The Soft and the Hard

[Imagine you are in a strange house in the dark.]  If you had a perfect intellectual, internal map, you could just walk out of the house like that, but it would be very difficult and you’d have to have nerves of steel.  In another way, it’s not to have any dogmas or internal maps at all and just feel your way out.  It may take you a good time and you’d have fallen downstairs, but you might get out.  The other way is to strike a light.  Well, if you’ve seen the traditional way of making a light, the man has a flint and a little dry tinder which he holds close to the edge, and with the iron he strikes – and about one in six gets a spark, and about one in sixteen makes the tinder smoulder.  I knew a man who cut down his smoking considerably by only lighting….   Well, this is the flint striking method – so it’s not a succession, it’s not a ladder; it’s just a set of individual strikes and we can hope that a spark will come up somewhere.

There is a poem which is one of the poems of the so-called secret scrolls of some of the martial arts in Japan and it says, ‘Don’t meet stone with stone, or cloth with cloth. There’s no result and it’s meaningless.  Catch the flying stone in a cloth; pin the wind-fluttered cloth with a stone.’  With two hard things, there’s no result.  Catch this hard thing with a soft cloth, then you can carry it.  Pin the cloth with a stone.  When the wind flutters it, it won’t escape.  Pin it by the source of the wind.  If you pin the fluttering cloth the other end, the wind will carry it up like a sail and then the stone might roll.  Now what does this mean in practice?  They give you these poems and they’re quite attractive.

If we live ‘hard’ or we live ‘soft’ entirely, we get, as it said, no result and it’s meaningless.  What does this mean? Soft – we feel like the cloth – free, fluttering in the wind, soaring into the heavens, free of all restrictions.  And then it rains, and the cloth gets wet. It catches on the brambles and it tears; and then it falls down and it always ends up in a ditch.  To live like a cloth – these are the people who have two diets.  One says you can have bread, sugar and so on, no fats at all; and then the other says you can have cream and butter and so on, but no bread or sugar or anything like that. So you go on both the diets because you want to be free.

‘Hard’ – no concessions.  The stone doesn’t crumble at the edges.  It’s firm, fixed, no weakness – and it gradually sinks into the earth.  We have to be able to use skilfully the hard and the soft.  This is what it’s saying. We need concrete examples of these general principles.  You need to be hard, to do the hard practice.  I’ll give you an example – Judo was mentioned.  In some of the Judo exercises, people are run very nearly to the point of exhaustion; and those who are training hard – they’re all of course very fit and energetic people – they have to do, say, three circuits of a very big hall in a particular way on their faces and only by a particular movement.  It’s quite difficult to do and to go round three times is pretty much exhausting.  It has to be completed.  The one who says ‘Oh’ – they’re alright.  While they’ve got the strength to say ‘oh’ they’ve got energy left.

But occasionally you’ll see one, he’s quiet, he’s trying hard, but then he suddenly goes pale.  They all think the teacher isn’t watching and doesn’t care.  (The classes I used to take used to be called ‘Rawhide’.  I found out by accident – it was a programme called ‘Whip-cracking’ on the radio).  But the teacher watches very carefully – when he suddenly goes pale.  Now if you take him out of the line, immediately the whole atmosphere crumbles.  People can only do these great feats of endurance if they know all the others are doing it.  Once one man comes out, everybody says, ‘Oh – what about me?’  and then…

You can meet hard with hard, and the teacher can be hard and say, ‘You’ve got to go on until you faint.’  And it’s one way, but it’s not skilful.  So how are you going to do it?  One way the teacher does it – I only give this as an example – this is how to use the soft, but without showing it.  He suddenly gives a big shout at that chap.  He says, ‘I can see you – you’re trying to pull yourself along.  The cracks in the mat, your fingers – and you’ve got one elbow further out.  If you cheat like that it’s not going…  Come out here and I’ll show you.’  He comes out, he watches, he’s been scolded, and everybody thinks, ‘I’m glad it’s not me’.  But he’s having a rest.  Well, this is an example.

The hard and the hard and the hard – but that hard can be caught in the soft if it’s done skilfully.  It has to be caught – it’s no use saying, ‘I’ll do nothing and let it go by.’  No – it has to be caught and it has to be done skilfully.  Our intention, our will, our resolution to do something has to be hard.  It has to be carried through; and then when it’s carried through it’s spoilt.  Now we feel as though our whole personality has been shattered – that’s the time that you must feel ‘I’m like a cloth’.  No hardness in you at all.  In this way they use this sort of example – to be hard and hard and hard, and then to be able to be completely free, completely soft and relaxed and let it go in the failure.

I’ll give one or two examples.  If you’ve got a restless mind – some people have – you may need to do quite a lot of manual service, manual labour for the community.  Supposing you’re cleaning the steps, the stone steps.  You heard someone saying the steps are getting green.  You take a scraper and a wire brush, and you do it with some soap and water.  The steps begin to shine and, if the man does it well, he begins to find something shining in himself.  As the true nature of the steps begins to shine, he begins to feel something shining.  These are very favourable opportunities for practising.  If you’re answering the telephone and you have to keep thinking, ‘Oh well, if they’re taking that line, we ought to subcontract it somewhere else…’, that’s much harder to keep up an awareness.  But these repetitive, manual jobs are the most favourable for spiritual practice outside the actual meditation sitting.

They begin to shine, and he begins to feel the shining in himself.  Then somebody comes with muddy feet.  There’s a scraper at the bottom of the steps, but they don’t do that.  They walk up and leave great muddy footprints on these shining surfaces.  Now what?  Should you say, ‘Oh, for God’s sake.  Can’t you see?’  Or I’ll be hard: ‘Ggrrr!  Oh well, I’ll do them again – I’ll do them again – and then another one will come!’  No.

In the Japanese temple gardens the floor is moss, and the maple trees have brilliant red leaves that come down onto this moss.  Every morning they are swept.  It’s quite a difficult job sweeping with this broom.  If you sweep too hard, you damage the moss, if you don’t sweep hard enough you don’t get all the leaves up.  ‘But you must get all the leaves up – you must do the job properly!’  As you’re sweeping , the wind is blowing and down they come behind you.  So if you’re a logical sort of chap, you shake the tree first – and then you really do get them all up.  Then there’s not a leaf to be seen.  And then a monk comes up, and he says, ever so nicely, ‘Too artificial!’  ‘What?’

Now there’s an account of this, some of you will have read it.  The man swept the garden – all the leaves he swept up.  And the teacher said, ‘Sweep the garden!’   The man thought, ‘What?’  So he swept again – the imaginary leaves he swept up.  Then he looked again, and the teacher said, ‘Sweep the garden.’  Then he understood and he went and touched one of the trees so that a few leaves fell; and he saw on this expanse of green, how beautiful these four or five red leaves looked in this natural configuration.  Now we have to apply that to the muddy steps.  We have to see on that perfection these muddy steps – that they make an attractive pattern.  This is the soft in which the hard is caught, so that the resentment and fury is lost and now even those muddy steps are part of the cleaning.

There’s a saying of the Soto sect, ‘Eighty percent is perfection’.  You think, ‘What?  They’re the most punctilious sticklers for the rules everywhere.’  But they say, ‘Eighty percent is perfection’.  One of the little unofficial commentaries you hear on this is, ‘Do things well, but not very well.’  If you do them well, you think, ‘Right.  I’ve done it.’ and you forget it.  But if you’ve done them very well, you’ll start thinking, ‘I’ve really done that very well’.  If you do them well, other people will see it and think, ‘Yes.  It’s a good job.  If I’d have been doing that, that’s what I would have done.’  But if it’s been done very well, people are not sure whether they could have done that, and then they begin to try and find something wrong with it.  And if they can’t find something wrong with it, they’ll find something wrong with you.  And if they can’t find something wrong with you, they’ll invent something – and that’s very bad for them.  So don’t put them in that position – do the things well, but not too well.

Another example – the thing has to be done with resolution and it has to be done well.  But it’s very easy to forget what it is one’s doing.  One example that may be familiar to many people, when you go round to hear a man who’s got a very elaborate hi-fi apparatus and he asks you what you’d like to hear.  You suggest something and he says, ‘Right.  I’ve got that.’  He puts it on and you sit back.  Then he says, ‘Bring your chair up a bit!’ and then [something else].  He’s constantly moving about and, in the end, you realise that he’s not listening to the music at all, he’s listening to the machine.  The whole point of the operation has been lost in the method.

It’s very valuable to study theory, it’s valuable to study history – the sense of a tradition, to know that thousands of people have had the same difficulties and impossibilities that we have and have come through them.  It’s a great value in times of real trouble.  They’re finding out now a lot about the early history of Zen, when Bodhidharma, the 29th Patriarch, took it to China.  There’s been rather a gap, but now the Dunhuang manuscripts have been analysed and a great light has been shone on this most important era of Zen history.  Then afterwards someone says, ‘I know it’s a point of detail, and it’s a slip I hope, but it’s well-known that the Bodhidharma was the 28th Patriarch, and you did say, the 29th!’  Then the lecturer says, ‘I know.’

And there’s a sort of heavy silence and you realise he’s been talking to someone who’s been specialising in the Dunhuang manuscripts, and they’ve now found that there’s an extra name in the list.  Well, it’s more or less that he’s planted a big gun in the bushes, hasn’t he?  He’s walked in front of it, whistling, and someone’s come up behind him with a knife, hippity-hoppity, and then he blows him off the face of the earth.  And this is more or less what small kids do when they yell, ‘Yah!’  It’s got no value whatever, the excitement and the fun of the history is taken over from what it would mean.  In these ways we’re told not to allow the method to become the goal, which is something that can very easily happen.

Flashes – we’re told to concentrate hard and then something soft. Concentration and then…  They don’t like explaining these things in direct terms, but I thought I’d just give an example for your sort of ‘sporting interest’.  This is story which I published, I think about 25 years ago, in a book called ‘The First Zen Reader’ (No, I can’t find it.  I’ll have to tell it verbally. Oh – here it is.)  It’s about a game of chess.  I’ll read this very quickly, it’ll take about three minutes.  It’s got an obvious point which everybody sees nearly.  It’s appeared in several anthologies, and I’ve even heard a lecture given on it.  There’s a second point of even greater importance, which not quite everybody sees, although no doubt everyone here will see it as I read the story.

“A young man who had a bitter disappointment in life, went to a remote monastery and said to the abbot, ‘I’m disillusioned with life and wish to attain enlightenment and be free from these sufferings – but I’ve no capacity for sticking long at anything.  I could never do long years of meditation and study and austerity.  I’d relapse and be drawn back to the world again, painful though I know it is.  Is there any short way for people like me?’  ‘There is,’ said the abbot, ‘if you’re really determined.  Tell me, what have you studied, what have you concentrated on most in your life?’  ‘Why, nothing really.  We were rich.  I didn’t have to work. I suppose the thing I was most interested in was chess – I spent most of my time at that.’

“The abbot thought for a moment and then said to his attendant, ‘ Call such-and-such a monk and tell him to bring a chessboard with the men.’  The monk came with the board and the abbot set up the men.  He sent for a sword, and he showed it to the two.  ‘Oh monk’, he said, ‘You have vowed obedience to me as your abbot and now I require it of you.  You will play a game of chess with this man, and if you lose, I shall cut off your head with this sword; but I promise that you will be reborn in paradise.  If you win, I shall cut off the head of this man.  Chess is the only thing he has ever tried hard at and if he loses, he deserves to lose his head also.’  They looked at the abbot’s face and saw that he meant it.  He would cut off the head of the loser.

“They began to play.  With the opening moves the youth felt the sweat trickling down to his heels as he played for his life.  The chessboard became the whole world.  He was entirely concentrated it.  At first he had somewhat the worst of it, but then the other made an inferior move and he seized his chance to launch a strong attack.  As his opponent’s position crumbled, he looked covertly at him.  He saw a face of intelligence and sincerity worn with years of austerity and effort. He thought of his own worthless life and a wave of compassion came over him.  He deliberately made a blunder and then another blunder, ruining his position and leaving himself defenceless.  The abbot suddenly leant forward and upset the board. The two contestants sat stupefied.  ‘There’s no winner and no loser’, said the abbot slowly,  ‘There’s no head to fall here.  Only two things are required’  – and he turned to the young man – ‘complete concentration and compassion.  You have today learnt them both.  You were completely concentrated on the game, but then in that concentration you could feel compassion and sacrifice your life for it.  Now stay here a few months and pursue our training in this spirit and your enlightenment is sure.’  He did so and got it.”

There’s a clear point to that story, but it’s not considered sporting to give away the second point.  But I’m going to read one paragraph in a particular way and if you can stand to ten second pauses, it may give you a hint as to how to study some Buddhist story which attracts.  Incidentally, if you do get an idea, it’s like the mousetrap – it’s not sporting to tell other people.  They should try what the solution is.  Well, it begins with the playing of the chess match:

“They began to play,  With the opening moves the youth felt the sweat trickling down to his heels as he played for his life.  The chessboard became the whole world.  He was entirely concentrated on it.  At first, he had somewhat the worst of it [pause] but then the other made an inferior move [pause] and he seized his chance to launch a strong attack.  As his opponent’s position crumbled, he looked covertly at him.  He saw a face of intelligence and sincerity worn with years of austerity and effort. He thought of his own worthless life and a wave of compassion came over him.  He deliberately made a blunder and then another blunder, ruining his position and leaving himself defenceless. [pause]

Well, I leave that with you.

Now this is another strike of the iron on the flint.  There are changes which take place in small things, in small everyday things – and they must take place.  Take the case, for instance, of doing some job for a group.  Now everyone wants to do the job that they’re good at because, then you really help.  And reason, in the service of the ego or Mephistopheles, says, ‘It’s best to do the thing where you can make a really significant contribution’.  But while the man feels, ‘I’m making a really significant contribution’, it isn’t yet spiritual training.

The time comes when, seeing the need or at someone’s suggestion, the accountant begins to help in the garden and the amateur gardener begins to help with the petty cash.  The accountant begins to clean the stones by scrubbing off the moss that’s been cultivated for fifty years and he gets the reputation of being somewhat destructive; and the gardener gets the totals of the petty cash wrong – and it appears, ‘Well, it’s not much, but the money must be going somewhere…’  Now this is spiritual training and it’s not easy at all, and no one ever said it was easy.  Then the time goes, and now he feels he’s doing the job as an offering, and he gets a sort of self-sacrificing joy for a time – but quite soon it’s a sort of chore.  He does it, he sees the time out, he sees the job out and he finishes it. ‘Well done, our good and faithful servant!’  If all goes well, that changes.  It has to change.

To give a concrete example – in one of these meditation halls, as we have here, they have the cushions of two kinds.  They’re put away after every meeting, and one fairly new member, his job was to take the cushions out of the cupboard before a meeting and to stack them up in four piles, two of each kind, so that the people who arrange the cushions for the meeting would be able to set them out very quickly.  This was his job.  One day he took them out and they had the meeting.  Then he was going to put them back afterwards and a senior came up and said, ‘We’re going to have another meeting – a rather unusual kind – in about twenty minutes.’  So he stood and he thought, ‘Well, there’s no point in stacking them up again, when they’ve got to be rearranged and most of them will simply stay put.’  The senior said, ‘Well, aren’t you going to…’  and he said, ‘There’s no point.  Most of the cushions will stay and there’s only ten minutes.’

So the senior said, ‘Well, have you anything else to do?’ and he said, ‘Well, in your sermon the other day (this was on one of the koans, the riddles) there’s a buddha who lived a thousand years, and there’s another buddha who only lived a day.  I was going to ask you, could you tell me some more about that?’ So the senior man said, ‘Yes, certainly.  And there’s a buddha who only lives for ten minutes’, and he began to stack up the cushions.  They both worked at this in silence, and they were stacked up beautifully, precisely arranged, in these four piles in this empty space.  They stood and looked at them.  The senior said, ‘He only lives for ten minutes, but now his life has had a meaning’, and the junior he looked at them.  It seemed as though they were in a shaft of sunlight, and he felt the sun on himself and he had this flash.  After that, when he did the chores, he had these jobs to do, he no longer felt that this was a task.  He felt, ‘Yes, the buddha lives only so long’ and at the end he felt ‘now his life has been fulfilled’.

Then it slowly went off – he began to recreate it sometimes and he would have the feeling of the buddha within himself, living ten minutes, half-an-hour, two hours, fulfilling himself; and then at other times he couldn’t.  Now many people in training have these experiences, they have this flash and then it slowly goes off.  Then after a bit they can become disappointed, or even embittered – and then Mephistopheles whispers, ‘Remember the last one you had?  It went off, didn’t it?  Like a little drug, isn’t it?  You feel better at the time and then it goes off and you feel worse than ever.’  Some people actually give up.

Sometimes a physical example is quite useful in realising what’s going on in these cases.  This is a country where one of the national games is golf, so I’ll take an example from golf, which I knew.  My brother was a brilliant amateur, he was ‘plus 2’, and he was also a very good teacher unofficially.  He was pestered by a 15-handicap man who constantly came up and said, ‘Is it this, or this?’  My brother said, ‘He won’t do the practice, he thinks there’s some little secret that I know, and that I can be persuaded to tell him.’  I said, ‘What’s wrong with him?’  He said, ‘Well, his head moves all over the place when he swings, you see, and he won’t do the practice to get the proper balance.’  He said, ‘I’m going to get rid of him.’  Well, he told him to fix a stick on the side of the shed in his garden and make a metal ring, so that when he took the golf stance, the metal ring just pressed on his head.  He said, ‘Now practise swinging and keep that metal ring pressed on your head.’ So the chap did this, and the pestering stopped – when they met occasionally he just used to smile (knowingly).

His golf, I heard, did improve substantially and then there was another development.  My brother said, ‘He’s had another little metal ring made, just the same – he puts it inside his golf cap!’  I said, ‘What?  It’ll move when his head moves.’  He said, ‘No – it’s not so stupid.  He feels that pressure, you see, and that takes him back to when he’s in the garden where the ring really is stationary.  Quite often it really does keep his head reasonably still.’  Then, after a few more weeks, the chap was absolutely down, so I said, ‘What’s your analysis of this?’ ‘Well, you see, this is an idea.  He hasn’t got proper balance.  He hasn’t got living balance and probably never will have. But this gave him momentarily the feel of what it would be like to have good balance, but only in the garden.  When he first wore this ring under his cap, for a time it carried him back to his experience in the garden, because the pressure was associated with stillness. But then, naturally, old habits made him move his head again.  Now the ring became also associated with movement and then, of course, it was useless to him.’  Then he said to me, ‘He’ll never give it up, you know.  It will be a good luck charm, reminding him of the days when he did hit a few good shots.’

This happens in training.  There is a flash like this, but while it remains an idea only, then it’s like this ring.  It works for a time, because it’s only associated with that flash.  But soon the idea gets diluted with all sorts of distractions and then it ceases to be any good.  But still, we keep it on as a sort of good luck charm.  The teacher once told me the people go on mouthing texts which once were full of life and vitality for them; but now all the life has gone out of them, but they go on repeating them.  I thought at that time of that ring.  It becomes a good luck charm – but we have to practise to get something living.  The teacher said, ‘These things are pools or lakes, but what you want is a bubbling spring.  It’s got to be fresh and new and alive.

(I think there’s time for one more.)  I’ll stop just before the end of this and then you can think for half-a-minute what you would have done.  A boy of about twelve lost his father to whom he was greatly devoted, and he decided that he wanted to become a Buddhist priest of the Zen sect.  The uncle, who was a devout Buddhist himself, he thought, ‘Well, we’ll wait for a bit’.  But after six months or so, he realised that this was a permanent thing, so he said, ‘All right.’  He took him to a training temple where there was a very famous teacher; and the teacher, after a conversation, said, ‘All right.  He can come in.’  So he came in; and they do the usual jobs as a servant for quite some time while they’re learning certain of the passages by heart, and they’re learning a number of other things.  Sometimes in these training temples, as I expect you know, there are people who are due to become the priests at some fairly prosperous temple somewhere, and they’re rather looking forward to a pretty good life.  They have to somehow stumble through these three- or five-years training, and when they’ve got through that they’re going to be alright – respected people in the community.

One such boy of about eighteen there was coming to the end of his training.  When he saw the intense devotion and earnestness of this new boy, he didn’t like it.  Naturally it shows one up in a way.  So he used to lose his temper with him and scold him and bully him.  One day he was going to boil some water, and in the temples they (officially anyway) don’t have electric stoves or fires; but they still have the smouldering charcoal, and they look after this with two long iron chopsticks which can handle the little bits of charcoal.  He called for some water, and the kid brought the water; but he was so nervous of the senior that, as he presented it, he spilt a bit.  The senior snatched up the chopsticks and hit him on the arm.  Perhaps he hit too hard, or harder than he meant, or perhaps as hard as he meant; but anyway, it made quite a bang.  And as soon as the boy could go, he ran out of the temple, and he ran into a little bamboo grove to cry.  It so happened that the uncle was making his monthly visit to the temple, and he saw his nephew run into this bamboo grove and he went in after him and found him crying.

He said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and the boy said, ‘Nothing’.  Then he noticed, he said, ‘What’s that on your arm?’  He said, ‘Oh, I knocked it.’  But the uncle said, ‘That’s not a knock, you’ve been hit.’  He took him by the arm and dragged him back into the temple and demanded to see the teacher at once and he said, ‘Look, this is supposed to be a spiritual training centre.  You said yourself this boy was very keen, he was trying as hard as he could – and look what’s happened.  He’s been hit, and he’s been badly hit.’  Now this is the hard.  If the teacher says, ‘You must practise endurance. Buddhism is a way of endurance.’  That would be meeting the hard with the hard.  What is he to do?  He could say, ‘You’d better go out of the temple for a bit and move to another temple.  I could give you a recommendation, until this boy’s left and then you can come back.’  But that wouldn’t be the object of the training at all.  So this is a problem for the teacher. How is he going to catch this?  It’s easy to say, ‘you must endure’.

Well, he got down the particular part of one of the sutras and he said to the boy, ‘Read this.’ This is a section and in one place it says, ‘He who can practise endurance will become a spiritual hero.’  The uncle sat there fuming.  He knew the passage, he knew what was going to come.  The teacher said, ‘You read this.  When we come to this sentence we’ll meditate on it.’  The boy started reading in a faltering voice.  Then he read this sentence: ‘He who can practise endurance will become a spiritual hero.’ And the teacher said, ‘Now, we’ll meditate on this together.’  And the uncle shouted, ‘It’s easy to meditate when you haven’t been hit!’  The teacher said, ‘Yes, it’s easier to meditate when you haven’t been hit.’ And he took up the tongs on his own fire and he hit himself on the arm with all his force.  He said to the boy, ‘Now, we’ll meditate together – He who practises endurance will be a spiritual hero.’

Just a tiny piece – here is one about a lady who asked [the teacher].  She used to recite the prayer to Amidha, and she said, ‘I understand that we shouldn’t pray for anything, except for spiritual life.  The teacher said, ‘No, there’s one other thing you can pray for besides spiritual life (or spiritual benefits, she’d said).  One other thing you can pray for’, and he let her think about it for a time, but she couldn’t think what it could be. He said, ‘Well, two things – pray for your spiritual benefit – and pray to understand it when it comes.’

This is a very short poem.  It’s for people who have set themselves up rather well in life, against all the possible events that can happen to them.  You know about lobsters, how nice they taste; and there’s a marine slug that tastes just as good in the Pacific.  We eat hundreds of thousands of them every year – they’re both of them delicious.  The poem is this:


‘Lobster in his armour,

Looked at the naked sea-slug,

And said…

It doesn’t matter what he said –

They’re both delicious!’



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