The main distinctions between Vedanta and Zen

Question: Mr Leggett, could you just fairly briefly tell what you feel to be the main distinctions between Vedanta and  Zen training?

TPL: All right, well, we have to remember two distinct things.  One, the methods of training and the other is the objective –  and they are very distinct in methods of training.  Zen and Vedanta.  It is not much use giving generalisations.  It is better to take a concrete instance.  When your life is fairly easy and it doesn’t matter, well then you can do whichever you like and it doesn’t matter.  But the time comes when we have to put our weight on something.  Now, as an example.  Suppose you have an accident or severe illness.  You go to a Zen teacher.  The doctor tells you are probably going to die.  You go to a Zen teacher and I give you a case… I knew the daughter of the woman this happened to.  She was practising Zen and went to her teacher and said: “The doctor says that my illness is unlikely to be cured, I am probably going to die.  Can you help me?”  The teacher pushed her out of the room and said: “If you are going to die, die quickly” and pulled the doors together.  So she went into the mountains into a cave to die quick.  The daughter told me this.  She was not a Zen follower at all, she was a Christian as a matter of fact.  On the second night the mother had a vision of the Bodhisattvas, some sort of universal vision.  In fact, she didn’t die.  She became a very great figure in Zen in the early part of this century and people came from all over Japan to see her.

Well now we have to think.  If we are in real trouble and the teacher says: “If you are going to die, die quick” whether that is something we can put our weight on and follow.  I will say this, that it has helped me knowing that phrase in one or two times of considerable crisis.  In Yoga it would be quite different.  The teacher in Yoga wouldn’t say anything like that.  He would say: “The Lord is compassionate.  This illness is the result of your past Karma.  You should modify that Karma now.  In what remains of your life, you should do something for other people every day and then you should offer your life in devotion to the Lord who, as the Gita says, is the friend of all beings.”  A Christian Yogi would say: “Thy Will be done”.

Those methods are quite different.  One is self-power.  You must find the power in yourself and in the other your direction is to a Lord who is compassionate, who is the friend of all beings. This is the sort of example.  In the Zen there is not much scope for the emotions.  The main factor is Will and enquiry.  The teacher is able to whip up this tremendous enquiry.  The people really want to know.  In Yoga there is Will and there has to be very strong enquiry but the emotions are cultivated much more.  There are big differences in training and when there is no crisis on, one can think, well, I like this one, I like that one, and it may be that we won’t know until we are in real difficulty.  The Zen so-called riddles they don’t matter.  Is there Buddha nature in the dog?  It doesn’t matter anymore than a cross-word puzzle.  One wonders vaguely why the teacher said: “No, it doesn’t actually matter”

But the time comes when, for instance, we face a great temptation, perhaps a business man can do very well for himself and no one will know.  Or, as a woman once told me, she was going to inherit a lot of money and the grandparent was very old.  And no-one would have known.  At that time we ourselves become the dog.  Then we need to know whether there is Buddha nature in the dog or not and we need to find it.  Then someone who has been through that Zen koan and really been through it will find something coming up inside them at those moments.  These are big differences.  In Yoga the teacher will say: “Remember, there is one who sees.  Don’t say no-one will know.  Someone will know”.  But in Zen power has to be found within himself.

Generally Western people are attracted to that because when things are going well it doesn’t much matter and it is more economical and convenient and somehow independent.  But the time comes when we are in trouble, when we have to discover whether we are really as independent as we once thought.

Perhaps we could be.  This is the sort of difference.  In the end, when the training comes towards the end, it isn’t so different.  If you see a Zen Teacher putting the incense in, in front of the image of Kwannon, he does it with great devotion.  It is not an act.  He does it with enormous devotion, with complete devotion, and in the end in Yoga, the yogi is taught “The God to whom I pray is none other than the God within the self”…  But during the period of training, especially during the crises, the attitude is very different.

Question: Is the crisis in Zen different from a yogi not fearing death?

TPL: But you are assuming that the Yogi doesn’t fear death.  It isn’t correct while the training is on.  It is correct when the training is completed but not while the training is on.  This is why the man is training.  Because he is frightened of death, but this may not be the only reason.  It generally comes down to perhaps three or four reasons.  The thing that really concerns us …  It may take years to arrive at it, in Zen or in Yoga but it is generally either death or it can be happiness or it can be knowledge and it takes a long, long time before we really find out.

Question:  Would you say a little more about the fact that Zen eliminates emotions and Yoga tends to cultivate them.

TPL: I didn’t say quite eliminates it but it doesn’t cultivate it so much.  Look at the pictures of Bodhidharma. Look at the face of Bodhidharma for ten minutes.  You will see Will and if you look very carefully, you might see something else but the main point is Will.

When we face death, that’s emotion.  When we are strongly tempted, that’s emotion.  When somebody spits in my face, that’s emotion.  There was a painter of the invisible and he was asked to paint the human heart you see.  He flicked the ink on the man’s face and then he quickly sketched those blazing eyes.  Then he was asked to paint the Buddha nature. Now how do you think he painted that?  This is what Zen does. He creates an enquiry.  One wonders what he did.  And their methods and their stories are very good at catching the mind.It is done in Will and Enquiry.  And the teacher won’t let us off.

Question:  Does detachment come into Yoga as well as in Zen?

TPL:  Well, in this country it is not so difficult.  It ought not to be so difficult.  Cultures vary.  One of the elements of this culture which is a good one, in which this culture is given to the world, is the idea of sport. People try at their sport very hard but they are trained when children not to shout with excitement in victory and not to be furious or depressed when they lose.  And yet they try very hard.  They don’t say, oh it’s only a game, what does it matter.  This is an example of non-attachment in one limited sphere and some teachers in Japan and in India, my teacher used to say, this point should be easier here for people to grasp.  In many countries the idea of sport isn’t grasped at all.  They play the games but when they win, the winning team gets up and shouts and the losing team skulk away and they maybe shave their heads and they are in disgrace.  They are completely attached to it.  There is no non-attachment there but if you think of what we mean by a good winner and a good loser, it is somehow the same thing.  Now if you try to explain this to someone who hasn’t got this idea he can’t see that it is the same thing.  He will say:” Oh this means that you simply don’t try.”  You do try.

Now as to the training in non-attachment, there are two practices.  When you sit on a hillside or on the beach, you pick up a stone and throw it and there is a sense of relief.  Many many people do this. It is difficult to say why they do it but they do.  One of the Zen practices is actually to go to a hill before the dawn and collect a lot of little pebbles in a bag and sit on the hill at dawn.  As the thoughts come up, simply throw a pebble, as if you are throwing thoughts away.  Then another.  They do this and they find it effective.  In Yoga, as you know, the non-attachment is cultivated by giving a much stronger attachment to the Ishtadeva, the object of our worship.  But in Zen, officially, there is no formal worship and they do it that sort of way.  These things are something to be tried.  It takes quite a bit of organising but it is worth trying.

Question:  I am trying to work this out in relation to human relationships.

TPL:  Yes. There are a number of enigmas in there. They can’t be explained. They can only be practised. It can’t be done until there is some inner light and balance.  When you teach, you cannot teach people that you dislike and you cannot teach people whom you like.  You can’t do it.  The people you dislike, you can’t tell them off.  You can’t tell them off properly.  Either you do too much because you think “I don’t like you so I ought not to say much”. The people you like, the teacher to be successful, has got to be balanced, balanced in himself.  He may like people outside the teaching but in the teaching area it must be just so much.  More or less is not good and in the same way doctors try not to treat their own families. They don’t see things clearly.

Question: Can I just ask one thing Mr. Leggett which may have puzzled a number of us.  Is it correct that Zen is concerned as indeed Yoga is, in the Jnana sense, in the annihilation of “I” and on the other hand that to speak of the will, Zen is concerned with activating will, that is an act of extremely affirmative I-ness within the normal view of things.  Triumph of the will is an assertion of “I” which would normally tend to mean an inflation of “I”.

TPL:  Do you think assertion of the will is always an affirmation of “I”?

Question (Another man):  I would think we would normally put this construction upon it.

TPL:  No, only if we expect results from it for ourselves. That is when it is an expression of the “I”.  And as a matter of fact here is an example of the Zen:  In the yoga they say: perform the actions with great enthusiasm but you must consign the results to the Lord.  Don’t expect gratitude.  Don’t say: it wasn’t noticed.  Don’t say it wasn’t appreciated.  When it fails, don’t think: I should have done something about that.  But to be able to act very enthusiastically and then …

In the Chinese tradition and also in Japan, they have what is called “hidden virtue” and that is the only virtue that counts according to some of the Zen masters.  The virtue that anybody knows about is nothing.  It just doesn’t count.  And one of the stories of Honen is that he was one of the great leaders of the movement singing the mantra of the Buddha of Light and they went through the villages of Japan and a great wave of devotion came over the people.  He came to a village and they used to chant in the street and there was a thief with a few underlings and they were watching. And the young apprentice thief was all impressed.  And the thief said: “I don’t like it.  They say this is devotion to Buddha, don’t they?  But it isn’t.  Supposing I fell in love with a woman, yes, I might whisper it in her ear, but if I was shouting it all in the street, you wouldn’t call that love, would you? Of course it’s not.  They are just showing off to get our money.”

Well it so happened that Honen stayed at the same cheap inn where the thief was staying.  In the middle of the night the thief crept round the veranda and peered into Honen’s room and he saw a tiny little light there, like what we call a little nightlight and Honen was sitting in front of it and with his lips he was saying this mantra without making a sound.  The thief watched.  Honen went on.  Then the thief sneezed and Honen immediately put out the light and went to bed.  The thief went back and in the morning he went and saw Honen and said: “Look, I am going to tell you what happened and what I have been saying about you and Honen said: “No, you are quite right.  What we do in the street isn’t devotion and it isn’t virtue at all.  We do this as a service.  We hope it will bring people to recite the name of Buddha but it’s nothing that we’ve done. The only virtue we do is when we recite the name of the Buddha when nobody knows about it.  I was reciting it.  When you sneezed I knew somebody was watching me.  Then I knew my devotion was no good, so I put out the light and lay down until I should be alone again.”  This is the sort of Zen example.  It needs great will to sit up all night but it was not an assertion of “I”. I means that somehow it is absolutely secret but somehow it leaks out and people get to know of all that you are doing and then, yes, that is an assertion of I.

Question: A formal affirmation which is not egocentric but which is harnessing the energies of the individual.  At the beginning it is egocentric but at the end it becomes less and less. And this is seemingly not the same thing as what was written about by Nietzsche in his “Triumph of the Will”, the gospel of superman that so appeals to the mass egocentricity of per-war Germany and perhaps not the same thing as one may hear about in magic practices in which the will is harnessed in order to gain some alleged occult power.

TPL:  Yes, Nietzsche listed six supermen in the History of the Will.  The seventh superman he didn’t list.

Question:   Does what you say imply that Zen people will always do their devotions on their own without any other Zen followers around?

TPL:  No, but some teachers say that the real devotion is what is called Yaza. when the man is meditating by himself alone.  And one man told me that when it was raining in the night he got up and saw his teacher sitting on a corner, a dark corner, and he watched him.  He noticed that there was a bucket which was catching the water drops at the corner and after about an hour that bucket was full of this pure rain water and then the teacher took it and washed the lavatories with this pure water. They say that’s the real one.  Of course they do good devotions but the real one is when people don’t know.

Question: It must be very difficult to carry out anything secretly in the real world.

TPL:  No, not so difficult you know.  You give a donation to a hospital if you are rich and up goes your name in the room, doesn’t it?  If you’re poor of course you can’t do that. Your name won’t be up, so the rich man makes sure that somehow the extent of his donation is known.  No, there are other ways of keeping something secret.  They say the more secret it is, that’s the real virtue.  But the test in Yoga, our teacher gave this you see.  The woman was carrying this tray to offer to the temple with the flowers and the fruits beautifully arranged.  She’d spent hours on it.  Then as she comes to the temple she trips and they all fall in the dust.  And then without being disturbed she picks them up and dusts and cleans them and arranges them again.  Now most of us think when we have taken a tremendous lot of trouble and it goes wrong that somehow there ought to be some sort of spiritual arrangement for preventing these things.  “After all we’ve done” there should be a little bit of appreciation.

Question: What is the difference between the Zen Roshi and the Yogic Guru?

TPL:  Yes there are parallels but in the case of Yoga the Guru is to direct the man’s attention to the Ishta- Deva, the form of the incarnation of the Lord or the form of the Lord.  In Zen there isn’t that and in a certain sense the dependence on the teacher is very important in Zen.  Very very important.  In Yoga they may say if he is a bad teacher but if his devotion to the Lord is strong, He will speak even through this bad teacher. There are accounts in the Upanishads where the teacher doesn’t give instructions and he hears it from the fire and the animals.  The Lord speaks to him through that and gets the inspiration through.  In Zen the attention is on the teacher.  It is a very strong attachment and the teacher sometimes breaks the personal attachment by behaving in awkward ways.

Question: What are the differences between individual meditation and group meditation?

TPL:  Well, again, it depends on people and it also depends on the stage that people are at.  It is a bit like physical exercise.  When people do anything at the beginning they are full of: “You know my arms have always been there and you know I can’t do that and this movement doesn’t suit me”.  It sometimes takes months or years to die down.  Some people never get over it but if they do train, then in the end they find they can all do what is to be done.  When they do that then the teacher looks at them with quite a different eye and then you can see the real individual differences. And then the teacher trains slightly differently, sometimes considerably different and the teacher has to be very careful.  You can tell a pupil, sometimes people get obsessed with theory because they are a little bit scared of practice.  One man, for instance, you say to him: “Look, cut out the theory for three months, no theory, just practice”.  Before you know where you are everybody is whispering:  “No theory, no theory at all. And then you have to give a formal statement. You never get anywhere with a short cut or special things, for some reason, I don’t know what they think it is, that you don’t tell them and that it can somehow be wangled.  Well now, at the beginning many people and specially people who have got all sorts of quirks, it is very useful for them to sit in a group and they see everybody is doing it, and that is often a great support.  We don’t need that so much in this country.  We have quiet and security, we haven’t got mosquitoes. We haven’t got snakes crawling around.  We haven’t got earthquakes.  Are we going to sit there when the whole building starts to shake?  The monks do.  They don’t get up.  If it comes down it comes down.  We haven’t got any of these. So we are pretty well off, but just the same we invent new ones for ourselves and then group meditation is a very useful thing.  But when people have made some progress, well then they often have to do individual practices.

Question: It seems to me that there are two ways to realisation and that you are discussing only one of these ways, the way through personal Godhead.

TPL:  Traditionally, it is what you said.  They go through the path of devotion and as I did say, when it comes to the very end, then he says: The God whom you worship is the God in yourself. And he who worships another God, thinking He is one and I am another, he does not know.  This is in the Upanishad.  But it is always for an active man in the world.  He must worship, he must do actions without being attached to the results.  He must do some austerity to obtain some independence from the pairs of opposites. And he must practise meditation.  Those four; and one of them is worship.  And although it sounds fine to say: “I don’t need worship” walking, going, sleeping, standing, eating, I am in Samadhi all the time.  As Hakuin said: “There is nothing wrong in saying that, but in actual practice you are not in Samadhi all the time.  Until you are you have to practise meditation, you have to practise the formal path,

The path of the attributeless, the Gita says, is the more difficult path.  While things are going well it is alright but when things aren’t going well then sometimes we find there is nothing to put our weight on at all.  These words we have been using, the attributeless, the infinite, vastness, non-egoity, it’s all passing about up here and it is like throwing stones into a wave. It is all nothing.  Sometimes people give up Yoga then.

Question: Can I ask you about another point Mr. Leggett?  The great Ramana Maharishi had a very simple teaching indeed and it was based on the brief but intense enquiry “What Am I?”  Now, what am I is also a koan.  Assuming that Ramana’s what am I enquiry is effectively realised; assuming that the koan is effectively realised, is it an identical state or are they complementary states?  Are they in fact different?

TPL:  No, it’s how they trained, it is a whole system, it is not just one.

© Trevor Leggett

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