Bankei’s Thought and Practice

“In the Unborn, All Things are Perfectly Resolved.”

Bankei did not put any of his teachings in writing, and forbade his students from doing so. Some of his “sermons” were, however, recorded by students. Waddell notes that Bankei is best known for his use of engaging, plain, colloquial, ordinary, everyday language, that can be readily understood by everyone. The sermons Waddell includes in his book are certainly splendid examples of this style of teaching.

A sermon given at Ryumonji begins as follows: “I was still a young man when I came to discover the principle of the Unborn and its relation to thought … What we call a “thought” is something that has already fallen one or more removes from the living reality of the Unborn … Because of the unbornness and marvelous illuminative power inherent in the Buddha-mind, it readily reflects all things that come along and transforms itself into them, thus turning the Buddha-mind into thought.”

“Not a single one of you people at this meeting is unenlightened. Rising now, you’re all sitting before me as Buddhas. Each of you received the Buddha-mind from your mother when you were born, and nothing else. This inherited Buddha-mind is beyond any doubt unborn, with a marvelously bright illuminative wisdom.”

Waddell explains that the Buddha-mind is another term for the Buddha-nature that is inherent in all beings. It is the mind as it really is, in its original state prior to human intellection and discrimination, which is referred to as its “suchness” (tathata). Bankei was not the first teacher to use the term ‘Unborn,” even though the word is now uniquely associated with his name. It is recorded in the Udana Sutta as a word that was uttered by Sakyamuni himself: “There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned. If, monks, there were no unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned. But because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned.” In that sense, “unborn” (Jp fusho) stood in contrast with birth and death – samsara – and was synonymous with nirvana. “Marvelously bright illuminative wisdom” (Jp reimei) refers to the “marvelous brightness, purity, and clarity” of the Buddha-mind working in the unborn state, which is beyond all calculation. This “marvelously bright illuminative wisdom” is a reiteration of Huineng’s description of prajna as “our original mind, our mind before we know anything,” as well as the practice of “Silent Illumination” which Dogen received from his teacher Rujing in China.

“In the Unborn, all things are perfectly resolved.” This is the insight Bankei is said to have gained from his first enlightenment experience, when he was resigned to dying after contracting tuberculosis, even though it may not have been articulated in such a concise and forceful way at the time.

Bankei also said: “I can give you proof that [all things are perfectly resolved]. While you’re facing me listening to me speak like this, if a crow cawed or a sparrow chirped, or some other sound occurred somewhere behind you, you would have no difficulty knowing it was a crow or a sparrow, or whatever, even without giving a thought to listening to it, because you were listening by means of the Unborn. If anyone confirms that this unborn, illuminative wisdom is in fact the Buddha-mind and straightaway lives, as he is, in the Buddha-mind, he becomes at that moment a living Tathatagata, and he remains one for infinite kalpas in the future.”

Bankei, however, distanced himself from Shakyamuni’s statement about the Unborn in the Udana Sutta when he said: “If you live in the Unborn, then, there’s no longer any need to speak about “nonextinction,” or “undying.” It would be a waste of time … There can be no death for what was never born, so if it is unborn, it is obviously undying. There is no need to say it, is there?” Because Zen had fallen in a state of decline at the time of Bankei, he added: “But there was never, until now, any proof or confirmation given of the Unborn. People have just known the words “unborn, undying.” No one before has ever really understood this matter of the Unborn by confirming it to the marrow of his bones.” So Bankei presented his own enlightenment as confirmation of the Unborn.

Bankei proceeded with a traditional description of the reason why we have lost sight of the Unborn. He said: “Despite the fact that you arrived in this world with nothing but an unborn Buddha-mind, your partiality for yourselves now makes you want to have things move in your own way.” But, he added, engagingly, “You’re all intelligent people here. It’s only your ignorance of the Buddha-mind that makes you go on transforming it into a hungry ghost, fighting spirit, or animal. You turn it into this and into that, into all manner of things, and then you ‘become’ those things. Once you have, once you’ve become an animal, for example, then even when the truth is spoken to you, it does not get through to you. Or, supposing it does; since you didn’t retain it even when you were a human being, you certainly won’t have the intelligence as an animal to keep it in your mind … Therefore, you must thoroughly understand about not transforming the Buddha-mind into other things.”

“The Natural Way”

Bankei’s sermons, or dharma talks often included the retelling of his own story describing the rigorous practice he had put himself through in order to attain enlightenment. Much of it was out in the open, unprotected from the weather, often in secluded places cut off from any human contact. At best it was in small hermitages, where he sat day and night, not allowing himself to lay down to sleep, at times not eating for days.

The message here was not to boast about the seriousness of his quest. Bankei was simply telling his students that, because “the unborn Dharma [had] disappeared in both Japan and China and [had] long since been forgotten,” he had to duplicate the ascetic path of practices that had allowed Shakyamuni himself to, not only attain enlightenment, but also embody the standpoint of enlightenment in order to teach others. In fact, as he now realised, he had “gone around wasting time and energy on ascetic practices,” and had “ended up bringing on serious illness instead.” Still, his students should regard themselves “fortunate” because they now had in Bankei a guide and a master who could verify their enlightenment experiences, and did not need to go through these same extreme practices. In Bankei’s words: “All of you are extremely fortunate. When I was a young man, it was different. I could not find a good teacher, and being headstrong, I devoted myself from an early age to exceptionally difficult training, experiencing suffering others couldn’t imagine. I expanded an awful lot of useless effort … That’s why I come here like this day after day, urging you to profit from my own painful example, so you can attain the Dharma easily, while you’re seated comfortably on the tatami mats, without all that unnecessary work.”

The thrust of Bankei’s practice is encapsulated in the following sentence: “If you establish yourself firmly in the Unborn, then simply and without any trouble or effort, while sitting comfortably on the tatami mats, you’re an authentic Tathagata, a ‘living” Buddha. The eye to see others will open in you, and you’ll be able to see everything from the vantage of realization … When the eye to see others opens in you, and you can see straight into their hearts, you may consider that you’ve fully realized the Buddha’s Dharma, because then, at that very place, that’s what you have done … Because of the Buddha-mind’s wonderful illuminative wisdom, such things as you have done and experienced in the past cannot fail to be reflected in it. If you fix onto those images as they reflect, you are unwittingly creating illusion. The thoughts do not already exist at the place where those images are reflecting; they are caused by your past experiences and occur when things you have seen and heard in the past are reflected on the Buddha-mind. So if they are reflected, you should just let them be reflected, and let them arise when they arise. Don’t have any thought to stop them. If they stop, let them stop. Don’t pay attention to them. Leave them alone. Then illusions won’t appear.”

To be sure, this is strikingly reminiscent of Dogen’s “just sitting” zazen and very far from the sophisticated koan introspection practice and stern discipline taught by Hakuin, that we have come to associate with the Rinzai school. The eye for others is Dogen’s Dharma eye. There is no evidence, however, that Bankei borrowed it from Dogen as his whole training had been solely in Rinzai Zen temples.

It does go back to the source that preceded the split into Soto and Rinzai. Tang dynasty Zen master Mazu Daoyi (709–788) had taught that “Ordinary mind is the way.” It could be called the way of “naturalness” that goes beyond self-power and other-power. Bankei himself describes it in these terms: “My religion has nothing to do with either ‘self-power’ or ‘other-power’. It’s beyond them both.” “What lies beyond both relying on one’s own power and relying on a higher power?” asks Bret Davis, commenting on Bankei’s statement, and answers: “What Zen calls the “naturalness’ of the Everyday Even Mind.” Davis points out that “Everyday Even Mind” is a better translation of the Chinese phrase ping chang xin (Jp byo jo shin), which literally means “even and constant mind.” “Although this phrase is often simply translated as “Ordinary Mind” or as “Everyday Mind,” I think it is best to translate it more literally as “Everyday Even Mind.” It does not refer to the ordinary mind of an unenlightened person which is usually unsettled and anxious, but instead to the “true ordinary mind of an enlightened person.” Davis further describes the Everyday Even Mind as follows: “‘Everyday Even Mind’ is a mind that is placid like a waveless surface of water, a mind that is bright like a spotless mirror. This mind is able to reflect and respond to the vicissitudes of everyday life with spontaneity, sincerity, creativity, and compassion because it is not obsessed with its agendas or anxious about its expectations. In short, by Everyday Even Mind is meant both the equanimity that does not get egoistically attached to or fixated on anything and the engaged everyday mind that is thereby able to fully and fluidly attend to the infinitely complex and ceaselessly shifting Way of the world.”

Bankei, however, did not do “quotes”! Nor did he ever refer to any past Zen teaching whether in Japan or China. Whatever he taught was entirely based on his own establishment in the Unborn and his ability to see everything “from the vantage of realization.” He did not really go into much detail when talking about the practice, though there must have been some instructions as he did hold long practice periods, sometimes as long as two years, in the Nyokoji temple, in an isolated mountainous region of Shikoku. By definition the “natural” way has to emerge by itself and “practice” can only be what allows it to do this.

Bankei says: “I always urge people simply to live in the unborn Buddha-mind … We haven’t any special rules. But since everyone got together and decided that they wanted to spend six hours each day doing zazen, I let them do as they wish … It’s just being at home in the Buddha-mind, not straying into illusion, and not seeking enlightenment beyond that. Just sit in the Buddha-mind, stand in the Buddha-mind, sleep in the Buddha-mind, awake in the Buddha-mind, do everything in the Buddha-mind – then you’ll be functioning as a living Buddha in all that you do in your daily life. There’s nothing further.” In fact, “zazen isn’t limited to the time you sit. That’s why, around here, if people have something to do while they’re sitting, they’re free to get up and do it. It’s up to them, whatever they’ve a mind to do …”

Bankei also says: “At my temples, every moment, day and night, is the fixed and appointed time for practice. I don’t do as they do elsewhere and tell you that the period of practice begins at such and such a time … There was once a monk in my temple who had been dozing off. Another monk saw him and really laid into him with a stick. I reprimanded him: “Why hit him when he’s enjoying a pleasant nap? Do you think he leaves the Buddha-mind and goes somewhere else when he sleeps? Now, I don’t urge people to sleep around here. But once they are asleep, you’re making a mistake if you hit them … When you sleep, you sleep in the same Buddha-mind you were awake in … You always stay in the Buddha-mind. You’re never apart from it for an instant.”

The Myoshinji, Rinzai Zen temple in Kyoto where Bankei lectured – Butsuden (Buddha Hall) and Hatto (Lecture Hall)

Simple and Direct, but not “Lightweight”

Even though Bankei’s teachings are clearly in line with those of the most influential Chinese Zen ancestors – in particular those of Mazu -, we have not so far heard a word about the koan practice that is today associated with the Rinzai school. Linji, after all, was a “dharma great-grandson” of Mazu, and he is credited with the use of the hua tou, the Chan practice that evolved into the Japanese koan practice. Even Dogen, who trained for many years in a Rinzai temple before going to China, is known to have used koans in his teaching. And it is only in the 18th century, as Rinzai, revived by Hakuin, started to focus its practice on koans, that the Soto thinkers of the time cut out the use of koans in Soto Zen monasteries, in order to demarcate themselves from the Rinzai school.

Bankei did try koan study, but he, in the end, dropped it, and never taught it to his own students. He thought it was not suitable for teaching to ordinary Japanese women and men: “As a young man striving to realize the Buddha-mind, I tried my hand at koan study. I had interviews with Zen teachers and engaged in Zen dialogues with them in Chinese. I worked very diligently at it. But it is better for us Japanese to use the common language we speak every day when we ask questions having to do with the Way. Since we aren’t very good at Chinese, when we have to use it for such questions and answers, we have trouble expressing ourselves fully and saying just what we want to.” In fact, he goes a bit further in his rejection of koans when he says that “in recent time, wherever you go, you find that Zen teachers use “old tools” when they deal with pupils. They seem to think they can’t do the job without them.” Waddell indicates that “old tools” refers primarily to koans.

Bankei also objected to Rinzai’s teaching of “raising a great ball of doubt” through the use of koans in order to trigger the much sought- after enlightenment experience referred to as kensho. Here Waddell quotes Daisetz Suzuki: “The great ball of doubt (Jp daigidan) is “the state of mind reached by the koan student when he has pursued the koan up to a certain stage … It is a kind of mental blockade … [in which] the stream of thought is blocked up … does not run on but is frozen and forms a lump.”

This was not acceptable to Bankei, who said: “What’s worse, they tell practicers that unless they can raise a “great ball of doubt” and then break through it, there can’t be any progress in Zen. Instead of teaching them to live by the unborn Buddha-mind, they start by forcing them to raise this ball of doubt any way they can. People who don’t have a doubt are now saddled with one. They’ve turned their Buddha-minds into ‘balls of doubt’.” It’s absolutely wrong.” So, seventeenth-century Bankei had dismissed eighteenth-century Hakuin’s advocacy of the “great ball of doubt,” and systematic use of koans long before Hakuin had a chance to dismiss Bankei’s “‘lifeless sitting’, ‘do-nothing’ Zen, and the like!”

It is a fact that Bankei’s ultra-liberal approach to practice appears, at first glance, to err on the side of softness. The Ryumonji dharma talks include a question and answer section where a lay woman asked, “According to what you say, all we have to do is simply remain effortlessly in the Buddha-mind. Don’t you think that teaching is too lightweight?” Bankei replied: “Lightweight? You set no store by the Buddha-mind. You get angry and turn it into a fighting spirit. You give vent to selfish desires and change it into a hungry ghost or so do something foolish and convert it into an animal. You deludedly turn the Buddha-mind into all sorts of different things – that’s lightweight, not my teaching. Nothing is of more gravity, and nothing more praiseworthy, than living in the Buddha-mind. So you may think when I tell you to live in the Buddha-mind that it is lightweight, but believe me, it’s just because it has such weight that you are unable to do it.” As already noted, Bankei’s approach is not significantly different from Dogen’s shikantaza. For both, the principle is to allow whatever arises in one’s mind to come and go without ever grasping it and turn it into thought. It may sound simple, but it is far from easy to do!

Bankei brings up his own experience of suffering during his years of ascetic practices to explain how thought, as it were, triggers suffering, or at least make it significantly worse. “I’ve learned all about sickness at firsthand … If you become confirmed in the unborn Buddha-mind, you aren’t troubled by the suffering that normally accompanies illness … Being originally unborn, the Buddha-mind has no concern with either pain or joy. Since being unborn means that it is completely detached from thought, and since it is through the arising of thoughts that you experience both pain and joy, so long as the Buddha-mind remains as it is in its original unbornness, unworried by and unattached to the illness, it doesn’t experience suffering. But if a thought arises from the ground of the Unborn and you start to worry about your illness, you create suffering for yourself; you change your Buddha-mind into suffering. It can’t be helped. The sufferings of hell itself are no different.”

Bankei doesn’t, however, deny that the physical pain itself will remain. To deal with this pain, he says that “it’s best at such times to give yourself up to the sickness, and to moan when there is pain” But “you ought to be aware that when thought becomes involved in your suffering, the Buddha-mind is changed into the “thought” of sickness or the “thought” of suffering, quite apart from the sickness or suffering itself, and you will suffer because of that.” This is what early Buddhism referred to as dukkha-dukkha, the existential suffering added to the physical pain.

Bankei also explains what he means when he says that “A man of the Unborn is beyond living and dying (samsara).” In other words, how, for this man, samsara, the world of life-and-death becomes the non-dual world (nirvana) beyond the duality of life and death. He also refers to it as “living and dying at will.” He says: “What “I” call living and dying at will is when someone dies without being troubled by life and death, the continuous succession of birth-death, birth-death that is samsaric existence. Moreover, living and dying is taking place at every instant throughout the twenty-four hours of the day; dying does not occur only once in your life when you cease breathing. When you’re living without being concerned about life or death, you’re always living in such a way that whenever death does come, even right now, at this moment, it’s no great matter. Now, that’s what I call “living and dying at will.” It means living confirmed in your unborn Buddha-mind.”

Bankei is, along with Dogen, one of the rare Buddhist teachers to base their teachings on a unmediated search for the Truth. The dual world of life and death takes form through the thought process. Most Buddhist teachers have resorted to what Bankei called “tools” to get their students to suspend the thought process during the time of the practice. They used a variety of devices for this purpose: reciting scriptures, chanting mantras, doing visualisations, performing rituals, tackling koans, and even counting breaths or forcefully concentrating on an object to block the arising of thoughts. Dogen and Bankei, instead, invited their students to just look into their minds, and observe the arising of thoughts. Dogen took great pains to justify his approach with a philosophical analysis that could only be grasped by educated people. Bankei was able to formulate his teachings in such a direct and concrete way that they could be understood by everyone.

Norman Waddell – The Unborn – The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei
Bret W. Davis – Zen Pathways – An Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of Zen Buddhism

The Myoshinji, Rinzai Zen temple, in Kyoto – Butsuden (Buddha Hall) and Hatto (Lecture Hall)