The world runs mainly on illusions

The third piece derives from Iida Toin, a Soto Zen master of the early twentieth century. He remarked that the world runs mainly on illusions. Now, high-level statements like this are frightfully interesting and sound wonderful, but as they stand they are of no use to you. There is a way of saying inwardly: ‘Yes, yes, that’s the transcendental truth of course,’ and then turning back to what you still regard as the real world!

The way to make use of statements like this from Iida is to keep an eye open for how they work in daily life. He was not talking about transcendental truth, but of the business of this world before our eyes. Here is an example which I encountered some years ago:

A Hungarian actor-director had managed to get out of Hungary before the roof fell in there, and came to Britain. He had a good appearance, was always smartly dressed, and was a former Olympic fencer. When he arrived, his English wasn’t really good enough for the stage. It was excellent, with no mistakes, but he couldn’t yet manage the nuances necessary. So he looked for a job, and he told me, ‘I became an efficiency expert.’

How did you come to know about that?’ I said.

I didn’t, I just presented myself and talked to them for a bit, using some of the words I had learnt.’

But how could you act the job like that?’

I wasn’t an efficiency expert, but I was an actor. I simply acted the efficiency expert.’

But they must have found out almost at once.’

Oh, they did, but I wasn’t sacked. They found I was very useful to them. You see, the real efficiency expert doesn’t look like one. He’s thinking about the measurements of movement and motion and flows and all that, but his tie is never in the middle, he’s got odd socks on, and his shoes aren’t polished. He’s a scientist and he can’t be bothered to dress carefully. He doesn’t look the part.

So they used to send us out in pairs, with me as the senior, looking like a real efficiency expert. The real one would shamble in untidily after me, as my assistant. The clients would put their problems to me, and I would look at my assistant and say, “Got that?” He would do all the work, and at the very end, I would present the report and they’d be very satisfied.’

This is an example of what Iida was talking about when he said the world runs mainly on illusions. The efficiency experts don’t look like what they are imagined to be like, so an illusion has to be provided. If we keep our eyes open we can see how often this happens. He says that the world is full of illusions, and in a sense everything in the world is behind a mask, and what’s behind it is not the same as what the mask is showing.

This is the first point of the teaching, but it goes much further than that. Some of us get good at seeing behind the masks of the world, but that is not the real problem. The real problem is that I myself am wearing a mask which is hiding what I really am. Iida says, ‘Turn within, turn within.’ I must find what is behind my own mask of thoughts, memories, feelings, habits, intentions and ambitions. All these form a mask which is constantly changing; all the time it is changing. If the needle-point of meditation—as one teacher called it—can penetrate through the mask, I can find something that doesn’t change with the changing of the mask.

Iida says that it is not good to try to specify these things too exactly, but it can be called a little glimpse of immortality in this very life. No one comes back from beyond the grave to tell us whether there is a soul or not, but one can have an experience in this very life, and when death comes, one nods and says, ‘I’ve been here before.’ Iida tells us that if we can penetrate through the mask in our meditation, we can find this treasure for ourselves.

There are other examples of common illusions which have an application to Buddhism. When we were children at the seaside, we used to look at the waves going across in front of us. When we are small, we think that the top of the wave is a thing, a bit of water which is travelling along on the surface of the sea. If we think back, we may remember our first surprise when we saw something like a cork which did not go along as part of the wave, but just bobbed up and down as each wave passed. It took a little time to realize that the wave was not a thing, as we had thought. We know now that the wave is not that solid thing, and yet it still makes sense to talk about ‘a wave’ when explaining radio to children. That is one example.

Another is to compare our internal changes to clouds. You look up at the sky and see mostly clouds. This means that there is light somewhere apart from them and you notice a little patch of blue. When you are small, you think this is another cloud—a blue one. Sometimes the blue cloud gets bigger as do the others, and sometimes it gets smaller. It may divide into two or more, or it may vanish, leaving only the grey and white clouds. Yet the truth is, the patch of blue is not a thing in the same way as a cloud is a thing. In ourselves, that blue—Iida Toin rather reluctantly calls it universal consciousness—is not a thing as the clouds of our thoughts, feelings, convictions, conscious and unconscious, are things. There is a famous poem, by a devotee of the Pure Land sect:

Do not think, ‘It is clearing up now and soon
it will be bright.
From the very beginning, in the sky,
was always the brightness of the moon.

The poem is telling us not to think that the clouds alternate with brighter periods in our minds. From the very beginning, behind and beyond the clouds, illuminating them, is the brightness of the Buddha-nature.

The various Ways have their own illustrations of Zen principles which may be puzzling when indicated merely by words. For instance, we are told: When you see, hear, or touch, think what it is that you are seeing or hearing or touching. It is the Buddha-nature. These things are all the same. People say, or at any rate think to themselves, ‘But that’s ridiculous. They’re all quite different. When all the quick talking has died down, they’re not the same.’ The Zen master Shaku Soyen used to say that individuals are many, but considered as a nation, they are one. Judo has its own illustration, which is perhaps more vivid:

A fist is brandished. What’s that?
A fist and nothing else.
Now, from the clenched fist, a thumb is stuck out.
What’s that? A thumb.
Then, from a fist, a straight index finger points.
What’s that? A finger.
Now, the fully opened hand is held up.
What’s that? A hand.

So there are these separate things which are not the same—fist, thumb, finger, hand. Yet, as a matter of fact, they are all the same, namely—hand. Still, when a fist is held up, we don’t call it a hand, we say ‘fist’. Stretch the fingers, though, and the fist vanishes and becomes a hand, which it always was.

Illusions from the Old Zen Master

© Trevor Leggett

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