Bankei

Excerpts from the Ashoka course The Story of Zen


Not a single one of you people at this meeting is unenlightened. Right now, you're all sitting before me as Buddhas. Each of you received the Buddha-mind from your mothers when you were born, and nothing else. This inherited Buddha-mind is beyond any doubt unborn, with a marvelously bright illuminative wisdom. In the Unborn, all things are perfectly resolved.

Bankei (1622-1693) was a immensely popular and influential teacher who spoke directly. avoiding sutras and ceremony. He adhered to no particular school and his teaching was remarkably individual and raw, of the essence of Zen. His concern was with the truth as an immediate experience, not with a systematic approach to a distant goal. He preached what he had discovered in his own experience—"the unborn" or "the birthless Buddha-mind"—and he spoke in plain language that anyone could understand.

Teaching to all

Bankei became a Zen man of the people. He spoke to crowds of ordinary country folk and as Zen students. With his simple and direct language, he impressed people with his sincerity. Bankei's Zen was refreshingly clear and relatively simple. You didn't have to be learned, live in a monastery or even necessarily consider yourself a Buddhist to practice them effectively.

Bankei was approached by a priest who boasted that his master possessed miraculous powers. This master could take a brush and write Amida in the air and the word would appear on a sheet of paper in the distance. Challenged to equal this, Bankei replied, "My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink."

Bankei’s broke completely from the predominating koan system. Rather than urging his followers to seek a hard-won satori through koan meditation, he exhorted people to experience the simple truth directly. Bankei assumed his own conviction would persuade others of the value of his method.

I won't tell you that you have to practice such and such, that you have to uphold certain rules or precepts or read certain sutras or other Zen writings, or that you have to do zazen. . . . If you want to recite sutras or do zazen, observe precepts, recite the Nembutsu or the Daimoku [the mantra of the Nichiren sect], you should do it. If you're a farmer or a tradesman and you want to work your farm or your business, then go ahead, do it; whatever it is, that will be your personal samadhi.

Long and arduous discipline was not required, Bankei taught. Even though he himself had undergone terrible hardships before realizing the Unborn, he assured people that it wasn't necessary or even advisable to follow his own example. He had had to struggle because he could not find a teacher able to teach him what he had to know, but now Bankei was there to point to the truth that was readily available. Life lived from the Unborn would bring experiences to deepen the appreciation and inspire one-pointedness.

All I do is comment directly on people themselves. That takes care of everything. I don't have to quote other people. So you won't find me saying anything about either the 'Buddha-Dharma' or the 'Zen Dharma.'

Abide in the Unborn

Bankei's entire teaching can be reduced to the single exhortation: "Abide in the Unborn!." The term "Unborn" had been used in Buddhism previously to suggest that which is intrinsic, original, uncreated. But Bankei was unique in using the term as the core of his teaching. Bankei didn't teach that one should try to obtain the Unborn; rather one should simply abide in it. The Unborn is not a condition to be created; it is already, complete and perfect—the mind just as it is.

Unborn and imperishable
Is the original mind.
Earth, water, fire and wind—
A temporary lodging for the night.

But, of course. we have forgotten how to be spontaneous and natural in our lives. So Bankei taught "letting thoughts (and physical sensations) arise or cease just as they will." In response to circumstances thoughts and feelings come and go. While these are neither good nor bad in themselves, we are slaves to our responses. Failing to see them as merely passing reflections, we obstruct the free flow of the mind. We need only to step aside.

If you think the mind
That attains enlightenment
Is 'mine', your thoughts
Will wrestle with one another.

These days I am not bothering about
Getting enlightenment all the time,
And the result is that
I wake up in the morning feeling fine.

To those who listened to his talks he demonstrated this by having them notice that while they listened to him speaking they spontaneously registered and identified everything else around them—the sounds of birds, colors and aromas, the weather, the other people around them. All this happens, Bankei pointed out, without any conscious effort. It simply happens, and that, Bankei is how the Unborn functions.

When someone tosses you a tea bowl—
Catch it!
Catch it nimbly with soft cotton,
With the cotton of your skilful mind.

No special practices

If one is truly natural and innocently spontaneous, the Unborn will appear.

As we have seen throughout this course, the idea of the Unborn or the Unborn Buddha Mind is a central theme running through Zen teachings. Bankei brought a fresh vitality to this by urging people not to see the Unborn as something to attain or even something to try to be. Rather, Bankei taught, the Unborn is already present, perfect and complete. It is, in fact, the core of one's being.

Instead of struggling to do or become something, one needs to cease struggling entirely. If one is truly natural and innocently spontaneous, the Unborn will appear. The key to realization is not some method or practice, however helpful these may be, but letting go of everything which is not the Unborn. This involves no special method as typically understood; it involves the total openness of one who has no presumed goal, intention, desire or wish. Letting go is possible because of the nature of the mind.

When your study
Of Buddhism is through
You find
You haven't anything new.

Not attaching to any practice included Bankei's rejection of a narrow or formalized notion of zazen meditation. Bankei neither repudiated nor insisted upon zazen practice. Focus on a particular posture or concentration practice was beside the point.

As for zazen, since za (sitting) is the Buddha Mind's sitting at ease, whilst Zen (meditation) is another name for Buddha Mind, the Buddha Mind's sitting at ease is what is meant by zazen.

And meditation "shouldn't be limited to the time you sit meditating" in the meditation hall.

When you are abiding in the Unborn, all the time is zazen.

From the Ashoka online course The Story of Zen