In Japan especially but in the Chinese tradition too, they have what’s called hidden virtue.
This is the only virtue that counts according to some of the Zen masters. The virtue that anybody knows about is nothing. It just doesn’t count. One of the stories is Honen. He was one of the great leaders of the movement for singing the mantra of the Buddha of Light. They went through the villages of Japan and a great wave of devotion came over the people. Now, he came to a village and they used to chant in the street, the mantra of light. There was a thief and one of his underlings watching.
The young apprentice thief was rather impressed with these people. The thief said, “I don’t like it. They say this is devotion to Buddha, don’t they? But it isn’t. Supposing I fell in love with a woman, yes, I might whisper it in her ear but if I was shouting it all in the street, you wouldn’t call that love, would you? Of course it’s not. They’re just showing off to get our money.” Well it so happened that Honen stayed at the same cheap Inn where the thief was staying. In the middle of the night the thief thought, “I’ll have a look.” He crept round the veranda and just peered in.
He saw a tiny little light there like what we call a little night light. Honen was sitting in front of it. With his lips he was saying this mantra without making a sound. The thief watched and Honen went on. Then the thief sneezed and Honen immediately put out the light and went to bed. The thief went back. In the morning he went and saw Honen. He said, “Look, I’m going to tell you what happened and what I’ve been saying about you.”
Honen said, “No, you’re quite right. What we do in the street isn’t devotion and it isn’t virtue at all. We do this as a service. We hope that it will bring people to recite the name of Buddha but it’s nothing that we’ve done. The only virtue that we do is when we recite the name of the Buddha when nobody knows about it. I was reciting it. When you sneezed, I knew somebody was watching me. Then I knew my devotion was no good so I put out the light. I lay down until I should be alone again.”
This is a sort of Zen example. It needs great will to sit up all night but it was not an assertion of I. I means that somehow, of course it’s absolutely secret but somehow it leaks out and people get to know of all that you’re doing and then yes, then that is an assertion of I.
Male Questioner: You’re saying that there is a form of affirmation which is not egocentric but is a harnessing of the energies of the individual.
Trevor Leggett: At the beginning it’s egocentric and with the training it becomes less and less, yes.
Male Questioner: This is not the same thing as was written about by Nietzsche in his “Triumph of the Will”, the gospel of superman that so appeals to the mass egocentricity of pre-war Germany and perhaps not the same thing as one may hear about in magic practices in which the will is harnessed in order to gain some alleged occult power.
Trevor Leggett: Yes, it gets quite strong that’s right. After all, Nietzsche listed six supermen in the history of the world. The seventh superman he didn’t list but you are expected to draw the conclusion.
Male Questioner: Does what you say imply that Zen people will always do their devotions on their own without any other Zen followers around?
Trevor Leggett: No, I shouldn’t say. They do it in groups but they say, especially some teachers, that the real devotion is what’s called Yaza, when the man is meditating by himself, alone. One man told me that when it was raining in the night he got up and he saw his teacher sitting on a corner, a dark corner. He thought as one- so he watched him. He noticed there was a bucket which was catching the water dripping just off the corner. After about an hour that bucket was full of this pure rain water.
Then the teacher took it and went and washed the lavatories with this pure water. Once the teacher found out that that was known, they say that’s the real one. Of course they do good devotion but the real one is when people don’t know.
Male Questioner: Do they apply that in the real world? It must be very difficult to carry any significant out secretly in the real world.
Trevor Leggett: No, not so difficult. You give a donation to a hospital if you’re rich and up goes your name on the room, doesn’t it? If you’re poor of course, you can’t do that. Your name won’t be up. The rich man makes sure that somehow the extent of his donation is known. There are plenty of ways of doing it.
Male Questioner: I mean the other way, keeping something secret, if you’re really getting involved in something major.
Speaker: Well they say that the more secret it is, that’s the real virtue. But the test in yoga is- our teacher gave this. The woman was carrying this tray to offer to the temple with the flowers and the fruits, beautifully arranged. She’d spent hours on it. Then as she comes to the temple, she trips and they all fall in the dust. Then without being disturbed, she picks them up and dusts them and cleans them and arranges them again. Now most of us think, when we’ve taken a tremendous lot of trouble and it goes wrong that somehow there ought to be some sort of spiritual arrangement for preventing these things. After all we’ve done, you’d think that it would be a little bit appreciated.
Male Questioner: Do you see any parallels between the Zen Roshi and the yogic guru?
Trevor Leggett: Well there are parallels, yes. But in the case of yoga, the guru is to direct the man’s attention to the Ishtadeva, the form of the incarnation of the Lord or the form of the Lord. In Zen there isn’t that. In a certain sense, yes, the dependence on the teacher is very important in Zen, very, very important. In yoga, they say, even if he has a bad teacher, “If his devotion to the Lord is strong, the Lord will speak even through that bad teacher.”
There are accounts in the Upanishads where the teacher doesn’t give instruction. He hears it from the fires and from the animals. The Lord speaks to him through that and he gets the inspiration through them. But in the Zen, the attention is on the teacher. Yes, it’s a very strong attachment. The teacher sometimes breaks the personal attachment by behaving in awkward ways.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: Damascus 1977
Part 2: Meditation on the navel
Part 3: Yaza is real devotion
Part 4: Not in Samadhi all the time
Part 5: The glories of Zen in Japan
Part 6: Disillusionment in society
Part 7: Yoga and Zen in Christianity