Sunday, June 19, 2011

Zen Master Unborn!

A certain priest told [Zen Master] Bankei, “You teach the same thing over and over again. Wouldn’t it be a good idea, just for the sake of variety, to tell some of those old and interesting stories illustrative of Buddhist life?” Bankei said, “I may be an old dunce, and I suppose it might help some if I did tell stories of that kind, but I’ve a strong hunch that such preaching poisons the mind. No, I would never carry on in so harmful a way. Indeed, I make it a rule not to give even the words of Buddha himself, let alone the Zen patriarchs. To attain the truth today all one needs is self-criticism. There’s no need to talk about Buddhism and Zen. Why, there’s not a single straying person among you: all of you have the Buddha-mind.

Zen Master Bankei (1622-93) was known as the teacher of the "unborn." That's how he summarized everything that he ever learned. Whatever is, is unborn. Everything else, including birth and death, is just delusion. He first came upon this dramatically, in his mid-20s, sick with tuberculosis. After a doctor told him he would die, Bankei experienced the following:

“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...I realized what it was that had escaped me until now: All things are perfectly resolved in the Unborn.

I find it kind of hilarious how powerful the images of his story are, given Bankei's insistence on not "telling teaching stories" to those who sought his guidance as a teacher. But I suppose that he realized that any story told pales in comparison to one's own experience.

Still, I like a good story, and Bankei's narrative is pretty power, even if his teachings were repetitive and lacking in "flavor."

When his teacher gave him inka-shōmei, the seal of recognition that a student has awakened, Bankei grabbed the document and tore it to shreds.

Thinking that conventional Japanese views around gender were extremely limited, he offered this to the women who came to study with him:

I understand that women feel very distressed hearing it said [in certain texts and from many teachers] that they can’t become Buddhas. But it simply isn’t so! How is there any difference between men and women? Men are the Buddha-body [Dharmakâya] and women are the Buddha-body, too…. In the Unborn, there’s no difference whether you’re a man or a woman.

While he would tell people such odd phrases as "Don't get born," at the end of his life, he told people to just listen to the sounds of everyday life.

He was both dramatic, and completely ordinary. A man who nearly died in his 20s, and who went on to live another 45 years (which, coincidentally is the amount of time the Buddha spent teaching the original Buddhist sangha.)

I fully appreciate Bankei's sense that stories are a weak broth that can never substitute for drinking the soup of life.

And yet, I like a good story. I think most of us need a good story now and then. So, I offer this bit about Bankei for all of you to ponder.

May your life be well.