Robes of Honour

(11 December 1996)

 I can introduce this with a personal story (not that I play any part in it), but there is a very big Zen training temple, in Japan, called Eihei-ji.  It is not in one of the big centres, but in a rather remote place, in spite of which they get a lot of pilgrims there and they have about 200 monks.  They insist that when pilgrims come, they should stay overnight, and attend the service at half-past-three in the morning, which goes on sometimes for a couple of hours. The ones who preside and take these great ceremonies, wear magnificent gold and silver embroidered robes. They’re wonderful, they’re masterpieces.

I can remember on one occasion, the head monk so to speak, whom I’d come to know, he was conducting the service.  I was sitting there among the congregation, and he came up in this gorgeous robe. He had a fine presence. He moved past us and he just caught my eye as he went past, with no sign of recognition. Like a wonderful vision of splendour.

Well, two or three days afterwards I was talking to him in his room, where he just wore the usual cheap robe that the ordinary monk wears, though he had a great position in this whole sect, and he mentioned it.  He said, “Those wonderful robes that I wear for the ceremonies, they’re not mine. Tomorrow, somebody else will be wearing it. They belong to the temple, not to me. They’re just on me for the ceremony, for the occasion, and then afterwards I take them off.  I deposit them and I come back here to my room in this robe and now I’m myself.”

That was all that he said, but he meant it as a lesson. Not only the robes of honour in the ceremony, but the robes of honour in the world. They’re not ours. They’re only with us for a time. They have to be returned.  When we’re wearing them, we’re not ourselves. We have to be able to take them off, deposit them and then be ourselves.

The master who trained at Tsuji Somei temple was a prominent roshi of this century. This master lived until nearly 100, and he wrote these two characters which say, “Like a fool.” His pupil gave this to me and I have it hanging now in my place. Nobody puts robes of honour on a fool and, like a fool, he has certain advantages – to be a fool with no reputation, nothing to keep up, no obligations. ‘Like a fool’ – he gave that as an indication for our spiritual life and our worldly life.

When you’re wearing magnificent robes, you can’t really do anything in them. For instance, supposing you’re in full evening dress, well, you can’t go gardening very well. You’ll get muddy over your wing collar, your shirt front. In fact, the evening dress is meant to separate you entirely from work or activity. It may not be wrong to wear the robe just occasionally, but if we’re wearing a robe all the time, then it hampers us, and we can’t do anything useful.

Many of these so-called robes of honour, in fact, are false. Supposing you get in the Guinness Book of Records. Well, that’s really an achievement. Your photograph’s in too. So when the deadline comes around for the next year, you ring them up and you say, “You’ve inserted the photograph on the top of the page, so it’s all going to be in this year too?” They say, “Oh.” They look it up and they say, “We had so much. We did apologize. We did apologize.” You say, “Oh, well, what do you mean? Why apologize?” They say, “Oh, well. That ought never to have been there.”  You say, “What?”

They say, “Oh, you don’t know? Your record was smashed in New Zealand.  We knew it had been smashed, but something went wrong and we didn’t get the cable at the exact time.” They said, “So we had to put you in. We apologize and, of course, when the new edition comes out, there’ll be an apology saying that the so-called record recorded last year, was no clear record at all.”  Yes. Your moment of glory in these robes of honour is a temporary and a false one.

The achievements in the world are of similar nature. In Japan, I knew a very good judo man, who was also a good engineer and businessman. I knew him before the war quite well. After the war he became a millionaire, and he took me once to the Millionaires Club in Tokyo. I looked around and I said to him, “What’s the common element, would you say among all these?”  He looked around and he said, “Luck! I don’t say some of them didn’t work hard, very hard. I don’t say some of them aren’t clever, very clever. But there are other people who work just as hard, and then other people who are just as clever – and they didn’t do well at all. The point is these were there at that time, at that place – and it’s luck.  In the great success which they had, the biggest element is luck.”

So we think that these successes we have in life, are us. And one of the lessons of the robes, is that there are somethings that come to us, but don’t belong to us and which will leave us. If we hang onto them, not merely shall we be disappointed when they go, but also we won’t have been able to do anything of very much use, while we’re wearing them.

The aura of the robe, sometimes it’s false as with the Guinness entry; but sometimes you don’t know.  When I was a student, I was very keen on chess and some of the Arabs there, they used to [dismiss the idea of Western chess], and the Persians even more.  I said, “It’s a Persian game isn’t it? ‘Check mate’, you use the Persian words still. You took the whole thing from us, and you can’t really play.”  Well, one of them finally, I cornered him and he had to play against me. I made the opening move. Now he mirrored the moves I was making, and this is an extremely risky way of conducting an opening. If you mirror the moves, it contains some very subtle traps. You’d think that the one who plays first will always win, but that isn’t so in the mirror image. You play pawn to Queens, which is fourth, he meets it… When he began to do this mirror imaging, I felt very nervous. I played very, very cautiously. Then I made a move and I said, “Check.” Then to my amazement he made a move and said “check” too – and I realized he could hardly play at all. He’d just been told imitate what the opponent does and he’ll hold him up for quite a time.  It was quite a little lesson.

In the same way in judo, sometimes a man will come forward, just holding one hand. He’s either very good, or he’s very bad, and you don’t know which. You’ll soon find out. At first, you don’t know which and you’re very cautious and you’re very careful. These are imitation robes sometimes, but they might be genuine. You don’t know.  The thing is, they’re not the real person at all and you’ll find out later on who he was. Japanese chess is much more widespread and popular in Japan than chess is here, except possibly in the dictatorships. Chess is always encouraged by dictators. The Chinese saying is, “You cannot at the same time work out a difficult chess problem and plan a revolution.” So they encourage chess very furiously, it’s in all the schools of the dictatorship.

Every Japanese newspaper has a sizable chess column every day, with a long commentary and the moves and the latest championships.  They have the three so-called championships every year, which are enormous national events. The man who for 10 years won all of them and other major events as well, was named Oyama.  He dominated the whole field for 10 years. I knew him quite well. His is a very interesting case.

When he was a small boy, about 12 or 13, he was fascinated by chess.  He wanted to become a chess master even then. He was in the Osaka area, so he went to the chief dojo, the chief centre, in Osaka.  He managed to get an interview with the chief teacher there, who had trained a champion. He said, “I would like to become an apprentice here.” The teacher gave him a few little problems and watched him play. Then he said to him, “No, I won’t take you on as a pupil. You haven’t got the talent.”

He wept. He said, “Oh, please.” The teacher said, “No. It would not be fair to you. It would not be fair to me, and it would not be fair to you. Take up something else. Table tennis or something else that you can do well. You haven’t got the talent for shogi.” The boy cried again and he haunted the place and finally – and Oyama told me this himself – the teacher said, “Look, I won’t take on as a pupil, but if you want, after school, you can come here and you can wipe the tables and serve the tea and you can watch the play. Maybe one or two people will give you a game or two”.  He did that and he became the unchallenged champion for 10 years. It’s an example. That was a very, very experienced trainer who said, “You have not got the talent.” Yet he had this tremendous success.

When he made his 100th major victory, there was a big celebration in honour of Oyama. I wasn’t there but I read his acceptance speech.  He said, “In my career, yes, I’ve had 100 of these major victories. That’s quite true, but in my career I’ve had 200 defeats, and we’re not talking about them now, are we?” I very much admired that he was not deluded by the tremendous acclamation, which was being poured on him. He was able to rise above it in a humorous way like that.

Bukko, one of the great masters, said, “If you get to the heights of anything, you’re like a man on top of a mountain with possessions.” If you’re on top of a mountain with your possessions you’ve got to keep holding them. If you let one go, it will go down to the bottom, and you will lose it.  It’s best not to be on the heights. It’s best to be down there, then you can have the things and keep them. If you’re on the heights you’ve got to have constant vigilance and finally many of them will drop away from you and roll down.  He warned against staying or trying to get on the heights and thinking that when you’re on the heights you’ll be able to maintain yourself there. You won’t. Things will gradually fall away from you because you won’t be able to hold them all.

The next point about the robes and honour is that we tend to put robes of honour on ourselves. Saigō was a remarkable man – he’s called ‘Great Saigō’ in Japan still. As a Samurai, he was absolutely free from the fear of death. There’s one story about him, when he was politically very active. Three men in Tokyo decided to assassinate him. He was in Osaka then.  They went to Katsu Kaishu who was an acquaintance of Saigō and a prominent man in Tokyo to gets Saigō’s address. Of course, Katsu Kaishu wrote a note with the address on it, he knew they would find it anyway. He sealed it. He said, “Yes, this is your introduction.” What it said was, “I think these men are determined to kill you and therefore take precaution.”

It was sealed so they didn’t open it, they just saw it as a little introduction. They went to this place in Osaka. Saigō never moved into any sort of mansion. It was quite an ordinary house. He never wore anything much in the way of clothes. When he came to the door, they thought he was the servant. They presented this note and said, “Will you take this to your master Saigō Takamori?” Saigō said, “You’ve come all the way from Tokyo to assassinate me? Been a long journey, hasn’t it?”  They were so impressed by his fearlessness. This was sort of man he was. He wrote a piece about handling life.

Reading: “When a man sets about something, he generally completes seven or eight tenths of it but rarely completely succeeds with the remaining two tenths. This is because at the beginning, a man fully restrains his egoity and respects to work for itself. Results begin to come and his fame increases. Then egoity stirs, the prudent and restrained attitude is relaxed, pride and boasting flourish. In the confidence born of his achievements so far he plans to complete the work for his own ends. But his efforts have become bungling and the end is failure, all invited by himself. Therefore restrain the self and be careful not to heed what others do or say.

TPL:  In his life and in his maxims he made a big point of this. He said, “We begin things in a true spirit of wanting to do the thing for its own sake. If we do this with sincerity, and we do it well then we begin to become known.” Then we begin to think, “Yes, I’m not doing too badly, am I? I’ll go on and then I shall become famous.” Well, now I’m beginning to put robes of honour on myself. As he says, “Then I’m no longer solely doing the thing with respect to it for its own sake. I’m doing it half for this thing itself, and I’m doing it half to get a reputation and increase my reputation and fame.”

He says that, because they’re purposely split, my efforts become, what he calls, ‘bungling’. He says, “If you study history, you will see often this happens. You get 80%, even 90%, brilliantly done and unselfishly done and clear-sightedly done. Then they make extraordinary mistakes and misjudgements, and they do things which are illogical – because they’ve got to not merely succeed in what they’re doing, but they’ve got to become well-known and famous themselves.” They’ve put these robes of honour on.  We’ve put them on ourselves and now they hamper us and we can’t do the job properly. He says, “We must be careful with this.”

Now in Judo, we make this before some grading contests: you have to take on 10 men, one after another. They’re generally a couple of grades below you. With luck, half of them are terrified, but one or two of them think, “I have nothing to lose. Everybody knows I’m going to lose.”  They come shooting at you, taking fantastic risks, and sometimes because you’re so convinced of your superiority and you’re expecting [one move, but they make a different one] you can’t adapt. You can’t get the robes off in time and this quite often happens.

Even some of the famous contest men, they don’t show their real ability because they feel, well, it’s not necessary. They’ve put a grade and robes of honour on themselves; and then they’re no longer simply the judo champion they ought to be, but they’re the judo champion with something restricting. The judo champion in evening dress, so to speak, or in robes and he’s not so effective sometimes. Putting robes of honour on ourselves infects even the best actions.

We may make philanthropic actions, generosity. I put a gold coin in. Others can only afford a copper coin. I put a gold one in. Well, that’s very generous, but if I cough while I’m doing it then the action is infected. I’m using it partly for my own sake, partly as a generous action.  I get the illusion that somehow, if the offering is worth more, it’s more generous, but that isn’t so at all. I’ve been lucky. I happened to have more money, so I put more in; but that’s not more generous than somebody who’s been unlucky and has very little and puts very little in.  We know this in theory, it’s extremely difficult for the very wealthy man not to feel that he can buy his way into everything.

Well, one teacher (its only one tradition) said, “When you find that you are becoming respected and honoured, that’s the time to go.” The Chinese account of this: it’s a Taoist Master, and he has a very promising pupil.  The pupil finally does attain this enlightenment and the teacher says he can now go off.  So then he goes off and he becomes a teacher and a very famous teacher. Outside his house, there are many shoes where the pupils have come to him regularly.  They leave their shoes and they go in. His old teacher one day comes up and he sees all these shoes and he waits.  When they’ve all gone, he goes in and sees his pupil. He says, “They’ve gone. Now you go.  Don’t hang about here, famous.” Well, this is one tradition.  It may not be all traditions, but it’s worth remembering, to do the thing and then go.

Oyama wrote a number of books, which are best sellers. A chess champion in this part of the world isn’t regarded as a particularly remarkable human being. He’s just regarded as extremely good at chess. But in the Far East, they think of the training as an inner training, it’s not simply working out chess combinations. There is one champion I know, although not well, who I was able to go in and see him playing. They don’t play the championships in public, they play in a private room and then it’s all recorded on a huge neighbourhood hall on it.  They think it’s ridiculous to have, as we do, hundreds of people watching two men playing chess. If ever there’s anything where there’s less action to watch, it will be a game of chess, but we haven’t seen that yet. The time will come when we will see it. So they play in private, but a few people are occasionally allowed in just to watch.

I went in and just sat down there. There was only one move that Kimara, the man I knew, could make. He was playing against a much younger man, who had a brilliant future before him. Kimara had only one possible move, but he didn’t make it. I thought, “Has he fallen asleep or something?”, but he was fanning himself, drinking tea, and going out to the toilet and coming back. And after about ten minutes, he made this move, which he had to make, and the opponent made a fast response [which Kimara countered] and he won.  The other chap was so keen to finish the game off that he made an error and a blunder – too hasty. Well, Kimara [cunningly took his chance].

After the game was over, I met him and to my amazement he was not like that at all. He was a sort of wise-cracking Tokyo Cockney.  I said to him, “How is it that your chess personality is so different from your ordinary personality?” He said, “When I was young, I was promising and then I played against an old master who did what I do now.  Although sometimes there was one possible move to make, he wouldn’t make it and just sit there.  I used to get so impatient and do anything to finish the game off quickly.  So he’d move in and then I’d reply instantly and sooner or later, I’d make a blunder.”  He said, “I realized, although I was better than he was, I was always going to lose to him.”

Now, this is the Japanese way, but here, when a chess master’s impatient – and some of them are – they say, “Sit on your hands. When you play chess, sit on your hands so that you can’t play too quickly.” But  Kimara said, “I realized that I would always lose. So next day I took an empty chess board and I put it in front of me and I sat in front of it for an hour without moving. I did this for a few days. Then I sat in front of it for two hours without moving. No pieces on it, I just sat there. Then I played against the old master, and he sat and I sat – and I beat him.” He said, “Now I can out-sit any of them.” It’s transforming your weak point into your strong point. We don’t have this idea. We think, “If it’s a weak point, like impatience, try to minimize it – sit on your hands so you can’t make an impulsive move so quickly.”

I watched one of Oyama’s games at the beginning.  He had black, which meant he had the opening move (it’s different from the opposite, from our chess). He was to make the opening move and they sat down, opposite each other. Then the timekeeper said, “Begin.” Well, in our chess we’ve always decided what our opening move’s going to be and we make it immediately because there’s a timer.  But Oyama simply sat there, and he sat there for it seemed like about 10 minutes, may not have been quite so long. Then he played. I asked him afterwards, “Why do you sit before you’ve made any move at all? You just sit there.” He told me, “When you go to play chess or do anything else, you have an idea of how you’re going to win.”  This is true in judo – when you go out in judo, you have an idea of what you’re going to do.

He said, “When I sit there, I give that up entirely, how I’m going to win. I give up those thoughts and I sit there and then I begin to feel what he’s feeling and thinking.  He said there’s a current and if I have cleared my mind of my personal ideas of how I’m going to attack and defend, then I begin to feel how he is –  whether he’s nervous, whether he’s confident, whether he’s energetic that day, whether he’s dull that day.  I can begin to feel it. Then he said, “I can adapt my game to that quite easily.”

One of the things he said, and it’s in his book, was, “One of the difficult things to do is to win a won game. Now in shogi, as in chess and in other cases, you get a position where you’ve got such a big advantage that you can win.  He said, “That’s difficult.”  He’s got a commentary on it, but if we examine our experience, we’ll see why.  The game often leads up to a crisis, and your judgments are like that. Then one of you turns out to have the advantage. Well, now it’s a question of driving home that advantage. This side has an inferior position, but when you realize, “I’ve got a won game,” you’re no longer the same person that you’ve been.

Before that, you were trying. Now, you’re thinking, “Well, I’ve won. It’s just the question of knocking him out.” That means you’re no longer employing all your resources. You feel, “Oh, well, it’s won now.”  But it isn’t won. He said that it’s quite difficult, when you know you ought to win, in fact, to win. There’s a slackening and a complacency sets in. In fact, you’ve robes of honour, or laurels of victory, or whatever it might be, on your own head, before it happened. So your efforts are impeded and your judgment is affected. You think, “Why is he still resisting? He’s got a lost game.”

This is quite a profound thing for life. When we come out in a superior position, and we know our position is superior, we tend to be below what we really could be and could do. It doesn’t require all the complete effort. The position is superior and it’s difficult to get the whole force and judgment and clear-sightedness, and forget the coming victory.  The coming victory, which we tend to crown ourselves with, hampers our movement.

Now, going back to the first, the robes in the ceremony. Robes in a magnificent ceremony may create a wonderful effect on the audience, those who see them, but it can be at the expense of the true point of the ceremony. We all know this, that one is impressed by things one doesn’t fully understand if they’re sonorous and they reverberate and they’re resonant.  You think, “Yes, oh, wonderful. It’s all in the Bible. It must be true, or it’s true and more.”  But as to what it actually means [it’s not clear]. There’s a passage used to be read to us at the end of every term at school, from Ecclesiastes. If we just read a little bit of it.

Reading: While the sun or the light, or the moon, or the stars be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few and those that look out of the windows be darkened and the doors shall be shut in the streets when the sound of the grinding is low and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird and all the daughters of music shall be brought low.

And when they shall be afraid, of that which is high and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden and desire shall fail. Because man goes to his long home and the mourners go about the streets. Wherever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broke, or the picture be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

TPL: Well, we used to be impressed by that, but what it meant? The almond tree shall flourish; he will rise up at the voice of a bird; the strong men shall bow themselves; keepers of the house tremble; wherever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broke, or the pitcher broken at the well, or the wheel broken at the cistern. What does it mean?  They never told us and we never asked…

The Chinese scriptures are full of passages like this. The almond tree flourish – white hair; keepers of the house will tremble – their knees will begin to shake. Those that look out of windows will be darkened.  These are paraphrases, most beautiful phrases about old age, but we didn’t know. ‘Shall rise up at the voice of a bird’? Old men wake up very early in the morning, when the first bird arrives. ‘Nor clouds shall return after the rain’. I once heard a clergyman say that he thought that meant that when you’re old, you feel you get better – you get a little ailment and you feel better, but then it returns again. ‘Clouds return after the rain’. It’s got a much more literal meaning than that. These things are very beautiful, but they conceal what is really meant.

There’s this account of a great Zen teacher, he had a promising pupil. The ecclesiastical authorities met this pupil, and they were impressed by him. The post of what corresponds to an archbishop had become vacant, and they were trying to fill it. They thought of the younger man, and he was quite outstanding, quite outstanding. So they asked the teacher, “Could your pupil take on this in the church? It will help very much our Buddhist church in this area.”  The teacher asked the pupil, “Do you think that would be a good idea?” The pupil said, “Well, perhaps it would”, so the teacher said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Don’t use these magnificent robes in these ceremonies, as much as you can. It impresses people but [that’s not the point].

The pupil did try as much as possible to wear the plainest things and to speak in the plainest language. Occasionally, on some great occasion, he had to wear the full regalia and go in a litter to the ceremony place. He was going to the ordination of some temple, and he was in his regalia in the litter going through the country.  Then they passed this man, very poorly dressed. To everybody’s surprise, the archbishop jumped out of the litter and prostrated himself in the dust. This was his teacher, and these magnificent robes were down in the dust.  The teacher picked him up affectionately, and he said, “Drunk again?”


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