Stories, parables, and examples have been a favoured way of conveying spiritual insights and truths since time immemorial, and Trevor Leggett was a master at it. He had the knack of pointing out the spiritual implications of practical events which people can relate to.
The Old Zen Master contains stories based on Buddhism with references to martial arts, music, chess and incidents in ordinary life. He describes this as a freewheeling book: `I am trying to give a few hints which have helped me and which can be of help to others,’ he said.
For those who know nothing of Buddhism or Zen in particular, this is an ideal introduction. It is nevertheless relevant to long-term practitioners as well. As the author points out, occasionally a new slant, a new angle or a new illustration — especially if it is an unexpected one — can be a help in absorbing practice, study and devotion.
The way out of life and death is not some special technique; the essential thing is to penetrate to the root of life and death. It is in the centre of everyone, and everything else is dependent on it. Zen is to pierce through to it.
Zen sitting is not some sort of operation to be performed. It is going into one’s true original nature before father or mother were born. The self seeks to grasp the self, but it is already the self, so why should it go to grasp the self? Look into it. Where was it then? Where is it now? When life ends, where does it go? When you feel you cannot look any more, look and see how that inability to look appears and disappears. As you look and see how the looking arises and goes, satori, realisation, will arise of itself.
At the beginning you have to take up a koan riddle. One such is this: ‘What is your true face before father and mother were born’. For one facing the turbulence of life and death, such a koan clears away the sandy soil and opens up the golden treasure which was there from the beginning, the ageless root of all things.
In concentration on a koan, there is a time of rousing the spirit of inquiry, a time of breaking clinging attachments, a time of furious dashing forward, and there is a time of damping the fuel and stopping the boiling. In general, meditation has to be done with urgency, but if after three or five years the urgency is still maintained by force, the tension becomes a wrong one and it is a serious condition. Many lose heart and give up. In such a case, the koan is to be thrown down. Then there is a cooling. The point is that many people come to success if they first have the experience of wrestling with a koan and later reduce the effort, but few come to success when they are putting out exceptional effort. After a good time, the rush of thoughts outward and inward, subsides naturally, and the true face shows itself as the solution to the koan. And mind, free from all motivations, always appears as void and absolute sameness, shining like the brightness of heaven, at the centre of the vast expanse of phenomenal things, and needing no polishing or cleaning. This is beyond all concepts, beyond being and nonbeing.
Leave your innumerable knowing and seeings and understandings, and go to that greatness of space. When you come to that vastness, there is no speck of Buddhism in your heart, and then you will have the true sight of the buddhas and patriarchs. The true nature is like the immensity of space, which contains all things. When you can conform to high and low, square and round, to all regions equally, that is it. The emptiness of the sea lets waves rise, the emptiness of the mountain valley makes the voice echo, the emptiness of the heart makes the Buddha. When you empty the heart, things appear as in a mirror, shining there without differences in them: ‘Life and death is an illusion, and all the buddhas one’s own body’.
Trevor Leggett (1914 – 2000) has been a leading writer on Zen Buddhism in the West. He lived for a considerable time in Japan and was the first foreigner to obtain the Sixth Dan (senior teachers degree) in judo from Kodokan. He wrote well-known books on the subject as well as many books on Zen, amongst which are A First Zen Reader, The Warrior Koans, Zen and the Ways, Yoga and Zen, and Fingers and Moons. He was head of the BBC Japanese World Service for 24 years.
The Old Zen Master by Trevor Leggett
ISBN 13: 978-0946672073 ISBN 10: 0946672075
Buddhist Publishing Group, Published: 1987, reprint 2010, Paperback 194 pages. £10.95 / $16.95
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