He spent hours in devotion and prayer but there was never any response

A disciple came to a teacher and complained that though he spent hours in devotion and prayer, there was never any response. ‘When my daughter was ill I prayed the whole night that she would recover well, and, as a matter of fact, she did recover. How do I know that she would not have recovered anyway?’ This disciple was a minor official in the local administration and had a good knowledge of all the by-laws and regulations. The teacher made no reply to his question but said: ‘I want your advice on some things here, to do with this little temple. The fact is that there is supposed to be a right of way, across one corner of the temple garden here, and of course I have no objection to people using it. But when whole parties of them come, drunk and singing bawdy songs in the middle of the night, I think it is and unreasonable use of the right of way. But I am not sure if I can legally put up a gate which can be closed at night’. The disciple opened his mouth to make a reply, but before he could say anything, the teacher …

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The dangers of presenting doctrines of meditation and realisation in words

One of the dangers of presenting doctrines of meditation and realisation in words is that they become identified with the words. When they are translated the new words do not correspond exactly to the translated words. There is a gradual dilution and a spreading vagueness. There is however a language not in words which can convey the meanings exactly. One may wonder how this can be and an example may make it clearer. First of all, in a limited field. The digits 2,4 and 8 have no actual pronunciation; they are read by a speaker in his own language which is not comprehensible to a foreigner who does not know it. The line 2 x 4 = 8 could be read by a German zweimal vier ist acht; the words will not be understood by those who do not know German. But the digits convey and exact meaning all over the world. The mathematical language has no actual pronunciation yet it conveys exact meaning. But of course the field is narrow, because specialised. Another example is the fact that Chinese from the north cannot speak with those from the southwest or the southeast. Their pronunciation of the words varies too …

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We are often impressed by things we don’t fully understand

It can sometimes be doubted whether there is really anyone at all inside a set of magnificent ceremonial robes; all their stiff embroidery and the wonderful effect on those that see them can be at the expense of the true point of the ceremony: we may all know this but then we are often impressed by things we don’t fully understand. I had an early experience of this as a small boy. At the end of term, the clergyman headmaster used to read in a deep voice a short chapter from the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Old Testament. The words were sonorous and they seemed to reverberate in the head. I thought, how wonderful, it’s all in the Bible, it must be true. But as to what it actually meant ‑ wen, it’s holy, I thought, I don’t suppose one can expect to understand. This is the main part of the passage that he used to read to us at the end of every term. While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:  In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and …

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When you find that you are becoming respected and honoured, that’s the time to leave’

One Indian teacher, echoing his whole tradition, used to say: ‘When you find that you are becoming respected and honoured, that’s the time to leave’. Echoing this view, the Chinese tell an account of the Taoist master who has a very promising pupil who finally attains enlightenment. The enlightened pupil becomes a teacher, and a very famous one: often on the veranda out­side the entrance to his house there are many shoes to be seen deposited by pupils. One day his own old teacher happens ‑to pass that way and he sees all the shoes. He waits, and when they have all gone he goes in to visit his pupil. He tells him: ‘Get away at once; don’t hang about here a moment longer.’ Well, this is one tradition; it may not be the same in all traditions but it is worth remembering. Do what you are to do, and then go ‑ don’t hang about. A chess champion in this part of the world isn’t regarded as a particularly remarkable human being, but thought of only as extremely good at chess. But in the Far East the training tries to cultivate a sort of inner balance, courage, and inspiration. …

Read moreWhen you find that you are becoming respected and honoured, that’s the time to leave’

It is best not to be on the heights, but to be down below where you can have things and keep them.

Bukko, who was one of the great Zen masters, said that if you get to the heights of anything, you are like a man who is on top of a mountain with all his possessions. When you and your things are on the top of a mountain you have to keep hanging on to everything for dear life to prevent your posses­sions rolling down into the valley. It is therefore, he says, best not to be on the heights, but to be down below where you can have the things and keep them. Bukko warns against staying or trying to get on the heights, for once you are up there you won’t be able to maintain yourself there: the things will gradually ‑ or even suddenly ‑ fall away from you because you won’t be able to hang on to them. When we can’t wait for other people to honour us, we tend to put robes of honour on ourselves. There is one story about the great Saigo ‑ the samurai who was absolutely free from the fear of death. He was also politically active, a prominent figure in the Meiji Restoration in Japan of 1868. These were dangerous times …

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Many of the so‑called honours in fact are false

At one of the biggest Zen training temples in Japan situated not in some great city but in rather a remote place ‑ in spite of which they get quite a lot of pilgrims and have about 200 monks ‑ they insist that pilgrims stay overnight and attend the 3.30am service which goes on sometimes for a couple of hours. Those who preside and take these great ceremonies wear magnificent gold and silver embroidered robes ‑ masterpieces of the art On one occasion the head monk, whom I had come to know, was conducting the service. I was sitting in the front row of what one might call the ‘resident guests’. In fine presence and making a splendid spectacle he passed before us in this gorgeous robe ‑ catching my eye as he went. But of course he gave no sign of recognition. Two or three days afterwards I was talking to him in his room where he was wearing the usual plain robe of the ordinary monk in spite of his high position in the temple. He mentioned the ceremony of the other day and remarked: ‘You know, those wonderful robes that I sometimes wear for the ceremonies, they …

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Eastern doctrines reject the absolute reality of the world

We are familiar with reports in the press of how fans of some TV serial begin to take the events as somehow real. They have even written to the broadcasting stations to ask them to change the script for the sake of suffering children whom they have seen in some program. These effects are nothing new. In Victorian melodrama, when the villain was stealing up behind the unsuspecting hero, it was not so uncommon for someone in the audience to shout “Look out! Look behind you!” Requests to change the script were not unknown even among the most highly educated. Lord Melbourne, then Prime Minister, wrote to Dickens in about the expected concluding chapter of the novel The Old Curiosity Shop : “Do not let little Nell die.” When this same concluding number of the serial was taken by ship across the Atlantic the quay at Boston harbour was packed with Americans who shouted to the oncoming ship: “Is little Nell dead?” The unreal characters may even acquire a real political status. The actor who convincingly depicted the God Rama in the long series of the Ramayana epic on Indian television received offers to stand as an Indian parliamentary candidate. …

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