Classical Yoga, which was, commented on and formulated finally by Shankara about 700 AD, and Buddhism, which in its form of Zen took root in China round about 500 AD, and these two are both based on meditation experience combined with a particular form of daily life, and they both aim at release from what are regarded as illusory bonds of identity with body and mind and things we worship.
The experience can’t be conveyed by words. A book on music can’t tell what something’s going to sound like, but it can tell you what to listen for and a book on music can be an encouragement for your own practice and it can help you to notice some things, perhaps in performance of the great music classics, which otherwise one might not notice. In the same way the words of the religious texts, they can’t actually give you experience but they can dispel some of the illusory things which we think.
Now both these systems aim at release and the Zen example is this: a man is in a beautiful park, sitting on the grass; there are lakes and trees and flowers, and wonderful things to see. But he never moves from his little area, where he stays, a bit cramped, and because he’s been living on it the grass is all worn, and he has been cooking his little meals on a little Primus stove, and it’s been a terrible mess. And you ask him, ‘Well, why don’t you go out and enjoy the park, and freedom.? He points to a notice which says NO WAY, and he says, ‘And I can’t go that way either, because there’s another notice stuck in the turf, PASSAGE BARRED, and then there’s another notice this way, KEEP OFF THE GRASS, and another notice this way, NO ADMITTANCE. And you say to him, ‘Well, who put these notices there? And he says, ‘Well, I suppose I did, but I can’t go you know, there’s no way.’
Well, in a little bit the same way, both the Zen Buddhism and Yoga say that we put barriers round our minds and our experience, and they convince us that we are enclosed. They restrict our intelligence. They restrict our experience. But nothing actually prevents us from leaving except our convictions, but they can be very strong, and the discipline of Yoga and Zen is to disperse, first to thin out, and then to disperse those convictions. And what will freedom be? Well both of them say that there is something in man which is like a bird and can fly free, but it’s held. Well, when a parrot is taken out of a cage, it’s always lived in a cage, it’s put on a branch, it’s now free, but it can’t fly, because it’s always been in a cage, where it couldn’t fly. Then a wild bird flies up in front of it, and everything is activated. The bird’s about to take off, and then the conviction of imprisonment settles over it. ‘Don’t like this’, and sometimes it can take two or three weeks of painful attempts before the parrot can actually fly, though there’s nothing holding it now.
Well, this is an illustration which is given from Yoga. There’s nothing which actually holds us, and yet we are held firmly. Now the meditation, the purpose of the meditation experience, is to practise under specially favourable circumstances, as we would learn to swim in a very calm sea, or swimming bath, not in a rough one. If we try to learn in a rough one from the beginning we’ll be thrown over, we’ll probably never learn to swim. We shall panic. But if the circumstances are very calm and still, we practise regularly in meditation, then a little bit of freedom can be first seen, and then experienced. As to what that freedom is, the Yoga is willing to say there is a universal spirit which created the Universe, which controls and supports it, which is the friend of man, and the Self, the imprisoned Self in Man, is one with that spirit, can join and become one with it.
But Zen doesn’t wish generally to specify things in this way, because, although by giving it a name and a concrete idea of a universal spirit, it’s much easier to concentrate one’s life and devote oneself to the practice. Nevertheless, we are more liable to stick in some concept: ‘There is a God. His Name is Jaweh’, ‘His Name is Allah’, ‘His Name is Indra’, ‘His Name is Krishna’. Then we have a name. We go, ‘Oh, well’, and we stick where we are. We have a name which we are worshipping from a distance, and we feel all is well, we’re looked after, and provided things don’t go too badly, it can be a great comfort, like having a sort of insurance policy, you feel that if things get too bad the Lord will doubtless intervene. But this will not set us free, and because we are worshipping illusions, we shall suffer. Now both the Yoga and the Zen stress this point very strongly: to find out what it is that we worship. People say, ‘Oh, I don’t worship anything.’ But they do. There is something in our lives which we feel has a sort of magical significance, which will give us happiness. It might be getting a title; you see a civil servant or an ambassador working hard to get a knighthood, Commander, Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George. He’s worshipping that. He thinks, ‘This! This! This!’ And when he gets it he’s embittered because his friend got into the peerage.
Well we have no chance, I have no chance of getting a KCMG, to me it’s nothing, only because I have no chance. And both Buddhism and Yoga say, ‘Find out what is in one’s own heart’. Not so easy to know. Shankara says it’s easy to be detached from things when you have absolutely no chance of getting them. But supposing one has a chance?
© Trevor Leggett
Talks in this series are:
Part 6: Kobo never chooses the brush