The two main Zen sects in Japan are the Soto, which has many temples in the country, and the Rinzai which is more associated with towns. There is a third sect, much smaller and a late comer, which derives from the Chinese patriarch Obaku with its main temple at Uji. This sect incorporated some Pure Land devotional practices.

Above the entrance gate to most Buddhist temples in Japan there is a massive piece of calligraphy embodying some central tenet, and at the Obaku main temple it says: THE FIRST PRINCIPLE. There is a story about how this was brushed by the great priest Ingen who was the first master there.

The patron who had the temple built for him was a fine calligrapher himself and when the time came he turned up with sheets of paper to ask the priest (also a noted calligrapher) to brush something appropriate.

The usual practice is to write the same thing a number of times and then choose the best. So the priest wrote in huge Chinese characters: THE FIRST PRINCIPLE. But each time the patron said “Master, won’t you try again” and the record says that this went on forty-eight times until the Master was exhausted. Still dissatisfied the patron excused himself to go to the toilet.

While he was away the Master impatiently wrote in careless brush strokes: THE FIRST PRINCIPLE.

Coming back, the patron stared at it and cried: “That’s it, That’s it!”

And this is what looks down on us when we enter the great Manpuku-ji at Uji.

What does the story tell us?

Forty-eight times of conscious effort and then an almost unconscious action which turns out to have been inspired. The same principle comes in many aspects of inner training, not merely in the Way of the Brush.

But it does stand out clearly in that way, because it leaves a record, whereas the inspirations in the Way of the Spear for example, are gone with the final thrust. (The defeat of the opponent is a result not a record).

There is a certain Chinese character in which one of the main strokes is an apparently straight line, which is nevertheless supposed to have a faint suggestion of a curve in it. It is very difficult to achieve; if the curve is consciously put in, it always becomes exaggerated, but if we do not do so we end up with a routine straight line. What to do?

The teacher says: “Write that character with a conscious definite curve fifty times. Fill a couple of pages with it”.

Then he says, “Now write that character with a straight line.” You do so, and – wonder of wonders – your straight line has just that faint hint of a curve to it which brings the whole Chinese character into life. When you have done it once you can do it again without thinking of straight lines or curves: it is just a feeling.

In meditation we sit in and stillness, consciously dropping off reactions and thoughts till an internal calm is experienced. It can be something like a clear blue sky.

When this has been practised, for shall we say forty-eight days, or with some people forty-eight weeks, it becomes to some extent natural.

Then in the hurly-burly of active life with its intense actions and reactions, there is just a hint a calmness, somewhere in the background, or perhaps something at the heart of things.

And it gives character and flavour to the whole life

Share This