Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei #1
12:24AM Jun 23, 2023
This is the first day of this June 2023 seven-day sesshin. And for this sesshin, we're going to explore the teachings of Zen Master Bankei, a renowned 17th century Japanese master. The book that I'll be reading from and commenting on is entitled "The Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei," and it's translated by Norman Waddell.
This term "the unborn mind" is simply another word for our True-nature, also called True-self, True-mind, Original-self. And all of these words, and similar ones, attempt to point to that which is ultimately beyond words, beyond thoughts. In Zen, there's this old proverb, "Words miss the mark." And while this is true, until we experience directly our innate unborn mind, most of us, to some degree, need to rely on words for guidance.
The preface to the book mentions that Bankei didn't even wish there to be a written record of his teachings, so much so that he gave strict orders that no one should reduce his teishos and public Dharma Talks to words on a page. However, Waddell says, "Records were made nonetheless, his followers being unable to bear the thought that their master's words and deeds should go unrecorded, and, as one of them put it, 'just left for the sparrows to play around with.'" So although much more was lost than his followers were able to commit to paper, "we must be grateful for the record they have preserved for us."
Bankei's preserved teachings include public talks that he gave as part of "angos," that is, periods of intensive training, traditionally three months long. And they were given at two different temples in Japan, Ryumon-ji and Hosshin-ji. And, by the way, Hosshin-ji is the very monastery where Roshi Kapleau trained for several years with Harada Roshi, and later on, he continued working with Yasutani Roshi, who was Harada Roshi's successor.
And even though Bankei's teishos and talks date back more than 300 years, they're quite accessible to us today. That is, they're relatable to 21st century practitioners. At the time, they were tailored not only to monks and nuns but to lay practitioners, in other words, householders and people from all different walks of life: mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, peddlers and farmers, those who were uneducated and those who were educated, wealthy and poor, and even gamblers and bandits.
Bankei was very well known for speaking in very plain terms, simple, everyday language that anyone could understand. And although he went through formal Zen training, his teaching style was not distinctly rooted in any one particular school of Zen. And that might have been, in part, the appeal he had to the general population. Again, you didn't have to be a monastic; you didn't need to have certain skills or knowledge or wealth. And people traveled from all over to hear his talks, and he didn't turn anyone away. The crowds were quite large at times; we're talking more than 1500 people. So special arrangements would have to be made to accommodate overflow.
So I'm going to begin by setting the scene with some biographical and historical background from the book's introduction, which is authored by Norman Waddell. And for this, I'll be paraphrasing some of the parts.
Bankei's years were 1622 to 1693. And during his lifetime, the Zen sect of Buddhism in Japan, which had its roots in China and before that India, was in decline. Japan had just come out of a period of civil unrest, involving rivaling warlords, and many temples and monasteries were damaged and had to be rebuilt. The government that emerged out of that chaos was a dictatorship that sought to maintain peace through the enforcement of strict social order. And the samurai warrior caste was at the top of the hierarchy.
So we can see that the pendulum swung from the chaos of unrest and these warring factions to the other extreme, disciplined order, authoritarian government. This new order affected every segment of society, including the various sects of Buddhism, and all temples and monasteries had to be affiliated with a government-recognized teaching lineage. Some focused not so much on zazen anymore but more on regimented study of the sutras and following moral rules. Another trend at the time was engaging in devotional practices, especially funeral and mortuary rites.
And by contrast, as a teacher Bankei didn't emphasize sutras nor devotional practice. As he saw it, one didn't even have to live in or even associate with a particular temple or monastery or even take up formal Buddhist training in order to practice effectively. His message was bare bones: simply experience the truth of this unborn mind, which we all equally share, for yourself. Experience it for yourself in the life that you're living. Another way to put it: there's only one person who can change your life, and that person is you. One can only imagine that this message and his teaching style was really unique and refreshing at that time.
During this period in Japan, another major social force was Confucianism, which had been transported from China. And it emphasized the attainment of moral and intellectual perfection and the creation of social harmony and order. And it's really understandable why Confucianism would be such a draw at that time, why it would be embraced, given the aftermath of this period of civil unrest. And Waddell says what helped Buddhism to survive during this difficult period was the support of the samurai class, which Bankei's father was a part of.
Bankei was one of nine children and the fourth of five sons. His boyhood name was Muchi, which translates roughly as "Don't fall behind!" Prior to meeting his mother, his father had been a certain type of samurai called a "ronin." This is the term for a samurai who had no master, was masterless, either because the master had died or because there was some falling out between them. And eventually Bankei's father took up the family tradition, which was practicing medicine. So he was a physician. But tragically, Bankei's father died when he was just ten years old. And from then on, he was raised by his mother, with the support from his oldest brother, who took up the family medicine practice.
About Bankei's personality as a child, Waddell mentions that he had some kind of preoccupation with death, which he says was evident from an early age, even before his father had passed away. And Waddell says the records of Bankei's early life "reveal that he was an intelligent, highly sensitive child but at the same time rather unruly and uncommonly strong willed."
And then he gives the following example: "Every year on the fifth day of the fifth month, the occasion of the Boys' Festival, the village youths took part in stone-throwing contests, dividing into sides and hurling small stones at each other from opposite sides of a nearby river. This annual event had been held in the district for over five hundred years [. . .] in order to inculcate manly virtues in young boys. We are told that whichever side Bankei was on invariably won, because he would never retreat, no matter how hard the stones rained down on him." Whichever side he was on, he always won. So that gives you a sense of his willpower.
The biography also describes how he got into a lot of conflicts with his oldest brother. Basically his oldest brother took on the role of their deceased father in keeping order in the home. At the age of eleven, a year after their father's death, Bankei would repeatedly get into quarrels with his older brother and skip out of school.
Going to and from school involved crossing a river by ferry, and this is a story that Waddell shares. So going to school involved crossing a river by ferry. The older brother got so frustrated by Bankei's defiant behavior that he instructed the ferryman to not allow him to board the ferry if he tried to take it before the school day had ended. But Bankei was unstoppable. He walked right into the river, working his way along the river's bottom, until he emerged, breathless, at the far bank.
Bankei became extremely frustrated by his older brother's attempts to keep him in line. Bankei was so intent on not going to school that he even had thoughts of resorting to suicide. And he even made one failed attempt at it. Waddell says that one day, Bankei went to a local Buddhist shrine and ate a bunch of spiders. He thought they were poisonous and they would end his suffering. But they turned out to not be so poisonous. So, alive and well, he returned home after the incident. There's a lot really missing from the story, which appears only as a passing reference in the biography. Was Bankei in a state of severe depression in his youth? The incident supposedly happened around the age of eleven, around the same age that he lost his father.
Another example that's given involves an exchange that Bankei had with a schoolteacher, and it seems to have been a very pivotal moment in Bankei's life. Waddell says at the village school, Bankei was subjected to the same curriculum as all schoolboys, the recitation of Confucian texts, over and over, until they came automatically to the lips. "One day, the class was taking up the 'Great Learning,' one of the 'four books' of Confucianism." I had to look this up. In ancient China, this book, the "Great Learning," was considered one of the four required texts to master, to memorize, if you wished to become "a great leader," such as a government official.
He continues. The teacher came to the central words of this text. "The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue."
Bankei interrupted the teacher and asked, "What is bright virtue?"
The teacher, repeating the lines given in one of the traditional commentaries, simply answered, "The intrinsic nature of good in each person."
Bankei then asked, "What is our intrinsic nature?" and was told by the teacher, "It's our fundamental nature."
"Then what is that?" he persisted.
The teacher replied, "The ultimate truth of Heaven." None of these answers satisfied Bankei.
This term "bright virtue" can also be considered another word for our enlightened nature. The meaning of virtue here, though, is not in the sense of distinguishing between right and wrong, good and bad, but a different kind of virtue of a whole other level that goes beyond our discriminating mind. And to go beyond right and wrong, good and bad, is simply to be one with things as they are, the conditions that we're in, not how we think they should or shouldn't be.
So for Bankei, this question "What is bright virtue?" became his koan. And he had a strong determination to resolve it. Waddell says his questioning of bright virtue grew into an all-consuming passion. Fired by unquellable doubts, he embarked upon an urgent and relentless quest that would occupy the next fourteen years and determine the course of his life.
"He took every opportunity to ask others for help. A group of Confucian scholars, whom he pressed for an answer they were at a loss to give, suggested he try Zen priests, 'because they know about such knotty problems.'"
However, there were no temples in the immediate vicinity, so Bankei contented himself with questioning more Confucianists and the Buddhist priests that he occasionally came upon. "He attended every sermon, lecture, and other religious gathering that came to his attention." In other words, he was looking outside himself. He assumed that all he needed to do was find the right expert, hear the right words.
And after attending a talk or a sermon, he would run home and tell his mother what he had heard. And again, he was still quite young at this time, not even a teenager. And then Waddell says, "But such inquiries brought him no glimpse of understanding." He was unable to find a single person who could offer him guidance. "Thoroughly discouraged, he wandered about 'like a stray mountain lamb, aimlessly and alone.'" Now even his schoolwork lost all interest for him, a development so displeasing to his long-suffering oldest brother that Bankei was finally banished from the family house for good.
Banished from his home, so his drive to understand bright virtue became so all consuming, so gripping, we can only imagine he wasn't able to function in family and school life. No one could deal with him.
Then Waddell says, "Still only eleven years old, Bankei was on his own. If the records are to be believed, he does not seem to have been unduly troubled by this turn of events. On the contrary, he seems to have welcomed it as a chance to devote himself to his problem, secure from all outside distraction. In any case, a close friend of the family, taking pity on him, stepped forward and offered him the use of a small hut in the hills behind his house. Accepting the offer, Bankei wrote the words 'Shugyo-an,' or 'practice hermitage,' on a plank of wood, propped it up outside the entrance, and settled down in earnest to devote himself to his own clarification of bright virtue."
This is such a remarkable story, to see that strong determination and affinity for practice at an early age to come to grips with the great matter. Again, he was seeking every opportunity he could find, this person and that person, anyone who could help him resolve his question. And in reading his story, it's actually quite reminiscent of a contemporary story, that is, the story of Flora Courtois, who around the age of sixteen had an enlightenment experience. And many years later is when she discovered Zen and became a student of Yasutani Roshi.
As a teenager, she had been consumed by a different question, and it came up naturally, spontaneously: What is reality? What is reality? She initially looked for answers from reading books, seeking advice from professors and priests. But nothing she learned from them was satisfactory. And eventually, she fell into a deep state of despair. And it occurred to her that she had been looking for answers outside herself, in the outer world, and was completely ignoring altogether the inner world, what was happening inside her, her mind, her inner world of thoughts, feelings, sensations, her body-mind.
How could an expert or a book, or a Zen teacher for that matter, answer for us What is Mu? What is this? Who am I?beyond just giving some kind of conceptual or abstract understanding because it's not coming from inside you. Each one of us has to walk this path on our own. Yes, we have the support of Sangha. But if we seek out answers from whatever we're reading or hearing about other people's experiences, then we're just denying the truth of our own lived experience. This body alone is the body of Buddha, not some other body.
As for Bankei, the historical records are more or less silent regarding the next several years of his life. But Waddell notes that eventually at the age of sixteen, he ended up at a Rinzai temple led by a master named Umpo Zenjo. And he says, "Right off, Bankei told Umpo of the difficulty he was having in coming to terms with bright virtue. Umpo replied that if he wanted to discover what it meant, he would have to practice zazen. [. . . ] Then and there, Bankei asked Umpo to give him ordination as a Buddhist monk. Umpo, no doubt pleased to grant this request, coming as it did from such an obviously determined young man, immediately shaved Bankei's head," and gave him the name Yotaku. Yotaku means "Long Polishing of the Mind Gem." "Long Polishing of the Mind Gem."
And then Waddell says, "Although we have no specific information about the way in which Umpo instructed Bankei, we can reasonably assume that Bankei was subjected to a demanding training program during the three years he was under Umpo's guidance. Zazen was, of course, the chief ingredient of training."
And in Zen, it's the chief ingredient of practice in general. Whether it's in the context of formal training, as in during sesshin, or in our day-to-day lives, zazen is the foundation. And Bankei's Dharma name, "Long Polishing of the Mind Gem," is really fitting imagery of how zazen works as a process of dissolving our habits of thought and behavior which have calcified over time and make us feel confined and weighed down.
Our True-self is beyond any limits we might place on it with our thoughts. So it's a beautiful gem that's just merely hidden, encrusted over, just waiting to be exposed. And as we return our attention to our practice, and we do it over and over, we're wiping away that crust, that hard surface, to reveal what's been there all along.
Zen master Dogen said, "Jewels become objects of beauty by polishing. Man becomes a true man by training. What jewel is lustrous from the beginning? What person is superior from the outset? You must always keep polishing and always keep training."
After several years of training at Umpo's temple, Bankei, at the age of nineteen, left his teacher and set out on pilgrimage, traveling around Japan. So, still searching, still looking. Perhaps he had grown restless, thinking that he wasn't making progress. 'Maybe if I go to some other place, I'll find what I'm looking for.'
How many of us have fallen into that trap, evaluating our practice, thinking that we're lacking something, that there's got to be somewhere else, some blissful place that I need to get to, anywhere but where I am right now. 'How could this be all there is?'
And in listening to the story about Bankei, there is a risk of comparing one's own practice to his. You might say to yourself, 'I don't have that kind of determination. I don't have that kind of passion. I'm not motivated to practice that way. I don't feel gripped by my koan. It doesn't even have a question mark at the end of it.'
On the flip side, one can also be caught up in pride about their practice. 'This is going really well. Sesshin is off to a great start. I'm so concentrated. This time I'm gonna go for it, once and for all.'
These kinds of thoughts, whether it's wallowing in self-judgment, self-pity, or pride, is our small mind or small doubt at work, mind caught up in thoughts and judgments. "Big doubt," as it's called, is a whole other order. It's what brings us to practice. Who am I? What is this body? Where did I come from? Where do I go when I die? The kinds of questions that keep us doing zazen and bring us to sesshin.
And no matter how much you might doubt yourself, not trust yourself, everyone here, just by being in sesshin, is seriously working on themselves and is confronted by that big doubt. We wouldn't be here if otherwise. It's just that sometimes it's subconscious. And that's okay. We can let that be.
So if you're tempted to compare yourself to Bankei, just don't go there, let alone comparing yourself to other people here in sesshin. Don't waste your time creating some melodrama in your head about me and my practice. It's natural for practice to ebb and flow. What matters is just that we're doing it. As long as we're doing it, as long as we're noticing when we've drifted off into thoughts and then returning our attention to it calmly, right then and there, no added complications, that's all that matters. It doesn't matter that thoughts arise. They'll continue to arise throughout sesshin. It doesn't matter. They're just thoughts. They have no substance. There's nothing tangible about them.
What matters is putting our faith in our practice and just doing it, just doing it for its own sake, just the trying. That's all that matters.