Western members of an Eastern sangha were discussing what they agreed was a common difficulty: when a new practise is received solemnly from the teacher there is a feeling of exaltation, but that feeling gradually gets less. It can be revived temporarily by reliving in memory the occasion when this practise was conferred, but these revivals become less and less effective. Finally the practise is liable to become completely dry, pursued only in a dogged spirit of Keep On Keeping On.
As they realized how general the experience was, they decided to ask one of them to put it to the teacher on behalf of all.
When he heard what the delegate had to say, however, he insisted that they should all come together as a group to put their question. After questioning a number of them, and hearing their replies on very much the same lines, namely of wearing off of the spiritual elevation felt at the beginning, in spite of sincere efforts to preserve it, he made a formal reply:
“I asked you all to come here and submit to being questioned to confirm that you were all really concerned with this, and not simply subscribing to something dreamed up by one person.
“You all seem to assume the practises are given to you in order to produce a state of exaltation. But that is not the case at all. A state of exaltation can arise from temporary gratification of an ambition, for instance. There are such higher states of exaltation which arise from the purification of the mind instrument. But none of these things is the purpose of the practises in any true tradition. Sometimes, young aspirants, after completing a severe course of training, or making a great renunciation, seem to shine like torches. But it goes off after a time.
“There seems to be a Western tendency to think in terms of negative or positive exclusively, triumph or disaster. I have heard that in your Bible you have a book of Jubilees, but there is also a book of Lamentations. The two go together.
“When we look at pictures of your famous gardens, we see the same thing. They depend on large expanses with many flowers: in the summer they are ablaze with colour, but in the winter they look deserted and melancholy. At one time they are glad; at the other season, they are sad. The two go together.
“But the famous gardens in Japan do not depend on passing things like flowers. There may be some flowers, but the garden does not depend on them for its effect. The rock gardens, for instance, may consist of little more than rocks and carefully raked sand. To a Western eye, I am told, there seems to be nothing much there at first glance. But after a time, the proportions of the garden begin to have an effect on a silent onlooker. He begins to feel that there is a peace in the garden, and soon afterwards he feels a peace in himself. After a fall of snow, the proportions of the garden are still able to convey that peace: snow can even add to the beauty of the garden.
“The general tradition in the East has been to aim at freedom from the alternation of bad and good, negative and positive, sad and glad. The goal is peace. You have this tradition in Christianity also—the peace that is beyond understanding. But it does not seem to be given the central place.
“When you take up a practise here, disregard feelings of exaltation or depression; for a long time these will come and go across the surface of your mind. But go deeper than the surface: by your practise penetrate to the very depths of the mind, and finally beyond even that. Then you will find peace, and freedom from all passing alternations.”