Bankei Zen

Bankei: Abide in the Unborn

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 (1622-1693) was a immensely popular and influential teacher who spoke directly. avoiding sutras and ceremony. He adhered to no particular school and his teaching was remarkably individual and raw, of the essence of Zen. His concern was with the truth as an immediate experience, not with a systematic approach to a distant goal. He preached what he had discovered in his own experience—”the unborn” or “the birthless Buddha-mind”—and he spoke in plain language that anyone could understand.

Seeking the Bright Virtue

Because Bankei’s own experience, including years of desperate effort to gain satori, so powerfully influenced what and how he taught, we’ll look a bit at his life.  As a child Bankei became obsessed with death. What we might today call a juvenile delinquent, he quarreled, fought and skipped school. Unable to get along with his brother or with fellow schoolmates, he at one point swallowed a large number of spiders in a suicide attempt.

As a young adolescent Bankei was sent to a study Chinese. While studying A Great Learning (Ta-hsiieh), an important Confucian classic, Bankei read “The Way of the Great Learning lies in illuminating the bright virtue.” The bright (or illustrious) virtue, a key concepts of the Great Learning. was often interpreted as a kind of dynamic intuitive moral sense that constitutes man’s intrinsic nature. His interest peaked, Bankei questioned the local Confucian scholars, but none actually seemed to know what the Bright Virtue was.

So at age 13 Bankei sought to discover the truth of Bright Virtue. When he looked to Buddhism, he found Buddhist teachers no more useful. After several years of seeking answers to his questions about man’s original nature, he settled on Zen and became a disciple of Umpo. Bankei approached zazen with characteristic determination. He withdrew to a hut and undertook a regimen of strenuous meditation practice.

For two years Bankei subjected himself to a series of grueling ordeals in a desperate effort to resolve his doubts once and for all, to uncover the truth about man’s intrinsic nature. Driven to the brink of death by hunger and exhaustion, success still eluded him, and in the spring of 1647, Bankei lay in his hut, ill and apparently dying, unable even to swallow the food his servant offered.

One day, feeling something peculiar in his throat, he managed to summon the strength to bring up a dark ball of phlegm, spitting it against the wall. Suddenly the whole weight of his illness dissolved, and he realized that he’d had the answer to his questions with him all along—the innate mind that manages everything, naturally, effortlessly, just as it is.

Suddenly, while at the very depths, it struck me like a thunderbolt that I had never been born, and that my birthlessness could settle any and every matter. This seemed to be my satori…. the birthless Buddha-mind can cut any and every knot . . . to live in a state of non-birth is to attain Buddhahood . . . from the moment you have begun to realize this fact, you are a living Buddha. . . .

Bankei now realized that he had never been born. He saw into the illuminating source of all things, by which all things are well managed. Bankei was convinced that he could live from the Unborn. It was a totally life-changing insight.

Teaching to all

Bankei became a Zen man of the people. He spoke to crowds of ordinary country folk and as Zen students. With his simple and direct language, he impressed people with his sincerity. Bankei’s Zen was refreshingly clear and relatively simple. You didn’t have to be learned, live in a monastery or even necessarily consider yourself a Buddhist to practice them effectively.

Bankei was approached by a priest who boasted that his master possessed miraculous powers. This master could take a brush and write Amida in the air and the word would appear on a sheet of paper in the distance. Challenged to equal this, Bankei replied, “My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.”

Bankei’s broke completely from the predominating koan system. Rather than urging his followers to seek a hard-won satori through koan meditation, he exhorted people to experience the simple truth directly. Bankei assumed his own conviction would persuade others of the value of his method.

I won’t tell you that you have to practice such and such, that you have to uphold certain rules or precepts or read certain sutras or other Zen writings, or that you have to do zazen. . . . If you want to recite sutras or do zazen, observe precepts, recite the Nembutsu or the Daimoku [the mantra of the Nichiren sect], you should do it. If you’re a farmer or a tradesman and you want to work your farm or your business, then go ahead, do it; whatever it is, that will be your personal samadhi.

Long and arduous discipline was not required, Bankei taught. Even though he himself had undergone terrible hardships before realizing the Unborn, he assured people that it wasn’t necessary or even advisable to follow his own example. He had had to struggle because he could not find a teacher able to teach him what he had to know, but now Bankei was there to point to the truth that was readily available. Life lived from the Unborn would bring experiences to deepen the appreciation and inspire one-pointedness.

All I do is comment directly on people themselves. That takes care of everything. I don’t have to quote other people. So you won’t find me saying anything about either the ‘Buddha-Dharma’ or the ‘Zen Dharma.’

Abide in the Unborn


Bankei’s entire teaching can be reduced to the single exhortation: “Abide in the Unborn!.” The term “Unborn” had been used in Buddhism previously to suggest that which is intrinsic, original, uncreated. But Bankei was unique in using the term as the core of his teaching. Bankei didn’t teach that one should try to obtain the Unborn; rather one should simply abide in it. The Unborn is not a condition to be created; it is already, complete and perfect—the mind just as it is.

Unborn and imperishable
Is the original mind.
Earth, water, fire and wind—
A temporary lodging for the night.

But, of course. we have forgotten how to be spontaneous and natural in our lives. So Bankei taught “letting thoughts (and physical sensations) arise or cease just as they will.” In response to circumstances thoughts and feelings come and go. While these are neither good nor bad in themselves, we are slaves to our responses. Failing to see them as merely passing reflections, we obstruct the free flow of the mind. We need only to step aside.

If you think the mind
That attains enlightenment
Is ‘mine’, your thoughts
Will wrestle with one another.

These days I am not bothering about
Getting enlightenment all the time,
And the result is that
I wake up in the morning feeling fine.

To those who listened to his talks he demonstrated this by having them notice that while they listened to him speaking they spontaneously registered and identified everything else around them—the sounds of birds, colors and aromas, the weather, the other people around them. All this happens, Bankei pointed out, without any conscious effort. It simply happens, and that, Bankei is how the Unborn functions.

When someone tosses you a tea bowl—
Catch it!
Catch it nimbly with soft cotton,
With the cotton of your skilful mind.

We create our own enemies

Bankei explained how we acquire bad habits and self-centeredness after we are born, These are not innate but rather acquired. As we develop self-centeredness we create a false self, and from then on we see everything and everyone from a narrowly selfish viewpoint. Deluded, we give up the Buddha-mind we are born with and take on learned responses.

People have no enemies
None at all right from the start
You create them all yourself
Fighting over right and wrong

Clear are the workings of cause and effect
You become deluded, but don’t know
It’s something that you’ve done yourself
That’s what’s called self-centeredness

To free ourselves from such delusion and attachment Bankei taught than we must return to the unconditioned, the uncreated, the unborn.

What we have from our parents innately is the Unborn Buddha Mind and nothing else

The Buddha Mind is unborn and marvelously illuminating, and with the Unborn everything is perfectly managed.

Abide in the Unborn Buddha Mind!

No special practices

As we have seen throughout this course, the idea of the Unborn or the Unborn Buddha Mind is a central theme running through Zen teachings. Bankei brought a fresh vitality to this by urging people not to see the Unborn as something to attain or even something to try to be.Rather, Bankei taught, the Unborn is already present, perfect and complete. It is, in fact, the core of one’s being.

Instead of struggling to do or become something, one needs to cease struggling entirely. If one is truly natural and innocently spontaneous, the Unborn will appear. The key to realization is not some method or practice, however helpful these may be, but letting go of everything which is not the Unborn. This involves no special method as typically understood; it involves the total openness of one who has no presumed goal, intention, desire or wish. Letting go is possible because of the nature of the mind.

When your study
Of Buddhism is through
You find
You haven’t anything new

Not attaching to any practice included Bankei’s rejection of a narrow or formalized notion of zazen meditation. Bankei neither repudiated nor insisted upon zazen practice. Focus on a particular posture or concentration practice was beside the point.

As for zazen, since za (sitting) is the Buddha Mind’s sitting at ease, whilst Zen (meditation) is another name for Buddha Mind, the Buddha Mind’s sitting at ease is what is meant by zazen.

And meditation “shouldn’t be limited to the time you sit meditating” in the meditation hall.

When you are abiding in the Unborn, all the time is zazen.

The spontaneity of koans vs. koan study

For Bankei no special practices included koan practice, which had for a long time enjoyed enormous popularity in Japanese Zen. For Bankei koan study with its emphasis on arcane foreign-language material was, in fact, a serious impediment to practitioners of merely average intellectual ability and threatened to drain much of the spontaneity from the encounter between master and student. For Bankei the whole approach of koan Zen was hopelessly contrived.

The original koans, Bankei pointed out, were actual living events. It is precisely the spontaneity of these interchanges between teacher and student that represents the Unborn, not the content. Why ossify the content of these experiences into words of the ancients to be studied when you can look at your own “cases”—that is, the way in which the Unborn is at work here and now in the actual circumstances of one’s life. Why rely on a device, he argued, when you could have the thing itself?

Bankei’s appeal: Bankei

In Bankei’s time Zen was thought of as much too difficult for ordinary people. Studying the “inner teachings” was for qualified monks and members of the upper classes and intelligentsia who could follow to some extent the difficult Chinese of the imported Zen texts.

Bankei, on the other hand, taught that the truth of the Unborn is so simple, so straightforward, that anyone can grasp it. Scholarly pursuits and classical Chinese only get in the way. The essence of Zen, Bankei maintained, was perfectly plain and direct. All that is needed is an open mind. The Unborn could best be explained using simple, everyday language. Any other approach was just deceptive. To teach Zen, Bankei insisted, one had to go right to the core, to divest oneself of everything extraneous—all the gimmicks, the technical jargon, the exotic foreign usages.

But Bankei’s Zen—which taught no devices, no methods for achieving enlightenment—was entirely dependent on the force of Bankei’s teaching and exhortation. Without Bankei, this Zen of no effort quickly disappeared, forgotten in a Zen world where the great effort that Bankei himself had had to make was assumed necessary.

In fact Bankei’s Zen was essentially forgotten until the twentieth century when it was rediscovered and found to have great appeal.

“[The Unborn] is truly one of the most original developments in the entire history of Zen thought.”  D. T. Suzuki

There is something contemporary in much of what Bankei taught — his sense of freedom, his humanity, his intimate approach to the ultimate problems in terms of people’s daily lives. Bankei stressed meditation in action, in day to day living. His general guideline was beautifully simple:

Only sit up with the Buddha-heart, be only with the Buddha-heart, sleep and arise only with the Buddha-heart, and live only with the Buddha-