Smacking Down the Waves

(14 June 1989)

When I try to keep quiet, there are all these little waves about the place and I try smacking them down and they go to the edge of the tub and then they come back again. Everything I do goes out and is reflected, or it goes around and comes back from another direction, you see – and that’s how we live. We mostly decide, “Well, we just have to put up with it. I’m like this and this is the way the world treats me. I’m what the world made me and that’s it.”

“I think I’ll do a bit of good.” I remember a spectacular piece of good that was done by a Japanese professor with a student. He was quite a bright boy. He was very good at judo. He was the captain of the University team. In some of the Japanese universities, they tend to get the athletics captains more easily through the examinations. This chap was going to come up to an important examination in English. This section of the examination was one he was rather weak in because you had to have studied a text of essays and then, in the exam, they’d select a section which you didn’t know – just a paragraph – and you’d have to translate that into Japanese.

The particular teacher was keen on judo and he wanted to get this judo captain through the exam without too much difficulty, but he knew that he would fall down on this point. In conversation with him one day, he said, “Sportsman like you, of course, you do your basic running, training. In Tokyo, not many parks and so on to run in there. You run along the streets. You must envy, sometimes, what you read in that book of essays, for instance, about the parks in Britain. There are lots of them there and they’re very interesting, some of them.” The student, who was no fool, realized this was a hint that this passage about the parks in England was going to come in the exam.

He told me that he couldn’t understand the English but he found the Japanese translation and he learned it by heart. Sure enough, in the exam, he recognized the helping words of the section. He wrote this perfect translation. Unfortunately, just before the exam papers had been printed, the chief examiner had noticed that there was one very obscure allusion in this passage and he thought that wasn’t really fair to the boys. He took this out so that the English as it was presented, was lacking that sentence. The judo man had, of course, provided the perfect translation of the missing sentence.

He told me that when he had his oral exam, they produced his paper and they said, “It’s surprising, isn’t it that you have translated a sentence, which is not actually there?” I said, “What did you do?” He said, “Well, I just looked down and they passed me.” Well, in the end, it did a little bit of good. The teacher gives this sort of example. We intend to do some good and sometimes we partially succeed, but, actually, it has a bad effect. That sort of thing does have a very bad effect on the Japanese examination system.

So that, in the tub, we get little successes, we push, we pull, we press down, but we’re always in the tub. All our actions, in the end, he [the teacher] says, are largely rather fruitless. You can’t pile up water really. You can pile it up, but it won’t stay piled. He says it’s the same with success, reputation, money, everything in the world. You think you can pile it up, but it won’t. You think you can push things away, but they’ll go around and they’ll take you in an unexpected direction. He said, “What are we going to do?” If we take our tub into the sea and we lower it, now, if there’s something I want to push away, I push away. It doesn’t go around the tub. It goes out into the infinite sea and it’s pacified, and it’s absorbed in the sea. He said, “Then and then alone, you can have real calm.”

You can’t have calm inside your tub. Even the movement of breathing will make waves. He says there, we must try to open into space from our little tubs of preconceptions and fixed ideas of ourselves and others and of life in general. He goes on by saying that everything that takes place in the limited circle, though it may be the circle of a Napoleon or a Caesar, is in the end illusory. He said the world consists in supporting each other’s illusions.

One case, which I read about was a film star who was getting past her best. Her friend went into the office and saw the secretary answering the fan mail for the day. The star said, “How many today?” “Oh, 53.” “Oh, yes.” She just took the top one, top two, just had a look as the secretary went on answering. The friend, who was a bit of a snooper perhaps, went and had a look at the pile and found that only the top three or four were letters. The rest was just blank paper that had been folded and slightly crumpled. He said, “What’s all this?” The secretary said, “Oh, well, of course. We only get three or four letters, but we make it up to 53 in this way.” He said, “Wouldn’t it be awful if she didn’t just look at the top one or two? Supposing she looked down the middle.” The secretary said, “Oh, she would never do that. She’s got an idea, you know.”

In this way, the illusion is supported by the two sides. The teacher gives us some examples from the East. He says, “In this way, we support each other’s illusions.” I went to an academic conference in Delhi recently and we were all honorary doctors and professors – and some, no doubt, were genuine. The minister who presided over the conference wasn’t a professor or a doctor. He had the prefix, Shri, holy. Well, he was a cabinet minister and a pretty smart individual, but because he was presiding over what supposed was to be a religious conference, he was ‘holy’.

That gave me a feeling of the unreality of some of the other titles too. We meditate, says one teacher, on these illusions, and that makes the illusions more powerful than facts. People think that facts are much stronger than fancies but it’s the reverse. He gives the example, for instance, an accident. You see a road accident, and it’s terrible, but it’s finished. You’ve seen somebody badly hurt. Then you go home and you start seeing it again. Then you begin to get very nervous about going out. Finally, that fancy begins to dominate the life of people who brood on this accident which they’ve seen which is now finished and gone, but the fancy remains and becomes powerful.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta makes an interesting remark. She says, “The wound made by sword or a knife, even though very deep, it will heal in the end. It will be dressed, and it will be protected, and it will heal, but the wounds made by a venomous tongue, only the grace of God can heal because constantly the wounds, psychological and spiritual wounds are constantly being reopened and so they don’t heal.” She says only the grace of God can heal. The physical wound can heal, even though it’s quite deep, but the wound made by the tongue, only the grace of God can heal.

Another example that he gives is that we sell ourselves cheaply. Even Napoleon sold himself very cheaply. People who think they’re no good at anything are selling themselves cheaply. They’re selling the Buddha-nature for this role, “I can’t do anything”. Napoleon was selling the Buddha-nature for the conqueror of Europe. It’s all sold cheaply. A Western example was a famous bet at the beginning of the century when £5 was £5. It is worth £100 now.  The man bet another that he couldn’t sell £5 notes in the Strand for sixpence, so the friend took the bet.

He went to the Strand with this bunch of five-pound notes. He said, “Five-pound notes for sixpence, yours for sixpence.” Nobody even looked at him. They just walked by thinking, “They must be false. Who would ever sell a five-pound note for sixpence? Not worth buying.” Now, in the same way, he says, “We overlook what is real in us and what is divine in us, and in that way”, he said, “we cheat ourselves.”

In the same way, we can hear and read these wonderful texts, but they’re nothing, actually, to do with us. What we are has been held back while we’re listening to this wonderful sermon by the archbishop. It’s held back. It’s not changed. The moment it’s over, we come out just as we were, and more so, if anything.  Hakuin remarked that he met an old man who talked like a waterfall, continuously. He ventured to say to him, “Don’t you think, father, that silence sometimes is a useful thing?” The old man said, “Yes, yes, I’m about to tell you about silence. When I was young, I kept a vow of silence for 20 years.” Hakuin said, “I realized that everything he hadn’t said in those 20 years, not only the things he wanted to talk about now, but all the things he hadn’t said in 20 years, all came out and so it was like a waterfall.”

The Second Zen Patriarch in China, went to a city where what would correspond to the archbishop was giving a great address in the main temple, which overlooked the square, and in his very poor dress he came on the other side of the square. He saw the temple overflowing, people were coming down the steps trying to hear the wonderful address. Then he began to speak.

The rows in front of him turned around to listen to him, and then the next rows turned, then the people on the steps turned and came down, then the people in the temple, until they were all around this poor-looking man. The archbishop in his magnificent robes was left all alone. He finally arranged for this heretic to be assassinated because you couldn’t have people misleading the public like that, but it’s given us an example. It’s not these very impressive occasions, but it’s something which is the words translated as – ‘pointing to the human heart’ – but one translation is ‘a finger which thrusts into the human heart’. That can be one word, which can go into the heart and change.

The teacher who talked about the tub, he’s fond of water and he gives an example from the ocean. There are things which you can see and then there are things which are too small to see, and there are things which are too big to see. He didn’t know this but we’re now familiar with the aerial photographs. When they make an archaeological dig, there are generally a few ditches, depressions, lumps, and so on. You can study them intensively, but because you’re right down among them, and near them, you can’t see the alignments, but with an aerial photograph, you can see the outline of the city.

Some parts are missing. Some parts have been disturbed by a road that was built across. From above, you can see. The colour of the grass can differ if it’s built over brick. When you’re walking along, you’re in this grass and you’re studying this, well, then by the time you get to the different coloured grass, you’ve forgotten exactly what colour this grass was, so you don’t see the difference, but in the aerial photograph, you see it. It doesn’t do to quote scientific things, but you can quote their opinions. One of them says that they studied intensively different fields in astronomy and biology.  They hadn’t noticed how many coincidences there were that were favourable for human life, because each field has a remarkable event which is favourable for human life – and, because you don’t see the others, you just think, ‘Oh, this is surprising.’ When they begin to come together, you see a whole chain of them.  Then you get the idea of what is called now, the anthropic principle, where it’s thought there seems to be some intelligence and purpose behind the physical makeup of this universe we live in.

This is just by the way, but he made the point from his own standpoint, which was a long time ago, that there are things, sometimes, which are too big to be seen easily.  But by entering into this space-like meditation, outside our little tubs, we begin to see a great purpose. They don’t like using the word purpose, but still, sometimes they do use it. The example he gives is that the waves on the ocean are little waves and they clash and conflict sometimes, and sometimes they seem to run together, but basically, nothing very much happens. “The wave can’t really do anything, and it’s countered by another wave”, he said.  But there are great currents – we would call it the Gulf Stream, here, which comes across from Mexico. There, it’s Kuroshio, the black tide in the Far East which warms Japan.

Now, if a single wave decides, ‘I’d like to warm those poor freezing shivering little people in Britain,’ it won’t be able to do very much, but if it goes down and enters the current of the Gulf Stream, then it will be part of what would correspond to a cosmic purpose. He says, “By the meditation and by leading the life of the Buddha-nature, approximating to it, we can find that we can enter a stream.” That will be a divine stream. A famous Zen saying is something, translated roughly, as: “In the profoundest depths, there is a pivot on which the 10,000 things turn.”

This is used as a meditation in Soto sect, and others. It’s read by them to mean when the meditation gets deep enough, it becomes wide and then something new can be found. The Rinzai master, as a matter of fact, went to a monastery where they were using this meditation, they had it written up. He said, “This meditation you have: ‘In the profoundest depths, there is a pivot, on which the 10,000 things turn’. What do you think is the central word of this text?” The head monk said, “The central word is ‘depths’, go deeper, and deeper, and deeper.”

Then the master said nothing and came away, but he said to his disciple, “What do you think?” The disciple said, “Well, it seems good, ‘depth’. Yes, we too have this depth of meditation”. The central word is ‘pivot’. There’s something on which the whole universe turns, and that can be found in the depths of man. It seems as though something’s created by sayings and texts and information, and that we’re gradually building up. One teacher says that there two methods; one is to teach up, and the other is to teach down. Teaching up is our normal method of learning. If we want to learn about how to make an electric motor, we start with the basic facts about electricity and magnetism and about the resistance and about electric conductors. We have to learn those bits of information and not forget them. Then, gradually, we can put them together and we can understand the plan of the motor. Finally, if we’re skilful enough, we can build one ourselves. This is teaching up. He says. “You start with the basics, and you build on that, and on that, and on that. Nothing important must be missed out. You’ve got to have the whole structure. You’ve got to build up like that.

Now, opposed to this, is teaching down. The example he gives, unfortunately, requires a knowledge of the Chinese characters, which, as we don’t study them here, they won’t click, but there is something similar in an example, which is given by Plato. I thought we could just look at that as an example of teaching down. Plato gives this example. The point he makes can be left alone for a moment.

Anyway, they call a slave who’s had no education at all, no training in mathematics, and they show him a square. Now, they say to him, “You understand the area of the square?” Oh, yes.” “Now, we want to make another square of double that area. What should we do?” The slave says, “Well, double the sides.” Then the mathematician says to the slave, “If you do that, you will have made this big square, and that’ll be four times the area of the original square, won’t it?”

The slave says, “Well, yes, I see that.” Then the teacher says, “We don’t want four times do we, we only want twice?” “Yes, that’s right.” “But we’ve got four. So, we want half of that, don’t we?” The slave says, “Yes.” Then the teacher says, “Well, now, how would we halve one of the individual squares?” Then the teacher says, “Look, you can halve it like that, then it’ll just halve it, won’t it?” He says, “Yes, yes, I see that.” “That’ll just halve it, won’t it?” He [the slave] says, “Yes, yes, I see that.”

This will be the area, about half of the original square. [Demonstrating on the board.] The point is these lines are not building up, but they are simply putting in more until he sees it and Plato hints that it’s not a question of being especially clever. You may see it earlier or you may see it later but until do actually see it, they go on putting in the lines. These lines which have been put in are not information, but they’re helps when somebody can’t see it, then you put in another one and sometimes they see it.  If they still don’t see it, you put in another one. They still don’t see it, you put in another one. You’re not adding information, but you’re stimulating what Plato calls  the natural intelligence, which, finally, at some point, will spring up and see. This is an example of teaching down. The extra things are put in, not building up, but simply as stimuli to help natural intelligence suddenly grasp the point. It’s no advantage to know all these extra lines. They’re not strictly necessary. It’s to grasp the whole.

One of the things which pianists like is when people who can’t play the piano and perhaps play the flute, come and say, “Can’t understand how you can play with two hands together. It’s marvellous, and some of them are chords. Can’t think how you can manage it. We’d get all confused. On the flute, we just have this one line.” Pianists enjoy that. They say, “Oh, I won’t hear a word against flute players, no. In their sphere, they’re excellent artists. It’s no reflection on their intelligence. Oh, they can’t read more than one line, but they’re happy in their own way.” Yes, pianists like that, but it’s got nothing to do with it. Pianists can do it because the two hands are integrated. The pianist can’t do it if there are two lines which have no relevance to each other, but because one hand is, for instance, generally the accompaniment, and one is for melody, they’re integrated together so we can read them as a unity.

In the same way, the experiences of the world, they can seem to be separate and while they’re all separate, we won’t be able to handle them very easily. We’re jumping from one to the other, but can’t see the unity and the current. There’s a purpose behind the music, and the hands integrated to meet that purpose, and that’s why we can read them together.

Now, it’s much more difficult to apply these things in life. As a hint, it would be one of the most humiliating things to be held, suddenly in the street, and have your nose twisted. It’s a terrible humiliation. It used to be one of the ways of having a duel. Nobody could overlook something like that. He had to accept. Had to challenge to a duel. Terrible humiliation. If in public I twist my own nose, it hurts a bit, but I don’t feel humiliated. Now the teacher says, “When something strikes, as we feel from outside, think of it. Not that my nose has been painfully twisted by another, but that I, myself, am twisting my nose.” We say, “Oh, you can’t live like that. How can you?” He says, “Yes. It is possible to see there is a purpose and a meaning, and this meaning is from myself. We think, ‘Oh, no. Supposing I get a severe illness. How can you say that? I’m in great pain, danger, I’m going to die. How could we say this is like twisting one’s own nose?’

People come up, very sympathetic. “Oh, you poor dear, how too too terrible for you. How can you bear it?” All the time they’re thinking, ‘Sooner you than me’ and I’m thinking that when I see somebody else’s trouble because there’s no unity. The hands are playing separately and they clash and they make discords. An illness brings something else and he said, “When we have a difficulty, a parting, a catastrophe, something goes, and we say, “Oh, don’t go, don’t leave me. No, don’t, don’t.” It’s said it’s as if something is standing here, something new.

He said when the events of the life turn disastrously, then not to look and see something new. This what he says, whether we can do it, but when we’re in difficulties, and this is one of the Zen traditions, now’s the time. It’s not so easy to practise Zen when one’s very comfortable. It’s not impossible. When there’s a great difficulty, a great disaster, then it’s possible, much more easily, to see something.

The same teacher who said, “People won’t practise because they say, “Oh no! You see, you’re trying to change human nature, and basically, you can’t. Can’t do it. They say, “Oh, your ideas of control and this austerity and so on, it’s against human nature and you can’t do it. It destroys all the joie de vivre.” When you look at them, they don’t look as though they’ve got much joie de vivre, as a matter of fact. However, they like to damn it. The teacher said about this – I changed the figures – 1,000 people are killed every week in the road accidents. Many of them are simply careless pedestrians. It’s human nature to be careless sometimes. It’s human nature. Then sometimes you’re going to be knocked down and killed.

The teacher said, “Yes, it’s human nature. 1,000 people are going to be killed every week, but why be one of them? We can change that carelessness in our human nature, if we want to.” Then one other example he gives – again, I have to change it to a Western example, it’s in one of Barry’s plays, I think, called “Quality Street” where the village school mistress has to teach algebra. (I’m not too sure about this). Her friend says, “How will you teach algebra? You’ve got to start these algebra classes. What is algebra?” Then the schoolteacher says, “Algebra is when you say, so you see children A=B+C and all the time, you’re thinking, why should it be?” We can say, “Oh, are these things going to affect our lives?” One or two words can change the whole course of life.

I give one example from my own experience. We had some judo classes for 50 or 60 people who came from different parts of the country to do the advanced class. One of them, he had very little education, but he was man on judo and he got very good at it. Some years later, he came to see me, a number of years later, and asked if I could help him with a thesis.

He said, “Yes, I’m taking my degree. I gave him some specialist help with what he wanted. Later on, he became a headmaster. Now, he told me, he said, “In the judo class once, you showed us something rather tricky, and it was a great surprise to us. You said then, “Yes, in judo, the impossible happens”. Then you said, “When we go out into life and apply our judo, the impossible happens.”

He said, those words, “the impossible happens”, had been a great help to him. He’d always been held back by the idea, “Oh, I’ve never had any education, or how am I going to take these A-levels to get into university, and anyway, they won’t have me? How am I going to do this? I can’t write straight sentences. How am I ever going to learn at my age?” He told me he said those words, “the impossible happens”, all those barriers went down and the impossible happened. The martial arts is one way of studying Zen. It’s rather a good way for a certain type of person because the aggressive instincts are controlled and then spiritualised. Also, it’s a very tense situation. You get these injuries, which always look much worse than they actually are. To some extent, the method is to practise meditation while we’re actually engaged in the martial arts.

Generally, going out to a contest, I’ve studied, say, one or two special tricks, special speed and skill in a particular technique – we all do this at a fairly good level. When you go out, you think, ‘Now, this is how I’m going to win, but I’ve got to bring it about, and I’ve got to watch out for his.’ This is the normal way in which contests are fought between two people each of whom has got a specialised idea and each has to defend against the other specialities. Now, when it comes to Zen, he has to practise coming out and throwing away those special skills so that the mind’s clear like a blue sky. When you first do this, you’re flat on your back in a couple of seconds but if it’s practised, the time comes when there’s inspiration.

Then it’s as though, what in judo used to be called the God of tricks. I don’t want to stress this too much, but the old teacher said if your meditation has been pursued, if you have practised this really to empty your mind, not just to go dopey – he didn’t say dopey, but not just to go slack – the time will come when the God of tricks will enter. When that happens, the man can win sometimes with a technique that he’s never specialised in at all. Something quite unexpected to him as well as to the other man. That experience can be had in judo. It can be a great help in life. Generally, in life, we have our special techniques: how we are going to win by shouting people down, by spreading rumours about people and wrecking their reputation by befuddling them with arguments. We’ve got our special techniques by remaining very, very quiet then pouncing, by using some trick, going behind their backs to see somebody influential and fix it that way. These things are not crimes, but they’re not very high. If, at a time when we’ve got a hate on, or when we’ve got a great ambition which may or may not come off and isn’t sure, or if we’re in absolute despair, or when we’ve had a crushing defeat, then if we can throw that away: something like a blue sky.



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