I could laugh at my failures. I knew they would not be for ever.8 min read

A Motto is a maxim, a sort of slogan, which is often on the crest of a coat-of-arms of a family or a city or a university and so on. It is supposed to show the ideal of the holder. I saw above the desk of a Japanese executive the two characters: Tesshi – Iron Will. My feeling was that probably he was trying to strengthen his will, not that he had one. Similarly, if I saw on the wall in a politician’s office the English motto: Honesty Is The Best Policy, I should feel a bit suspicious.

Sometimes a motto is very misleading.

By the side of the tomb of King Edward I of England, in Westminster Abbey, there is an inscription: Pactum Est Factum, Promised is Done. This 13th century king borrowed great sums of money from the Jewish bankers , but when he could not pay it back, he suddenly realized that to lend money and charge interest, as they did, was against Christian teaching. So in 1290 he decided that the Jews ought not to remain in England any more, and he killed some and expelled the rest.

They never got their money from him. So this king was a cheat on a huge scale, the very reverse of the ideal of the motto. To be fair to him, I must say that historians have discovered that the words Pactum Est Factum were in fact written long after his death, about someone else, and in a different connection. He had nothing to do with them. Probably he would have thought, like many of us, that the motto would be good for others to follow, but not for him.

This king was a great soldier, but he hated the Scottish people. When he invaded Scotland, his army marched with blood-red banners. This was a sign of the most terrible kind of war: they would kill every living human being, man, woman, or child, and burn and destroy crops and buildings. His motto was in fact the Roman : Vae Victis, ’woe to the conquered’. In modern terms it would be: Winner takes All’. In countries with no tradition of democracy, the system is thought to mean that the winners triumph completely and the losers are left with nothing. But such countries never have peace.

The true tradition is that the winners in an election, for instance, must respect the interests of the minority, and not trample on them. I was surprised to find that Japanese companies occasionally gave a small donation to the Communist union, their declared enemies. I thought it was a modem adaptation of an ancient motto: Noblesse Oblige (nobility has obligations’. The rich nobleman must take responsibility for the welfare of the poor people in the country round his castle.

I found sometimes Japanese extensions of this principle which would be inconceivable in other countries. I knew rather well the President of one of Japan’s biggest banks, and I asked him once, half humorously: ’Do you feel responsible for not only the welfare, but also the happiness, of your staff? I was taken aback by the force of his reply: “Yes. Without any qualification, yes”. He was in the position of power, corresponding to that of the ancient nobleman, and he had the conviction Noblesse Oblige. I have noticed that a Japanese leader in any field is expected to be strong, but also to take account of everyone in the group, even those whom he may not like.

There are many different mottoes, and they often contradict each other. A famous one is: Festina Lente, meaning Hurry Slowly. It is a clever motto, which corresponds roughly to the Japanese Isogaba Maware, If in a Hurry, Go Around. The Japanese one certainly applies to many modern cities. If you want to get to the other side of the city, it is quickest to go right round the edges. If you go straight across, you will be caught in a traffic jam.

There are many similar ones in Japanese, which shows, I suppose, that the Japanese are an impatient people. That is why they need these mottoes like: Hashiru no wa Tsumazuku (he who runs, stumbles), which is like the English More Haste, Less Speed. There is the weighty Chinese Kanji phrase: Kin-do En-do, En-do Kin-do (the short cut is the long way round; the long way round is the short cut).

But there are other Japanese mottoes which are quite different though they do not absolutely contradict the idea. Cut Straight Through… And in English we say: ‘He who hesitates is lost’ and ’Opportunity does not knock twice.’ This second one means that generally an opportunity comes before us only once; if we do not seize it immediately, it will not come again. One can always find a motto to justify oneself, and then it is useless. Every motto has its opposite.

So I believe that we should ask for a motto from someone else. It must be someone who knows us well, and whom we respect. I have found such mottoes useful. When I was young, I had the habit of taking up some new interest with great energy and enthusiasm. But when difficulties arose, I would become bored, and look for something else. A senior man. of whom I was in awe, said to me: ‘When it gets difficult or unpleasant, you want to stop and change. If you go on like this, you will never master anything.’ Then he quoted ’an Eastern saying’: The ladder to the Treasury is iron, not gold. This stuck a spark in me, and I found it a great help when difficulties came.

I would repeat to myself; Iron, Not Gold. When I came to understand this motto, I did not expect training always to be interesting and pleasant, then I found I began to appreciate the iron. I was not disappointed because it was not gold. I began to enjoy treading on the difficulties on the way up. In learning a language, as in learning to skate, one will have many falls, and will look ridiculous. I did not like this. But when I realized it was part of the iron ladder, I did not feel embarrassed, and I could laugh at my failures. I knew they would not be for ever.

These days in Britain, we have been trying an educational theory which says that learning should be interesting all the time, even pleasant all the time. But the results have not been good, and we are changing back to some of the traditional methods. When I hear this, I mutter to myself: Iron, not Gold. I never found out from what Eastern language this saying comes. But it is a good one.

Another motto I was given also comes from an Eastern language. In fact, a motto in English has no effect on me, because I can always think of another one which goes in the opposite direction. But with the Eastern ones, I do not know many other mottoes, so I do not react against them. This one is, I was told, from Tibet; it was told to me by a great Indian scholar. ’Hold Tightly, Let Go Lightly’. That was his clever translation, into a rhyme. He said it means that when you have a good relationship with a person, or a group, or some undertaking, always do everything you can to keep it fresh and creative. But when they show any sign that they want to leave you, then let them go without trying to hold on. As a Judo man, I have added to this, that when they want to go, give them a little push; then you do not feel any lingering regrets.

The third motto I have found useful is a Japanese Zen phrase; it was told me by a Japanese woman of strong character, about her mother’s Zen teacher. It was about 1900. The mother had a serious illness, and the doctors told her she would live only a few months. She went to the Zen teacher and told him. He said: ’People will miss you for only three years. After that, no one will remember you at all.’ She said: ’I am going to die. Can’t you help me?’

He jumped up and pushed her out, saying; ’If you are going to die, die quick!’ He slammed the shoji behind her. So she went into a cave in the mountains to die quick. She recited some sutras and meditated. On the second night she had a vision of bodhisattvas filling the sky, and felt something change inside her. She recovered, and in fact lived to eighty years, a well-known character in Zen. The daughter, when she told me this, looked at me as if to say: ’This would suit you.’ In fact I have found it useful when facing danger, and also in other times of crisis. It has a freeing effect.

© Trevor Leggett

 

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