I would like to just say something about the Case of Seki. There were those who practised austerities, and some of the austerities described which the Kendo men practised was to shout this ‘Kiai’ shout The effects were real: they were practised by people whose lives depended on them. But one man who was an expert in this told me that in the end it is a frustration that the range is very limited and in fact it does no good to anybody. And we can see that the Master strongly reprimanded Seki for showing off, especially in front of children, with this ability. I have taken part in a test of one of these things and the range was very, very small. The effect was real, but it led to no good. One teacher described it as fireworks. With fireworks you go, ‘Ooh’. But you can’t warm your hands with fireworks, you cannot write a letter by the light of fireworks; they are absolutely useless, except to amaze. ‘And furthermore, ‘he said, ‘there is an inherent, latent contradiction, at the very heart of these things.’ He left that for us to ponder over.
Well, this is one about triumph and success, and one teacher who said, ‘People in the world aim at triumph, but spiritual people aim at success. You can spend as much time and energy on securing your triumph beyond your success as you spent in getting the success. You want to achieve something and it is achieved. But beyond that I want acclamation, I want triumph, and the people who opposed, I want them humbled and humiliated ‑ that is triumph! You know the Roman triumph, where the captors were driven in front and the spoils were displayed. That was beyond the success at that triumph. And he said this spoils the action.
The action is no longer pure, it is polluted and corrupted by the desire for triumph. If this is lurking in the heart, then our actions will not be fruitful. They may seem to be effective, but in fact they are contaminated. A very good example is the life of the Emperor Nero. If you ask a scholar, he will say that probably the best ten years for people in the Roman Empire were the first eight or ten years of Nero’s reign. You think, ‘What!’
When Nero was young his tutor was Seneca, the first of the great Spanish thinkers, a Stoic philosopher, the country was ruled extremely well, Nero was a sensitive, artistic man. He wanted to replace the bloody Roman triumphs by triumphs of art and music. When he had to sign a death sentence, he said, ‘Oh, I wish I’d never learnt to write.’ Under Seneca’s influence, he passed a law which set slaves free from torture. If a slave was tortured by his master, the magistrate compulsorily had him sold to another buyer, so it was the best time of the Roman Empire, but it was this same Nero, this gentle, artistic, compassionate man, who, after ten or twelve years, was taking part in the tortures himself ‑ because the heart and the mind were not purified. These are elements in the mind ‑ we feel full of goodwill and compassion and kindness. Therefore if we are in the position of an emperor we can put these things into practice, and we do. But we have no defence against the corruption of the heart from within. There is a Japanese poem:
Alas, it is the flower of the heart which fades
Without any outward sign
We do not realise these things are happening to us. Without spiritual practice and discipline, gradually, even our best intentions and our good deeds change, and from success we turn into seeking triumph and consequently the humiliation of other people and conquest and glory.
The Doctrine is that things are not absolutely real, as we know. They have practical efficiency, and they have practical effects on us ‑ the things of the world ‑ they are not absolutely real in themselves. The things don’t have any permanent reality in them. And it always happens regularly, every few years, some clever dick comes along and he says, well, you know all these holy texts and sacred utterances, they are all unreal aren’t they.’And sure enough, you put this to a teacher. And the teacher says, ‘Yes. Yes,’ So the man says, ‘Well, why do you do it then?’ This is a modem teacher, so he says, ‘Well, I am throwing imitation pearls to people who have got the idea that they are swine. They are rooting about in the mud, looking for some gold coins that they think they have lost. Now, when I throw them these imitation pearls, the suddenly feel, ‘Oh, we are rich!’ and then they stop looking around in the mud, and then they look around, and then they realise that they are human beings! The imitation pearls make them feel better and it enables them to stop, to look around and to realise what they are.’
A man went to a group, he was a visitor from another group. He heard this text read at the group where he was visiting. He came back afterwards and the teacher said, ‘Well, did you benefit from the visit and he said, Well, it upset me a bit.’ So the teacher said, ‘Why was that?’ He said, ‘Well the texts were read, and they were intoned, and there was a very strong atmosphere. But it was done without any reverence and here we have always been taught reverence! So I don’t know.’
So the teacher said, ‘What was the effect on you?’ And he said, ‘Well, yes, I was put off by that but I must admit that the resonance of those texts has remained with me, has had an effect on me.’ And the teacher said, ‘Good!’ While we are separated from the texts, we revere them and reverence is of utmost importance. But if it should happen that people become one with the texts, then it is not a question of people uttering the texts with reverence. The texts are speaking the text and there is no question of reverence. The texts are declaring themselves to the world, and it is an expression of truth.
‘This is from an experience I had: A lot of the old temples have treasures, and periodically, sometimes once a year, the treasures are brought out and they are exposed and the public can come and see them. Then they are put in glass cases, and some monk learns by heart the description of what the figure or treasure is. It may be a rare manuscript by the founder of the sect or it may be a relic of some kind, or whatever it might be. We were in a little group trekking around and we stopped in front of one of these cases and he told us what it was and we looked, then we moved on to the next case. And he stood again in front of this case and explained what it was, and then he happened to look at us and saw that we were looking at him! He looked around and he saw that the glass case was empty! And he said, ‘Oh, it has gone away!’ So we went on to the next case.
Now, this was used as an example of what can happen when the inner life of a movement begins to depart. You carry on as if it was still there and there is a sort of convention of not asking questions about it. And some of the people, like the emperor’s clothes business, say, ‘Oh, yes, yes, it’s quite…’ and then they move on. It can happen. And the teacher said, ‘Things can go on under their own momentum for quite a long time, long after the central experience has gone. And it has to be watched very carefully.’ Hakuin says this, that you can have a lot of trees with interlaced branches and the roots wither, but the trees support each other. So that it is like a table with many legs, but there is no actual ‘life’, because the roots have withered. But they don’t fall down because they are holding each other. Then, he said, when a storm comes, the whole thing comes down!
He says in the same way, people can support themselves on what they think is the reverence of other people. The others seem to be very full of devotion and reverence, so probably there is nothing there at all, although they don’t feel anything in themselves. And then the others see them behaving with apparent reverence and deference to these holy things and they think, ‘Oh well, they must be so!’ So nobody believes in it at all. So we are all supporting each other on the behaviour of the rest of the group. He says that that gives the illusion that there is still something living within it when this has long gone away.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 2: The only way to win is to forget