Lesson 5: Selection from Essays in Idleness 2
(Citation from Donald Keene “Selection from Essays in Idleness” Kodansha International, 1999)
Is it because the truth is so boring that most stories one hears are false.
People tend to exaggerate even when relating things they have actually witnessed, but when months or years have intervened, and the place is remote, they are all the more prone to invent whatever tales suit their fancies, and, when these have been written down, fictions are accepted as fact. This holds true of skill in the various arts; ignorant men who know nothing about these arts praise the masters indiscriminately, as if they were gods, but the expert gives no credence to such tales. Things known by report always prove quite deferent when one has actually seen them.
When a man spews forth whatever nonsense comes to his mind, not caring that he may be exposed on the spot, people soon realize that he is lying. Again, if a man, though himself doubting the truth of a story, tells it exactly as it was related to him, with a self-satisfied twitching of the nose, the lie is not his. But it is frightening when a man tells a lie convincingly, deliberately blurring the details in places and pretending not to remember exactly what happened, but carefully leaving no loose ends.
Nobody protests very energetically at a lie which redounds to his own prestige.
If, when everyone else is listening with pleasure to some lie, you decide that it would be pointless to be the only one to protest, “That wasn’t what happened,” and listen in silence, you may even be cited as a witness, and the story will seem all the more authentic.
There's no escaping it―the world is full of lies. It is safest always to accept what one hears as if it were utterly commonplace and devoid of interest.
Stories told by the lower classes are full of startling incidents. The well-bred man does not tell stories about prodigies.
I do not mean to suggest, however, that one should not believe wholeheartedly in the miracles of the gods and buddhas, or in the lives of the incarnations. It is foolish to accept popular superstitions uncritically, but to dismiss them as being “most improbable” serves no purpose. In general, the best course is to treat such matters as if they were true, neither giving one's unqualified belief nor doubting or mocking them.
Somebody once remarked that thin silk was not satisfactory as a scroll wrapping because it was so easily torn. Ton’a replied, “It is only after the silk wrapper has frayed at top and bottom, and the mother-of-pearl has fallen from the roller that a scroll looks beautiful.” This opinion demonstrated the excellent taste of the man. People often that a set of books looks ugly if all volumes are not in the same format, but I was impressed to hear the Abbot K?y? say, “It is typical of the unintelligent man to insist on assembling complete sets of everything. Imperfect sets are better.
In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. Someone once told me, “Even when building the imperial palace, they always leave one place unfinished. In both Buddhist and Confucian writings of the philosophers of former times, there are also many missing chapters.
A certain man who was learning to shoot a bow aimed at the target with two arrows in his hand. His teacher said “A beginner should not hold two arrows. It will make him rely on the second arrow and be careless with the first. Each time you shoot you should think not of hitting or missing the target but of making this one the decisive arrow.” I wonder if anyone with only two arrows would be careless with one of them in the presence of teacher. But though the pupil is himself unaware of any carelessness, the teacher will notice it. This caution applies to all things.
A man studying some branch of learning thinks at night that he has the next day before him, and in the morning that he will have time that night; he plans in this way always to study more diligently at some future time. How much harder it is to perceive the laziness of mind that arises in an instant! Why should it be so difficult to do something now, in the present moment?
A man who is trying to learn some art is apt to say, “I won’t rush things and tell people I am practicing while I am still a beginner. I’ll study by myself, and only when I have mastered the art will I perform before people. How impressed they’ll be then!”
People who speak in this fashion will never learn any art. The man who, even while still a novice, mixes with the experts, not ashamed of their harsh comments or ridicule, and who devotedly persists at his practice, unruffled by criticism, will neither become stultified in his art nor careless with it. Though he may lack natural gifts, he will with the passage of the years to outstrip the man who coasts on his endowments, and in the end will attain the highest degree of skill, acquire authority in his art and the recognition of the public, and win an unequaled reputation.
The performers who now rank as the most skilled in the whole country were at the beginning considered incompetent, and, indeed, had shocking faults. However, by faithfully maintaining the principles of their art and holding them in honor, rather than indulging in their own fancies, they have become paragons of the age and teachers for all. This surely holds true for every art.
You may intend to do something today only for pressing business to come up unexpectedly and take up all of your attention the rest of the day. Or a person you have been expecting is prevented from coming, or someone hadn’t expected comes calling. The thing you have counted on goes amiss, and the thing you had no hopes for is the only one to succeed. A matter which promised I to be a nuisance passes off smoothly, and a matter which should have been easy proves a great hardship. Our daily experiences bear no resemblance to what we had anticipated. This is true throughout the year and equally true for entire lives.
But if we decide that everything is bound to go contrary to our anticipations, we discover that naturally there are also some things which do not contradict expectations. This makes it all the harder to be definite about anything. The one thing you can be certain of the truth that all is uncertainty.
A man should never marry. I am charmed when I hear a man say, “I am still living alone.” When I hear someone say, “He has married into so and so’s family”, or “He has taken such and such a wife and they are living together,” I feel nothing but contempt for the man. He will be ridiculed by others too, who will say, “No doubt he thought that commonplace woman was quite a catch, and that’s why he took her off with him.” Or, if the woman happens to be beautiful, they are sure to feel, “He dotes on her so much that he worships her as his private Buddha. Yes, that's no doubt the case.”
The woman who cleverly manages a household is the least agreeable to her husband. It is exasperating to see the pains and affection she lavishes on her children when they are born; and after her husband has died she will become a nun and look so decrepit that it will positively shocking.
Living day in and day out with a woman, no matter what she may be like, is bound to be frustrating and the source of irritation. The woman too is likely to feel insecure. The relationship, however, can last unbroken for many years if the couple lives apart, and the man only occasionally visits or stays with the woman. If the man occasionally visits the woman and remains with her just temporarily, a freshness will cling to their romance.
When I turned eight years old I asked my father, “What sort of thing is a Buddha?” My father said, “A Buddha is what a man becomes.” I asked then, “How does a man become a Buddha?” My father replied, “By following the teachings of Buddha.” “Then, who taught the Buddha to teach?” He again replied, “He followed the teachings of Buddha before him.”
I asked again, “What kind of Buddha, was the first Buddha who began to teach?” At this my father laughed and answered, “I suppose he fell from the sky or else he sprang up out of the earth.”
My father told other people, “He drove me into a corner, and I was stuck for an answer.” But he was amused.