The Introduction to Encounters in Yoga and Zen

Introduction

 

Cloth against cloth, or stone against stone:
No clear result, and it is meaningless.
Catch the flung stone in the cloth,
Pin the wind-fluttered cloth with a stone.

 

This verse comes in a scroll of spiritual training belonging to one of the knightly arts in the Far East. In these traditions, instruction is given in the form of vivid images, not in terms of logical categories; it is meant to be a stimulus to living inspiration, not dead analysis. The apparent exactitudes of logic turn out to be of very limited value when applied to life, because then the terms can never be precisely defined.

In the verse, the catching cloth stands for what is technically called ‘softness’, which is not the same as weakness; the stone stands for hardness, not the same as strength.

Softness has a special meaning: it is not merely giving way or doing nothing. There is a strength in softness, but it is not the hard strength of rigidity which has an inherent weakness, namely incapacity to adapt. There is another verse which illustrates these distinctions:

 

Strong in their softness are the sprays of wisteria creeper,

The pine in its hardness is broken by the weak snow.

 

How do these things work in practice? Here is an example from one of the schools of self-defence. You stand on the edge of a cliff and suddenly you see a powerfully built man rushing at you with outstretched arms to push you off. However you may brace yourself, the impetus of his rush will overcome your resistance, and after a brief check you will inevitably go over. To brace yourself is hardness, and it loses to greater hardness. This is meeting stone with stone. Yet if you do nothing, but just stand there – weakness – he will easily push you over.

 

Now suppose that just before his arms touch you, you fall in a heap at his feet. His impetus, not meeting the expected resistance, carries him on unopposed; he trips over you, and goes over himself. This is softness and it defeats hardness. Softness is controlled, skilfully directed, inwardly calm, and prompt. To rate as true softness, it has to be effective in application.

Softness must be carefully distinguished from weakness. In the second verse, the snow falls on the wisteria creeper. When it piles up a little, the flexible creeper bends and the snow drops off. It should be noted that the creeper does not give up its root. It retains an inner integrity, but is able to give before the external pressure by changing its posture, so to say. The branches of the pine tree, however, stiffly retaining their fixed attitude, hold the snow as it piles up, and they may be broken. (The fact is sometimes a surprise to those who have never seen it happen.)

Hardness too has a role. but it has to be used skilfully, just so much and no more. ‘Pin the wind-fluttered cloth with a stone’: the cloth unguided by human hands stands for weakness, and then the hardness of the stone is needed to hold it steady against the wind.

What is the application in life? ‘Cloth against cloth, stone against stone: no clear result, and it is meaningless.’ The sense is, not to meet weakness with weakness, nor oppose hardness with further hardness.

Do not meet cloth with cloth. They are those who, when they become aware of some undesirable characteristic in themselves which hampers their development, say with lethargic resignation, ‘Well, that is how I am.’ Sometimes they say, ‘That is how God made me – it is His will.’ This is meeting weakness with further weakness, and as the verse says, there is no result and it is meaningless.

Some IQ tests have shown Chinese and Japanese children as the best in the world at them. If it is accepted that to solve such little brain-teasers is important for life, the answer for the rest of us is to work harder. The weakness, if it exists, is not to be indignantly denied or resented, but overcome by controlled and skilful hardness. Many great champions in sport began with an inferior natural endowment; they took it as a challenge, and finally surpassed the ‘naturals’, most of whom get their successes too early, become complacent and do not practise enough. Maria Callas did not have a first-rate natural voice: she trained a second-rate instrument. But the intensity of training gave her performances a magnetism which great natural singers have often lacked, and her impact on the world of music was enormous. Michelangelo was early on producing juvenile masterpieces, but the works attributed to Leonardo’s youth do not foreshadow the genius that was to come; he drew it forth out of himself by persistent endeavour – ‘ostinato rigore’ as he says in his notebooks.

The hardness of the stone of will is absolutely necessary to pin the mind-cloth, fluttered by a wind of feeling of inherent limitation. The experience of spiritual teachers is that there are almost infinite potentialities in the mind of each man, which can be unfolded by faith and persistent application.

Again, when the gale of desire, whipped up by conventional acceptance – ‘everyone is doing it’ – tries to bear away all self-control, reasonings and counter-persuasions are often helpless; the stone of will to follow tradition must be used to hold it steady. Observation, too, shows how a released cloth, riding on the wind, seems at first free and glorious in its flight, but rain comes, and the sky-borne cloth begins to fall. It catches on a bramble. Now when the wind blows more, it is torn. Finally it always ends up, sodden with slime, in a ditch. The cloth that has been pinned by a stone is not carried away; it remains clean and useful, perhaps to fulfil itself one day by washing the face and hands of a bodhisattva.

Whether it is an inner wind or an outer wind that blows, the cloth of mind has to be held firm by the stone of will. Do not meet cloth with cloth.

Now the other case: do not meet stone with stone. Take the first story in this book. A young boy loses his father and finally enters a training monastery to try for spiritual realization. An elder pupil resents his keenness, persecutes him, and one day hits him hard on the arm with iron tongs. As it happens, this comes to the notice of the abbot. What is to be done? This is, so to say, a stone flung at the very heart of the young aspirant: a spiritual training centre, and then an actual physical attack by another pupil.

One way would be for the teacher to transfer the boy to another temple for a time, until the elder pupil had finished the obligatory three years training and left. That would be meeting the situation, the flung stone, with weakness. It does not catch the stone at all, but runs away.

Another solution would be to say, ‘You must simply endure this. All the spiritual heroes of the past have endured such persecutions.’ The teacher speaks from the heights: ‘Sit here beside me and let us meditate on endurance.’ This meets hardness with hardness, stone with stone. It can work, but it is liable to produce a hard character.

What other method is there? How is the stone of persecution to be caught in the cloth? How is softness to be applied here? One answer is given in the story on page 11. The teacher finds a means to come down from the mountain-top, and really sit beside the pupil in his distress.

Reading a story like one of these, the usual course is to come to the end and think, ‘Ah yes, yes indeed’, and then move on. It passes out of mind and is not recalled. But a real seeker will find that some particular one may keep recurring to him. That is a sign that it has something for him which he has not fully realized, and then it has to be read in a different way – slowly, sentence by sentence and ultimately word by word. If not too long, it is best to learn it by heart. A deeper point must be sought in it, and a still further one beyond that.

As an example, here is a story which first appeared in my First Zen Reader, and which has found its way into some anthologies. I have sometimes heard it discussed, and it was clear that some who liked it had not thought of going further into it. So they missed half the point. Here it is:

 

A young man who had a bitter disappointment in life went to a remote monastery and said to the abbot: ‘I am disillusioned with life and wish to attain enlightenment to be freed from these sufferings. But I have no capacity for sticking long at anything. I could never do long years of meditation and study and austerity; I should relapse and be drawn back to the world again, painful though I know it to be. Is there any short way for people like me?’ ‘There is,’ said the abbot, ‘if you are really determined. Tell me, what have you studied, what have you concentrated on most in your life?’ ‘Why nothing really. We were rich, and I did not have to work. I suppose the thing I was really interested in was chess. I spent most of my time at that.’

The abbot thought for a moment, and then said to his attendant: ‘Call such-and-such a monk, and tell him to bring a chessboard and men.’ The monk came with the board and the abbot set up the men. He sent for a sword and showed it to the two. ‘O monk,’ he said, ‘you have vowed obedience to me as your abbot, and now I require it of you. You will play a game of chess with this youth, and if you lose I shall cut off your head with this sword. But I promise that you will be reborn in paradise. If you win, I shall cut off the head of this man; chess is the only thing he has ever tried hard at, and if he loses he deserves to lose his head also.’ They looked at the abbot’s face and saw that he meant it: he would cut off the head of the loser.

They began to play. With the opening moves the youth felt the sweat trickling down to his heels as he played for his life. The chessboard became the whole world; he was entirely concentrated on it. At first he had somewhat the worst of it, but then the other made an inferior move and he seized his chance to launch a strong attack. As his opponent’s position crumbled, he looked covertly at him. He saw a face of intelligence and sincerity, worn with years of austerity and effort. He thought of his own worthless life, and a wave of compassion came over him. He deliberately made a blunder and then another blunder, ruining his position and leaving himself defenceless.

The abbot suddenly leant forward and upset the board. The two contestants sat stupefied. ‘There is no winner and no loser,’ said the abbot slowly, ‘there is no head to fall here. Only two things are required,’ and he turned to the young man, ‘complete concentration, and compassion. You have today learnt them both. You were completely concentrated on the game, but then in that concentration you could feel compassion and sacrifice your life for it. Now stay here a few months and pursue our training in this spirit and your enlightenment is sure.’ He did so and got it.

 

One of the things in the story that is not clear to most readers – in fact it never occurs to them – is this: the man had been rich, but had never bothered to use his money to relieve the sufferings of the poor, whom he must have seen often. He spent all his time on a trivial amusement. Where did the wave of compassion come from? He had not felt it before. A time when one’s own life is in danger is the least likely occasion for a sudden feeling of compassion. Even in law, if two men are drowning in the sea and there is a tiny raft which will support only one, it is not murder, or any crime at all, to push off the other and leave him to drown. It is permissible in order to save one’s own life. So how is it that the hero suddenly felt compassion, and became truly heroic? It is only one of the deeper points, but a very important one.

The story first appeared over twenty years ago, and has, I imagine, now shot its bolt, so it may be allowable to use it as an example to illustrate the method of focusing on a point. However it is against tradition to give more than a hint. I propose simply to set out the text in a special way, which will, to those interested, provide that hint.

A young man who had a bitter disappointment in life went to a remote monastery and said to the abbot: ‘I am disillusioned with life and wish to attain enlightenment to be freed from these sufferings. But I have no capacity for sticking long at anything. I could never do long years of meditation and study and austerity; I should relapse and be drawn back to the world again, painful though I know it to be. Is there any short way for people like me?’ ‘There is,’ said the abbot ‘if you are really determined. Tell me, what have you studied, what have you concentrated on most in your life?’ ‘Why, nothing really. We were rich, and I did not have to work. I suppose the thing I was really interested in was chess. I spent most of my time at that.’

The abbot thought for a moment, and then said to his attendant: ‘Call such-and-such a monk, and tell him to bring a chessboard and men.’ The monk came with the board and the abbot set up the men. He sent for a sword and showed it to the two. ‘O monk,’ he said, ‘you have vowed obedience to me as your abbot, and now I require it of you. You will play a game of chess with this youth, and if you lose I shall cut off your head with this sword. But I promise that you will be reborn in paradise. If you win, I shall cut off the head of this man; chess is the only thing he has ever tried hard at, and if he loses he deserves to lose his head also.’ They looked at the abbot’s face and saw that he meant it: he would cut off the head of the loser.

They began to play. With the opening moves the youth felt the sweat trickling down to his heels as he played for his life. The chessboard became the whole world; he was entirely concentrated on it.

 

At first he had somewhat the worst of it,

 

but then the other made an inferior move

 

and he seized his chance to launch a strong attack.

 

As his opponent’s position tumbled, he looked covertly at him. He saw a face of intelligence and sincerity, worn with years of austerity and effort. He thought of his own worthless life, and a wave of compassion came over him.

 

He deliberately made a blunder

 

and then another blunder, ruining his position and leaving himself defenceless.

 

The abbot suddenly leant forward and upset the board. The two contestants sat stupefied. ‘There is no winner and no loser,’ said the abbot slowly, ‘there is no head to fall here. Only two things are required,’ and he turned to the young man, ‘complete concentration, and compassion. You have today learnt them both. You were completely concentrated on the game, but then in that concentration you could feel compassion and sacrifice your life for it. Now stay here a few months and pursue our training in this spirit and your enlightenment is sure.’ He did so and got it.

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