “This is where my devotion is to go.” He will be able to pour his devotion there.

Talks in this series are:

1 Our inner Self

2 Our fears can be illusory

3 The purification of the memory 

4 The eighth consciousness

The full 52 minute talk is here The Original Face

© Trevor Leggett


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