It is best not to be on the heights, but to be down below where you can have things and keep them.5 min read

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 in Japan and three men in Tokyo, who fanatically opposed his policies, decided to assassinate him. Not knowing where he lived, and assuming his house would be guarded, they approached a prominent Tokyo politician, Katsu Kaishu, who had once been an opponent of Saigo but who was now his friend, and with whom one of the assassins had an acquaintance. They concocted a plausible story, and asked Katsu for a letter of introduction to Saigo, which would give them the address and get them past the guard. Katsu agreed, but he had his doubts about their story. He went out to his study and came back with a sealed envelope, addressed to Saigo. He wrote his own name across the seal, and said impressively: ‘Hand that in.’ They took it confidently, but he had actually written to warn Saigo against them.

Unaware of this and well satisfied, they made the journey, although they were slightly disconcerted to find that Saigo apparently lived still in a smallish, slightly shabby house in a far from fashionable quarter. Despite becoming a leading figure Saigo had never moved into any sort of mansion. Moreover he would not wear fine clothes. So when a burly man in a cheap robe came to the door in answer to their ring, they thought he must be a servant. They handed over their letter of introduction: ‘This is from the noble Katsu Kaishu to the noble Saigo Takamori, to introduce us: you hand it over to him.’ To their amazement, the supposed servant said: ‘I am Saigo,’ and opened the letter and read: ‘I think the bearers of this note may be intending to kill you. Please take precautions.’ Saigo looked at them. ‘So you’ve come all the way from Tokyo to kill me, it seems,’ he said conversa­tionally: ‘You must be tired after the long journey.’ A neighbour who saw the incident said that they were so taken aback by his perfect calm that they looked at each other and then left without a word. This was the sort of man he was.

He wrote some maxims for handling life. One of them is along these lines:

When a man sets about some undertaking, he generally completes seven or eight tenths of it, but rarely succeeds with the remaining two tenths, and this is because at the beginning a man fully restrains his egotism and respects the work itself. Results begin to come and he gets some reputation. But then egotism stirs, the prudent and restrained attitude is relaxed, pride and boasting flourish. With a confidence born of his achievements so far he plans to complete the work for his own ends. But his efforts have become bungling, and the end is failure, all invited by himself. Therefore restrain the self and be careful not to heed what others do or say.

In these ways, we put robes‑ of honour on ourselves, and they hamper us and we can’t do the job properly. In Judo there is a certain grading contest called ‘one‑against‑ten.’ You have to take on ten men one after another. They are generally a couple of grades below you, and with luck half of them are so terrified of you, that it is easy to dispose of them. But one or two of them think: ‘Everybody knows I’m going to lose anyway, so I’ve nothing to lose’, and they come shooting at you, taking fantastic  risks. And because you are so sure of your own superiority (which he doesn’t seem to recognize) and because he comes straight at you ‑ ‘whoosh’, you can’t get the robes of self‑conceit and assurance off in time ‑ such that once in a blue moon he scores. Then you know what it is like to look an utter fool. This has happened to some rather famous contest men who were not fully alert because they felt it was not necessary: they had already put on the robes of their coming victory. No longer simply the judo champions they ought to be, they became judo champions combined with something restricting: judo champions in cumbersome robes of honour.

In the wider sense, putting robes on ourselves infects even the best actions. I may be being philanthropic by putting a gold coin in the bowl, but if I cough while I’m doing it, then the action is infected. I’m using it partly for my own sake, partly as a generous action. I get the illusion that some­how, if the offering is worth more, it’s more generous; but that is not so at all. I have been lucky; I happen to have more money, so I put a tiny bit more money in; but that is not more generous than someone who has been unlucky, has very little, and therefore puts Only a copper in. We know this in theory, but it is extremely difficult for a wealthy man not to feel that he can buy his way into everything, including the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ said that a rich man had no more chance than a camel to get through the eye of a needle, and in India the saying is used of an elephant.

© Trevor Leggett