Life is the teacher: if we do not waste time in complaining, but try to learn from it6 min read

In the 1950’s it was difficult for Japanese to get the foreign currency to travel. Japanese travellers sometimes helped each other out, and sometimes they were helped by acquaintances in the foreign countries. I did a little service to the head of a big Tokyo hospital, who was a Judo man like myself. He himself on another occasion had done a similar service to the travelling Primate of the Soto Zen sect, the largest of the Japanese Zen sects, with well over 10,000 temples affiliated to it at that time. (There are now more.) The Tokyo doctor wanted a chance to re-pay my own little service, and similarly the Primate had told the doctor to ask freely if there was anything the Zen priest could do for him.

When I was in Tokyo a bit later, I looked up the doctor who took me out to lunch. In the course of the conversation he found that I was interested in Zen, but that it was difficult at that time to get an introduction to a good teacher. I knew that the doctor was not a Buddhist, and the remark was made only in passing. But he sat up as if jerked by an invisible wire. ‘Zen?’ he said, ‘Zen? I can do something for you about Zen.’ Then and there, in our private room in the restaurant, he set about finding the telephone number of the head temple, and then of the private residence where the Primate lived. Yes, he was in. And yes, it was not far away, and yes again, he would be pleased to see us as soon as we could get there. In less than an hour we were sitting in the small reception room’ and I was being introduced to the Primate, a calm but vigorous man in his eighties. He soon realized the situation: the doctor was not a Buddhist, but I knew something of the Japanese texts. He made another appointment to see me alone, and then we had half-an-hour of general conversation before we left.

It was however full of interest. The doctor remarked that he was inclined to think that Zen meditation was in fact deep sleep, which however the monks could enter at will.

To my amazement, the Zen Primate replied: ‘Yes, you could say that.’ He went on: ‘And not only in the meditation sitting: Zen means to go round all the time in deep sleep, with no more reactions than in the nightly deep sleep.’ He did not say more at the time, but in the subsequent years I saw him every time I went to Japan, and I translated and published some of his writings. So I came to understand his brief sentence.

In the ordinary dreamless slumber at night, the body periodically moves, to ease the muscles. If it did not move, the muscles would get cramped. The body moves, but the sleeper does not wake up. The body knows what to do, how to ease the muscles. It does the right things, and the sleeper has no reactions – he is not aware of it, so he isn’t bothered with it.

Now it’s the same in the waking state. As a matter of fact, the mind knows what to do, and can do it smoothly and with no fuss, as long as there are not a lot of reactions. When we look at the lives of strangers with whom we have no involvement, it is quite easy to see what they can do to live worthwhile lives. It is easy for us, because we do not have their reactions: we do not have the loves and hates and fears and hopes that plague and impede them. Many pupils fail to make progress at a particular subject because of something about the teacher which they do not like; they know he is a good teacher, but their dislike puts them off the subject. Often when they move up and come under a different teacher for that subject, they suddenly begin to do well. Life is the teacher: if we do not waste time in complaining, but try to learn from it, we shall soon find that we are becoming detached, and then calm. We will not be thrown off balance by events, not even by death itself.

The Soto Primate, whose family name was Takashina and Buddhist name was Ro-sen, used to say that surroundings were important in the long run. He was not only the Head of the Soto Sect, but President of the All-Japan Buddhist Association, and in that capacity he succeeded in raising the money for a remarkable project which had been begun in the 1930’s and then abandoned for lack of funds. This was, to set up an enormous head of the bodhisattva Kannon (Kuan-yin in Chinese). The main railway lines into and out of Tokyo to the West pass through the great junction at Ofuna. Looking out of the carriage across a small ridge, one is taken aback at seeing the great head as it were rising from the ground. At least, that is the reaction the first time – it seems like some science fiction episode. But of course, soon the regular commuters hardly give it more than a glance. I put this point to Primate Rosen, and he agreed: ‘Quite soon they cease to notice it consciously. But as a matter of fact, that representation of peace and compassion will influence them unconsciously.’

I had heard Dr. Shastri make this same point about Japan, where he had himself lived. He said that after centuries of wars, the country was united in 1600 by Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa dynasty of Governors. (The Emperor had no executive power then.) There followed 250 years of almost unbroken internal peace. Dr. Shastri had studied Japanese history, and he remarked that Ieyasu was probably a sceptic, But he knew the principle of association, and he enforced an edict under which every household in Japan must have a little Buddhist shrine in the main room. The images of Buddha were mass produced, but of good design; they unconsciously influenced the householders with their peaceful beauty. This helped to turn the energies of the people from warfare to culture. The culture could penetrate deep into the roots of society, and it is perhaps unique in world history that peasants could compose poems which could get into anthologies.

There was a game played in many households which depends on knowing something of the Anthology of A Hundred Poems. Each poem is by a different poet. The anthology was put together in the 13th century, but the language has not changed much and most Japanese know some of them by heart. Separate lines of the  5-line poems are written on separate cards, so that there is a big pack. Then the players are each dealt a ‘hand’, and by a procedure somewhat like Bingo, they try to complete poems. Priest Rosan pointed out that though some of these poems deal with passions, there is always a delicacy of feeling in them. He knew that refinement of behaviour may be merely a surface, but he believed that in many cases the courtesy which begins as mere imitation can become a genuine feeling. ‘There is a Kannon heart in everyone. and we should try to invite it to show itself.’

© Trevor Leggett