Time for Listening, Time for Learning


This is a poem by Tagore, perhaps semi-translated from a Vaishnava poem. Part of it reads: On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting place of children. On the seashore of endless worlds, the children meet with shouts and dances. The stars shine, suns blaze, comets whirl, and the children play. Some gather the seashells and scatter them again.

On the seashore of endless worlds, the children play with shouts and dances. Perhaps some of them gather stories and scatter them again. I have brought a few for you this evening. These can be taken as entirely fictitious, and any resemblance to any situation or person living or dead, is strictly intentional.

Near the beginning of the century, a Brahmin in India thought it part of his brahmanical duty to visit the local lunatic asylum and speak to the inmates there. He was a shastri, which means one learned in the scriptures; and he was a pundit, which in this connection means one who has seen into his real nature.

Let’s say the lunatic asylum has a sizeable building and big garden and field at the back of the high wall and a pond. The warders knew him, so they passed him in. At that time, some of the inmates were in the garden, some yelling, some orating, some muttering, some singing. It so happened there were no warders in the garden at the time. He went in and some of the inmates recognized him and came up. Then one of them said, “Oh, Shastri, he’s a good fellow. Let’s drown him.” The others said, “Yes, yes.” He said, “My friends, I agree, but please give me a good send off.”

Now, the Hindi phrase, ‘ki jai’, means hurrah. He said, “Will you please give me a good send off by shouting together, “Pundit Hari Prasad Shastri, ki jai?” “Yes, yes. That’s a good idea.” Then he sat down. They all together shouted at the top of their voices, “Pundit Hari Prasad Shastri, ki jai.” “Pundit Hari Prasad Shastri, ki jai.” Then the warders came running out. While the noise from the garden was just random shouting and singing, and muttering and orating, the warders just took it the ordinary way. But when there was an order, they knew something was up and they came running out.

Now, the teaching point on this is: the Indians like analysis, and there’s an analysis of the states of the mind. One of the states of the mind is raving, when our mind seems almost like a mad man. When that happens, if it can be brought even momentarily to order, then help will come. It seems that the raving mind will completely drown and destroy the light of wisdom and compassion, but this can’t happen suddenly in the ordinary way. If I want to hit the hand hard and I start from only half an inch away, I can’t hit it hard. I have to start further away, then I can hit hard – it takes time.

In the same way he said, “These raving states of the mind, they take a little time to build up.” Just as the lunatics were going to drown him, he just checked them. We should bring a momentary order into the mind, and there are different ways of doing this. Momentarily, we have no hope of checking the tremendous rush of lunacy. One teacher said, “Take nine deep breaths.” It’s quite interesting to make them last for three minutes. Then he said, “Help will tap from the forces of order.” Just to make that check for three minutes. In that case to recite the Heart Sutra, perhaps it’s three, or four minutes, I don’t know the traditional time – to make this check in the raving of the mind, the momentary check, and then help can come from the forces of order.

The second story is something that is a personal thing. I researched it once and I was told by the Venerable Myokyo-ni, that it could be of help perhaps to people who were training. This was when I was active in Judo. A man came to the Judo club, who was a stipendiary magistrate, and his job took him into occasionally violent places and confrontations. He wanted to learn some self-defence trick or tricks. Now, people have this idea that you can learn some Judo tricks; and there are some very surprising and effective tricks, which can be shown.

It’s a bit like giving someone a violin and showing the positions of the fingers and then saying, “Now play.” You can’t play without practise. Some of these tricks require years of practise before they can be executed. Anyway, this is what he wanted, and this is what was explained to him. But he said, “Is there nothing?” I was, at that time, the captain of the club and, in effect, the chief instructor. I saw him and he was a slightly built man, nothing much in the way of physique. I realized, and he realized too, that he’d never be able to do the orthodox Judo training for a year, after which he might be able to do one of these tricks. I explained this to him.

He said, “Can’t anything be done.” I said, “It’ll be terribly boring.” His face, took on a slightly determined look. He said, “Alright.” Then I thought, “After all he’s done law and that’s the most boring thing in the world.” I studied law myself, so I knew. I said, “If you’re willing to pay the full fee as a member of the club and to come here once a month, and if you’re willing to practise what I tell you every morning, then we’ll take you on.” We believed in getting the rich to pay for the poor – a lot of the members were not well off at all. He agreed and he paid the full fee, and I showed him one thing.

I said, “Now, you’ve got to practise this for ten minutes every morning.  It’ll hurt your leg at first, but you’ve got to persist.  After a month come back and see me.” He came back after a month, and I corrected a fault that they all fall into. Then he kept it up for another month, and he came back again. He said, “Are there any others?” I said, “No, you don’t want any others.  If I gave you a knife and a gun, then when the time came, you’d try and shoot the man with the knife and stab him with a gun. You want one trick.” “Alright.” He saw that. He went back to his practice, and he came a few times more and then he could do that pretty effectively.

Last year, I think it was, there was a young fellow who was keen on Judo. I got a message through him from his great uncle who, I think, was the same stipendiary magistrate I’d met. He told him, “If, when you’re going for Judo, you ever meet a Trevor Leggett, would you give him a message for me?” The young chap said, “Yes.” He gave me this message with considerable respect: “I don’t know what it means, but my great uncle said, ‘Just please tell him it worked.’”  He’d been in some life-or-death situation, and this had come to him. He’d practised it so much that it was natural to him, as natural as when the hand comes and you blink.  This can be a hint for our general practice. It can be boring – but while it’s boring, while it’s interesting, it’s still immature. When it’s completely natural and we no longer think of it, when the thing happens – automatically this thing occurs – then it’s ripe and then it’ll work.

The next one is a little bit connected with the first talk we had. It’s about an angel. We can think of these as fairy stories, but they’re actual situations in life.  This angel was commissioned to be the judge of a particular generation of humankind, but he was told to see a particular saint in heaven first. Long explanations with all sorts of subsidiary things are no use. In the Christian account of the story, it would be St. Peter – it is St. Peter. The angel comes and he sees St. Peter. He says, “I’ve been put as judge of this generation of human beings.” St. Peter says to him, “And what are your qualifications?”  The angel said, “I’ve been given the power. I was given the power to be with them their whole lives – and not merely to know what they were doing, but to feel with them. I know what it’s like. I know what they feel like. I know what they felt like when they sinned. I know what they felt like when they were doing virtuous deeds; when they were murdering each other; when they were saving each other. I’ve been with them. I felt all this. I’m not doing it from outside; and have the record of all the situations they’ve been in. There’s another record of everything they ought to have done; and another record of everything they oughtn’t do, that they actually did do. There’s another record of the appropriate rewards and punishments. I am qualified.”

St. Peter says, “You lack one thing.” The angel said, “What is that? I’m an angel, I’m perfectly pure, it’s true; but I have felt with these human beings, I know their state.” Peter said, “You have one thing lacking – you don’t know what it is yourself to need forgiveness.” The angel looks at St. Peter, and St. Peter looks at the angel. Then the angel says, “Yes, I’ve been self-righteous, I’ve been arrogant.  Forgive me.” He falls at the feet, and Peter blesses him and says, “Now you can be a judge.”

The fourth one is connected with suffering. We suffer as tremendous egoists; we always think that it’s only us.  The Venerable Myokyo-ni, earlier this year (an old girl, she was about my age), she said to me, “I’m going deaf.” I couldn’t believe that, so I said, “Well, I’m going blind.” She said, “I can’t hear the things on the radio that I used to hear.” I said, “I can’t see the things on the television I used to see.” (I haven’t got a television, but never mind.)   She said, “Oh, you always go one better.”  Well, when I got home, I realized there was some truth in it. One doesn’t want other sufferers around when one is suffering oneself. When one’s doing King Lear, one wants the stage. If you’ve ever seen the picture, the engraving, of Mrs. Siddons, the Tragic Muse, it was said when she acted that it was almost like the stars rained tears, it was so moving. When Mrs. Siddons is producing this masterpiece of tragedy on the stage, you don’t want someone in the audience saying, “Poor little me”. You’ve got a great ham actor, the ego, and you’ve got a fat part and one wants to play it. We are expected to see what’s going on in ourselves, when we suffer. If we are really suffering, as a matter of fact, we are not very good at doing the ham acting, because one feels too ill to put on a good show.  But, when one’s moderately, not really suffering, but moderately suffering, then one can do it.

The next one is something that’s very annoying sometimes – one’s told that the Buddha nature is everywhere and that we’re using it now, or it’s using us, one can never quite remember. “It’s everywhere here, so it’s no use searching for it, you see. We now live in it, and we live by it”, and one begins to tap impatiently. One teacher used this as an example. Somebody is looking for their glasses and they can’t find them. Then a humorous friend comes in and says, “You’re looking at them.” You think, “Oh no, they’re not there.” You turn around and say, “Where?” He says, “You’re looking at them.” You think he’s got them on. He says, “You’re looking at them.” Then he says, “Shut your eyes – now feel.” Then you realize, “Yes, I’ve got them on. I couldn’t look for them if I didn’t have them on.”

These little illustrations are given to us. They can just pass. Sometimes they can be a clue. When I put the glasses on, if I’m very attentive, I can actually see them. Not looking at the object, but looking at the power by which I see the object. It is possible with fine, careful attention – instead of being distracted by an object – to turn the attention back and then to become aware.

The next one is connected with sticky fingers. The teacher said, “If you’re in the kitchen and your fingers are sticky, when you handle something hot, you’ll burn your fingers.” The same way in life. If your hands are sticky with emotional attachment or aversion, then in handling objects you’ll burn yourself. If the fingers are dry, you can pick up even a very hot thing for a moment; but if they’re sticky and it sticks even a tiny little bit, you’ll get burned.  In the same way he said in life, if the mind is free from sticking attachment, you can handle the object.

A teacher used to use this example, that one wants to do good, but if you have sticky fingers, it’s very difficult to do good. He compared it to the doctors before Pasteur. They didn’t disinfect their hands – it wasn’t known. They didn’t wash their hands, they didn’t disinfect or pass the scalpel, or other instruments, through a flame even. It wasn’t known. Although they healed the wounds and they delivered women in childbirth, at the same time they were infecting them. They did a little good and often very much more harm. He said, “Unless we are making serious efforts to purify the mind, it’s very difficult to do any actual good.”

Now, one pupil objected to this, he said, “Look, when people are starving, they want some food. They don’t care whether the man who gives it to them is a murderer, or sinner, or a pure saint, they just want the food.” There was some reaction against what the teacher had said. One of the women disciples had read about Therese of Lisieux who was a French saint, rather sentimental, but a real saint. In the nunnery, she had noticed there was a nun who nobody liked at all, and the other nuns didn’t want to have much to do with her. St Therese thought this was wrong.  She wasn’t a saint then, and she thought this was wrong.  She made a special effort to be particularly kind and friendly and helpful to this nun. After three or four months, the nun said, “You must like me very much. You’re so kind and you’re so friendly to me.”

An English lady disciple, she thought, “Well, I’ll try this.”  She told the teacher, that there’s a woman in the office who nobody likes. “She’s rather acid in a way, so I’m going to try to do what St. Therese did”, and the teacher made no comment. After three months, she reported back to the teacher.  She said, “Well, I did it. After three months, she said to me, “I think you’re the only friend I’ve got.”  The teacher said, “Well, what about yourself?” The lady disciple said, “I’m not going on with it. In an office, of course, people are a bit restrained in their conduct, but you get to know people better, and I got to know her better. I got to know her as she really was. At first, I admit I just disliked her. Now that I know what she’s really like, I absolutely hate her.” The teacher said, “Unless you make efforts to purify your own mind, we won’t be able to do any lasting good.”

Another one is about the side purposes. We can practise Buddhism, or anything else for that matter, in order to get some advantage. The last Japanese Prime Minister but two, I think it was, Nakasone, he had himself taken in meditation posture at a Zen place, and this was put in all the papers. Most Japanese have no intention of practising Zen themselves, but they often admire people who do the practice. This photograph of the Prime Minister got in all the papers.

When I saw it, it reminded me of a picture of Callaghan when he was Prime Minister. I don’t know whether he laid this on or not. He was taken coming out of the church, with his two grandchildren in front of him, and it made a charming little picture. The magazine, Private Eye, took the opportunity to reprint it with balloons coming out of the two little girls’ mouths. One of them said, “I didn’t know grandpa believed in God.” The other one said, “Well, he does just before an election.” It’s the same with Premier Nakasone. He was practising Zen and being photographed just before an election. There’s a line from a Persian classic of the 13th century, about the politicians of the time, of course: “Dogs at heart, but washing their faces like cats.”

Study is another side purpose. We can get sidetracked by study and become a scholar who never practises. Study can, with some people, be a great help. It certainly does contribute something to the world in a negative sort of way. I’ve never much liked studying, but I’ve done a terrible lot of it in the last 25 years. Think of all the destructive and vicious things that I could have been doing if I hadn’t been taken up with the books all the time. I’d liked to have done them, but I had no time. It can keep us out of mischief, but it’s nothing positive in itself.

Yukawa, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics, went totally contrary to the physics of the time, by his prediction of the meson, the intermediate particle, which was very much against the whole spirit of simplification at the time. It took tremendous courage to do this. In one of his autobiographical essays, he makes an interesting comment. He said, when he was young, there was a Taoist priest near his home, who used occasionally to call on his grandmother, I think it was. He knew this was an old fraud, a shocking old fraud; but he was asked to bow, and he found great difficulty in doing that.

Finally, he got himself to bow, not to the old fraud, but to the truth of Taoism in that fraud. He said, later on, that that which he overcame in himself, helped him to make the new discovery. He said, “When a new discovery, especially such a revolutionary one as this comes, there’s something in you which doesn’t want to bow to the new idea. It’s so revolutionary, it’s so against everything.  And it might lead to such ridicule if you’re wrong, that you don’t want to bow to it.” He said, finally, he managed to get the courage to bow to the new idea. He made this prediction, which is one of the most fruitful in modern physics, through being able to bow to a new idea, and not to rule it out as impossible or unlikely, or somehow tactless to raise.

Another incident is called ‘gone away’ and the personal application of it is that I went to a Japanese temple where they had some very rare exhibits.  They were beautifully presented in the most elaborate cases on silk. The guide, the priest, who took us around stood in front of each case, and he shouted out his message; and we looked at and admired the content of the case. We went on to one case and he stood up; and, finally, he realized we were looking at him, not at the exhibit. He turned around, “Oh, it’s not there.”  This can happen. The teacher said that the temple can be wonderful, the ceremonial can be perfect, the service given to the order can be self-sacrificing.  But, the central thing, if it has gone away, then all you have left is the showcase and he made a big point of this. He said we have to be careful not to build up these things which are meant to show off something without checking that it still is there.

Last year, I had some depressing news from Medical Switchback and I was put on drugs. I was told they might make me feel depressed and so on. I did get depressed – everything seemed to go grey somehow. I thought, “Well, anyway, I’d better get on with what I’m doing, depressed – it’ll be done by somebody who’s depressed, instead of being done by somebody who’s on top of the world.”  Anyway, I didn’t feel too bad at all, but everything seemed grey. I felt I was in one of those black and white films, before technicolour. Then I went early this year to a general check-up, and the chap said to me, “By the way you’ve gone colourblind.” That was quite a relief.

One thing more. The Japanese sword can cut through armour, and it cuts through the human body. The famous uppercut will come right through; nothing in the human body can stand up to that. A fencing master was ordered to be executed – not given the privilege of the ritual death, he was ordered to be executed. That meant kneeling down with the hands bound and then the executioner, who was a skilled fencer, takes the head. His position, hands bound, kneeling on the ground and  a Japanese sword coming on to his neck, wielded by a master – there’s nothing there that can resist that situation.

But he found something. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t jump to his feet or anything like that, but he found something. It’s an historical incident.  As the sword came down and he knew from his experience the sound of the sword when it’s coming, he twisted his head, and he caught the sword on his clenched teeth. Teeth are harder than the sword, it knocked out three of his teeth, but it stopped the blow and the executioner refused to go on with it, it’s nice to recall. He was, anyway, allowed to go. This example is given in the Judo circles (I don’t know if it’s in the Zen circles), that in any situation – this is a physical situation, of course – there are resources which are unimaginable, but which can nevertheless be found.

A great Indian teacher who was like the first man, a shastri and a pundit, he didn’t care much for official ceremonies. Occasionally, he was asked to preside in London at some great religious ceremony, such as the anniversary of Gandhi’s death. He was asked to go there. He went with his chief disciple, who was a woman, and he delivered his address on Gandhi which was very highly appreciated.  The disciple told me afterwards that, while he was speaking, the audience were tremendously moved.  Some of them would go, “Ah, hmmm, ah,” and they were tremendously appreciative of what he was saying.  Afterwards, when they were going home, she said to the teacher, “It must be terribly depressing for you, Teacher, talking to English audiences, isn’t it?”  He said, “Did you notice what happened afterwards?” She said, “No, but they did get up rather quickly.” He said, “They were going to the bar.” That was the total effect of the address. They had entered into it: “Ah,” “hmmm…”, as if you are going to the opera.  You enjoy it, but it has no effect on your life at all. He said, “I would rather have an audience who sits there without any sign, but who afterwards thinks about it.”


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