Instruction, observation, and experience. by Trevor Leggett

A pupil of a Zen master in Tokyo attended his sangha where it was expected that the students penetrate deeply into truth, in the world and in themselves. This particular pupil had to go to the countryside on a business trip, and he stayed overnight. He attended a service in the local temple. When he returned, he saw the teacher and one or two of his fellow pupils and he said, ‘You know — oh, it was so impressive in that little country temple. They were only poor farmers, but the atmosphere of faith . . . There was complete faith there. As I sat there and I heard that firm, resonant voice of the priest intoning the holy text, I thought of all my doubts and all my queries and intellectual enquiries, and, oh, I felt so bad about it. There was this vibrant voice of truth and the complete faith of the peasants.’ The teacher said, ‘Yes, it is very impressive that faith. The only one there who might have had his doubts would have been the priest himself.’

This is called faith without investigation, without observation, without going deeper, and it can be very impressive, but this is not the faith which the Buddha wanted. Faith begins, but it has to develop into enquiry.

Photo of Minu

Enquiry, too, can become a sort of slogan, as blind faith can become a slogan. One of our science pundits on the radio — it was quite a time back — said that religion takes things on trust and takes things for granted, on the authority of a hierarchy, but in science even the greatest authority is not decisively accepted, ‘Nothing is taken for granted! Everything has to be investigated.’ And a man wrote a letter to one of the papers the next day. He said that he’d been very impressed by Dr Magnus Pike’s talk about science taking nothing for granted, and it had changed his attitude toward his cat. When the time came to put the cat out at the front door, if the night was wet, the cat would break loose and dash through the house to the back door and meow there, apparently in the hope of finding better weather conditions. He said, ‘I realize now that my cat has the true scientific spirit of taking nothing for granted, and of investigating everything whereas,’ he added, ‘I admit that, before, I used to think our cat was a bit of a fool.’

So we have these two extremes — blind faith without enquiry, and enquiry which is no real enquiry at all; it’s just an endless sort of doubt, and still lacks focus.

There are three things which are given by some teachers — instruction, observation, and experience. But they can have slightly unexpected applications. If you teach, for example, a somewhat risky, physical activity, you tell the pupil, ‘Don’t do it this way. It seems easier, but you can dislocate your elbow.’ That’s the instruction. And the most intelligent pupil can accept that instruction from an experienced, perhaps a famous teacher; he no longer makes that dangerous move, But a lot of pupils don’t accept it. They have a sort of little wire among themselves, ‘Oh, they tell everybody that. Some idiot once made a mistake . . . You don’t take it all literally. We’re all different, aren’t we?’

Well, then they see it happen; some idiot does it and his arm sticks out from the elbow. Oh! well, many are convinced then. But still there are some who think, ‘He was always clumsy, that chap, but I can get away with it.’ So, with such pupils the teacher sometimes has to arrange a little accident, not a serious one, and that is because they can only learn through actually experiencing the disaster themselves. This is the worst way of learning. You are told, you don’t believe it. You see, and you still don’t believe it. And then, finally, through the most bitter experience, you do believe.

The best way of learning is to accept the instruction, but not to stop there, not simply to say, ‘Oh, well, the teacher says, so I won’t do that,’ but to observe too. We can observe what happens when people don’t follow the teacher, and also we can observe the hidden advantages of following the teacher, which the teacher often doesn’t state overtly. Those things are observed in other people, but more than that, finally, the instruction is accepted and observed and experienced in oneself.

Drawing: Joy © Marcelle Hanselaar

So there are these three things — instruction, observation, and experience. The worst pupils don’t believe the instruction, don’t believe the observation and, reluctantly, by force, they have to believe the experience. The best pupils believe the instruction, but don’t stop there; they go on to confirm it by observing, and finally they confirm it in their own experience.

There is an Eastern saying: ‘The arrow flies with alien feathers.’ The arrow flies and often hits the target, but its feathers have come from somewhere else: ‘The arrow flies with alien feathers.’ The bird flies with its own feathers. The arrow flies with alien feathers and it often hits the target, but it gets nothing; it’s simply pulled out and then it’s shot again. The arrow gets nothing, but the bird which flies with its own feathers comes to the nest and the mate and the young ones, and fulfils itself. There is a tendency to want to fly with alien feathers and to read and be satisfied with reading about great figures in the tradition that we are in. This is not bad, but it’s trying to fly with alien feathers, and one can end up with a tremendous amount of information about the thing without having anything of one’s own; it’s all been borrowed quotations and borrowed experiences and borrowed memories. The bird flies with its own feathers.

Trevor Leggett

From the Nov 1991 Buddhism Now

Other posts by Trevor Leggett

Categories: Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, Chan / Seon / Zen, Trevor Leggett

Tags: , , , ,

2 replies

  1. I really enjoyed reading this…….particularly the last section regarding the bird flying with it’s own feathers and the arrow flying with alien feathers – wonderful saying and so true.



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: