Well, they use examples like this, to try to alert us to things that happen in our daily lives, and to find the spiritual element in them. Supposing I’m a copy typist in an office, well I can remember a case, before the Xerox machines came in, of a woman, she was a copy typist in a lawyer’s office, where it was essential that if she made a copy of a letter which came in, and the copy was necessary, it was essential that the copy should be absolutely exact, and therefore when the copy had been typed, it was always checked through with two people – one person can’t do that, it’s unreliable, you may miss a line, so one person reads it, and the other checks. Now she never did this. She would take the letter into her little typing room, she would be typing very fast, she was expert, and she’d come out and hand it them. And they would say, ‘Well, have you checked this?’ And she said, ‘Yes, it’s perfectly correct’. And they said, ‘But you’ve had no time to check this’. She said, ‘It’s perfectly correct’. Then the office manager had it checked by two people, and it was always perfectly correct. And he couldn’t understand this.
And he, he finally got her to say that she was an artist. She would look at the letter she had to copy, she would calculate the margins, the exact spacing of the date, and she would copy the letter in exactly the same form as it had been received, length of the lines exactly the same, the hyphenation the same, the paragraphing exactly the same, the indentation in line. Then, when she had the original of her copy she’d put one on top of the other and hold it up against a strong light. Then at one glance she would see if there was any variation – it would stand out like a blur. Now, she was an artist and she’d found an inspiration and a beauty in her everyday work, and Zen lays enormous stress on this for people – not to think. ‘Oh, I can’t do this’.
When we do a flower arrangement, we generally have to have a lot of flowers, otherwise it looks skimpy. The Japanese just have two or three sometimes, two or three twigs, and you know the old lady who keeps the tiny little tobacco and sweet shop on the corner – above she’s got her little room – and if you go up there she’s got a little bowl there with just these, maybe these three twigs in: one represents Heaven, the double curve, one man and one Earth.
The one representing the Earth always goes down, but at the very end it just turns up, and if you know this you can look and see that in the Earth itself there’s something that aspires upward. And you look at those three twigs and you think, ‘Well for goodness ‘sake!’. But again, she puts you opposite them. When you’ve been looking at them for half an hour you feel peace. You don’t have to be rich, or well off, to learn that, how to create that peace, and we can say this: the culture has gone right down into Japanese society, through the influence of Zen. The people have learned, many of them, an elementary form of meditation, how to make themselves peaceful.
When a Japanese financial delegate, who wasn’t used to broadcasting, came to this country to do a broadcast, we set him up. He was very important, and then – now normally, you the producer, who happened to be myself, you talk to the guest, so that they don’t get all tense and nervous if they’re not experienced, but in this case I put him in front of the microphone, and went into the control cubicle, you see, so he had three or four minutes to go.
Now our people, when they’re sitting in front of a mike, like in most cases, they push it about, ‘Maybe there’s time for a cigarette’. So this chap sat there, he had his smoke, then he sat perfectly still and the studio manager in the cubicle said to me, ‘Is he all right?’
So I said, ‘Yes, he’s preparing himself’, and he was splendid. Well now, some individuals in the West know this, they have their own methods of calming themselves or preparing themselves, but in the East it’s known quite widely to slow the breath and count it in a particular way, and they can calm themselves on a very important occasion.
A famous Zen master was invited to visit a group of hippies who were interested in Zen. This was in Hawaii, so he was due to speak at the University of Hawaii, and he agreed to accept their invitation to visit the colony, and he said when he came there in the car, they were all lined up to greet him, and he said all the men had frayed jeans, which were frayed off, and one leg was always shorter than the other trouser leg, invariably, and both sexes wore rumpled clothes, their hair was invariably matted, or in rats’ tails, and nobody looked too clean. Well, the Zen people, however poor they are, they try to make their clothes neat, and they keep themselves neat and tidy.
So he anyway, he gave his address and he found them very nice courteous people who were interested in Zen, but at the tea afterwards before he was to go back, one of them said to him, ‘Don’t you think this emphasis on tidiness, cleanness, which is, so you’ve told us, is so important in Zen, that this is really, these are trivialities, aren’t they? They are not the important things in life. The important thing is, as you were saying, is freedom, somehow to get out of this little enclosure of the mind, even briefly, to experience the freedom and inspiration, not all this nattering about clothes and neatness. It’s an artificial tidiness and cleanness. It’s got nothing to do with the really important things of life’.
And old Moribeg, the Zen teacher, he said, he told me, ‘Good luck!’ The sort of community cat was passing, so he got some, a bit of the cream, off the strawberries and cream part of the spread on the table. He put it down, and the cat came across and had some of the cream, and then it sat down, and it started licking itself. And he said, ‘Look, he likes doing that. Cleanness and tidiness isn’t artificial. It’s natural to man. You can have artificial untidiness too you know, which is a sort of defiance that’s got nothing to do with the important things in life.’
Well, this again is an example of how we can strike some attitude of defiance perhaps, or too much conformity, and we can forget the true nature of the man, which is that he appreciates beauty, and he wants to create beauty.
© Trevor Leggett
Talks in this series are:
Part 6: Kobo never chooses the brush