In the Zen school they don’t attach much importance to learning, although most of the teachers are learned men, but they don’t attach great importance to learning as a part of attaining release and freedom. In Yoga they recommend learning to some degree to pacify a restless mind. If you’re a really bad man you may have to do a terrible lot of studying, but that’s only to pacify the mind. From the actual point of release it’s done through meditation, and through seeing something in the events of daily life.
Well then, this particular case: in the Zen school they have a short sutra of two hundred and fifty characters which has to be learnt by heart. Well, two hundred and fifty words, not too bad is it, but this lady, she said to the teacher, ‘I can’t remember things you know, and I’d like to be excused from this, I can’t be expected to learn it, can I read it instead of reciting it from memory at the assembly?’ So the teacher said, ‘How do you know you can’t remember things?’ She said, ‘Well I’ve never been ‘able to remember them, and that’s a fact’.
So he suddenly blazed up, and he shouted, and he talked about ‘Lazy people, deliberately posing as idiots in order to get special treatment!’. And she burst into tears, and she ran out. Well, after two or three days she came back, very scared and timid, and the teacher approached her, and she still looked very downcast, and he said, ‘Is anything wrong?’.
So she said, ‘Well, but you said people who were lazy, posing as deliberate idiots to get special treatment’. So he said, ‘You remember that?’ So she said, ‘Well, I remember that, because it applied to me’. So he said, ‘Yes. You think the holy texts don’t apply to you. That’s why you can’t remember them. Apply the texts to yourself, then you’ll be able to remember them’.
Well, another example, this of course is from personal experience – now one of the things they tell you is ‘Don’t cough when you do a right action’. When a collection bowl comes round, I’m putting in a gold piece (coughs) (laughter), seems a waste really, if people don’t know about it.
Well they tell you, ‘I’m a success, but not a triumph’. Triumph is when everyone is going ‘Ahhhhhh!’ Don’t do that. Do the right action, do it properly, don’t think of triumph. Now these things can be applied to us, and we must apply them to ourselves in the everyday incidents of life, not have them as general principles floating up.
Now as an example, in a Japanese temple they cultivate moss on the ground, here we throw moss away, but there they cultivate it. They say moss is a symbol of spiritual progress. You can’t force it quickly, but if you remove the weeds it will grow surprisingly fast. Well then, moss needs shade, so they have small trees scattered round the garden, and those trees are selected, so that they shed their leaves at ‘different times of the year, so that there are always some leaves dropping. Well, one of the jobs when you live in a monastery, is you have a broom, a sort of besom, of very thin twigs, very soft twigs, because you have to sweep these leaves up, and if you sweep too hard you damage the moss. But if you don’t sweep hard enough you don’t get all the leaves up. Well, I was asked to do one sizeable area, but what happens when they leaves are falling is that as you’re sweeping they’re falling on the bit you’ve just swept.
And you say, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, I’ve just swept that clean and there’s another one come down!’, and you go and pick it up, put it in the sack, and pick up the broom again, and you get annoyed with the trees, and what I did, I thought, ‘Oh well, I want a triumph.’ I wanted that garden to be absolutely clear of leaves.
Well, this was some time ago, I was fairly strong, and I knew how to use this strength, so I went up to the tree, and I could make the whole thing go like that, and every leaf that was within any sort of shouting distance of falling fell, and then I swept them all into a bag. Then I did the same with the next tree. So my garden, in contrast to other peoples’, was absolutely free from leaves, and, I think the second day, a monk saw me do this, and he came across and said, ‘ Leggett-san, don’t you think that’s a little bit brutal?’ Oooh!.
He said, ‘Well, the leaves fall, you see, we sweep up the ones that are there, and if one or two more fall, we’ll sweep those up tomorrow, in a natural sort of way, not attacking the tree like that.’ And some years after that, I read a poem by a very famous teacher, and I imagine that at some time he’d had the experience I’d had, of hating the tree, because his poem was in two lines. It said,
‘We sweep up the leaves,
But we don’t hate the trees for dropping them’.
Well, we can apply this: it doesn’t only mean sweeping leaves. It applies to many things in life: When something happens, and we sweep it up, without hating what caused it.
There’s a beauty in the everyday things, which we don’t see. Children love bubbles, don’t they, in the bath, and they blow them, with a little pipe, and they blow them. But when we’re doing the washing-up, we can put the liquid in and shake it round like that, we get these beautiful bubbles coming up, we don’t see those at all as beautiful. ‘I’ve just got to get this blasted washing-up done’, that’s all. Something’s happened. We no longer see that beauty.
What’s gone wrong? We are asked to examine this sort of point that we are asked to examine very carefully. What’s happened?
When I clean the table with a duster, the yellow rag, on the table-top, polish it like that, well it’s just a chore, that’s all, but a kid, give the yellow cloth to a baby, he loves the movement, he loves to see the yellow moving across there. But when I’m polishing the table the yellow is moving across, I don’t see that as beautiful at all. When people go to the seashore, the wave comes in, hits the rocks, doesn’t it, and spreads and then makes this froth, then it goes out again. Then another one comes in, the froth comes up, and people can sit watching that for a long time. Each time it’s the same and yet it’s different each time, and it’s most beautiful, the lines it forms. Well the same lines form if we’re scrubbing the floor, or the steps, then too, whatever it is, the cleaner, the Ajax, or whatever it is, the hot water, and you do that, it’s the same, but we don’t see that as beautiful.
Oh we think, ‘Oh, you can’t go round thinking of the world as beautiful’. There’s no time, in about ten minutes it’s time for lunch, then someone rings you up or something. You can’t go on thinking about how the joy of electricity rushing through the telephone, how wonderful it is to be able to speak. You’ve no time to do that.
‘Old Cumberbatch is on the phone and he’s ringing me up while I’m at home on my holiday’, and so on. You can’t keep two lines of thought, can you, going? You can’t talk to him on the phone when he’s telling you that something ought to have been done, and then you’re explaining, ‘Well, it wasn’t my job to do it’, it was that chap’s job to do it. You see, Well why hasn’t he done it? And he said, ‘Well, he’s fallen ill, it should have been done by you’. ‘Well, I couldn’t know he was going to fall ill.’ ‘Well, you should anticipate things which are liable to happen’. You can’t go on thinking about beauty, and yet we do have another train of thought when we’re on the phone.
There is another one. I’m thinking all sorts of thoughts about Old Cumberbatch that I’m not expressing, an absolute train of thoughts going through, ‘This old swine!’. And when the phone’s down I go and tell somebody else. There is a train of thought, and if we think of cases like a spy, he’s often a successful business man in a foreign country and he runs his business very well, very successful, but all the time he’s got another train of thought, which is never absent from his mind, even when he’s a bit drunk. It’s perfectly possible to hold the two thoughts, but generally our secondary train of thought is complaint, or fear, or anxiety, or hate, or anticipation, or ambition, and Yoga and Zen say this can be changed. We can hold, we can begin to see, beauty, and we can begin to express it.
© Trevor Leggett
Talks in this series are:
Part 6: Kobo never chooses the brush