(25 August 1999)
Buddhism can be presented as variously as other things can. You have the roast joint on Sunday, then you have it cold on Tuesday, then it can be shepherd’s pie on Wednesday, and perhaps it’s a made into Irish stew a little bit later – but it’s the same truth. One of the glories of Japanese Buddhism is (there’s a technical word for it) pervasion of Buddhism into daily life. Some of the illustrations that are given are to make Buddhism shine through the ordinary and some specialized fields of life.
Just to give an example how the same truth can be presented, it’s a little bit different, but it’s exactly the same, and the alternative is attractive. I come here to learn about giving oneself into what one’s doing; again and again, we have this. A disciple of a great Indian teacher told me when he saw his teacher cleaning his pen, the teacher cleaned it as if he were cleaning the finger of a little child, with so much love. Now, this is the same truth, exactly the same truth, but it’s presented in a slightly different way, and it can be attractive.
A well-known teacher who’s just died, a Zen teacher, Omori, was a master of fencing, and also a master of calligraphy. I saw him often. Although kendo and judo are not always side-by-side, we used to get on fairly well. I could understand a lot of what he said about kendo from my knowledge of judo, and he could understand what I said about judo from his knowledge of kendo, of fencing, as well as of course, being a Zen master.
Now, one of the things he said was, for instance, “The thing itself is not necessarily so difficult. What makes it difficult are the habits we bring to it.” He was saying in his kendo, they have the double-handed sword. Now what matters is the little finger of the left hand, but people come with a chop, instinctively, they chop. Now, they’ve got to get away from that. They can do it in practice, but the moment they’re confronted with an opponent, they chop. Now he’s saying it’s not so difficult to learn the correct action. What is difficult is to get rid of chop. In the same way with judo. A lot of people here have done boxing [learning how to punch], but Judo is pulling, pulling up and lifting and twisting. You have to get out of the habits that you’ve got. People are very good at one sport, for instance, and not necessarily good at others, because they bring with them these ghastly habits, and then they can’t get rid of them.
One example is that golf is a smooth, easy swing, accelerating to the moment it hits the ball. Anybody can do that, it’s quite easy to do – they do it in the air quite well. But the moment they’re confronted with the ball, then the boxer in them tries to hit it. He can’t help it, he starts a beautiful smooth swing, and then he [attacks the ball]. For somebody who thinks of the ball, it’s going to be a difficult business. They start smoothly, and then they give a heave. When they’re by themselves, without the ball, they make a beautiful swing, they can do it quite easily. But when they’re confronted with the ball, their habit seizes hold of them. Omori was saying that the same thing happens in your life.
We have the modern example, called the direct debit. We order things on the direct debit and then they turn up and seem to be coming free – they just come, don’t they? Actually, your bank account is being steadily drained, and somehow, it’s not clear. The stuff seems to turn up and it’s all right. Maybe you don’t particularly want it. So what? You don’t realize it’s trickling out, trickling out, trickling out. In the same way, we have direct debit habits. “Oh, you can’t expect me to do that.” “You’re not going to get away with this.” “I always look at things logically.” “I’m going to help you if it kills both of us.” No one can help me.” Now, these are all direct debit orders that we’ve laid down.
If any situation comes up, that’s what’s delivered and we’re paying for it in our vital energy, but we don’t realize that. It’s trickling out unconsciously. We need to cancel some of these direct debit habits that we have, to look at when the direct debit things turn up and think, “Do I really want this?” “No.” Then to look through them, and cease to order them. Then we shall start having this energy which has been trickling away and trickling away and trickling away in trivialities. As Omori sometimes said, and I’ve heard other teachers say it, “It’s not the great passions that do the damage. People have great passions, and they have the great disappointment and sometimes they learn something. But it’s the little trivial sillinesses that exhaust us, and exhaust our energy and exhaust our aspirations.
Well, one can learn some of these things in a modern way as well. When the computers were coming in, there were chess-playing computers brought in, and I got one called Mephisto, which was then the state-of-the-art as it’s called. When I was doing a translation, a long translation, which was going to take all day, I used to set up Mephisto on one side, and then get on with my work there. I’d make a move, tell it to him (it), and then you wait, and then it goes beep. You walk across and it’s made a move. Then you have a look, you make your move, and then you go back.
After some experience, I could control Mephisto, I could control this computer. I wrote a letter to the chess magazine, which they published. The first thing I did, was to play a very poor move, pawn to knight’s fourth, which is never played – but that gets him out of the book. All the standards of openings have been registered in his little mind, you see, but this one hasn’t been. Now he’s on his own from the very beginning.
Well, you play the pawn there, it’s not a good move but now he’s on his own. So he makes, he thinks, a standard safe reply. Then you make a move and now the pawn’s free. He grabs it, he’s a materialist, he grabs the pawn. Then you make another move that’s a threat to him. Now, he always saw that threat, and he always made the same defence that checked the threat. Then I would make a nondescript move and then he would always make a conventional move, the standard move in this sort of situation, which wasn’t particularly relevant, but it was conventional. Then I’d get up another threat, and so on. I could control his moves until about move 15 when I offered him a magnificent temptation where he could win a whole rook for nothing. At that point, he always thought for 20 minutes. I timed him. He always thought for 20 minutes and then he decided it was safe, he did it, and then he would get checkmate in about six moves.
Now, he did this every time. He could be controlled. If it was on the higher level, you couldn’t do it, but on that level, which was at medium level, I could control him and it was instructive. Then I began to think, “Am I like this?” Greed – then I grab it. Oh, now it’s fear, so I make a defensive move. Then I hold a situation for a bit, and as I can’t think of anything, I make a conventional move. Then there’s another threat, and so on. Then there’s the great temptation, here it is. I ponder this for a good 20 minutes of my life, so to speak (which is much longer than 20 minutes on the chessboard). I think, “No, this is alright. I know it went wrong the last time, but this time it’ll be alright.” So I do it and I lose. This is quite instructive for me: “Am I like that: programmed, greed, fear, anxiety, conventionalism, and finally, being tempted and always falling for the same temptation?” It’s not worth getting him if he’s slow to learn that, but it is worth it a little bit. We’re given rules of behaviour. One of the things that Omori used to say is that when people begin to be taught kendo, judo, or whatever it is, they’ve got to get rid of their natural habits. Their sole reliance is on punching here, or pushing there – they’ve got to get over those. That’s quite a business, quite difficult.
In kendo, when the sword comes whirling down, you can’t help blinking and you just shrink back a little bit. They tell you not to – after all, the sword isn’t going to hurt you. Perhaps it can hurt a little bit, but it’s not going to injure you – down it comes. What they do is they make you stand there, with your eyes wide open. Then they hit you 20 times on the top of the head while you don’t blink. Well, after that, you don’t blink – you’ve found it out. I experienced this – there was a fear, an instinctive fear of something rolling down on your head. You think, “This is going to hurt”, and you withdraw. But you can go through that and then, you can behave naturally. You don’t have this shrinking back. He said the same applies to the rules of conduct. They’re to change our instinctive, natural habits – and it’s unnatural to change them.
Finally, when we have changed them, that’s our real nature. He said that’s a great relief. People think, “Oh, I’ve got to behave very well. I can do it,” but it’s always going to be on your best behaviour, like having tea with a famous man. You mustn’t say anything silly, you mustn’t do anything wrong. He said, “Finally, it’ll be your true nature that’s coming out. You haven’t added anything; you’ve got rid of the habits that are on top of it.”
They’re telling you, “There’s this inspiration and Buddha-nature in everybody.” You think, “Well, it’s the kind of thing that people tell you.” But if we keep our eyes open, we can see some surprising things. I give one striking account. You can read that Einstein didn’t speak until he was about three and he was a duffer at school. Newton was regarded as a duffer as well. All these cases and you just think, “Oh yes.”
Well, when the war came, it was coming with Japan and the West was not prepared. It hadn’t realized the importance of learning Japanese. They had to set up high pressure Japanese courses, where people were to learn Japanese very quickly. The British thought, “Obviously, you want people who have already graduated in a foreign language; and then ideally, you want people who’ve graduated in weird languages like Egyptian hieroglyphics, where they have picture writing. The squiggles that they’ve learned in the Egyptian hieroglyphics, will equip them to learn very quickly the squiggles in the Japanese. That seems logical, doesn’t it?” There was Professor Taylor, a very well-known Egyptologist, whom I met in his sailor suit. He’d been conscripted by the Navy and he was on these crash courses. This was our system. Get the people who have already proved their talent in what was regarded as associated spheres, they’ve got a chance.
The Canadians did it completely different way. They threw nothing out – anybody could apply to become a Japanese expert. Anybody. They didn’t need any educational qualifications at all. Anybody could apply and hundreds did apply. If you passed the final examination at the end of the year, you would get, I think it was, something like Master Sergeant or even perhaps a Second Lieutenant, which was good money in the Canadian army. They threw it open to everybody. They got hundreds of applications. They had an examination every fortnight and they had a rule that if you failed twice, you were out.
They started with one group of something like 300. They finished up with 12 whom I got to know quite well, as I was working with them. One was a Saskatchewan farmer. He’d never been to a university, but he learned Japanese. Amazing. There were a couple of intellectuals who’d been to university and done well, but the absolute outstanding brilliant star, a man who simply soaked it up and memorized it and brilliantly got it was a man who’d never been to university. He’d made his living selling underwear. He was marvellous. He went on afterwards to a very successful academic career. They had a sort of feeling that this talent can be anywhere in anyone. They threw it open and a lot of people applied and then they found some of those talents in unlikely places.
These are two methods. I quoted the example because we were surprised to find that people who had never done anything academic in their lives, nevertheless had it in them. You can find examples in history. St. Augustine was regarded as a great genius because he could read silently. Everybody then read Latin [out loud]. They had to. In his time of Latin, they had to read it. They had to verbalize it. You had to read it aloud to understand it. But Augustine was marvellous, he was a genius – he could read it silently. Well, everybody now can read silently. You’re all geniuses. The capacity was there. These little examples are given to us, and we were told to keep our eyes open and look and see.
Just to give one more example. I did a lot of music when I was young. I was very keen on it. My father, who was a professional musician, quite a very good one in fact. He found me two very good piano teachers. I trained with them. It’s boring stuff. You’ve got to get the mechanics. Then they make you play pieces by Haydn and Beethoven and these people. What I wanted at the age of 10 was the waltzes of Johann Strauss – to play them. That was what I thought was first-rate music; and the Beethoven, I thought, “Oh no!” He said, “You can play your Strauss, but only after you’ve practised your Beethoven.” I did that. I agreed with the Vienna critic at one of the Beethoven benefit concerts who said, “The fact is that, unlike our Johann Strauss, Beethoven simply could not write a good tune.” I agreed with that, but I went on playing the Beethoven as a duty. Then, suddenly, you don’t know what it is, but it grips you. You can’t say what it is. It’s not a gradual thing.
“Oh, this is not as bad as I thought it was.” – suddenly. I can remember the actual moment. There are some variations by Beethoven, and one of them was in the minor and I played this thing. I played the notes and there you are. Then the teacher played it and he said, “Beethoven was going deaf here. At this point, his tragedy was beginning” and he played it again. Then I played it. Somehow, it spoke to me of tragedy. This was an example. It was like something opening up. I suppose it’s always there, but we can’t say when it’ll open up. We do these things as a duty. These examples are given in our Buddhism too. That we do the things as a duty. We expect that we are on the right lines. But then, suddenly, something will open up and the same things that we’ve been doing have a new meaning. Something quite different, something quite new. The importance of study – it can become a mania, and a battlefield some scholars can make of it. But we have to study enough to make us sure that there’s something there.
Now, again, I give an example from chess. There was a great world championship between two geniuses. At one point, there’s a crucial position, and the world champion, Spassky, looked at it for seven or eight minutes, and then he made a move. Now, he got caught by a brilliant answer, absolutely brilliant, by Fischer, and he lost the game. He hadn’t seen that answer – the famous world champion hadn’t seen the answer. It was very difficult to see. The fact is if you take that position and you show it to a moderate club player, and you say to him, “There’s a brilliant move there, can you find it?” He generally finds it. How is it that the world champion didn’t find it, but quite a moderate player can find it? He can find it because he knows it’s there. Whereas the world champion didn’t know there was a brilliant move there. There might be of course, but he was analysing the position. If you know it’s there, then you have a good chance to find it.
I knew an old boy who had been a very fine chess player. He no longer played matches, but he used to win a national competition in chess problems. He won it several times. The Observer did it. They would present a fiendishly difficult chess problem and then you had a week to answer it in. I knew his son well, and I often visited the house. Now the old boys would set up this position when it came out in the Observer, he had a pad and he’d start trying this possibility and he’d write down the consequences and then work out whether it would work or not, whether it’d solve the problem or not. There were very many variations in it. I said to him, “How long does it take you generally to get this?” He said, “Nearly always it takes me two or three days, and then I get it.” When he goes up for the very first time, he doesn’t think, “Oh, this is probably going to take me two or three days.” He thinks, “No, now, perhaps this is it.” He told me that just, I think, once in his career, it had been the first one he tried that was the solution.
In a little bit the same way, Buddhist teachers tell us, we are told yes, it’s a long process. Yes, it’s a long process if we do our practice thinking, “Oh, it’s a long process.” It can be now. It’s there now. Each time may be now. It may be now; it may be now. Not disappointed and furious, not Nirvana now and beat the rush sort of thing. It may be now, it may be now, it may be this time. We study enough to make us fairly convinced that it will work; but the theory is always open to counter theories. It’s not completely convincing. There has to be generally something else.
Now we heard the account of the fire walking and, yes, it was all very nice to know. It’s scientifically analysed. The sweat on the skin protects. Most of us wouldn’t care to hold our hand in a flame, a living flame, while we count to five but, yes, it can be done. Actually, seeing it done does reinforce the theory of it, doesn’t it? Even after this, some people don’t fancy it; but most people are able to risk an experiment once they’ve seen it done once. This is something you can hear and that may be useful to you some time. When the things are favourable, of course, we can pursue our programs and we can do reasonably well. But when disaster comes – and I don’t just mean physical disaster – but when you’ve helped somebody and consider it considerable sacrifice and then they turn on you, or when something you’ve built up with great love and self-sacrifice is viciously kicked to pieces in front of your eyes by someone, you say, “Why did you do that?” “Well, I don’t need a reason. I just felt like doing it.” Then your last hope has been extinguished and there’s nothing left but solitude and loneliness and depression.
Now, one of the Zen masters says, “These are the times the whole faith in the world has gone.” The whole confidence gone. “Oh, well it could be fixed”. “It could be [done this way”. Something could be done”. All that’s gone. He says, “These are the times, when your habitual responses, your habitual emotional attitudes, they’ve all been dashed.” Now he says, “This is the time for your Buddhism”. He says, of course, that you don’t have to wait for that but he said, “Try to remember when this happens not to think, ‘Oh, how can I practise now?'” He said, “This is the moment. These are the moments when you can make these [changes].”
When it’s said that the body knows what to do, the body does this and this and this, [they say] “These are just reflex actions, you see. It’s pointless. You’re just turning yourself into a set of reflexes.” We have to understand what the difference is. The reflexes you have when you’re driving your car and what you do when giving yourself wholly into the work. What’s the difference? It seems to go by itself. What’s the difference?
Well, one of the differences – there were two great pianists in the last century, Chopin and Kalkbrenner. Kalkbrenner was a marvellous technician. Chopin was very good at technique, but Kalkbrenner was just as good. There are certain very difficult passages. He said, “Now, you’ve got to get facility, and then you’ve got to practise them hundreds of times. That’s the only way your hand will get facility.” What he recommended was, set up a 10-note passage for the right hand (they’re generally for the right hand); set it up and get it going, Then read the newspaper while your hand goes on doing it. It’s quite true – you can do this. You set it up and the hand will go on simply repeating and it gets faster and slicker and more familiar with the passage.
But Chopin was dead against this, and he said, “Yes, you’ve got to practise it hundreds of times but, each time, you should enter into the beauty of the passage.” Now, this is one of the differences. In the conditioned reflex, the conditioned reflex is set up, but you’re thinking of something else. In Kalkbrenner’s case, you’re reading the newspaper while this is going on. In the other case, you’re doing the action like cleaning a cup with a feeling for the nature of the cup. The beauty of the nature is revealed by cleaning the cup. Gaugin makes a big point of this. The beauty of the nature of the things which is revealed. You’re not setting up this automatic action and then [thinking of something else].
It takes a certain amount of Buddhist experience to understand this. Words go only so far, don’t they? Yet we have to use some words. Some teachers and some traditions simply take more risks than others. If you say, as some teachers do, the great Self, the universal Self (and quite a lot of teachers in Buddhism use this phrase), the danger is that once you say the word ‘self’, people think of arms and legs. You say, “Oh, I don’t mean that. I don’t mean that.” There’s a risk but, nevertheless, some of them use the phrase. Others speak of the great Life that pervades the universe. Others speak of the Dharma, which pervades the universe, which upholds the universe. These all again have got risks attached to them, for misunderstanding, by people who don’t enter into the practice. When they enter into the practice, they’ll find something beyond the words.
One of the points which can come up (and I propose to give three illustrations of it) is when the actions are personal, or seen as personal, there is bondage. Those same actions, when they’re realized to be, what is called, the universal Dharma or the universal Life on Nirvana. Now, to give an example. Please, listen to these examples with understanding sympathy. When the Buddha was born, the legend is that the baby Buddha took the seven steps, and then, “In heaven and earth, I alone am the world-honoured one.” This is a great inspiration to many Buddhists.
The Chinese master said, “How dared he say, ‘I alone am the honoured one’? All are the honoured one. If I’d had a stick then, I’d have killed the baby and fed him to the dogs.” This is reading the action as something personal. When it is read like that, “Yes, how dared”, he said. “When it is known, that this is not a personality speaking, this is the universal Dharma giving utterance, then it is seen to be Nirvana”, he says.
Now, another case. The great Bodhidharma was the son of an Indian king and the great patriarch, Prajñātārā came and he preached to the king on the breathing. The king said, “What treasure can I give you from my treasury?” The patriarch said, “Your third son, if he’s willing to come and be my disciple.” The boy said, “Yes.” And he became Bodhidharma. Then he grew up and he took the sea voyage to Ceylon, and then he went to China from Ceylon, where he saw the emperor. The emperor didn’t understand him, and he finally set up a transmission of Zen. The great patriarch, Sogen Bukko says, “Even old Bodhidharma missed the point. Taking a ship from India to Ceylon, then another ship from Ceylon to China, and then hammering away at the gate with his shoe. What was he doing?”
This is seeing it as personal actions. How is it to be seen? The illustration they often give is as the spring breeze. The spring breeze rose in India, went to Ceylon and China, and brought the fragrance to the blossoms. The Zen master at Daitoku-ji, under whom the venerable Yokyoni started at first, master Sesso – a formal portrait was made of him, as is done with all the masters. Daitoku-ji is in the north of Kyoto, in Kita-ku. Underneath the portrait, there’s a poem, I have to quote this from memory. “Twenty-five years, the old man moved around in Daitoku-ji, doddering about. But in the hills of Kita-ku, the spring breeze is bringing the buds to fruition.”