A soldier has a battle to face the next day, or a student an important examination, or a sportsman an important contest. He knows there is no more he can do now; he should simply have a good night’s rest. Yet he remains awake. Silly. Reason tells him that to worry about what may happen tires him and makes failure more likely. Yet in spite of all, he remains awake and in tension. Even his deepest self-interest, supported by reason and persuasion, cannot manipulate the streams of thought.
A second-best way is simply to accept the condition. An experienced duellist was sitting up with friends playing cards before the encounter. One of them said ‘Don’t you think you should turn in? Your opponent is already in bed.’
‘Yes,’ was the reply, ‘in bed but not asleep.’
This may suffice when a man’s concern is for himself alone, and when the other side has the same difficulty. But the problem will appear in other forms which cannot be shrugged off with a second- best.
Attempts to manipulate the mental constructs do not solve these situations because the surface problem is not the real one. Unless all the levels, and all the faculties, of the personality and its roots are brought into play, no real problem is ever solved. The classical koan riddles, and the koans which appear in daily life, cannot be untangled unless the whole personality is brought out on to them – thinking, feeling, will, and finally the courage to make a leap.
Some Western people tend to believe that thinking is good in itself: the more thinking, the better. It is the same attitude which feels that an athlete who is enormously active is somehow better than one who is relaxed some of the time. But in fact, one of the main secrets of physical achievement is to alternate muscular and nervous relaxation with energy bursts efficiently directed. Beginners at things physical waste most of their strength, and beginners at things mental waste most of their thought.
Rational conviction is only a first step. The nervous student before his exam is convinced rationally that he ought to sleep, but it is no help to him. In the same way conviction about spiritual truths is generally of little help while it remains simply a question of thinking or feeling.
A teacher has to find something which engages all the faculties of a pupil5 through this he can pierce through to the depths. Consider this example: a young married couple were desperately poor, but by hard work and thrift, combined with some luck, they became suddenly well-off and then rich. It became necessary now for the husband’s business associates and friends to be entertained, but the young wife had such a habit of saving that she could not bring herself to spend, and things were always skimped. It began to be a disadvantage to them, because they were getting an unpleasant reputation of meanness, but though she saw that logically they must accept entertainment expenses for the sake of the business, she could not bring herself to do it. Even when she did spend the money, it was obvious that she hated doing it.
A Zen teacher was asked to see her, and she told him, ‘I know what you’re going to say, and I agree with it up here in my head. It’s just that I feel down here in my tummy that once we begin spending it’ll all simply go pouring away and we shall be without anything like when we started.’
He said nothing in reply, but remarked, ‘I have been told you are very clever at the janken game. I have always wondered how it is that some people can always win at that – can you teach me?’
Janken is a familiar children’s game, in which two players shoot out one hand, either clenched as ‘stone’, or open as ‘paper’, or like a v-sign, as ‘scissors’. Paper wraps and therefore beats stone, stone blunts and beats scissors, scissors cut and beat paper. So each one beats one other, and loses to one other. If the two hands come out the same, that round is a draw. The hands come shooting out in a rapid succession of turns. The one who wins twice or three times in a row marks up one point.
The outcome of a few turns is pure chance, but some experienced players are able to win consistently when playing against the same opponent. They work by intuition and find it hard to explain, but it seems that most people have certain habits which come out in a long run of rapid janken. Some people when they try stone and lose to paper, immediately change to scissors, apparently on the unconscious assumption that the opponent will repeat his paper with which he has just won. Others always change with each turn; still others tend to repeat the same thing even four or five times. An expert begins to have an intuition of what the opponent is going to do, and can regularly win over a period.
The wife was going to explain some of this, but to her amazement the Zen priest simply came out with stone again and again. She expected him to change occasionally, so sometimes she made the scissors or the stone, and then he won or drew. But as he persisted it became clear he was not going to change; she produced the paper each time, and the game became no game. She stopped and explained, ‘Your Reverence, it’s no good always making the stone like that. You have to try something else or it isn’t a game at all.’
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘oh I see. Let’s try again.’
Now he began coming out with the paper, and continued with that, so that he lost every time and it became ridiculous. ‘Well,’ he said finally, ‘I can see that I’m never going to be able to master this game. Anyway, thank you for putting up with me, and now . . .’ and he took his leave.
When her husband came back she told him what had happened. ‘They say he’s so clever, but I think he’s an absolute fool. You know he kept bringing out the stone’ – and she suited the action to the word- ‘and he went on doing it, on and on and on. And then I told him, I said, you can’t win like that, you have to try another one, and you know what? he went on paper, paper, paper all the time’, and she was laughing and holding out her hand in the paper sign.
As she held her hand out she stopped laughing and looked at it. She stared at it for quite a little time; then she clenched her fist into the stone and looked at that. She became lost in thought.
At the next party, the entertainment was on the proper level and she was really hospitable. Thereafter she had no trouble in entertaining generously when the occasion called for it, without falling into meaningless expense when not necessary. Through her favourite game she had learned that to keep the hand always closed will not be right, but neither will it do to have the hand always open. But one does not have to do either of those things; one can alternate them appropriately.
This story makes the same self-evident point which had failed to influence the young wife’s behaviour in the first place. To tell it to someone else with that problem would have no effect at all. It would simply be another bit of ‘advice’.
The reason it had an effect on this wife was, that the illustration concerned something which she had made a vital interest. She must have played the game a great deal.
It does not matter what were the deep-seated impulses which gave it such attraction for her: they were there, and she found a deep emotional significance in the open hand of the paper and the tight- clenched fist of the stone, because they had been often connected with excitement and tension and disappointment and triumph. The Zen teacher must have made inquiries as to what she was really interested in, and when he found it, he was able to make inspirational use of it.
It is necessary to see from this story that it is not much use taking up some koan or problem idly, wondering vaguely what the answer might be while knowing that it doesn’t in the end matter whether one hits or misses. The original koan situations mattered vitally to the people who went through them; there was a tremendous charge of vitality wrapped up in them. But to someone reading about them hundreds of years later, it is only like a chess problem or a crossword or wondering what will happen next in a television serial. A skilful teacher is able to invest the koan riddles with urgency till they become the whole world, but it may not be particularly easy even in a traditional environment. The teacher seeks for a koan, not necessarily one of the classical koans, on to which the pupil can bring out the whole personality, not merely intellectual curiosity or appreciation of beauty or mystery or simply exercise of will.
To some extent the teacher has to re-create the original situation5 this may not be so impossible as it sounds, because there are typical situations which occur in most lives. But it takes time to invest what is at first merely a story with the necessary charge of actuality. One of the advantages of the Ways is that the situations arise fresh in living experience during practice of the Way; a possible disadvantage is that a pupil may think his enlightenment, so far as he gets it, applies only in the circumstances of his particular Way.