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    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 Yotaku

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
    soapberry rolled down the side. ... Suddenly, just at that moment, it came to me.  I realized what it
    was that had escaped me until now : All things are perfectly resolved in the Unborn.

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.
    Nothing else.  Rather than try to become a Buddha, when you just stay constantly in the unborn
    mind, sleeping in it when you're awake, you're a living Buddha in your everyday life--at all times.
    There's not a moment when you're not a Buddha.  Since you're always a Buddha, there's no other
    Buddha in addition to that for you to become.  Instead of trying to become a Buddha, then, a much
    easier and shorter way is just to be a Buddha.

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
    like telling them to live purposelessly, without aim.

    Bankei : You call living in the unborn Buddha-mind being without purpose?  You don't stay in the
    unborn Buddha-mind yourself.  Instead, you're always working enthusiastically at other things,
    doing this, doing that, spending all your time transforming your Buddha-mind into something else.
    What could be more purposeless than that?

    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
    tries to release one from the bondage of birth and death, by means of certain intuitive modes of
    understanding peculiar to itself. It is, therefore, extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any
    philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its intuitive teaching is not interfered with. It may be
    found wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy, atheism or idealism, or any
    political or economic dogmatism.

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.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE:  The Unborn : The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei 1622-1693 By Norman Waddell (FSB Associates)
    -BANKEI (
    -The Unborn  -- Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693)(Daily Zen Journal)

    -Daily Zen
    -ARCHIVES : "buddhism" (NY Review of Books)
    -BuddhaNet : Buddhist Information on the Net
    -Buddhist Society (UK)
    -Middle Way : Journal of the Buddhist Society (UK)
    -Hundred Mountain: A Journal of the Spirit and the Arts
    -Journal of Buddhist Ethics
    -CyberSangha: The Buddhist Alternative Journal
    -Shambhala Sun Magazine
    -Tricycle: The Buddhist Review
    -Turning Wheel : Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism : Presenting THERAVADA BUDDHIST TRADITION in its Pristine Form
    -Kanzeon Zen Center Utah
    -ESSAY : LISTEN TO THE UNBORN (Henrik Karlsson, Musicologist, Royal Swedish Academy of Music, Stockholm, Sweden)
    -ESSAY : Spiritual inquiry in Buddhism (Fenner, Peter,  ReVision,  Vol. 17 No. 2 Fall.1994)
    -ESSAY : Dogen's Ceaseless Practice (Daniel Zelinski, Ph.D., Department of English & Philosophy, Central Missouri State University, Journal of Buddhist Ethics)
    -ESSAY : Zen and the Art of Divebombing, or The Dark Side of the Tao ( Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.,
    -ESSAY : Buddhism and the Morality of Abortion (Michael G. Barnhart, Kingsborough, CUNY, Journal of Buddhist Ethics)
    -LINKS : Buddhism with  Dick Dillon  (

    -ESSAY: Can We Be Good Without God?:  On the political meaning of Christianity (Glenn Tinder, The Atlantic)