The Reverence of Others

The doctrine is that the things of the world are not absolutely real, as we know. They have practical efficacy, and they have practical effects on us, but they are not absolutely real in themselves. And regularly, every few years, some clever dick comes along and says, ‘Well, you know, all these holy texts and sacred utterances—they’re all unreal, aren’t they?’And, sure enough, you put this to a teacher. And the teacher says, ‘Yes, yes.’

So the man says, ‘Well, why do you use them then?’

This is a modern teacher, so he says, ‘Well, I’m throwing imitation pearls to people who have got the idea that they are swine. They’re rooting about in the mud, looking for some gold coins that they think they’ve lost. Now, when I throw them these imitation pearls, they suddenly feel, “Oh, we’re rich!” and they stop looking around in the mud. Then they look around and realize that they’re human beings! The imitation pearls make them feel better and it enables them to stop, to look around, and to realize what they

A man visited a group and heard a text read. He returned to his own group afterwards and the teacher said, ‘Well, did you benefit from the visit?’

The man said, ‘It upset me a bit.’

The teacher said, ‘Why was that?’

The man said, ‘Well, the texts were read, and they were intoned, and there was a very strong atmosphere, but it was done without any reverence. Here we have always been taught reverence. So, I don’t know . . . ’

What was the effect on you?’

Well, I was put off by that. But I must admit that the resonance of those texts has remained with me; it did have an effect on me.’

And the teacher said, ‘Good! While we’re separated from the texts, we revere them and reverence is of utmost importance, but if it should happen that people become one with the texts, then it is not a question of uttering them with reverence. The texts are speaking the text, and there is no question of reverence; the texts are declaring themselves to the world, and it is an expression of truth.’

A lot of the old temples have treasures and, periodically—sometimes once a year—the treasures are brought out and exposed, and the public can go and see them. They are put in glass cases and some monk learns by heart the description of what the figure or treasure is. It may be a rare manuscript by the founder of the sect, or perhaps it is a relic of some kind.

I was in a little group trekking around, and we stopped in front of one of these cases. We were told by the monk what it was, and we looked. Then we moved on to the next case. And he stood again in front of this one and explained what it was, and then he happened to look at us and saw that we were looking at him! He turned around and noticed that the glass case was empty! And he said, ‘Oh, it’s gone away!’ So we went on to the next case.

Now, this was used as an example of what can happen when the inner life of a movement begins to depart. You carry on as if it was still there, and there is a sort of convention of not asking questions about it. Some people, as in the case of the emperor’s clothes, say, ‘Oh, yes, yes, it’s quite . . .’ and then they move on. It can happen. The teacher said, ‘Things can go on under their own momentum for quite a long time, long after the central experience has gone. And it has to be watched very carefully.’

Hakuin said that you can have a lot of trees with interlaced branches. The roots wither, but the trees support each other. It’s like a table with many legs, but there is no actual ‘life’ because the roots have withered. They don’t fall down; they are holding each other.

Then,’ Hakuin said, ‘when a storm comes, the whole thing falls down!’ He said, ‘In the same way, people can support themselves on what they think is the reverence of others.’ The others seem to be full of devotion and reverence, yet they may not feel anything in themselves. People see them behaving with apparent reverence and deference to these holy things and they think, ‘They must believe; they are so reverent!’ Actually, it may be that nobody believes in it at all, that we are all supporting each other on the behaviour of the rest of the group. Hakuin said that this gives the illusion there is still something living within it when it has long since gone away.

The Reverence of Othersfrom the Old Zen Master

© Trevor Leggett

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