Changing Zazen

Changing Zazen

Tips and Icebergs

As you know, the iceberg is supposed to be ten per cent on the surface (or one per cent some people say) and the rest hidden. My method of presentation here is to present just a small proportion of the iceberg and then for you to find the rest for yourself. So, in this method of teaching, a number of illustrations or stories are given which are meant, so to speak, as seeds to work on. Unless they change your life, however, they are just entertaining stories. And I am telling these particular stories because some of them have been helpful to me and I have confidence in them. But it is necessary, like seeds, that they should go into the ground.

You probably know the parable of the sower in our Christian Bible. And there is a famous painting of ‘the sower went forth to sow’ which shows the sower with a pannier of seeds just scattering them broadcast without looking. But that is not, in fact, the way to sow seeds. In order to sow seeds you first have to make a furrow in the ground and then put the seeds in. So this is one of the riddles, one of Christ’s riddles, to which he did not give answers. But it is one method of presenting — just throwing out many different things — and perhaps the ground will open (will be opened perhaps through a crisis) and will receive one of those seeds.

In the seed there is a potentiality which can grow without limit. From the tree or plant which grows, other seeds can come. So, without limit that potentiality can grow. But it to be received; it has to be something which can change our lives.

* * *

Suppose I am living under a dictatorship, a ruthless dictatorship to which I have been sent perhaps by my country, and I see something pathetic, some terrible suffering. Now, perhaps I can help by breaking the law a little bit to relieve that suffering — and I do so. Then I hear that the police are looking for the person who did this. It has been successful, the distress has been relieved, but they are looking for someone. They cannot trace it to me, I know that, but I hear they are making enquiries about someone else whom they do not like. Perhaps they are going to arrest him. Now, what do I do if they arrest him? I ask the wise old Minister, perhaps, at the embassy. I tell him what has happened, and then ask, ‘What should I do?’

He says, ‘Well, of course you have done wrong. But as a human being I must admit you did right. If they arrest that chap, however, you can’t do anything, and you had better go home now.’

I say (in a low voice), ‘But I should go and say that / did this — if they arrest him, that is.’

He shakes his head, ‘No, it wouldn’t do any good at all. They never let a man go once they have arrested him. It would simply mean two of you dying in jail.’

He has given me an out, as you might say. But I think, ‘Well, what am I going to do? If I go home,

I may spend my life thinking that another man has been arrested and will die in jail because of something I did. But if I stay and resolve that I will confess if he is arrested, even though it does no good, I shall be living on top of a high diving board, every morning thinking, “Perhaps today, perhaps today — torture and death!’”

Only two alternatives, both of them agonizing. Now, something has to arise which is different from those two. We can say, ‘But there are only two — either you escape without saying anything, or you make up your mind that if he is arrested, you will confess — a terror, but you will do it.’

But there is something else.

The purpose of these stories is that the seed within them — if it is developed — will at a time like that, suddenly show itself. We can say, ‘Oh, we don’t have crises like that in our lives.’ But we do; we all have these moments of agonizing and important choices when both sides are equally disastrous and when we don’t know what to do. We choose one side and always have the agony of knowing about the other.

Another example: Somebody I know is in great distress. I have not got enough money to help, but as it happens I am momentarily in a position where I could successfully sneak it from my huge company which makes enormous profits. They would never know, and I could pass the money on. But if I do that, how could I ever speak about honesty again? If I don’t do it, however, I have left that person in terrible distress. Such things can happen. And these stories have something in them.

* * *

As we know, the tip of the iceberg is ice and the huge mass concealed beneath it is also ice. Now, the tip is not quite the same in nature as the mass. Some of it will have a bit of snow on it, might have a couple of penguins or a polar bear on it. In general, however, the iceberg is the same above the surface and below it. With us human beings — us human icebergs — on the other hand, it can sometimes be a little bit different, a little bit deceptive.

A British civil servant I knew was very high up in his field and a man of great integrity of character. He was also a hard worker and a very good fighter. Then he retired and decided to develop his interest in Christianity. So he attended the church and did a tremendous lot for it. He discovered, however, that there were some small things in the service which were not strictly traditional. So with his enormous energy and integrity he found the right way of doing the service and sought to impose this on the congregation. He gave everyone hell until the vicar and congregation finally agreed: ‘Well, all right! We’ll do it your way. It’s no doubt right.’ He won.

Then he fell very ill, and a friend visited him in hospital. The friend saw that this fighting face had now become peaceful; the old man was facing his imminent death brave as a lion. He said softly, ‘You know, I feel I’ve fought the good fight. I know my life is coming to its close and I’m at peace in the Lord; I’m in the peace of the Lord.’

But when someone says something like that to you and you are rather busy yourself, you can’t help feeling, ‘Well, I’d like to test this peace.’ So the friend said to the old man, ‘Look, Dan old boy, this is marvellous, you know. You are at peace. But here you are in bed. Supposing, while you are .. . er … laid up, they decide to change the service back again.’

No, they promised me they wouldn’t do that.’

But they could, couldn’t they?’

The old man reared up and shouted, ‘I WILL FIGHT IT WITH EVERY FIBRE OF MY BODY!’ and then, ‘Uhh!’ He slumped back, exhausted.

Well, this was a case of the tip being peaceful, whilst underneath was the old lion spirit. And such a situation can be quite a deceptive thing.

* * *

Sometimes you can get rather unexpected cases. I know nothing of the history of China, but I was once pushed on to a radio discussion between four journalists about modern China, Chairman Mao’s China. They had asked my colleague from the Chinese Service at the BBC to join them (he was an expert on Chinese history), but he had fallen ill at the last minute, so the producer said to me, ‘Well, you know Japan, so you must know China.’

I said, ‘No, I don’t. I know only two things about China.’

Well, that’s enough. Please go on.’

So I went there. It was a bit embarrassing. The Chairman introduced me by saying, ‘Of course this man is the Head of the Japanese Service, but I am sure he will say very interesting things to us about China.’ And I just had to nod while they talked about modern China. Then they spoke about Chairman Mao perhaps becoming a sort of new emperor. And they spoke about the Communist system: ‘Was this unique or . . ?’ At this point I produced one of my two facts. I said, ‘The fact is, the whole communist system was tried in China several hundred years ago under Wang Anshih, and it lasted only about twenty years.’

There followed a dead silence as if someone had just quoted the Bible. Then the Chairman coughed and said, ‘Oh, thank you!’ — very impressed.

Then the discussion continued and I just looked judicial. But then they returned to the point about Chairman Mao: ‘Could he become a new emperor in some way?’ And this allowed me to produce my second piece of information. I said slowly, ‘Well, you see … (as if I were thinking about a lot of facts and then had chosen one). . . just take our game of chess. It’s between a white king and a black king, and they fight, and one side wins. This is the way the dynasties have replaced each other in the West; one king fights another king. But in Chinese chess, they don’t have two kings. It would be inconceivable to the Chinese mind that the conqueror could become a new king. No, the contest is fought between the king and a general.’

Well, then there was another hush and I didn’t have to say any more — there could not be two emperors because that is inconceivable to the Chinese mind. It was quite irrelevant to their point, but still they were impressed by it.

At the end of the discussion, the Chairman thanked us all and said to me, ‘We were most impressed by your scholarship, and felt that it was just the tip of the iceberg.’

Well, it was. There are a lot of cases like that.

We are swimming around holding up a little tip, but there is no iceberg beneath it. The visible form can be very convincing, but there may be no iceberg; it might just be a tip, and the tip is shouting, ‘Watch out for my iceberg!’

* * *

There is a traditional Japanese farce called Changing Zazen. Such farces are played between the serious Kabuki plays and are generally about some local lord who is depicted as an absolute fool; it is very democratic. Anyway, in this one, the local lord wants to go to the red-light quarter but cannot because he is completely under the domination of his wife. So one day he says to her, ‘Enough of my dissolute ways so contrary to the Buddha’s teachings. I’m going to change. Every week I am going to sit all night in zazen1.’

The wife says, ‘I shall be looking in on you, you know.’

Of course!’

Well, the Japanese monks had in the past adopted from China, a long wadded meditation robe with a hood to keep out the cold in winter. So she sees him get into this robe at the beginning of the night. Then she goes to see her sister for ten minutes, and the lord does a switch with his servant. He says to the servant, ‘You’ve got to sit here all night in this robe while I go out.’ So then the servant sits there.

The wife comes back and during the evening looks in from time to time and sees this figure — this perfect form — and she gets rather impressed. Then, at about two in the morning, she comes in with some tea and says to him, ‘Husband, it must be terribly cramped under there. Just break for a little bit and have this tea.’ The figure doesn’t move. Well, then she begs, ‘You can have just a tiny little break; they do in the monasteries; they have tea.’ Well, of course, in the end she pulls off the hood and sees the servant sitting there — it all comes out. Then she sits under the robe.

The husband returns semi-drunk in the early morning and sees, as he thinks, the servant sitting there. And he says, ‘I’ve had a marvellous night;

I’ll tell you all about it.’ And this thing just sits there. So he says, ‘It’s all right; you needn’t sit like that now,’ but it just sits there, and he begins his story.

Now, we the audience, can see under the hood because it has been lifted up a bit. He doesn’t notice because he is drunk and telling his story, but we see this terrible face! Then… well, I won’t tell you what happens when the cloak comes off. The point is, there is this form, this perfect form of meditation. In the first case the lord is doing it to get an advantage. In the second case the servant is doing it because he has to. And in the third case — when she is sitting there — it is a demon.

This is used as an illustration of the wrong ways of practising zazen. One can practise it to get an advantage; one can practise it because one feels one has got to; and one can practise it, sometimes, because one is a sort of demon. But the form is the same.

* * *

Another point is about judgement. We judge a spiritual teaching, or perhaps a spiritual teacher; and we judge on our own basis. We can’t, of course, recognize in others what we don’t have in ourselves — how could we? We must ourselves have it to some extent in order to recognize it. There are a number of Eastern stories on this, but also some from the West, and I will give one of these here.

At the beginning of the twentieth century there were some French scientists who decided to test whether elephants were musical or not. They went to the zoo and took a violinist with them. He played a bravura passage by Monsigny (a composer the scientists believed to be one of the top composers of the end of the eighteenth century). So the violinist played this, and the elephant listened for a bit, then yawned and turned away. The scientists concluded that the elephant was not musical.

But, as a matter of fact, pretty well no one has heard of Monsigny today. And most of us — if a bravura passage from Monsigny were played on the solo violin — would probably yawn and turn away. So perhaps the elephant had the best of it.

The scientists were not particularly musical; they just chose a name that happened to be admired in France at the time whose music we now think very little of, and they concluded — because they were not musical themselves — that the elephant could not be musical.

Well, in the same way, people who lack spirituality will not be able to recognize the spirituality in the teacher. And we can be put off by something irrelevant. I will give you an example from my own experience. A judo man I knew was expert at a particular small branch of technique — he was very, very good at it. Now, he wasn’t an official teacher, but he would go nearly every day to the Kodokan and practise that technique; and he would teach people who wished to be taught. But there was something rather vicious about him. He used to — not injure people, he never injured anybody — but he would just hurt them a tiny bit. So those who practised with him had this experience — he would hurt just a bit and leave no damage at all.

Even though there was so much to be learned from this man about that particular branch of judo, therefore, most people didn’t like to practise with him. After having this experience myself, I too thought, ‘No, I don’t want to learn from that man; he’s a bit vicious.’ Then I argued with myself, ‘But he’s very good at that technique. You could learn technique from him that would be difficult to find elsewhere.’ Again the thought came, ‘No, I don’t want that. He’s vicious and he might infect me with his viciousness.’ But then I asked myself, ‘Am I ever vicious? Well no, I can’t be because I am sort of disgusted by his viciousness.’ But finally I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know, I might be. I might infect him. Then I decided to practise and learn from him.

Now, that man’s viciousness was an unpleasant characteristic, but it had nothing to do with my learning technique from him. I finally realized I was being put off by something quite irrelevant. In the same way, people coming to a spiritual path have to decide what it is they want, and not be put off by things which basically don’t matter. Things from outside can deter us, and things from outside can encourage us. While they are from outside, however, they cannot really solve any problems at all.

The accountant who comes every year to work out my income tax, brings a printer-calculator with him. I have to be present to answer any questions, but as I only have one room, he sits at one end going through the papers and I try to get on with my translation work somehow at the other end of the room. Now, this calculator goes bzzz… bzzz-bzzz . . . bzzz-bzzz-bzzz-bzzz-bzzz . . . Then there is quiet and I think, ‘Well, that’s the last!’ But then it goes again, bzzz … bzzz-bzzz, and I think, ‘Oh, what a nuisance.’ I get on somehow, but it’s annoying. Now, this chap is rather perceptive, so he said to me, ‘You know, every time this buzzes, you pay less income tax.’ Well, suddenly it all changed — bzzzz-bzzzz-bzzzz — and I thought, ‘Keep it up!’ It was clever of him, but still it was from outside. And a solution from outside is ultimately no solution at all.

There are some examples of this — not necessarily very elegant ones — but nevertheless striking. A stray dog runs up to the stone steps at the back of your house and makes a terrible mess there, and a fearful stench. You go out and look at it, ‘Oh, disgusting!’ Then you get some flower petals and scatter them on top, ‘Now, isn’t that be-au-ti-ful?’ But all the time there is this terrible stench.

This is a solution from outside. By putting something outside on to the problem, it seems to solve it, it seems to make something beautiful, but all the time you know that it hasn’t. An awful smell invades your house, and the real problem has not been solved.

The treasure has to be found in our own house, not brought from outside. While we put things on top, while we have outside thoughts and concepts and influences, we will never be established within ourselves.

Most of us stand upright by looking at the verticals in the walls. While they are upright, we are balanced. Special rooms have been made in which the verticals — the doors and so on — are slightly on the slant, and people fall over — because they are aligning themselves with what they think are verticals. On the other hand, a trained judo man’s balance is internal, so a room like that would not affect him at all. But most people align themselves from something outside. No harm in that physically, perhaps, but spiritually if we do that — if we align ourselves with something from outside — we are liable to collapse when the outside environment is twisted or abnormal.

The ultimate purpose of the teacher is not, therefore, to provide you with true outer verticals of morality and so on for you to align yourself with. No, the ultimate purpose of the teacher is to help you develop the inner sense of balance within yourself. We have to find something within ourselves.

The Shinkansen, the so-called ‘bullet train’, was a great triumph of technology in Japan when it first came in — and a national triumph too. All the kids heard about it, and arrangements were made for parties of them from the country villages to ride on it. A teacher told me about one such party. He said that for some reason, some oversight, it was not explained to the children that they were going to ride on the Shinkansen, of which they had seen many pictures and photographs. So they got on this train (without seeing the engine) and were shooting along when they saw another Shinkansen on another track. The children all crowded to the side of the train and said, ‘Look, the Shinkansen! Look, the Shinkansen!’ The teacher said, ‘Boys and girls, you are in the Shinkansen. This is it! You are in it! You don’t need to look at that one over there. Look at what you are in!’

There is a treasure in our own house which we often do not see. We can say, ‘Well, how can there be?’

One Indian story tells how the merchants in some of the towns (when India was the richest country in the world) were very strict about business ethics. One man cut some corners. They used to expel such people from the city and stone them — not kill them — but stone them and drive them away. They took everything this man had, tied him to a stake outside the city, held back his wife and child, and threw stones.

A little boy, the son of one of the big merchants, was there and joined in — not often you get the chance to throw a stone at a grown-up! He picked up a sharp stone and threw it. It caught the man on the face, just missing his eye. The blood poured down.

Then they released his wife and child, and all the people went away. The two of them rushed to him and set him free. Now, he has got nothing; he is penniless; he is disgraced — in the sunset, the dying sun. He will have to go to the next city. He might have some faint hope of an uncle somewhere, but it is total destruction.

As he hangs his head and looks down, he sees a gleam; the ray of the dying sun makes a gleam on one of the stones. He bends down, picks it up and sees it is a great jewel. The rich merchant had a ring with a big jewel in it. In the excitement he must have knocked it against a brick or something and it fell to the ground. The little boy, not looking, just grabbed the sharp stone and threw it.

There is a Japanese poem:

The stones which were thrown at me
When  Ipicked it up,
One of them was a jewel.

This comes again and again. There is something hidden even in the terrible experiences we have, which — if we have spiritual sight and discrimination — we can find.

I will read from a translation of a book which I did translate, all except for this little bit. It is in A First Zen Reader and is by Sessan:

There is an old saying in the Zen school: ‘When you come to pick them up, the very stones are gold.’ When the eye of the heart is opened and we see rightly, the shattered tiles that have been dropped on the road are shining with the gleam of gold. In our everyday life, to recognize the true worth of every little thing, every tiny fragment of what we are using every day, to respect it — that gives life real meaning. In the daily life of Zen, everything is to be made pure and exact and elegantly simple. In our conduct

  • going, staying, sitting, and lying down, as we say — we are never to think of anything as trivial, but to find a great meaning in it. In using our personal things, we must not use them casually or forgetfully or wrongly or mistakenly

  • they must be used rightly. These days they talk about consumables which, of course, is all right, but it is not good to use for profit the consumables, to acquire economic advantage for oneself. Higher than use for profit, is the loving use of the things in the right way; it means to love the things we use. But even so, to love things because they are pleasant and because they suit me, still does not yet get away from self-satisfaction. There has to be proper use. Then, for the first time, there is life in the handling of the things, and that is a very fine thing. But it is not yet outside the sphere of practical wisdom. We have to go further and come to good use of things. Now, for the first time, we come to follow the nature of the thing itself when we use it, and we come to live virtuously. Again one step: we must come to pure use; we must purify the things when we use them. Now it is that their religious meaning appears. Nowadays it is fashionable to use phrases like ‘cleaning up society’, but it is when we try to make things pure, uncontaminated, infinitely clear and noble as we use them, that the seeds of religious life are sprouting. Again a step: we must come to spiritual use; to spiritualize the things as we use them. Now it is not just a thing, not just a material substance, but it is of spiritual nature, spiritual essence, and it becomes radiant. ‘When we pick them up, the very stones are gold.’ The thing is a blessing, is precious — instinctively we find a gesture of reverence in ourselves.

* * *

Men shave every morning from their true face just a little, almost imperceptible, sprouting of beard. Now, if I don’t shave that, then I might look very smart, I might be wearing evening dress, but every time I move my head, it will rasp against the hard edge of my collar — and that is very uncomfortable. I think, ‘Oh well, I won’t wear a hard collar; I’ll wear a very soft cashmere scarf.’ But then the scarf catches on the beard stubble, and I find little bits of fluff all over my face. What a relief to shave the face clear! One teacher said, ‘Use the sharp edge of criticism to shave the conceit from the true face.’ And when we are actually shaving, we are to feel we are shaving away our conceit and prejudices.

I sometimes have to translate Japanese poems in the texts. They are not so easy. Sometimes the medieval prose isn’t easy, either. Then some kind friend tells me, ‘You know what so-and-so said? He said, “In one of those translations, Trevor has put ‘neither of them are absolutely right’. But that is an elementary grammatical mistake in English. Poor old Trevor! It’s not that he doesn’t know Japanese, he doesn’t know English!”’

Well, then I think, ‘Oh, it’s a trivial point; it’s colloquial English. I disregard that. Huh, I pay no attention to criticisms like that.’ But gradually it yeasts up and I start to think, ‘Well, you know, if you look at some of his translations, they’re pretty careless, aren’t they? AND AS A MATTER OF FACT, HE WOULDN’T KNOW A POEM IF YOU HIT HIM OVER THE HEAD WITH ONE!’ My whiskers are sprouting. So, if I can do it, to shave them off with the sharp edge of that criticism — by accepting it — is a great relief.

This cloth here — it was quite a good cloth once, but it hasn’t been cleaned and it hasn’t been ironed, so it has these persistent creases in it. Well, our minds are acquiring creases and dirt all our lives. However you drop this cloth, it will always fall into the same creases. This other one, on the other hand, is old and it isn’t quite clean, but it has been washed and it has been ironed, and it can take any shape. I can polish with it; I can wave it; I can refold it into another shape; I can use it to tie something — it is free. Now, our minds too get set into creases: ‘I always do this. No, no, I never do that. This — yes; that — no.’ ‘I always look at things scientifically, you see.’ ‘No, it’s to feel, to feel — that’s all that matters.’ ‘Some people are all for life, life, but I prefer reading.’ These are creases.

Spiritual training is purification, cleaning, and then ironing with a hot iron to take out the creases. Then mind can fall into any shape needed, or be folded and put away.

Perhaps the most famous poem in Japanese is one of these very short ones. The whole of Japan resounded with it:

The old pond;

A frog jumps in;

The sound of the water!

Well, it is said that one day the same poet was walking on the same path, and he happened to pass this same old pond. He looked and saw a frog that seemed to be hanging about… it wanted to give an encore! This is a satirical example of how, when we have done something great or good, there is a tendency to want to repeat the effects. But the thing is — to go! They say, ‘Do good!’ And added to that is, ‘Do good and go!’ And I have even heard it in the form of: ‘Do good and run!’

* * *

At a temple where I used to go sometimes (Sojiji, one of the great training temples), the head monk told me: ‘If your mind is disturbed, or perhaps you are bored, take a very slow deep breath in until your lungs are quite full. Hold it just for a second, then very slowly let it out.’ Well, some judo men are, or were, trained to observe the breath. And on one occasion when I was, as I thought, saying some rather interesting things, I noticed that one of them was very, very slowly breathing in. And in this hall at the moment, I seem to feel that the hall itself is somehow breathing in … So I’ll finish. Thank you for your attention.

1Formal sitting meditation.

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