Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, 1622-1693

Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, 1622-1693


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Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, 1622-1693 by Yotaku

In 1633, at age eleven, Bankei Yotaku was banished from his family's home because of his consuming engagement with the Confucian texts that all schoolboys were required to copy and recite. Using a hut in the nearby hills, he wrote the word Shugyo-an, or "practice hermitage," on a plank of wood, propped it up beside the entrance, and settled down to devote himself to his own clarification of "bright virtue."

He finally turned to Zen and, after fourteen years of incredible hardship, achieved a decisive enlightenment, whereupon the Rinzai priest traveled unceasingly to the temples and monasteries of Japan, sharing what he'd learned.

"What I teach in these talks of mine is the Unborn Buddha-mind of illuminative wisdom, nothing else. Everyone is endowed with this Buddha-mind, only they don't know it." Casting aside the traditional aristocratic style of his contemporaries, he offered his teachings in the common language of the people. His style recalls the genius and simplicity of the great Chinese Zen masters of the T'ang dynasty.

This revised and expanded edition contains many talks and dialogues not included in the original 1984 volume.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865471535
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/01/1982
Pages: 156
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.57(d)

About the Author

Norman Waddell has published translations of Suzuki and Dogen, and, most recently, Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin. He lives in Japan.

Read an Excerpt

Bankei Yotaku was born in 1622, on the eighth day of the third month at Hamada, a small village on the shore of the Inland Sea, in the province of Harima, in what is now eastern Hyogo prefecture. His father, Suga (or Sugawara) Dosetsu, was from the island of Shikoku; for generations the family ancestors had been physicians of samurai rank in the service of the ruling Awa clan. For reasons not now known, Dosetsu resigned this post and, as a rnasterless samurai, or ronin, crossed over the Inland Sea to the province of Bitchü. There he married a Miss Noguchi and, after moving twice more, settled finally in Hamada, where he, presumably gained a livelihood through the practice of medicine. Bankei was one of nine children born to them, the fourth of five sons. His boyhood name was Muchi, which translates roughly as "Don't fall behind!" When Bankei was ten, his father died, leaving the duty of raising him and the other children to his mother and his eldest brother, Masayasu, who continued the family tradition as a practitioner of Chinese medicine.

The records of Bankei's life reveal that he was an intelligent, highly sensitive child but at the same time rather unruly and uncommonly strong willed.

His mother later told him that even at the young age of two or three he showed a distinct aversion to death. The family found that by talking about death or pretending to be dead, they could stop his crying. Later, when he made a nuisance of himself by leading the neighborhood children in mischief the same methods were used to bring him into line.

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, since the Heian period, 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.

At the age of eleven, less than a year after his father's death, he was sent to the village school, where he took an immediate interest in his studies. But the calligraphy lessons, held after school at a temple in a neighboring village, were a different matter. For these he harbored an intense dislike. To avoid the monotony of copying and recopying Chinese characters from the teacher's copybook, he made a practice of returning home well before the class was over. Although Masayasu repeatedly took his young brother to task for this, his scolding had apparently little effect. In returning home, Bankei had to cross a river. His brother instructed the ferryman not to allow him to board if he should come along early. Bankei was not easily to be denied. "The ground must continue under the water," he declared, and he strode right into the stream, struggling along over the bottom until he emerged, breathless, at the far bank.

Wanting to avoid further conflict with his brother, Bankei thought of committing suicide. He had heard that eating poisonous spiders was fatal, so he swallowed a mouthful of them and shut himself up inside a small Buddhist shrine to await the end. Many hours later, seeing that he was still alive, he abandoned the attempt and went home.

At the village school, Bankei was subjected to the same curriculum as all Tokugawa 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. The teacher came to the central words, "The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue." Bankei interrupted the teacher. "'What is bright virtue?" he asked. The teacher, repeating the glosses given in one of the traditional commentaries, answered, "The intrinsic nature of good in each person." Bankei asked what the intrinsic nature of man was and was told, "It's his fundamental nature." "Then what is that?" he persisted. "The ultimate truth of Heaven," replied the teacher. None of these answers satisfied Bankei. A deeper explanation was needed. He wanted to know what bright virtue meant in terms of his practical experience. This questioning marks the awakening of religious doubt in his consciousness, which was most likely already disposed in that direction because of the recent loss of his father. Bankei himself spoke of this critical juncture sixty years later as the beginning of his search "to discover the Buddha-mind." In any case, his questioning of bright virtue soon grew into an all-consuming passion. Fired by unquellable doubts, he embarked upon an urgent and relentless religious quest that would occupy the next fourteen years and determine the future course of his life.

At the beginning, 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." There were no Zen temples in the immediate vicinity, so he was unable to follow their advice. Bankei had to content himself with questioning more Confucianists and such Buddhist priests as he found in temples nearby. In addition, he attended every sermon, lecture, and other religious gathering that came to his attention. Afterward, he would run home and tell his mother what had been said.

But such inquiries brought him no glimpse of understanding. He was unable to find a single person who could offer him any 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 brother that Bankei was finally "banished from the family house for good."

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 Sbugvoan, 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.

The records are more or less silent regarding the next several years. He seems to have spent time at a temple of the Shin sect located close by. There he must have learned about that school's practice of the Nembutsu--the calling of the name of Amida Buddha. A reference in his sermons to long sessions devoted to the constant repetition of the Nembutsu--"days on end in a Nembutsu samadhi"--perhaps belongs in this period as well. When he was fifteen, Bankei lived for a while in a Shingon temple, where he presumably familiarized himself to some extent with the teaching and practices of esoteric Buddhism. The head priest of this temple, impressed by the young boy's resolution, tried to induce him to stay on as his disciple. Bankei refused the offer. "Neither the Shin nor the Shingon sect was to his liking."

The next year, having turned sixteen, he walked the twenty miles that separated Hamada from the city of Ako to visit the Zuio-ji, a temple of the Zen sect that had been built twenty-two years before for the incumbent abbot, Umpo Zenjo. Umpo belonged to the Rinzai tradition; his specific filiation placed him in the mainstream of that school, which traced its descent from the great Zen masters of the Kamakura period, Daio and Daito. Seventy years old when Bankei visited him in 1638, Umpo had earned a wide reputation as a stern taskmaster who demanded total dedication from his monks. A biographical notice of Umpo included in Bankei's records tells us that "few were bold-hearted enough to enter his chambers, and they usually fled before long."

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, seated meditation. There must have been something about Umpo, and the Zen teachings and practice he embodied, that struck a responsive chord in Bankei, because then and there he 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. He gave him the religious name Yotaku, "Long Polishing [of the Mind Gem]." Bankei, the name by which he is best known, he acquired in his early thirties, when he served a term as a teacher in the training halls of the Myoshin-ji in Kyoto.

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. Bankei probably did some work on koans as well, although no clear evidence reveals this and there is some indication that Umpo may not have laid the same stress on koans that his contemporaries did.

At nineteen, after three years at the Zuio-ji, Bankei set out, heading east, on an extended journey around the country that eventually took him throughout the Kyoto-Osaka area and as far west as the island of Kyushu. Once he took leave of Umpo, he had no fixed residence. He stayed in temples, but more often he lived a solitary life in rude, self-made huts, or, frequently, to judge from his records, he merely slept in the open. The privations of this life were great, but he faced them with a more than spartan disdain for hunger and extremes of season and temperature. He is reported to have lived among beggars for several years, first under the Gojo Bridge in Kyoto and later beside the Tenmangu Shrine in Osaka, where he slept with nothing but reeds for a covering. He sat for a week without eating at the Matsuno-o Shrine in the western part of the capital. From the following account by Bankei himself, we can form a picture of what his life was like at this time-although the disciple who cites it adds that it tells "but one ten-thousandth of the actual circumstances."

Footnotes have been omitted.

Copyright © 2000 Norman Waddell

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