Gift No Gift

All spiritual schools lay stress on giving. But to know how to give is a great spiritual virtue, and there are many gifts which are no gifts at all. A grandfather came to visit his son’s family in another part of the country` and when he left` gave to the little grandson some special sweet cakes. That evening the manager of the company where the father worked came to see him for an emergency business consultation. It was the custom to put a display of cakes in front of a guest` who however by the same custom never took more than one. The mother had no cakes in the house, and asked the child to give his cakes to entertain the ” uncle “. The boy refused` but the mother pointed out that though the cakes must be given` the visitor would only take one and leave the rest. ” …

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The Blue Cloth

When the teacher first founded the group they were poor, and had only a cheap undyed cloth over the altar on which was the form of the god. They worshipped with prayers and mantras for the first half of the meeting, and then when the minds were to some extent pacified, they meditated: “O holy divinity, I am what thou art, and thou, O holy divinity, art what I am.” The teacher had once mentioned that to see or meditate on the colour blue has a calming effect on the mind, and added that blue was the best colour for an altar cloth. This remark was taken down, but not noticed at the time because they were so poor. Then it was forgotten. Many years later, a new member reading over the old records came across it. He bought a blue silk cloth, and had it beautifully embroidered with the …

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Two Zen Stories

(1) TESSHU Tesshu was asked by a brilliant young fencer: “What is the inmost secret of the Way of Fencing?” He said: “Go to the Kannon temple at Asakusa and pray to be enlightened about it.” After a week the young man came back and said: “I went every day and prayed there a long time. Nothing came to me. On the last day as I was coming away disappointed, I noticed the inscription above the shrine: The Gift of Fearlessness. Was that what you meant?” “Yes,” repiled Tesshu. “Complete fearlessness is the secret of fencing. It must be complete. There are those who are not afraid when they face an enemy with a sword, but who are cowards when they confront the assaults of passions like greed, and delusions like fame. Complete fearlessness in the face of the inner as well as the outer enemies is the end of …

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The Magistrate

A TEACHER of the Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita came to the district and set up a school in a village there. When this was reported to the local magistrate (the chief administrative officer for the district), he was displeased. He was a follower of a Western philosopher who held that traditional religion and its compulsive morality was the cause of many of the ills of man. The magistrate had a great love for the people of the district, and worked night and day to bring them to what he saw as modern and progressive views. He therefore put many obstacles in the way of the Yoga teacher, and for a time was successful in turning public opinion against him. When he heard that the school was also teaching secular subjects to the local children (admittedly poorly served by the present arrangements, because of the poverty of the district) he …

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The Stone Sermon

In the Lotus Sutra, one of the old ones, there is a sort of Buddhist prodigal son. The king recognises him, when he sees him from the palace, sends out a guard to bring him in, but the beggar, when he sees the guard, runs away.

One Step, Twenty Steps

WHEN someone takes one step towards the Lord, the Lord takes twenty steps towards him.’ It is a striking phrase which has vivified and energized the devotion of many yogis. Nevertheless, it can be interpreted, disregarding the plain meaning of the words, into something quite different. In an off-guard period, one who believes himself a devotee can reason something like this: `What this says is, that when I take a step towards Him, the Lord takes twenty steps towards me. In fact He is doing the same as I do, and then He is adding nineteen more steps of his own. So if I take no step at all, then admittedly the Lord will not take that step either; but then He will add nineteen steps of his own to it. He won’t arrive quite so quickly, perhaps, but the difference will soon be made up.’ Someone who heard of …

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The Seller of Pears

An Abbot of the Buddha-Heart sect was preaching in the open air to a large crowd. The Abbot spoke of making life harmonious by mutual aid and concession, but added that the aim of life is to realize the Buddha-Heart within man, without which life has no real meaning. A seller of pears, pushing his cart by its two long wooden handles, drew near and interrupted: `What will it bring us? These are only words!’ The Abbot explained that realization would bring an end of all sufferings and a new life beyond life-and-death, but the pearseller shouted: `Big talk! Big talk! But you have to show us something!’ The Abbot said that gains in the world of dreams were themselves illusory; they were no true gains but had to be paid for somehow. The pear-seller only shouted again and again: `Show us something! You have to show us something!’ Others …

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The case of the White Hare

AS Zen has a totally unrestricted and universal outlook, among the ` cases ‘, reputedly seventeen hundred in number, there are stories about kittens and puppies, about turtles and about water-buffaloes. The 56th Case of the Ju-Yo-Roku (of Wanshi) is the story called the White Hare of Mi-shi.    In such stories everything in the world, sun, moon and stars, the voice of the valley-stream and the colours of the mountain, the wind in the pines and the rain on the bamboos, all are pressed into service to teach.    The great truth of Zen manifests itself, filling the earth and filling the heaven. There was nothing which the ancients could not pick up and say:  ”This is it “. They made their Zen riddles out of anything that came to hand. The inmost spirit of Zen is that everything is treasure in our own home. Among the Zen ‘ cases ‘ there is …

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Categories Zen

The Essentials for Entering the Way

Extract from The Spur, by Torei, chief disciple of the Japanese Zen Master Hakuin (1685-1768). IN WHAT is called in Zen the ascent from the state of the ordinary vulgar man to the state of Buddha, there are five requirements. First is the principle that they have the same nature. Second is the teaching that they are dyed different colours. Third is furious effort. Fourth is the principle of training. Fifth is the principle of returning to the origin. These five are taught as the main elements of the path. 1. The principle of Same-nature The true nature with which the people are endowed, and the fundamental nature of the Buddhas of the three worlds, are not two. They are equal in their virtue and majesty; the same light and glory are there. The wisdom and wonderful powers are the same. It is like the radiance of the sun illumining …

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Categories Zen

Life in a Zen Training Temple

There are many thousands of Zen temples in Japan, where there is a priest who ministers to his parish, consisting of the local families which are registered as belonging to the Zen sect. It is families which are registered, not individuals, and this illustrates that in many cases his services are connected with social occasions. Some Buddhists say ruefully that Japanese only see the family Buddhist priest on the occasion of a funeral. Though there are so many local temples, there are only a score or so of training temples; these are places where would-be priests (and some mature priests also) go to take some training towards Zen realization. A young aspirant might stay in a training temple three to five years-he would not expect to have attained the final realization which is the end of the training, but he would have had some metal put into him, as the …

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Categories Zen

A Visit to a Zen Temple

HALF an hour from Tokyo, in the suburb of Tsurumi, is a wooded hill on which stands the Zen monastery of Sojiji.    It is the headquarters of the Soto branch of the Zen sect of Buddhism, and has numbered some famous Zen masters among its Abbots.    The Soto branch is some what larger than the other branch, the Rinzai.    The masters of Soto and Rinzai agree on fundamental principles, and both of them are lineal descendants of the Zen brought to China by Bodhidharma in the 7th century.    Both of them trace their spiritual pedigree back to Hui-neng, the famous Sixth Patriarch, and from him through Bodhidharma to Buddha himself.    The basis of the Zen instruction is the transmission ” from heart to heart ” of the spiritual realization of Reality. The basic tenet is: ” To know one’s real nature is to be Buddha.” The main difference between the …

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Categories Zen

The Swimmer

An anxious man, always trying to foresee every possible eventuality so that he could prepare counter – measures, came to a yoga group. There he took up to reading historical and legendary incidents in the scriptures, so that he would get to know how spiritual people behave. ‘You’ve no need to do that,’ an experienced disciple told him. ‘Our teacher tells us to try to become enlightened ourselves, rather than just reading about the enlightenment and enlightened actions of others.’ ‘But how is one to know what to do?’ replied the new disciple, and he went on as before. He happened to be an expert swimmer, and the senior one day asked him whether he could demonstrate the racing dive he had heard about. The swimmer readily agreed, pleased to be able to show his skill, and they went together to the swimming baths. The expert changed into swimming trunks, …

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A teacher used to point out to his pupils that what is already full cannot take in any more. This well – known Zen principle is often illustrated by pouring tea into a filled cup so that it overflows on to the table and floor. This teacher went on to say that when there is a vacuum in the mind, illumination can come to fill it. The pupils did not understand this but let it go, except for one who persistently asked him what he meant exactly. ‘How can we make a vacuum in the mind?’ he would say, to which the teacher made no reply but sat silent. After some repetitions of this, the teacher told him: ‘Well, as you are so keen, I’ll give you some private instruction on it, if you’re willing to prepare by purifying yourself,’ and he gave him elaborate directions for a daily ritual …

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A Friend in Need

(The word buddhi, which is used in this piece, is the spiritually discerning aspect of the mind. The training of buddhi is one of the major purposes of yoga practice. In yoga it has the general sense of being awake in a directed manner and, when purified, is the repository of the higher powers of spiritual inspiration. It can also be a force for ill when turned to darkness. Editor) The Dilemma What is the difference between action on the individual and on the cosmic plane? Suppose an obsessive gambler once more approaches a better-off friend `for a small loan’, perhaps of Forty Pounds and perhaps of Four Hundred.  He promises it will not be spent on betting, a promise he has made, and broken, many times before.  The friend knows what will happen, but often he cannot refuse the bedraggled figure. Now if he has done some meditation, the …

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Illusion has no Rules

It may seem that an illusion gets thinner and finally fades away after quite some time. But in fact it is the reaction that gets thinner; the illusion as such goes all at once. It can take quite some time to get over the idea that every man in uniform is ipso facto a bully and tyrant, or that every Armenian or Jew or Parsee is by his very nature a subtle business man. Dispelling big illusions, too, usually takes quite some time. But in all these cases some striking counter‑example can bring the whole belief‑system down like a pack of cards. Because it is an illusion, it can go suddenly at any moment. In a Tibetan version of the Life of the Buddha, there is an interesting passage, on which a great Indian teacher made a striking comment. The original passage describes how Mara, king of the demons, set …

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Only One Way

It is worth knowing that one can get hypnotized into thinking that there’s only one way to do a thing correctly. It’s the Right Way, and there are no other ways. At All‑India Radio, where I worked for a time, I used to see Indian violinists. My father was a professional violinist, one of the best of his generation. He led at the Covent Garden Opera for several years, and for a good time after that for Sir Thomas Beecham. So I felt I knew something about violin playing. I was watching an Indian violinist in an AIR studio, playing in the orthodox way with the violin tucked under his left chin. It is axiomatic that the instrument must be held firmly in that way; at the very beginning, a pupil is made to hold the instrument like this, and then take away the supporting left hand. The instrument has …

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We can have ideas and then practise, but prac­tice has to be done till it goes past practice, until it is no longer practice. Here is an example I heard from a master I knew. It was around the turn of the century, and the master happened to be in the place where the maids were doing the laundry. They were doing it as they did in Japan then: they soak the washing in the suds and then put it on a board and hit it with their fists. That knocks the dirt out. (In India they used to swing a garment high and smash it down on a stone; effective but not so good for the garment in the long run.) He saw the maids doing this, and he stopped them and gave them a lesson in using the edge of the hand instead of the fists, and showed …

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Doing Good as against Not Doing Harm

My impression is that there is a difference between typical Eastern and Far Eastern attitudes, and typical Western ones. Take a case given by the Chinese Zen master Tozan. You see a hungry snake pursuing a frog. What do you do? Not liking snakes, you get a stick and beat off or maybe kill it. You save the frog, and the frog immediately goes on to catch flies on its long sticky tongue. On the other hand, suppose you don’t interfere. Then the snake will eat the frog, and the flies will be safe, at least from that frog. So if you interfere, the snake loses, the frog does well, the flies lose. If you don’t interfere, the snake does well, the frog loses, and the flies do well. That is two to one! So you do better not interfering. My impression is that most of the rules in the …

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Words of Love

This little piece is a bit pedantic; it’s on education, from the British end. I heard a lady on the radio talking rather sensibly about it, but she said at one point: ‘I had an education myself, so I knew that the word education comes from the Latin e out and ducere to lead. So education should be leading out, drawing out, what is in the‑child already.’ This derivation from the Latin e‑ducere is quite a common idea. But it was answered irritably by a scholar: ‘Madam. I regret to tell you that our word education does not come from the Latin e‑ducere, to lead out. The English word from e‑ducere is education, which does indeed mean leading out. But education comes from the Latin educare, meaning to educate or train. On this point, we can consid­er a remark by Iida: ‘The words of love are not always kindly words.’ …

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IN HER last work, Interior Castle, St. Teresa remarks that instability of spiritual states is often a cause of bewilderment to spiritual aspirants. They felt sure that what they experienced at times of devotion in favourable circumstances would be with them for ever; when they found later that somehow it had gone, they were liable to lose confidence and give up. A Zen master, discussing the same point, compares the spiritual path to a journey in a rowing boat along a coast where there is a strong tide. Half the time it helps, and half the time the tide is against. Beginners usually enter on the practice when things are favourable, and they make rapid progress up to a point, but when they find the “tide” has changed, many of them become discouraged because they find they can hardly advance any further, and they stop trying. So the contrary tide …

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Bodidharma – The First Zen Patriarch in China

THERE is a Buddhist tradition that when the Worldhonoured One was at the assembly on the Vulture Mount a man offered him a golden flower and asked him to preach the holy Doctrine. The Buddha twisted the flower in his fingers, showing it to the people in perfect silence. All were bewildered and at a loss for his meaning except the disciple Kashyapa who quietly smiled at the teacher. The Buddha then said there had been a transmission of the inmost spirit of his teaching to Kashyapa who was to be his successor and to whom he gave his robe and begging-bowl. Kashyapa, having thus become the First Patriarch, later transmitted the secret in the same way ” from mind to mind ” to Ananda, and so the succession continued. The patriarchs of the Buddha-mind transmission (now generally known by its Japanese name Zen) include some of the greatest names …

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Categories TPL


THE Zen sect of Buddhism developed in China and still flourishes in Japan. It is a path of knowledge (prajna) rather than devotion, and the goal is realization (Satori in Japanese). Before Satori can be attained, the deep-seated convictions of the absolute reality of the world ordinarily experienced, and consequent doubts as to practicability of realization, have to be dissolved. During training, they come to the surface in spiritual crises of great intensity. In the 13th century in China, certain schools of Zen developed a system of confronting the disciple with the core of a spiritual crisis experienced by a master of the past. It is presented as a sort of riddle. All elements of the personality have to be brought into play and focused on it; when the concentration finally attains Samadhi, the meditator and the riddle are no longer two. The Samadhi must be repeated till it becomes …


Categories Zen

The Enlightenment of Zen Master Hakuin

IN the spring of 1704, when he was nineteen and already a monk, Hakuin went to the Zen community at Aomizu. The master was discoursing to the public on the history of Buddhism in China, and mentioned Gen-Tao, a famous master of the Tang Dynasty, in whose time Buddhism was subjected to persecution. After the lecture he thought he would like to find out some details about this master’s life, and went by himself to read Gen-Tao’s life in one of the histories. The following phrases caught his eye : ” Master (sen-Tao told his disciples one day : `When I go, I shall go with a great shout.’ In fact this master was killed by brigands. As they drew their knives, he stood perfectly calm, and just before he was killed he gave one great cry, which was heard a long way away.” This story produced a great uncertainty …

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Categories Zen


HIS teacher gave him as a text for meditation an answer made by an ancient Chinese teacher named the Master of the Cloud-gate.        This was a single word meaning a frontier-gate or mountain-pass. He told him “Throw your whole spirit into the word ‘Pass’. You should have no other occupation ; it must become your whole life.” From that time he entered wholely into Zen, receiving a hard training from his teacher, who was abbot of a large monastery. It was as if he had swallowed a burning iron ball ;he tried to bring it. up but could not do so. There was nothing else except the mountain pass ; for nearly three years he was going deeper and deeper into it. After this his teacher went to Kamakura to become head of the famous Kenchoji monastery, and he followed to serve on his teacher. One day came the traditional …


Categories Zen


(The Priest Bankei lived in Japan in the 16th Century A.D.) MY father was a Ronin (samurai) of Shikoku, and my parents were Confucians. Soon after I was born my father died and I was brought up by my mother. My mother said I was the leader among the children and a naughty boy. From the time when I was only three years, I hated to hear the word ” death “. If I was crying and somebody imitated a dead man, or even talked about dying, I stopped crying, or if I was up to some mischief I at once became quiet. As I got older, my mother taught me how to read the Confucian classics, especially the ” Great Learning “. When I was reading it I came across the phrase : ” The way of the Great Learning is to make the Bright Virtue shine forth.” I …


Categories TPL

Help, No Help

SOMETIMES a new idea can change the whole landscape of endeavour, so to say: everything appears in quite a different light. This applies to most fields of human activity, but in the case of spiritual endeavours it has some special overtones. Take the case of doing certain jobs for the spiritual group. Naturally everyone would like to choose their job; someone good at adding would like to do the accounts, and someone good at gardening would like to help in the garden. But as the Christian saying has it, a cross selected is no true cross. To do what one can do well where others can see it, is an assertion of personality, and it has not much value as a discipline, though the community may get some benefit from it. (Even that benefit is usually offset by the unconscious arrogance of the expert, perpetually putting others right, or taking …

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If you’re going to die, die quick!

I knew a Japanese woman, who was a Christian, whose mother had trained in Zen under a great teacher, at the end of the last century. The daughter told me a story about her mother (which the mother had related to her once, very privately). She became very ill, and she went to her Zen teacher and told him that the doctors had hinted to her that she was going to die, that the illness was fatal. The teacher said, “After three years nobody will miss you.” She said, I’m going to die. Can’t you’ help me?” He shouted, ‑If you’re going to die, die quick!” ‑ pushed her out of the room and slammed the sliding doors behind her. So she went into the mountains to die quick.  She went to a cave. On the second night she had a vision of Bodhisattvas, standing in a vast space. Something …

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Leaves and Moss

Leaves and Moss by Trevor Leggett In some Japanese Temples, moss is cultivated as a symbol of inner realization. Its progress cannot be forced, and the cultivation in fact amounts to removing the obstacles to the natural growth. If they are patiently and continuously got rid of, however, it makes a surprisingly rapid advance. Moss, like realization, has a great inner strength against even extremes of change in the environment; under very warm or very dry conditions, mosses can become dormant, and quickly revive and grow again when conditions improve. If they feel like it, some of them can keep on growing even on hot, dry and exposed rocks. Most of them, however, grow best in shady and moist environments, and so in the temple gardens where they are cultivated, small trees are planted which shed their leaves at different times of year, thus providing a certain amount of shade …

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True Man of No Rank

Recently I wrote about a general impression that foreigners have, that Japanese people tend to put everyone into some rank or relative position.  The rank or position determines what the person is.  I have heard a Japanese say (and have read similar remarks) that without all the personal connections and relations, “I should be no more than a pinpoint on a blank sheet of paper”.  When we think just of brothers, they think of elder brother and younger brother; in other words, there is a fine distinction between the ranks.  Of course in life, people can change their ranks, and when they do, Japanese society treats them differently.  Or so it seems to us.  Seniority seems to account for a very great deal in companies.   Japanese are supposed to like long-lasting relations; they want to stay in a company for life if possible.  All this is the familiar picture as …

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Spiritual Schools

” Whoever always meditates on Him, whether from desire, anger, fear, affection, friendship, or reverence, surely becomes one with Him.”-Shrimad Bhagavat. ” He worships Me with his whole being.”-Gita. The tradition in all great mystical schools is that to have Enlightenment it is necessary to study under a teacher. The teacher is one who knows the Scriptures, who has woken up from the illusion of the passing world, and who has realized in his own experience the identity of the individual soul with the all-pervading Spirit. The teacher does not speak as an individual ; his voice is the voice of Reality, though heard from the mouth of a man. To grasp this point, take the case of a dream.  It is a fact, established by Freud among others, that a dream tries to protect its existence against the incursions of reality. If a bell rings in the sleeper’s room, …

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One of the great means of instruction is telling tales. The Sufi classic Mathnavi, and the Zen writings, are full of them. The stories are not fully explained; we are expected to find the inner meaning by our own efforts. Pondering on a story is compared to churning milk; it has to be turned and revolved again and again without interruption for a good time till quite suddenly butter begins to appear. Sometimes disciples try to insulate themselves by simply naming some of the characters-this one represents the lower mind` and that one the teacher, and so on. Such facile identifications can be made in hundreds of ways, and they do not help in finding the secret. They are attempts to seek safety` to avoid the implication of the story. “The world”, says the Mathnavi, “resembles the great big city which you may hear of from children’s tales. In their …

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“Our teacher,” said a disciple to a friend of his, “won’t let us take notes when he gives his sermons. Still, he always speaks on one of the classical texts, so as soon as possible afterwards, a group of us meet together and recover as much as we can from memory. With the basic text to consult, we can between us recall nearly everything that he’s said, and then we can get it down. ” “But why won’t he allow notes while he’s speaking?” asked the friend. “‘Yes, we’d always wondered that”, went on the disciple. “He just says at the beginning of every year that he doesn’t want us to take notes. None of us felt we had the right to ask him; I mean, a teacher’s decision mustn’t be questioned, must it? But we thought we’d like to know. “Well, one day, when we knew that some outsiders …

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Lions and Tigers

LIONS AND TIGERS “All living beings have been Buddhas from the very beginning. It is like ice and water : apart from water no ice can exist.” Hakuin’s Meditation Song. The most troublesome problem for human nature in any age is the question of reputation and profit. Its solution means the difference between ignorance and enlightenment, between sinking and swimming. There are only two paths : to make use of reputation and profit as their master, or to be driven by them as their slave. Generally people take the second. On this point there is an amusing story. A great tiger, the pride of a certain Zoo, died. The proprietor was greatly worried about the effect on the Zoo’s popularity, and finally evolved a plan to have the dead tiger stuffed and hire someone to get inside it and imitate a living tiger. It was difficult to find a man, …

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