Iron rods from Encounters in Yoga and Zen

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A boy of twelve in Japan lost his father, to whom he was much attached. The shock and desolation turned his mind to Buddhism, and he asked his uncle, now looking after the family and himself a devout Buddhist, whether he could enter a temple. The uncle believed that the change in the heart was permanent, and took him to a training temple where the famous teacher accepted him.

The boy was very keen, and when the uncle made one of his monthly visits to see how he was getting on, the teacher remarked, ‘He is trying with everything he has: he is making good progress.

In this temple there happened to be at the time a monk of about nineteen, whose family owned a rich temple, for which he was destined to become the priest for life. As can happen, his initial interest in Buddhism had become secondary to his anticipation of the easy life he would have once he got through the four or five years of the training. Naturally he did not like the assiduous studying and service of the little boy, because it reminded him obscurely of what he himself might have done. One day in the winter he shouted to him to bring some water for the kettle. In a traditional temple this hung on a big chain above the charcoal fire, which is stoked by means of a pair of iron rods, rather like long chop-sticks.

As the boy was putting the water down he was shouted at again, and gave a start which spilled a little of the water. ‘Clumsy idiot!’ yelled the senior boy, and picking up the iron rods, hit him hard on the arm just above the wrist. Perhaps he hit harder than intended, or perhaps not, but in any case it was quite a severe blow. The small boy kept back his tears till he was dismissed, but then rushed out of the temple into a bamboo grove to cry.

It so happened that the uncle was making his visit that day, and he saw his nephew running into the trees. He went quickly after him and asked, ‘What’s happened – why are you crying?’

‘It’s nothing.’

‘No, it’s something. And what’s that on your arm?’ An ugly mark was beginning to come up.

‘Oh, I knocked it.’

‘That’s not the mark of a knock. Someone’s hit you.’

He dragged the boy with him into the temple and pushed in to see the teacher. ‘Look at this! He’s been hit, and you said yourself that he was keen and trying his very best. This is supposed to be a centre of spiritual training, and look what happens!’

The teacher got up and fetched a book of sermons of the Buddha, found a particular place, and handed it to the boy saying, ‘Read from here.’ The uncle sat fuming while his nephew read in a choked voice. When the sentence came: ‘One who practises endurance will be a spiritual hero’, the teacher said, ‘Read that sentence again slowly, and we’ll meditate on it together.’

The uncle shouted, ‘It’s easy to meditate when you haven’t been hit!’

‘Yes,’ said the teacher, ‘it’s easier to meditate when you haven’t been hit.’

He picked up the iron rods from the charcoal fire in his own room, and hit with all his force on his own arm. ‘Now,’ he said gently, ‘let’s meditate together: One who practises endurance will be a spiritual hero.’

© Trevor Leggett

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