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Bankei: Abide in the Unborn

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.

Seeking the Bright Virtue

Because Bankei's own experience, including years of desperate effort to gain satori, so powerfully influenced what and how he taught, we'll look a bit at his life.
As a child Bankei became obsessed with death. What we might today call a juvenile delinquent, he quarreled, fought and skipped school. Unable to get along with his brother or with fellow schoolmates, he at one point swallowed a large number of spiders in a suicide attempt.

As a young adolescent Bankei was sent to a study Chinese. While studying A Great Learning (Ta-hsiieh), an important Confucian classic, Bankei read "The Way of the Great Learning lies in illuminating the bright virtue." The bright (or illustrious) virtue, a key concepts of the Great Learning. was often interpreted as a kind of dynamic intuitive moral sense that constitutes man's intrinsic nature. His interest peaked, Bankei questioned the local Confucian scholars, but none actually seemed to know what the Bright Virtue was.

So at age 13 Bankei sought to discover the truth of Bright Virtue. When he looked to Buddhism, he found Buddhist teachers no more useful. After several years of seeking answers to his questions about man's original nature, he settled on Zen and became a disciple of Umpo. Bankei approached zazen with characteristic determination. He withdrew to a hut and undertook a regimen of strenuous meditation practice.
For two years Bankei subjected himself to a series of grueling ordeals in a desperate effort to resolve his doubts once and for all, to uncover the truth about man's intrinsic nature. Driven to the brink of death by hunger and exhaustion, success still eluded him, and in the spring of 1647, Bankei lay in his hut, ill and apparently dying, unable even to swallow the food his servant offered.

One day, feeling something peculiar in his throat, he managed to summon the strength to bring up a dark ball of phlegm, spitting it against the wall. Suddenly the whole weight of his illness dissolved, and he realized that he'd had the answer to his questions with him all along—the innate mind that manages everything, naturally, effortlessly, just as it is.

Suddenly, while at the very depths, it struck me like a thunderbolt that I had never been born, and that my birthlessness could settle any and every matter. This seemed to be my satori.... the birthless Buddha-mind can cut any and every knot . . . to live in a state of non-birth is to attain Buddhahood . . . from the moment you have begun to realize this fact, you are a living Buddha. . . .

Bankei now realized that he had never been born. He saw into the illuminating source of all things, by which all things are well managed. Bankei was convinced that he could live from the Unborn. It was a totally life-changing insight.