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Not a single one of you people at this meeting is
unenlightened. Right now, you're all sitting before
With it's excellent brief biography, fluid translation of all of his known lectures, and copious notes, it's hard to imagine a better introduction to the life and teachings of the 17th century Zen Master, Bankei Yotaku (1622-93). The son of a ronin father who had retired to Hamada to practice medicine, Bankei Yotaku was a rebellious youth, unsatisfied by the teaching of the local Confucian school. In particular, he was mystified by the phrase at the beginning of the The Great Learning (one of the "four books" of Confucianism) : "The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue." He pestered his teachers to explain what was meant by "bright virtue," beyond just "the intrinsic nature of good in each person." They were never able to provide a satisfactory answer to his question so he turned elsewhere, to Buddhist priests in the area and any kind of religious gatherings he could find. He fell so far behind in his studies and became such a trial that, though still just eleven years old, he was banished from his home and began a years long journey in search of enlightenment.
Amidst his many wanderings, he became a Buddhist monk for several years at the Zuio-ji temple in Ako. The abbot there, Umpo Zenjo, convinced him that he would have to practice zazen meditation. Still unable to find anyone with the answers to his questions, he set out again on another unsuccessful journey before returning to Umpo in 1645. The abbot admonished him : "It's your desire to find someone that keeps you from your goal." Thereupon, Bankei built himself a hermitage, completely isolated from contact with others and practiced zazen, a kind of sitting meditation, nearly continuously, until he had festering sores on his buttocks and legs. By 1647, malnourished and sleep deprived, he also contracted tuberculosis. A doctor was summoned but could do nothing and Bankei prepared to die, at which point :
I felt a strange sensation in my throat. I
spat against a wall. A mass of black phlegm large as a
And this is Bankei's great contribution to Buddhism, this idea of the Unborn Buddha-mind. As he later taught :
You each received one thing from your mother when
you were born--the unborn Buddha-mind.
This seems maddeningly opaque to me and indeed it did to those who came to hear him teach. There are a series of questions and answers included here that manage to spread incredibly little light on the matter :
A monk : You're always teaching people that they
should live in the Unborn. To me that seems
Bankei : You call living in the unborn Buddha-mind
being without purpose? You don't stay in the
The monk made no reply.
Bankei : Live in the Unborn. It's certainly not purposeless.
Huh? Did I miss the answer in there somewhere?
Actually, no. There really isn't a good answer to this type of objection and there lies the central problem with Zen Buddhism. Judaism and Christianity are fundamentally concerned with man's relationship with God, with others and with the world around us--at the core of Judeo-Christianity are the series of laws, covenants, and requirements imposed by God and then by Christ. They serve to shape man's outward behavior, to make him a moral being. The central idea that animates the Bible is that man is inherently imperfect, that he was flawed at creation, but that through moral progress he can become Godlike and perfect. Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, is completely interior. It assumes that each man is perfectible within himself. It makes no demands on man's outward behavior, requiring him to look within instead of without. As D. T. Suzuki wrote :
Zen has no special doctrine or philosophy, no set
of concepts or intellectual formulas, except that it
This is never clearer than in the life and teaching of Bankei. The Zen Master may have received some personal satisfaction from that lovely epiphany after he hacked up a lung, but of what utility is his insight to society as a whole? Were we all to emulate Bankei, what would we have but a sickly, atomized population, one which would soon die out, with everyone squirreled away in solitary confinement contemplating their own navels.
This is a book that is well worth reading, but mostly because it is an instructive look at the chilling emptiness of Eastern philosophy.
-BOOK SITE: The Unborn : The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei 1622-1693 By Norman Waddell (FSB Associates)
-The Unborn -- Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693)(Daily Zen Journal)
Generally speaking, I think the Western mind has an anemic understanding of Eastern spirituality (like always misintepreting it as nihilisitc, atomistic, etc.)
I can't see why, unless you're a practitioner of Zen or other Buddhist traditions, you'd have any basis or even inclination to review something you blantantly don't understand...?
Having said that, I still enjoy many of your reviews.
- Jul-14-2005, 20:22
speaking of sectarian bitterness you do a wonderful job - and that is all you do.
- May-20-2004, 14:31