See, Hear, Understand, and Sit On
The huge body of Chinese Buddhist scriptures, which include not only translations of many Indian texts which have disappeared in India but also many texts which originated in China, are sometimes put together in the form of an enormous revolving book-case, in the form of a great drum.
There is a belief that modern man – beginning presumably with the modern men in China of the first century AD when Buddhism arrived there – cannot be expected to study them all.
Or even half, or even a quarter, or even a fraction of them. But if he has the faith, and stands before that great drum of the scriptures, and simply turns it round a complete revolution – why then, he will get the same merit as if he had studied them. It is a bit like the Tibetan prayer-wheel, though that has only one scripture, or sentence from a scripture, in it. But it can be revolved many times without much effort. With the Chinese one, you have to give a steady push to the spokes which stick out of the drum.
You can’t be expected to read them, of course but you push them, and by pushing the drum on its pivot, which I have done several times, you get the merit of studying them. You get the merit, but I must add from personal experience that you do not seem to end up knowing any more about them than before.
A critic, looking at this little ceremony at the great temple of Narita in Japan, said to one of the priests:
‘The faith of such Buddhists is thinner than paper. Because it’s all based on what they’re supposed to have read, which is paper-thin after all; and they don’t believe all that is written on the paper anyway, so it’s thinner even than paper’. The priest replied: ‘No. These scriptures are not just theories. They changed the lives of those who heard them and founded living traditions which civilized half the world and led also to unparalleled achievements even outside religion – in the arts, for instance. Again, the people who compiled these texts invented paper, and printing, a thousand years before you thought of them in Europe.’
Still, the comment about paper-thin belief has some force. In the original texts – of Hinduism and Buddhism and other sects – were preserved by memorizing them. The doctrine was, that impregnation takes place through the ear, not through the eye. Experience shows that in reading, the words of the text are at the mercy of the reader, who can read them very fast, or skip some of them, or simply read down the middle of the page till some word happens to catch the eye.
In general, the reader’s mind, which by definition is untrained and has little spiritual judgement, will skim parts of the text which it does not care for. In the same way, those who try to train themselves in some physical activity will tend to avoid what they find difficult, on the ground that it does not ‘suit’ them; in fact, it is these very weaknesses which the teacher first begins to correct.
When a great text is spoken by one who knows what it is, the listener is held to the pace of the speaker, and also learns from the very utterance itself, apart from words. The former head of a great Japanese training monastery has remarked: ‘An absolute amateur of Zen can write an essay about it without any mistakes. He is adapting what he has read in the works of expert professionals. But let the amateur speak even a single word, and his spiritual state is clear to all who know Zen.’
An inquirer into yoga, invited to have tea with a teacher, spoke out his doubts forcibly about ancient texts: `I can’t see much point in studying those ancient texts as you recommend. The Upanishads were, I suppose, living truths to those who heard them, and perhaps for some time afterwards. ;But now they have died. And what is dead cannot live again.’
`It can,’ replied the teacher. `I saw you put three teaspoonfuls of sugar in your tea. Why did you put in so much? You do not need all that just to sweeten tea. `No of course not, in the ordinary way. But I do a lot of strenuous sport, and I need that sugar for energy. I am going on to the sports centre this evening.’
The teacher held out a spoon of sugar. `\look at this. It was living in the plant, but now it is dead. If you just look at it, it does nothing for you. But when you take it into yourself and digest it, so that it become part of you, then it is transformed into the energy and vigour which you need for your physical achievements. It was living, then it seemed to be dead, but it lives again.’
The inquirer blinked, and was silent for quite a few minutes.
There has to be an inner scripture. The Tibetan prayer-wheel enclosed a minimal scripture, or a sentence from a scripture. But the real effect is from revolving in the heart, not from the external whirling.
Again, two Chinese Zen monks, in the same monastery, thought they would help each other to remember the urgency of the Buddhist undertaking, by writing on their foreheads the six-stroke Chinese character DEATH. The idea was, that each time one of them saw the other, he would be reminded that on his own forehead too was the word Death, and he would recall the urgency of the Buddhist aspiration to go beyond life-and-death.
A visitor to the monastery saw them, and was much impressed. He asked the Abbot about it, and was surprised when the old master said: ‘Oh, it is all right for beginners perhaps. But until that word is written, not on the outer forehead, but on the inner forehead, ever present before the mind, it will not have its true effect.’
A girl in 18th century Japan was a great devotee of the famous Lotus Sutra, one of the basic texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Every day she used to put the text of the Sutra on an altar in her room with flowers and incense, and recite a section of it with the utmost reverence.
Then she would sit in devotional meditation before it for an hour. Gradually the time grew longer, and she also began to do the same thing in the evening. The rest of the time she was a loyal and hard-working daughter, and the parents were proud of her.
One day during her devotional period, they were shocked to hear a crash from her room. Alarmed, they went in, and were further shocked at what they saw. The flower vase had been knocked over, the water had extinguished the incense, and the scroll of the Lotus Sutra had been spread out on the floor.
Their pious daughter was sitting on top of it, sewing a torn garment. She was quite unabashed by their protests. They realized that something had happened that was beyond them, and sent a message to the Zen master Hakuin, whose temple was not far away. He sent her a riddling message, which she correctly understood to indicate that the expressions of Realization (satori) are best kept within bounds. She sighed: ‘So even Master Hakuin does not sit down really hard,’ but shortly after she went to him and became one of his disciples.
This incident echoes a saying of Master Dogen: ‘Sit on the Lotus: don’t let the Lotus sit on you.’
When the individual self, with all its imperfections and desires, comes before the Sutra, it can feel crushed by the majesty and perfection of the Sutra; but when it gives up its own individuality, and individual desires, it finds itself supported on the rock of the Sutra.
© 1998 Trevor Leggett