When the Shinkansen, the so-called Japanese ‘bullet train’ first came in, it was a great triumph of technology, and a national triumph also. All the kids heard about it. And they arranged to have parties of the children from the country villages so that they could ride on this train. A teacher told me about one such party, where for some reason, some oversight, it was not explained to the children that they were going to ride on the Shinkansen, of which they’d seen so many pictures and photographs. So they got on this train without seeing the engine and they were shooting along, when they saw another one on another track. The children all crowded to the side of the train, ‘Look, the Shinkansen! Look,the Shinkansen!’ And the teacher said, ‘Boys and girls, you’re in the Shinkansen. This is it! You’re in it. You don’t need to look at that one over there. Look at what you’re in.’
There’s a treasure in our own house which often we don’t see. We can say, ‘Well, how can there be?’ One of the Indian stories tells how the merchants in some of the towns (when India was the richest country in the world) were very strict about business ethics. And one man cut some corners. They used to expel such people from the city and stone them, not kill them, but stone them and then drive them away. They took everything he had, tied him to a stake outside the city, held back his wife and child, and threw stones.
A little boy, the son of one of the big merchants, was there – not often you get the chance to throw a stone at a grown-up I He picks up a sharp stone and he throws it. It catches the man on the face. It just misses his eye, and the blood pours down.
Well, then they release his wife and child, and all go away. The two of them rush to him and set him free. Now, he’s got nothing, he’s penniless, he’s disgraced – in the sunset, the dying sun. He’ll have to go to the next city. He might have some faint hope of an uncle somewhere, but it’s a total destruction.
As he hangs his head and looks down, he sees a gleam; the ray of the dying sun makes a gleam – one of the stones. He bends down, picks it up and it’s a great jewel. The rich merchant had a ring with a big jewel in it. In the excitement he must have knocked it somehow against a brick or something like that. It fell down and the little boy, not looking, just grabbed the sharp stone and threw it.
There is a Japanese poem:
The stones which were thrown at me
– When I picked it up,
One of them was a jewel.
This comes again and again. There’s something hidden even in the terrible experiences we have, which, if we have spiritual sight and discrimination, we can find.
I’ll read a little bit from a translation of a book which I did translate, all except this little bit; it’s in A First Zen Reader and it’s by Sessan.
There’s an old saying in the Zen school: ‘When you come to pick them up, the very stones are gold.’ When the eye of the heart is opened and we see rightly, the shattered tiles that have been dropped on the road, are shining with the gleam of gold. In our everyday life, to recognize the true worth of every little thing, every tiny fragment of what we are using every day, to respect it – that gives life real meaning. In the daily life of Zen, everything is to be made pure and exact and elegantly simple. In our conduct – going, staying, sitting, and lying down, as we say – we’re never to think of anything as trivial, but to find a great meaning in it. In using one’s personal things, we mustn’t use them casually, or forgetfully, or wrongly, or mistakenly – they must be used rightly. These days they talk about consumables which, of course, is all right, but it’s not good to use for profit the consumables, to acquire economic advantage for oneself. Higher than use for profit, is loving use of the things in the right way; it means to love the things we use. But even so, to love things because they are pleasant and because they suit me, still does not yet get away from self-satisfaction. There has to be proper living use. Then, for the first time, there’s life in the handling of the things and that’s a very fine thing. But it’s not yet outside the sphere of practical wisdom. We have to go further and come to – good use of things. Now, for the first time, we come to follow the nature of the thing itself when we use it, and we come to live virtuously. Again one step: we must come to pure use; we must purify the things when we use them. Now it is that their religious meaning appears. Nowadays it’s fashionable to use phrases like ‘cleaning up society’, but it’s when we try to make things pure, uncontaminated, infinitely clear and noble as we use them, that the seeds of religious life are sprouting. Again a step: we must come to spiritual use; to spiritualize the things as we use them. Now it’s not just a thing, not just a material substance, but it’s of spiritual nature, spiritual essence, and it becomes radiant. ‘When we pick them up, the very stones are gold.’ The thing is a blessing, is precious – instinctively we find a gesture of reverence in ourselves.
This sort of example is given. Men shave every morning from their true face just a little almost imperceptible sprouting of beard. Now, if I don’t shave that, then I may look very smart, I may be wearing evening dress, but every time I move my head, it’ll rasp against the hard edge of the collar – very uncomfortable. I think, ‘Oh well, I won’t wear a hard collar; I’ll wear a very soft Cashmere scarf.’ But then the scarf catches on the beard stubble, and I find little bits of fluff all over my face. And what a relief to shave the face clear!
One of the teachers has said, ‘Use the sharp edge of criticism to shave the conceit from the true face.’ And when we’re actually shaving, we’re to feel we’re shaving away our conceit and prejudices.
I sometimes have to translate Japanese poems in the texts which I do – they’re not so easy. Sometimes the mediaeval prose is not easy either. And then some kind friends tell me, ‘You know what so-and-so said? He said, “In one of those translations, Trevor’s put ‘neither of them are absolutely right.’ But that’s an elementary grammatical mistake in English. Poor old Trevor! It’s not that he doesn’t know Japanese, he doesn’t know English!'”
Well, then I think, ‘Oh! it’s a trivial point; it’s colloquial English. I disregard that; huh, I pay no attention to criticisms like that.’ But gradually it yeasts up and I think, ‘Well, you know, if you look at some of his translations, they’re pretty careless aren’t they? AND AS A MATTER OF FACT, HE WOULDN’T KNOW A POEM IF YOU HIT HIM OVER THE HEAD WITH IT! ” Now my whiskers are sprouting, and (if I can do it) to shave them off with the sharp edge of that criticism, by accepting it, is a great relief.
This cloth here: it was quite a good cloth once, but it hasn’t been cleaned and it hasn’t been ironed, so it’s got these persistent creases in it. Well, our minds are acquiring creases and dirt all our lives. However you drop this cloth, it’ll always fall into the same creases. This other one’s old and it’s not quite clean, but it’s been washed and it’s been ironed. This can take any shape: I can polish with it, I can wave it, I can refold it in another shape, I can use it to tie something – it’s free. Now our minds too get set into creases. ‘I always do this. No, no! I never do that, no, no. This, yes; ^ that, no.’ ‘I always look at things scientifically, you see.’ And then other people say, ‘No, it’s to feel, to feel, that’s all that matters.’ A very intellectual man said, ‘Some people are all for life, life, but I prefer reading.’ These are creases. The spiritual training is purification – cleaning – and then ironing with a hot iron to take out the creases; then mind can fall into any shape needed, or be folded and put away.
This is perhaps the most famous poem in Japanese; it’s one of these very short ones:
The old pond;
A frog jumps in;
The sound of the waterl
This is a most famous poem and the whole of Japan resounded with it. Well then, it’s said that one day the same poet was walking on the same path and he happened to pass this same old pond and he looked, and he saw a frog that seemed to be hanging about! It wanted to give an encore. Well, this is a satirical example of how when we’ve done something great or good, there’s a tendency to want to repeat our effects. But the thing is – to go! They say, ‘Do good!’ And it’s added to that, ‘Do good and go!’ And I’ve even heard it in the form, ‘Do good and run!’
© Trevor Leggett