The Bhagavad Gita states that actions must be performed in evenness of mind8 min read

‘Act, but do not re-act’, Dr. Shastri used to tell his pupils. He taught that action should be calm, well-directed to a right objective, and efficient. But it was not to be accompanied by reactions. Sometimes, in the very midst of an action, we find ourselves reacting to the situation: How am I doing?  Is anyone watching me?  I hope this will come out right, and what if it doesn’t?  This will show them they can’t ignore me! – and innumerable other reactions go on, as a background to the action itself. The thoughts are only half-formulated, but it means that the action does not get full attention, because part of the mind is taken up with them. They create tensions not needed for the action, which impede it.

The Gita in Chapter II says that actions must be performed in evenness of mind, and especially in regard to the possible future results of the action; a Gita yogin must keep his inner balance whether in success or failure.

People say: ‘But it’s natural to be anxious that things should not go wrong, and to be upset if they do; those who don’t care will do everything badly.’ It is a mistake. Dr. Shastri often gave the example of a game played between opponents. They play their chess, for instance, with intense seriousness, and that is the pleasure of the game. They do try hard to win, but winning is not the true pleasure. That is in the struggle itself, intellectual in chess, physical in sports or artistic in a gardening competition or flower show. In the chess game, when one loses he can appreciate the strategy of the other’s play, and congratulate the winner. Dr. Shastri often played chess, and he said it is one of the great pleasures of life: intense focusing on the pieces so that they almost seem alive, and then at the end they are put away in the box as the opponents smile at each other. They care, and yet they do not care. They act, but they do not react.

I heard this in a different form the first time I visited Takashina Rosen, the Primate of the great Soto sect of Japanese Zen. I was taken along by Dr. Hasegawa, the head of one of the big Tokyo hospitals. Dr. Hasegawa was not a particularly ardent Buddhist, but he happened to know the Primate, whom he had helped considerably when they were both abroad. I knew Dr. Hasegawa because he was a Judo man, and as it happened I had helped him when he was in London. (All this was soon after World War II, when Japanese experienced difficulties in getting hard currency.)

I was having lunch with him in Tokyo, and when in the course of conversation he discovered that I was interested in Zen, he said: ‘Why, I know the very man. I’ll ring him now, and we’ll go and see him.’ Hasegawa was a very energetic man, and he at once found the number and spoke to the Primate who to my great surprise agreed to meet us in an hour’s time. We rushed off in the Doctor’s car, and got there just on time.

The peace of the temple was like another world. I had spoken with Hasegawa in English, but now it had to be in Japanese. The priest soon discovered the level of my Japanese, and adapted his remarks to it. (This was something which Japanese in those days usually failed to do: once they had got over their surprise that the foreigner could speak Japanese at all, they assumed he must be bi-lingual and drenched him with high-speed colloquialisms.) When he found that I could read the Chinese characters, he wrote some of the key lines in a clear hand, so that I could take them away. When the subject of Zen meditation came up, the Primate explained to me the sitting position and how all casual thoughts were gradually dropped. At the end of this, Dr. Hasegawa remarked that from the medical standpoint, he would class the final state under the heading of deep sleep.

To my amazement, the Primate said: ‘Yes. In deep sleep, the body moves periodically to ease the muscles, without waking up. The body knows what to do without thinking about it. It can be the same in the so-called waking state. If the mind can really forget its habitual tensions of desire and hate and silliness, it will know what to do without having to think about it. Such people go around in a state of deep sleep. There are no reactions.

To drop off unnecessary thoughts takes training. But even someone untrained will confidently advise others on what they should do; he or she feels clear-sighted and sometimes, when the advice is not tainted with personal feelings of fear or greed or dislike and so on, it is quite sensible. This is because he or she is not personally involved there is relative freedom from unnecessary thoughts. It is sensible because it is detached. But without training, detachment cannot be guaranteed.

I later came to know the Primate well. Even in his eighties he was very active, often flying to Sao Paulo to see the Buddhists there, as he was also head of the All-Japan Buddhist Association. He always made a couple of hours for me when I visited Tokyo every two or three years, and invited me to one of the All-Japan Buddhist Conferences.  I later translated some chapters from his book, A Tongue-tip Taste of Zen.

His movements, even as a very old man, were smooth and unhesitating, reminding me of Dr. Shastri’s. He encouraged me to translate and publish some of the Zen texts. He once remarked: ‘The English language is going to be important for the spread of the true Zen. When I am born again, the first thing I shall do is to learn English.’

As President of the All-Japan Buddhist Association, Primate Takashina raised the big sum of money to complete the huge sculptured head of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, at Ofuna, which commuters see on their way to Tokyo. He said: ‘They notice it the first time and for a bit after that, and then cease to be consciously aware of it. But unconsciously, that figure of compassion will affect their hearts.’

I remembered that Dr. Shastri had told us how Ieyasu, who unified the warring clans of Japan in 1600 AD, had made it a legal requirement that every house should have a little Buddhist shrine in it. Ieyasu was a sceptic (he said), but he knew that the image of Buddha in each house would keep the people peaceful. And Ieyasu’s dynasty lasted over 259 years with only one serious rebellion. That rebellion was by Christian converts, and it had been the fear of this that led to the ruthless suppression of Christianity at the beginning of the long Tokugawa rule. The authorities knew what had happened in the Philippines, where Christian converts had facilitated the take-over by Spain: they were determined that the pattern should not be repeated in Japan.  The suppression was purely political; the Buddhist priests did not seek to inflame it, (though it is true that one of them did suggest a test: a suspect was told to step on a tiled picture of Christ. Christians refused.)

The Kannon and Buddha images were prescribed not necessarily voluntary. Many houses had, and still have, both a Buddhist shrine and a Shinto shrine; there is not felt to be a conflict.  The view was not the excluding ‘He who is not with me is against me’ of the Gospel according to Matthew, but the inclusive ‘He who is not against us is with us’ Of Mark.

Consciously formed associations are much better, but there is often a misunderstanding about the method of formation. Sudden and dramatic conversions to a new view often fall away. This is not the right way to change the roots of the mind. It can be no more than cutting off the weed above the surface; while the root is there, it will slowly sprout again, sometimes with extra vigour. The point is covered at length in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II, 10-13.

There is an interesting parallel between the two systems of training, Yoga and Zen. Both require the ability to go beyond thought: in Yoga it is called citta-vrtti-nirodha, inhibition of thought processes, and in Zen hi-shi-ryo, thinking nothing.  In both cases it is paring away reactions. But the Yoga regards desire as the main obstacle, whereas in Zen it is sometimes said that it is the casual thoughts, silliness in fact, that mainly distract. There is no sharp dividing-line between the views. A modern teacher of Yoga has remarked that people sometimes learn from great passions as they realize that disappointment is inevitable, whereas they learn nothing from a lifetime of trivialities.  And Takashina Rosen said that some civilizations become obsessed with so-called free love, which degenerates into lust without any love. But in general, in Yoga passion is the obstacle, in Zen it is mental fidgeting. Just to read about such differences can be confusing to someone without a teacher. The general rule is: decide which one seems most right, which seems to suit. Then follow the other one.

From birth we have been acquiring limiting habits which restrict our potentialities and behaviour.  We come to think of these distortions as what we really are and feel that working with them is what is natural and good for us.  A strongly right-handed person does everything with the right hand, because that is easy and suitable but in fact the distorted is being re-enforced.  The first job of the teacher will be to make him use the left hand most of the time.  Then when the true natural symmetrical functions of the body has been restored it is a flexible instrument for the expression of the innate talents.

© Trevor Leggett