The rich man flashes his magnificence but when there’s an actual need to help someone, suddenly he’s got no money like a poor man’.
‘The sage hides his wisdom, as if he hadn’t got any, but in the end there is a light in the people’s hearts’.
And another one: ‘The sage’s illumination is like the sun in the clear blue sky, but he conceals it as if it was in a medicine pouch’.
And the next verses describe that the ignorant man displays his false coins for everyone to see, and the truly wise man conceals the gold of his wisdom, till it’s used very skilfully and secretly.
It is a great theme in Zen – the concealment of this realisation, and there are many examples, like, for instance, an old woman who keeps a teashop but she is able to outface some of the great, very keen spiritual aspirants with her realisation. The Buddha nature, in the form of the old woman, is serving Buddha tea to Buddhas who are half asleep and don’t realise what’s going on. Then he says the ignorant display their imitation false coins.
I had experience of this when I was young. I was interested in Buddhism and there was a lady who seemed to me very old, but of course she wasn’t. It was just that I was young. She had lived five years or so in India when she was about seventeen to twenty two. I think it had been probably mainly a social life, but, anyway, obviously, as she had been five years in India, she had almost instinctively absorbed the whole spiritual flavour and message of the East and would know automatically the meaning of any Buddhist texts or thoughts that would come up.
That was quite clear, but this had to be explained to people whom she might meet, and it was rather a long explanation to make her to the Buddhist groups that she was then occasionally meeting.
So she got the idea of getting all this down into one word, and that word was the ‘Tathagat’. Well, she never called him the Buddha as the rest of the ignorant herd did, but the Tathagat.
She would be asked, ‘Tathagat, what’s that?’
She said, ‘This is the highest title, traditional title, of the Buddha. ‘I don’t expect you to use it, but I always this as a sign of reverence’.
And she explained that she wanted the correct word gradually to become known.
She was using this Sanskrit word to impress people, but I was doing a bit in that line myself, and I knew one or two Sanskrit words too! So I looked up this thing and I found that she simply read, with an English pronunciation, TA THA GATA and I discovered that this was a Sanskrit compound consisting of tatha = thus and gata = gone. I pieced these two together from the dictionary and the grammar so I met her and she brought out ‘I’m giving you the actual words of the Tathagat himself’.
So I said, ‘Well, of course, even the oldest of the texts can’t claim to give the exact words of the Tathagata, from Sanskrit tatha, thus and gata, gone. But, of course, there was an oral tradition which may indeed stem from the Tathagata from the Sanskrit tatha, thus and gata, gone. But just the same, it’s obviously a bit dubious’.
She trembled, and she said, ‘I prefer the traditional words of the Tathagat’!
A little after this I was telling this story, and very funny it is, to a man who actually did know Sanskrit. I was saying how pathetic it was, really, that English people who didn’t know were reading this word ‘Tathagat’, without any idea what it meant, whereas it came from tatha, thus and gata, gone.
And he looked at me over the top of his thick pebble spectacles and he said, ‘Oh, well, that’s certainly a very interesting translation because, as you know, it could of course, be from tatha, and gata, but under the rules of Sanskrit, as you know, it could also be tatha, thus and agata, meaning come: “thus come”, and I seem to remember, he said, I’m no expert, of course, and you have been in Japan, but I seem to remember that the Japanese Buddhists call him ‘Nyorai’, don’t they, and I was told that meant “thus come”.
But of course your translation is quite possible and it might be that all the translations made up to now are wrong!
Well, I trembled!
I said, ‘Well, he has been dead for 2000 years, so he must be “thus gone”!’
Well, that made two of us! It’s the Buddha nature sort of standing on his head to amuse the children.
This is what he meant by ‘The ignorant display their false coins in the hopes of impressing the ignorant.’
1. Rinzai Zen Buddhist nun, Venerable Myokyo-ni, was head of the London Zen Centre. She died in 2007.
2. Joshu Jushin, great Zen Master in ancient China, 778 – 897
3. Rinzai Zen Master, Dokuon, teacher at Shokokuji, Kyoto. The meeting was in 1869.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: The Flower of the Heart
Part 3: The concealment of realisation
Part 4: Reaction from the universe
Part 5: You cannot live on sweets
Part 6: Some essential thing is missing
Part 7: Naming a thing is not knowing it