The Experience of Contradictions

The experience of contradictions

The Bodhisattva path is this: My I is not just the I which is being pulled along by karma. I struggle not to be drawn along by it. There is a faint experience of joy as I begin to realize the true character of that self which is still being pulled along In spite of all struggles.

When one is told: ‘You’re angry today,’ he says: ‘No I’m not!’ In this world of contradictions, there is a joy in finding a certain flavour in those very contradictions. ‘Why you’re crying . . .’ and even though the tears are falling, she says: ‘No, I’m not crying.’ There is a flavour in this self-control, and it is the spirit of a baby Bodhisattva. Perhaps I am biassed, but it seems to me that after over a thousand years of Buddhism there is in the Japanese people something of a like spirit.

When I have been talking from the pulpit for some time to the congregation seated on the floor, I sometimes say: ‘Please sit at ease and not in the formal way; your legs must be cramped, but they reply ‘Not at all’ and keep their formal position however much it may really be so. No one will say: ‘Yes they are.’ When children fidget, it is better not to scold. If they have to sit still in the formal position and they begin to move their legs, instead of clumsily begging to scold them it is better to say: ‘Oh dear, your legs must be cramped,’ and then they say ‘No they aren’t’ and straighten up. Selfrestraint of the natural inclinations is one of the best characteristics of the Japanese, and it is one element in the Bodhisattva path.

In the play Sendai Hagi, the nurse Masaoka sacrifices her own child to save the son of her feudal

lord. Without a tear she addresses her dead baby: ‘Oh, you have been loyal indeed; you be the spirit of loyalty for our land.’ But then she breaks out: ‘But it is a pitiful thing, that death should have the name of loyalty. . . Holding back her tears, she is praising loyalty. There can be found something of that flavour in this life of contradictions. And I believe that the people in general do so.

When I am called to visit a household, the head of the house receives me in strict formal dress —‘is is so kind of Your Reverence to honour us with this visit and to accept our poor hospitality.’ Inwardly he is thinking what a magnificent feast it is which he is providing. And I am cunningly hiding the thought that after my coming specially all this way it’s the least they can do to show a bit of hospitality. Instead of this I say: ‘Thank you so much for your really exceptional kindness.’

Japanese people don’t express their feelings, and so some Westerners say that we are shy. It is true we do not show our feelings directly, but I don’t think this is necessarily shyness. When a mother is going along with her little son, the people she meets say: ‘What a dear little boy!’ even if they think privately that he’s a dirty little beast. On the contrary it is the mother who says: ‘I’m afraid he is a dirty little beast!’ while privately thinking what a treasure he is. Each side says exactly the opposite of what is thought.

But in recent times the Japanese people have begun to stop doing it, and that is a terrible thing and a very sad thing. For the Bodhisattva spirit is in controlling laughter and controlling tears, and finding release even when being pulled along unwillingly by karma.

There is a joy in seeing what is this I which all the time is trying to secure peace and yet which cannot attain it. The joy of seeing what it is that is trying and trying is the Bodhisattva spirit which continues its efforts through all failures, even for aeons of time. It is not what they call peace. Today failing, the next day failing, the Bodhisattva spirit is to continue unwearied efforts in the face of failure. Those who do not try are not seen to fail. To the Bodhisattva spirit, even failure has a sort of flavour. Insincere people do not know it; to the extent of his sincerity, a man knows it.

When I was young, I used to be sent to read the scriptures to any house where someone had just died. The teacher told me to look sympathetic and say: ‘I deeply sympathize with you on the loss of your son,’ or whoever it was. I always found this the hardest thing of all. I used to practise it to myself, but when it came to the point I stammered: ‘Your son . . . your son’s death . . . deeply . . . ’ and they didn’t know whether I was condoling with them or angry at them. I tried hard but it never went properly.

I remember again at a service for the dead, when the Sutras are read in the open air, just behind me was the mother also reading. ‘Na-mu-ka-ra-tan-no-to-ra-ya-ya . . .’ Why, there is someone just behind who has the Sutra. I mustn’t make a mistake, I mustn’t, and putting my whole soul into it I went on: ‘To-ra-ya-ya-na-mu-o-ri-ya . . .’ and then dropped my voice so that her voice should also be heard. But just then the mother stopped also; all at once she stopped and there was nothing. Confused, I tried hard to pick up the thread but still nothing came. Certainly it is a fine thing to get everyone reading the Sutras together, but at my dropping my voice she had become nervous and dropped her voice too. When I think back to all those incidents of my youth, it seems that the harder I tried at things the worse they went.

Abbot Daisatsu of Kikoin temple at Nagoya was a great scholar. I remember the story of how once he went to read the Sutras at a ceremony but as it happened did not take the texts with him. Without any text he began to recite the Kannon Sutra. The mother of the family, who had the text, took it out and began to read with him. The Abbot was a man of very strong character, but it was a tricky situation. He did not have the text and behind him was the mother who had it. He had to recite it without mistake. As you will know, in the Kannon Sutra there are a good many places where the passages resemble each other. The Abbot found himself almost back at the beginning again; he was in a circle and could not get out of the Sutra. He began to perspire, and the mother, feeling sorry for him, said: ‘Your Reverence, may we stop here?’ The Abbot replied unbowed: ‘If you wish we will stop here; as today’s ceremony was so important, I have been reciting several times over the specially blessed portions of the Sutra.’ At least, that’s how the story about him goes.

From a man’s efforts alone, there comes failure. Nevertheless, we can learn to appreciate the nobility of even fruitless efforts.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect

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