St Francis and Ōta Dōkan


The troubadour sang in French, came into Italy and he sang these elegant, refined songs in French, which the aristocrats understood and spoke, and the populace followed to some extent.  The speech of the South of France at that time was not too far removed from the Umbrian dialect of northern Italy. There was no Italian language, there were only a few dialects. There was no Italian literature at all. There wasn’t a language.

At the very end of his life, St. Francis, who had written nothing, wrote the Canticle of the Creatures. It’s generally called the Canticle of Brother Sun. It’s only 12 verses. If you look at the original Italian, it’s rather poor poetry, very few of the verses rhyme. The lines don’t scan – any teacher of literature would have written this off as a poem.  It was the very first poem in what we would now call the Italian language. Anybody with any literary pretensions at all wrote in French. The Umbrian dialect was extraordinarily vulgar and crude, and it just wasn’t developed enough to write poetry then. This is the first poem; very short. It began to be imitated by a few of the, mostly, members of his order after he died.

Gradually, the custom of writing poetry in the Umbrian dialect, which then became Italian, led to Dante about nearly 100 years later.  The Italians proudly say that the education of Europe, in the Italian language up to the Renaissance, when the education was very nearly complete, was done through Italian.  Now, the literary critics say that, by any standards of literature, this crude poem of Francis is still one of the very best poems in the language, although it lacks entirely any of the technical or literary graces or techniques. This is an example of spiritual inspiration, working through an instrument which was almost totally unprepared.

There is a saying in a Japan, “The master calligrapher doesn’t choose the brush.” He has a number of brushes. When he’s going to write, he just picks one up. Whatever it is, he can adapt to it, he can write a masterpiece with it.  The same is said of the Buddha. When one of his disciples said to him, “How is it that the Buddha wisdom and truth is declared on this tiny Earth, which is only one speck in the infinity of the heavens?” The Buddhists knew of the galaxies. The Buddha said, “Get me a reed. I want to write something.” Ananda brought him the reed. The Buddha said, “How many reeds do you suppose there are on the Ganges?” Ananda said, “They are uncountable.” “How many reeds do you suppose there are in all the rivers?  Yet, this one reed is now held by the Tathagata, by the Buddha, who is writing with it.”

My teacher told me that his teacher wrote with a cut reed. They were very poor. He said, “We would bring him several. He would pick one out of them. We didn’t know why he had chosen, there seemed to be no reason why he should choose that one, but he would choose one. The same way he said, “The Lord, the Divine Mind can choose anyone. Whether the brush is very silky and very beautiful, made with camel hair, or whether it’s crude and rough, the hand can write a masterpiece.”

Another example is this: Japan is a nation of poets. There are five million poets in Japan today. There are something like 400 or 500 magazines devoted to nothing but poetry. It has been developed enormously. In the early Middle Ages in Japan, a great general named Ōta was hunting when there was a sudden shower of rain. He sent one of his attendants to go to the nearby small farm there and get a straw cloak, which keeps out the rain. The attendant came back with a girl from the farm, and she had a tray. On it, there was a sprig of a plant called the yamabuki. She simply bowed. There’s a picture of it. She bowed in front of the general and held out the tray with the yamabuki flower on it.  He just dashed it aside and he said, “The girl’s a half-wit! Oh, come on, let’s get back.” They trudged through the rain to the castle. There he talked to one of his chief ministers, and he said, “They’re peasants, you know. Really, they’re not much better than the animals with which they live.”

Then he told him this story. “I asked for a straw coat to keep out the rain. She comes back, for goodness sake, with a tray and yamabuki flowers on it. Half-witted.” The minister said, “Oh, my Lord. Oh, no. There is a poem. The yamabuki flower is so beautiful, but it has no fruit. ‘Mi no nai’. ‘Mi’, is fruit; ‘no nai’, has none. ‘Mino’, also means a straw coat. ‘Mino nai’ also means, ‘There is no straw coat’. She didn’t want to refuse you directly. She brought the yamabuki flower thinking that you would recognize the poem and accept it.”

It’s pleasant to record that Ōta Dōkan was so ashamed at his own boorishness, and so admired the culture of the peasant girl, that he changed completely and began to study and encourage poetry; and did in fact himself, become a well-known poet. That girl had an inspiration and it led to a great change in Ōta Dōkan’s extensive dominions. The inspiration can be direct like that, or it can be simply through conduct.

Now, these two instances: a man had an important political position in the local community. He had great ability but sometimes it happens because of his great ability and his success he became the target of a lot of slanders and vicious rumours, put out, invented by people who were jealous of him and who wanted power for themselves. Sometimes he thought that he couldn’t stand it. He could do the work, but all this venom was pouring on him all the time. The story runs that in the town there was a great saint, a man of meditation who had been granted the divine boon of proclaimed wisdom.  That’s to say not merely the gift of wisdom but the ability to proclaim it. As the people of the town were such terrible gossipmongers he’d taken a vow of silence, so he never spoke.

One day that politician was in the street and there was a terrific rainstorm like a monsoon. When that happens, you all huddle under the eaves and you get wet. You feel somehow you’re being sheltered, but actually you’re not. It comes down your neck and goes all over. He was huddled there with the others. He saw this saint walking down the middle of the street through this pouring rain – walking calmly down through the street. He was going to visit someone who was sick, and he simply walked smoothly down the street. That formed a picture in his mind, that man walking through this pouring rain without any sort of cover. He said that it sort of attracted his mind. He found himself often dwelling on that picture and then he began to find a change in himself. He began to feel there was something in him that was walking, that could walk, and was walking calmly through the shower of venom and lies and jealousy without being disturbed; simply walking calmly. That saint had not uttered a word, but the wisdom had been proclaimed.

Talks in this series are:

1. Radiance at the back of the mind

2. Radiance at the heart of every atom

3. St Francis and Ōta Dōkan

4. Inspiration comes with its own energy

The long talk is Inspiration & Energy from Yoga Practice

© Trevor Leggett


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