This is a Chinese phrase: A hundred hearings are not like one seeing.
We are all familiar with the experience of a trip to some famous place which we have heard and read about quite a lot. When we get there, it is different from what we expected. The hearings are not like one seeing. It is not that the hearings are wrong, necessarily, but they are incomplete. When we see, we understand what we have heard, sometimes for the first time.
Now, one of the things said is that you can learn by instruction, by hearing, or you can learn by seeing others, by observation, or you can learn by inference, or, finally, you can learn by experience yourself. And they say that you need all four for your final experience to be fruitful.
If you take them separately, you may say, for instance, ‘Oh, let people find out for themselves.’ But you can hear instruction that it is dangerous to drive when you are drunk. You can have observation—see that other people do this and they have serious accidents. Again, you can infer that it is a generally dangerous practice. If you are still so stupid that you have to have experience, you get drunk, you drive yourself, and you have a serious accident. The only point is that you may not be able to learn from the experience because you may be dead!
On the other hand, if the four ways of learning are taken in turn—first the instruction which corresponds to the text or the words of a teacher, and then the confirmation of that to some extent by observation, and the confirmation, again, by inference, and finally, the confirmation by direct experience—then that direct experience is fruitful because it has been directed through the instruction which was given at the beginning, which is from a fruitful source.
People say, ‘Oh well, science has replaced all this. Science begins with observation.’ Well, it doesn’t begin with observation. Long ago they had a cartoon in an American army paper: The patrol gets lost. So the sergeant says to one of them, who is appropriately named Zero, ‘Zero, climb to the top of that tree, and see what you can see.’ He hopes for a sighting of a river or a mountain. Zero, who is fairly athletic, goes to the top of the tree. The sergeant calls, ‘What can you see?’ And Zero says, ‘There is a bird’s nest here, sir, but no eggs in it, and there are a lot of little caterpillars eating the leaves . . . ’
That is observation. But it is not directed observation. Science has to begin with an idea, and then to observe on the lines of that idea in order to confirm it, or to develop it, or reject it.
Here is an example of how to apply observation— examples are best when they are striking—one can read about it and can agree internally. Sometimes you have a spiritual fall—you have a great temptation, and you fall. Or, you have a wave of anger, and you fall. Afterwards, there is regret, repentance and remorse. Well, I saw something once which made an impression on me. For you it is only something you are reading about, but still it is very vivid, it may be unexpected, and it can be a reinforcement. In the old days of judo, we used to have a big contest area of mats. Some of the seniors who had graduated from the university were not in the teams, but they came to support the event. They would take off their shoes and just sit round the edge of the mats in their ordinary clothes.
You are told in judo not to save a fall in a particular way; it is very risky. But we were, perhaps, risky fellows then. I saw a chap do it, and the elbow was dislocated as he went down. A man from the front row of the audience shot out, sat on the mat beside this fellow, put one foot in his armpit and one foot on the side of his neck, caught the injured arm, and pulled. It was reset! The recovery was extremely quick. I knew the team, I used to practise there, and this particular man recovered very quickly.
Afterwards, I enquired about it. The chap who did the job was, I think, a surgeon, but in any case some judo men were skilled in something called sei kotsu or bone setting. One of the things they said was: If the joint can be set in a few seconds, there is very little lasting damage, and it will heal very quickly. If it can be set within two hours, then still there will be a relatively quick recovery. If it is more than two hours, however, then it is going to take quite a time.
This can be applied to a spiritual fall. If we have a bad failure, we generally feel, ‘Oh, will I ever be any good?’ Or, ‘Why do these things happen? Why do I do these things? Why do they do these things?’ and so it goes on. Now, if in a few seconds we can perform some kind of spiritual practice, then a disaster leaves almost no impression. But if remorse, repentance, regret, despair, or anger go on longer, it will be much harder to recover.
If I want to hit the table and my fist is only half an inch from it, I cannot generate much force. If I really want to smash the table, I have to take the time to raise my fist high, then I can make a big blow. In the same way, the great obstacles of repentance and remorse, the feeling of failure and despair, take time to mount. If, in those few early seconds, one can quickly get away to a spiritual training practice, then by the time the blow comes down, one is no longer there!
One teacher told us about this sort of fall: The consequences to your own mind take a little time to mount. When you feel yourself beginning to get angry—it cannot happen immediately, you feel it coming—quickly move before the thing has marshalled its force, so that you are out of the way.
The instant resetting of the elbow was one vivid example which I saw and it made an impression on me because it was so dramatically effective. Here is another one. This is a poem. It is probably about the thirteenth or fourteenth century from the School of the Spear. The men of the spear especially developed the psychological side because the technique of the spear is very simple; there is very little technical excellence. It is mainly instantaneous response and anticipation; there is no gap between the opponent’s move and the response. As today, they used to be arranged in grades. The judo grades are familiar to me— if you are, say, a third black belt and you are going to meet a fourth black belt, well, you are going to lose, aren’t you? And the poem says:
To meet a superior in grade—
the only way to go, is completely to forget
that a higher grade is bound to win.
You may say, ‘Well, how can you forget that?’ But, it can be forgotten. The higher grade—that is all in the past. There is a lot of luck attached to attaining grades, and a lot of luck attached to skills, and a man may be off that day. Completely forget that a higher grade is bound to win. At the present moment, with no grades and no circumstances of any kind, the lower grade is no lower grade.
Similarly, if the higher grade thinks, ‘I am bound to win!5 that is the way he may lose, because he is not putting out his full alertness. He thinks that the other man is thinking, ‘I’m absolutely terrified! I hope he doesn’t throw me too hard!’ But suppose the lower grade is not terrified . . .
It is much easier to compete with somebody who has practised for a year than with somebody who has never done it at all. You know what he will do. He will do the right things, but he won’t be good enough at them. If it is somebody who has never done it at all, however, you have no idea what he will do! Most of it will be absolutely useless, of course, but it may be unexpected—you don’t know. With the partly trained opponent, you know what he will do—it won’t be good enough and you can handle it all easily.
There is a story which is told all over the East about a merchant who gets drunk on top of a high city wall. He falls off this thirty foot wall to the ground. But he happens to fall on top of another merchant, and kills him. By extraordinary chance he himself is all right. The magistrate is brought in and says, ‘Of course it was an accident, but you were drunk and you’ve got to pay compensation to the sons.’
The lucky merchant says, ‘Yes, yes, yes, of course.’ And the sum is agreed.
But the two sons say, ‘The law says a life for a life. As well as the compensation, this man should give his life. He’s killed our father! His life should go.’
The magistrate says, ‘Well, it is in the case of murder, that the law says that.’
The sons persist, ‘No! A life for a life. Justice!’
The magistrate says, ‘Don’t you think mercy would be better?’
And they say, ‘No! Justice! We’re asking for justice.’
Finally the magistrate says, ‘Then you will have the exact justice. My officers will put a rope around the man and stand him in that exact place, and the two of you can go on top of the wall and jump on him. The eldest first, and if he misses, the second one.’
Well now, the whole event is absolutely inconceivable, but still it could happen. When you are up against an absolute beginner, he might do things just as risky and crazy, so much so that you do not even consider them—like jumping on you from the top of a wall. The absolute beginner is, therefore, much harder to handle than somebody who knows the rules but isn’t too good at them.
The point is, to forget differences of grade in such circumstances and the thought, ‘Oh, he is bound to win,’ or, ‘He is bound to lose.’ These are the things which fix the result beforehand, which need not be fixed at all.
In the poems of the School of the Spear, there is a phrase shinki ki-itsu which comes very often—shin (intention) and ki (the initiated movement) ki-itsu— coming to one, no gap between them. Normally when I intend to do something, I think, ‘Supposing it goes wrong . . ? All right, yes! I’ll do it!’ There is a gap.
They illustrate this sometimes by saying that your intentions and actions should be like a rope which goes smoothly over a pulley. If the rope has a knot in it, there is a check when it comes to the pulley, and then it jerks. When the knot comes again, there is another check, and it goes on jerkily.
In the same way, when there is a flow of action and suddenly I think, ‘How are we doing?’ that checks it. Or, when I am working at something and somebody comes and watches me, that checks it.
Well, the point is to undo the knot of that rope, so that it will run freely.
There is then no ‘I’ thinking:
How is it going? Will it come off? Will I get anything for this ? Will I be penalized if it goes wrong?
All those things are like knots in a rope. Undo the knot in the meditation and the daily practice.
The teacher says, ‘There is rubbish in the mind. There is no free space. The mind is full of rubbish.’
Another teacher says, ‘It is not the great passions, it is not the great sins, it is the casual, silly little thoughts which prevent your spiritual progress. Learn to abandon them, to give them up.’ It takes energy to hold them—we don’t realize that—like carrying a book under the arm. If you carry a book for some time—twenty minutes or so—and if you then trip and fall, you won’t let go of the book and take the fall, you will hold onto it. The book has become part of you. In the same way, all sorts of absolutely silly attitudes which we recognize as silly, and which we don’t need, are with us, and we’re holding them. We’re unconscious of it, just as someone becomes unconscious of holding a book under the arm, but if we come to realize—in experience, in meditation especially—that this is an effort, we can let it go. Take it up again, if necessary, and let it go, if necessary. Then the movements will become smoother and easier. And then, he says, ‘when your mind is cleared of rubbish, you can play!’
From playing, inspiration and creativity comes— not from the chattering mind. In playing, the rules are given up. It is not a question of deliberately breaking the rules. People often think that if you break the rules, you will be setting yourself free. We may, for example, say, ‘Oh, they threw off the restraints of tonal music and they sought for newer and freer methods of expressing their inspiration, beyond the constraints of tonality.’ The question is, are these compositions any good? That is the real point—not whether they are new.
Beethoven’s pupils thought they were better than Beethoven. They wouldn’t play his sonatas in public. Czerny never played Beethoven’s sonatas at a concert.
They weren’t played in public, in fact, for thirty years or so. Halle was the first to play the full cycle of sonatas about forty years after Beethoven died. Before that they said that most of them really weren’t suitable! Czerny wrote pieces for four pianos, with two pianists at each piano—marvellous! Poor old Beethoven had written for only one piano, and one pianist.
We think that by breaking the rules, or having no rules, we shall get inspiration and freedom: Don’t teach the children by telling them what to do. They need to express their creativity. Well, this is just getting drunk on words. Enormous assumptions are hidden under this. There is a Chinese phrase which says: With the untrained, the things of Heaven may take shape within their hearts, but they do not take shape beneath their hands. There may be inspiration and creativity there—it is arguable that there always is— without some technique, however, without some restraints, without some forms, these things of Heaven don’t take shape.
A Hundred Hearings, Not Like One Seeing from the Old Zen Master
© Trevor Leggett