There’s a traditional Japanese farce called Changing Zazen8 min read

There’s a traditional Japanese farce called Changing Zazen. Such farces are played between the serious Kabuki plays and are generally about some local lord, who’s always depicted as an absolute fool; it’s very democratic. Anyway, in this one, the local lord wants to go to the red light quarters, but he’s completely under the domi-nation of his wife. So one day he says to ^ her, ‘Enough of my dissolute ways, so con-trary to the Buddha’s teachings. I’m going to change and every week I’m going to sit all night in zazen,’ (formal sitting meditation).

Now, the Japanese monks adopted from China, for the winter, a long wadded meditation robe with a hood, to keep out the cold. The wife said, ‘I shall be looking in on you, you know.’

‘Of course!’

We see him get into this robe at the beginning of the night and she sees him into it. Then she goes to see her sister for ten minutes, and the lord does a switch with his servant. He says, ‘You’ve got to sit here all ‘ night in this robe while I go out.’ So the servant has to do this and he sits there.

She comes back, looks in from time to time, and sees this figure – perfect form! And she gets rather impressed!

At about two in the morning she comes in with some tea and she says, ‘Husband, it must be terribly cramped under there; just break for a little bit and have this tea.’

The figure doesn’t move. Well, then she begs, ‘You can have just a tiny little break; they do in the monasteries; they have tea.’  Well, of course, in the end she pulls . . . and she sees it’s the servant. It all comes out. Then she sits under the robe.

He comes back in the early morning semi-drunk, and he sees, as he thinks, the servant sitting there and he says, ‘I’ve had a marvellous night. I’ll tell you all about it.’ And this thing just sits there. He says, ‘You needn’t sit like that now; it’s all right.’ But it just sits there. And he begins his story.

Well, we the audience can see under the hood when it’s a bit lifted up. He doesn’t notice because he’s drunk and he’s telling his story, but we can see under the hood, a terrible face! Then – well, I won’t tell you what happens when the cloak comes off, but the point is there is this form, perfect form, of meditation. In the first case the lord is doing it to get an advantage; in the second case the servant’s doing it because he’s got to; and in the third case, when she’s sitting there, it’s a demon. Now, this is used as an illustration of wrong ways of practising zazen. One can practise it to get an advantage; one can practise it because one feels one’s got to; and one can practise it, sometimes, because one is a sort of demon. The form is the same.

Another point is our judgment. We judge a spiritual teaching, or perhaps a spiritual teacher, and we judge on our own basis. There are a number of Eastern stories on this, but there are also some from the West.

We can’t recognize in others what we don’t at all have in ourselves. How could we? We must have it to some extent ourselves to recognize it.

Some French scientists at the beginning of the century decided to test whether an elephant was musical. So they went to the zoo and they took a violinist with them who played a bravura passage from a composer whom was thought by the scientists to have been one of the top composers of the end of the eighteenth century   – Monsigny. The violinist played this, and the elephant listened for a bit, then yawned and turned away. The scientists concluded: the elephant is not musical.

But as a matter of fact, today, pretty  well no one’s heard of Monsigny. And most of us, if a bravura passage from Monsigny was played on the solo violin, would probably yawn and turn away.

So perhaps the elephant had the best of it. The scientists weren’t particularly musical. They just chose a name that happened  to be admired in France at the time, whose music we now think very little of, and they concluded – because they were not musical themselves – that the elephant couldn’t be  musical. Well, in the same way, people who lack spirituality will not be able to recognize the spirituality in the teacher. We can be put off by something irrelevant.

I give an example from my own experience. A judo man was extremely expert at a particular small branch of technique – he ‘ was very, very, good at it. He wasn’t an official teacher, but he used to go nearly – every day to the Kodokan and would practise that, and teach people who wished to be , taught. But he had something a little bit vicious about him. He used to – not injure people, he never injured anybody – but hurt ; them just a tiny little bit. And those who practised with him had this experience – he would just hurt, just a little bit – no dam-age at all.

Well, most people didn’t like to practise with him, although there was so much to be learned from him about that particular branch of judo. After having this experience myself, I too thought, ‘No, I don’t want to learn from that man; he’s a bit vicious.’ Then I argued with myself, ‘But he’s very good at that technique; you could learn technique from him that would be difficult to find elsewhere, he’s so expert at that.’ Again the thought came, ‘No, I don’t want that; he’s vicious; he might infect me with his viciousness.’ And then I thought, ‘Am I ever vicious? Well no, I can’t be because I’m sort of disgusted by his viciousness.’ And finally I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know; I might be; I might infect him’ Then I decided to practise and learn from him.

Now that man’s viciousness was an unpleasant characteristic, but it had nothing to do with my learning technique from him. I finally realized I was being put off by something quite irrelevant.

In the same way, people coming to a spiritual path have to decide what it is that they want and not be put off by things which basically don’t matter. Things from outside can put us off. Things from outside can encourage us. But while they’re all still from outside, they don’t really solve any problem at all.

The Accountant who comes every year to do my income tax brings a printer- calculator. He sits there going through the papers while I try and work on translation on the other side of the room. (I have to be there to answer any question, and I’ve got only one room.) And it goes, bzzz . . . bzzz, bzzz o . . bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz. I think, ‘Well, that’s the last.’ And then there’s silence for a bit and then, bzzz . . . bzzz, bzzz. And I think, ‘Oh . . . what a nuisance.’ I get on somehow, but it’s annoying. Now he’s rather perceptive and he said to me, ‘You know, every time this buzzes, you’ll be paying less income tax.’ And suddenly it all changed – bzzzz, bzzzz, bzzzz – and I was thinking, ‘Keep it up!’ It was clever of him, but still it was from outside. And a solution from outside is ultimately no solution at all.

There are some examples not necessarily very elegant, but nevertheless striking. A stray dog runs up to the stone steps at the back of your house and makes a terrible mess there, and a fearful stench. You go out and look at it, ‘Ohl disgusting 1’ Then you get some flower petals and you scatter them on top. ‘Now, isn’t that be-au-ti-ful?’ But all the time there’s that terrible stench. This is a solution from outside by

putting something outside onto it. It seems to solve the problem, it seems to make something beautiful, but all the time you s know it hasn’t. There’s this awful smell that invades your house, and the real problem hasn’t been solved.

The treasure has to be found in our own house, not brought from outside. While we put things on top, while we have outside thoughts and concepts and influences, we will never be established.

Most of us stand upright by looking at the verticals in the walls. While they’re upright, we’re balanced. They make special ” rooms in which the verticals (the doors and so on) are slightly on the slant, and people fall over because they’re aligning themselves S with what they think are verticals but which aren’t. A trained judo man’s balance is internal, and such a room doesn’t affect him at all. But most people align themselves from something outside. No harm perhaps, physically, but spiritually, if we do that – if ‘ we align ourselves from something outside – we are always liable to collapse when the outside environment is twisted or abnormal.  So the ultimate purpose of the teacher is not to provide you with true outer verticals; of morality and so on to align yourself with, but to develop the inner sense of balance in yourself. We have to find something within ourselves.

© Trevor Leggett