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Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, 1622-1693 Paperback – July 31, 2000
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“[The Unborn] is truly one of the most original developments in the entire history of Zen thought.” ―D. T. Suzuki
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.
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From page 92: “Basically, there’s not a thing wrong with you; it’s only that you let slight, inadvertent mistakes change the Buddha-mind into thought. A thief, for example, begins by pilfering only trifles. He find it a wonderfully convenient way of acquiring things. It doesn’t even require any capital. And so he advances beyond petty theft and becomes a highly accomplished robber. But finally, it becomes impossible to keep from being found out. He’s discovered, arrested, trussed up, and dealt with by the law. When this happens, and he’s brought out for punishment, he often forgets all about the offenses he has committed and becomes indignant and resentful toward the blameless officers of the law, reproaching them bitterly for being so hard on him. I’m sure you’ll agree that he’s greatly mistaken. What he has done is to turn his valuable Buddha-mind into the way of hungry ghosts or animals because of a small mistake.”
The humor! The warmth! It floors me. The fact that these teachings are all contraband somehow adds to the pleasure, at least for this reprobate. Because Bankei forbid that his teachings be transcribed or preserved. The teachings were only for that moment, those people, in a way that was entirely right, right then and there. Each moment deserves and requires a fresh response. As beautiful and true as that is, one can’t help but be grateful that there were a few disobedient monastic Max Brods in the audience! They were not wrong to regard these teachings as a treasure, though they were apparently almost forgotten for a century or more before being trumpeted by the great DT Suzuki.
Another example. Master Bankei says that giving up thinking is like giving up drinking. “It’s like a sake lover who has contracted an illness that forces him to give up drinking. He still thinks about it. Thoughts about having a few drinks still enter his mind whenever he has a chance to get his hands on some sake. But since he abstains from drinking it, his illness isn’t affected and he doesn’t get drunk. He stays away from it despite the thoughts that arise in his mind, and eventually he becomes a healthy man, cured of his illness. Illusory thoughts are no different. If you just let them come and let them go away, and don’t put them to work or try to avoid them, then one day you’ll discover that they’ve vanished completely into the inborn mind.”
Please excuse the following cynical note. We live in a time when teachings like these are being commoditized and monetized to an unimaginable degree. It is remarkable, the degree to which these teachings are in the vein, and even the style, of Eckhart Tolle set, et al. And I’m not saying all those folks are bad, only that this is much more wonderful and free of dross. And so I am waiting, with trepidation, for the neo-Advaitins, the Jeff Foster, Mooji, Gangaji crowd, to seize on this book, that is, if they still read books. It’s gonna happen, I swear to you. These teachings will be harder to hear and harder to love, once they are being quoted incessantly by hucksters. Quick! Get to Bankei before they do! Remain in the Unborn!
I must make clear that this book is not an instructional manual - there are many books far better for that purpose. Rather, I turn to the words of Bankei contained within as a reminder of the tremendous freedom and bliss of enlightenment, or as Bankei calls is, the Unborn Buddha Mind. "All things are perfectly resolved in the Unborn", Bankei famously realized upon his initial awakening. Some may find his repeated descriptions of The Unborn redundant or unnecessary, but I find the repetition instills a sense of faith that such a level of being is indeed possible, and not just for a select few. Bankei again and again reminds us that we already are what we seek. "There are no unenlightened people here", he says in one of this series of recorded talks, and we would all do well to remember that.
As early as 1950 Watts specifically identifies Bankei as a resource in an article he wrote for the journal of the Buddhist Lodge in England. He quotes Bankei even more profusely in his 1957 opus The Way of Zen. Finally, in his autobiography In My Own Way, published a year before his death in 1973, Watts reveals having spent many hours studying Bankei and elevates him to a representative of "Zen at its best." He said that he referred people to Bankei's observations whenever they accused him of misinterpreting Zen.
I am delighted to find that the teachings of this Zen iconoclast par excellence are available once again in the revised edition of The Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, translated by Norman Waddell. Highly recommended with one caveat: if your feet are firmly planted in orthodoxy, anticipate the appearance of major cracks in your foundation. A retrofit will not necessarily be an option.