One of the most important things in life is gentle persistence.8 min read

Both Japanese and British are keen gardeners. That means that we know how to observe nature, and how to co­operate with nature. It is like making now friends: we have to look carefully at their ways of thinking and feeling, and discover how to co-operate with them without hurting their feelings. They may also teach us something unconsciously: when we see their weaknesses, we try not to become infected with them. They teach us what to avoid, and nature will also teach us in that way, if we are ready to listen.

One of the most important things is gentle persistence. If we want to modify the way a tree is growing, it is no use abruptly forcing it in the new direction. That will probably break the tree. There has to be steady pressure, not too strong but absolutely continuous. Then the tree will adapt, and finally grow strongly in the new direction.

We know this in training: we begin each time with warming-up exercises before we start our serious programme. Then in the year, we build up an increasingly severe training programme before a contest.

British people call this the ‘gardening concept’, and use it extensively in life. We tend to believe that society cannot be changed satisfactorily by sudden radical commands; it should be done by gradually changing the climate of opinion. That is done by quiet insistence, not by flamboyant shouting. Japanese people mostly believe this too, but they occasionally have outbursts of excitement which are much rarer in Britain. There was nothing in London comparable to the Zengakuren riots of 1968 (but there was in Paris).

There are cases where our understanding of nature differs considerably. For instance in Japan the big test often comes at the beginning. The ‘examination hell’ is to get into a good university or high school or middle school. Once in, the path is much easier, and in many universities, the final examination is not particularly difficult. In Britain, it is the final examination which is the big test, and it is very difficult to graduate with First Class Honours. Similarly, in Japan it is made very difficult to get into a Zen training monastery: the applicant has to wait for two days crouched at the entrance, and then another week alone in a room. Many give up and go away. In many other things, a newcomer is set tasks of endurance, as a test. This is a sort of Darwinian principle: survival of the fittest (though Darwin himself never said it). The strong survive; the weak go away.

It seems reasonable, and based on nature. But from the British point of view, it is a waste. We recognise that some weak people may have the capacity to become very strong, if they are protected in the early stages. Trees grow in the forest unprotected and only the strong ones survive. But if a very young slender one is supported by the gardener with a pole and fenced round, it can grow into a great tree that can meet any storm. In the same way, a rather weak and nervous boy can become a fine judo expert, if he is treated carefully at the beginning. And as a matter of fact, some of our great heroes, like Nelson, had a weak physique. So had Napoleon.

So nature teaches us that in general change should be gradual, but under the guidance of man (who is also part of nature) the changes can take place more quickly. Nature also tells us that there are almost unlimited potentialities in what can seem to be limited. The little five-petalled wild rose of Persia becomes the many petalled rose of the English gardeners, and a humble flower of the marigold type becomes the great cultivated chrysanthemum in Japan. Such developments do take place in nature unassisted, but they take many centuries. Under human direction, they take place in only generations. What had seemed fixed and limited, the same for centuries, turns out to be changeable by gentle but insistent pressure. It is not that the basic character of the thing has changed. But its hidden possibilities have been brought out.

Nature is giving us a further hint. The same process of gardening can be applied to ourselves to bring out hidden possibilities in us. Many of us think we have just the few petals, or maybe only one petal. But in the mental field, the hidden

powers can be brought out not in long centuries, nor in long generations, but in a few years.

Nature is giving us a hint that in the flower of human character, there are many more petals to be unfolded. We can say this as a theory. But are there any examples in the past? Yes, there are some amazing examples, which we can find by looking at history carefully.

Many Japanese who have visited Europe will have seen the great cathedral in Paris, called Notre Dame. It is recognized as a great masterpiece of architecture. It was completed in 1182 A.D. In the next two centuries many others, even higher, were built. Apart from their beauty, the calculation of the stresses was very exact. The extraordinary thing is that none of the architects and masons could multiply more than 5×5 in their head.

To memorize higher than 5×5 was regarded as impossible. Even professional accountants could not do it. We know this is true because we have records showing that accountants and architects had big charts of the higher multiplication pasted on the walls of their offices: 6×6=36, 6×7=42, and so on. Suppose he was away from his office, and had to multiply 9×7, what would he do? He has a special method. He holds up his hands in front of him, with all five fingers straight up. Now he begins. The first number is 9. That is 4 more than the 5 fingers on the left hand. So he bends 4 fingers down into the palm, leaving 1 finger up.

Then he uses the same method to put the other number, 7, on to his right hand. That number is 7, which is 2 more than 5. He bends 2 fingers of the right hand into the palm, leaving the other 3 fingers upright.

He looks at his hands. The left hand has 4 fingers bent down, and 1 finger up. The right hand has 2 fingers down, and 3 upright.

Then, he applies his method. He adds the bent fingers: 4+2=6. So 6 is the first figure of the answer. To get the next figure, he multiplies the upright fingers: 1×3=3.

So the answer is 63. 9×7=63.

The ordinary people of that time thought this was wonderful. We know that these methods were very widely used by accountants and architects; there are references in medieval literature to ‘the supple fingers of accountants’. The fingers were supple because they were constantly bending and stretching their fingers.

Today, school children can easily do these little sums mentally. All Japanese children learn the multiplication tables up to 10×10=100. Until recently, children in England learned up to 12×12=144. That was because we had some twelves in daily life: there were twelve pence to the shilling, and twelve inches to a foot. The reckoning in 12 was very useful, because we could divide 12 by 2, or by 3, or by 4, or by 6. Ten can be divided only by 2 and 5. But now we have changed to the full decimal system, and English children learn only up to 10×10.

But the point is that we can do easily what was thought to be quite impossible in the Middle Ages in Europe, though they could produce such wonders of architecture, better than what we can produce today. They were just as intelligent, but they had a fixed idea that even simple arithmetic was impossible for them. We know that it is not difficult, for even some very dull children do learn it.

Nature shows us that so-called ordinary people have undiscovered talents. Many English people think, ‘Oh, I cannot sing’. But in Italy, and Wales, almost everyone can sing to some extent. They are encouraged from childhood, and not allowed to say, ‘Oh, I cannot sing’. Again, ordinary people in Britain feel that they cannot write poems, or play chess. We are very surprised to find that in the weather forecasts in Japanese newspapers there is often little poem added, and that all the papers and magazines have a Shogi game or at least a Tsume- shogi problem. The ordinary reader appreciates such things. On the other hand, I think that one thing that Japanese people could develop is the ability to stand alone. Many Japanese feel that to stand alone against the whole world, if necessary, is for heroes, almost for supermen and superwomen. Most Japanese feel they can do it in a group, but not alone. They think of the death of Benkei. But quite a lot of English people feel that they must do it.

But it is not for foreigners to guess what hidden potentialities there are in other nations. It is for those nations to take the hint from nature, and search for their own hidden treasures.

© Trevor Leggett

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