The concept monster4 min read

The so-called no-I of people like this, which is built on concepts, is no more than the no-I of a child. In an ironical sense one could call them good quiet people. Happy people!

It is a widespread aberration in our thought today that many think self-completion is attained by concept-building, and fail to make any efforts towards the ideal. Even among Zen aspirants are numbers who fall into the same error. ‘Lying on the face or sleeping on the side, I have freedom . . .’ they quote, and think that getting up just when one likes is enlightenment there and then, and that the state of satori is to express everything just as it comes. ‘Oneself a Buddha and all others Buddhas’; so thinking, he is sure he is already a Buddha.

There are some middle schools which profess adherence to the sect of Buddhism of which I am a priest, and at one of them I used to give instruction. The subject was Morals, and the had to be based on the Imperial Rescript on Education of the great Emperor Meiji. I found that however sincerely I spoke they never listened sincerely but used to drop off to sleep or start whispering to each other. I realized that to go on talking about ethics and morality in this way was having no effect at all.

So one time in a fourth-year Morals class I came down from the platform and said: ‘Today I’m dropping my position as teacher and you are going to drop yours as pupils, and I want you to answer me a question straight and without feeling you have to be polite. My question is this: in the syllabus there must be subjects that interest you and subjects which you like least, and I want you to tell me honestly which they are.’ Nobody said a word. I repeated my question and finally one clever boy said reluctantly: ‘Well then, I will answer the teacher as he asks. In our syllabus subjects like Maths and English are difficult, but the more you do of them the more you find In them and gradually they get quite interesting. But you, teacher, come here just once a week for one hour and you talk about national morality, loyalty and filial piety all the time, and it’s the most uninteresting subject. Couldn’t the Morals class be taken out of the syllabus?’

I was forcibly impressed by these words out of the mouth of a child. The Rescript is a reflection of the character of the great emperor, but we teach nothing of his great character, nothing of his life; the Rescript has become no more than a concept, thought about logically in the head. There was no life in what I was saying and so there was no reaction from the pupils. Rather natural, one might say.

I remember once asking a man who was a big name in the educational world: ‘What is the foundation of the nation’s morals?’ and he replied at once: ‘Why the Rescript on Education of course.’ What a forlorn answer, wasn’t it? The Rescript is always kept tucked away on the highest shelf. Now when religious people talk about religion today, when Zen priests talk about Zen today, I’m afraid it tends to be like that. It is shameful how without touching upon the sublime life of the Buddha, Buddhism is simply presented as spun out of our own heads. What relevance that Buddhism have to life? For it has never had any life in it. The basic error of the intellectual is to think that the aims of Buddhism are elevated views and penetrating intellect, and that these things in themselves be a fulfilment of human nature.

I believe this is what the Vimalakirti Sutra means when it says that the lotus is not born in the soil of high meadows. The lotus of faith does not bloom In the heart of the man of elevated views, nor is there any satori there. His non-egoity is a conceptual non-egoity, and it can be compared to the no-I of the child.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect