There is a mediaeval Japanese story about learning which is quite revealing. A man turns up at a mediaeval court, supposed to be about 13th century, and it is noteworthy that the local lords are, in the cheerful, democratic, traditional Japanese way, often presented as rather fools. Anyway, the local lord is there and the man turns up at his court and asks for a job of employment.
The local lord says, ‘What can you do?’
The man replies, ‘I know the unusual things that other people don’t know’.
‘Oh, oh, well, that might be useful, mightn’t it?’ so the lord takes him on.
Well, the man’s at the court and periodically there are court crises when the accounts are miles behind and they ask him to lend a hand.
He says, ‘No, no, the accountants can do the accounts, clerks can do the accounts. I do the things that no one else can do. I know the things no one else knows’.
In that way he gets out of pretty well everything! Then the time comes – the castle is near the coast – when the fishermen catch, as it’s described, a round slimy thing that doesn’t seem to have any mouth or eyes. It thrashes about in the net, so they bring it, still moving in the net, to the castle and the lord looks at it. No one has ever seen anything like this before, so he calls for the man. The lord thinks now, now’s the time, the man will be able to do something.
The fellow is brought along, and the lord says, ‘Now this is something nobody knows anything about. What is it?’
The man looks at it and says, ‘Well, yes, there are creatures like this’.
And the lord says, ‘Evidently there are, yes, but what is it?’
The man ponders and says, ‘This is what’s called Kowgaragutsa’.
The lord says, “What?’
‘Kowgaragutsa! This is a Kowgaragutsa’ and everybody is sort of relieved and say, ‘Yes, that’s a Kowgaragutsa!’
The lord says, ‘Yes, well, now write that down in the court diary, now we know.’
And the man’s reputation goes right up.
After some years – this thing is kept in the court museum – of course it shrivels up and becomes just a little spiny mass of bones.
Then a visitor comes from another part of the country, and the lord says to him, ‘We caught something very unusual two or three years ago. I don’t remember the name, but it’s very unusual’.
They bring it out, and the visitor has never seen anything like this, even the skeleton of this thing, and he says, ‘What is it?’
So they look for the court diary but they can’t find it, then they call on the expert on unusual things and the lord says, ‘Now, you told us what this was, what is it again?’
Well, the man can’t remember what he said, so he says, ‘This is a…, this is a Hihirihitsu!’
‘Oh, yes, that’s right’, and they write it down but then a bit later the court diary is found which has been misplaced and they compare the two entries.
The lord calls the expert in front of ministers and says, ‘You told us the other day this was a Hihirihitsu, but three years ago, when it was caught, you said it was Kowgaragutsa. How do you account for this?’
The man said, ‘It would certainly appear there was a contradiction, but the fact is, although there might seem that there was a contradiction, when it’s alive it’s called Kowgaragutsa and when it’s dead it’s called Hihirihitsu’. And the lord is now very very impressed.
This story, by, incidentally, a Zen master of the time, is an example of learning.
As he says, it consists in putting names to things you don’t understand, and we still do this today, not only in simple learning, but in science.
The fatal disease suddenly gets better and we say, ‘Now that, that’s what’s called ‘spontaneous remission’. We named it and now it’s known and is correspondingly supposed to be understood but this sort of pursuit in the end, doesn’t lead to knowledge.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: The Flower of the Heart
Part 3: The concealment of realisation
Part 4: Reaction from the universe
Part 5: You cannot live on sweets
Part 6: Some essential thing is missing
Part 7: Naming a thing is not knowing it