Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 5-7

“Ideas of what's good,
What's bad
All due to
This self of yours.

In winter, a bonfire
Spells delight
But when summertime arrives
What a nuisance it becomes!

And the breezes
You loved in summer
Even before autumn's gone
Already have become a bother”

In Buddhism, there is a strong moral tradition that has existed since the time of the Buddha, over two-and-a half millennia ago. The Buddha encouraged us to keep at least the five precepts (not to kill, not to steal, not to commit sexual misconduct, not to lie, and not to take intoxicants). So, when someone like Bankei seems to abandon any idea of morality, as he does in the first of the three verses above, we need to apply some wisdom in discerning what he actually meant. He, like all great Buddhist masters before and since, did keep the precepts, for he knew that every action has a reaction, and the repercussions of what we do affect not ourselves, but also others . Nevertheless, we must take Bankei seriously when he declares:

“Ideas of what's good,
What's bad
All due to
This self of yours.”

In this verse, it is important to focus on the word “ideas,” for it is when we conceptualize about what’s good or bad that we create suffering around the things we think about. This is moralizing for its own sake, and is therefore not only pointless, but downright harmful to the happiness of all concerned. In contrast to this, the five precepts are not mere moralization, but exist for a specific purpose: to let go of those karmic deeds that hang heavy over us, sowing the seeds for future anguish. (A secondary affect of keeping the precepts is that we create harmonious relationships with others. This is worth noting, for in the Buddha’s Way, what is good for me is good for you, and vice versa, for we are inextricably linked together in this interdependent world.)

These “ideas of what’s good” and “what’s bad” have a specific origin: the self. Or, to put it more accurately, notions of good and evil are created out of the illusion of being a self. The Buddha taught that whilst appearing real when we are living an unenlightened life, the self is in fact a conglomerate being, made up of multitudes of psychophysical processes. According to the teachings of the Buddha, when we awaken to these processes and see them for what they are, we are enlightened. Prior to this, however, we live with the misperception that I am me and nothing else – the Buddha’s Way is in essence seeing through this self-tinted existence and living from the indescribable No-thing that lies at the heart of every being. Whilst we are still mistaking this body-mind to be ‘me’ we are the cause of our own unhappiness. Bankei illustrates this with two descriptive verses, beginning with:

“In winter, a bonfire
Spells delight
But when summertime arrives
What a nuisance it becomes!”

This verse might seem almost irrelevant in its mundanity, for we can all see that in winter we need heat to keep us warm, whilst in the summer we desire to cool down. Fortunately, the words of masters like Bankei work on a multitude of levels, and this verse contains various meanings, just one of which this simple-minded commentator is able to interpret. By ‘winter’ is indicated those times in life when the idea of self might advantage us, for instance when food is scarce or our life is threatened in other ways, and our self-preservation instinct kicks in to keep us alive. In the ‘summertime’ of our lives, however, when we no longer need to look out for number one, the self is a barrier to the arising of enlightenment. Just sitting in meditation with the ego shouting, “Let me out of here!” will give us ample proof of what Bankei is getting at here. He continues in much the same vein with the following words:

“And the breezes
You loved in summer
Even before autumn's gone
Already have become a bother”

Again, it’s pretty obvious even to the most dull-witted amongst us – and I include myself in this category – that a cool breeze is much appreciated when the weather is too hot, but in the chillier times of autumn, the very same kind of weather can be a real pain in the neck, not mention other sensitive realms of the human form lower down our anatomy! But, Bankei is no fool like me, and he uses the image of a breeze to represent the intellect, which in the “summer” of an overheated mind (the emotions) can lead us away from emotional turmoil. But, in the ‘autumn’ of an already cooled-down mind, too much thinking can be dangerous, living us tied up in mental knots, unable to see the woods for the trees. A short experiment will illustrate this point amply. Please conduct the following five minute exercise and see if you can avoid noticing what Bankei is getting at:

Close your eyes. Take a moment or two to calm down, perhaps by counting your breath, one to ten, a few times. Next, turn your attention to your thoughts. What are you thinking at this moment? If it’s nothing, don’t worry – the flood of mental chatter will soon come rushing in. When you do notice your thoughts, please don’t fight them, but simply watch them, noting their subject matter and how they transform (almost) seamlessly from one subject to the next. See how they occupy your mindscape, taking up so much of your consciousness with their ever-flowing stream of verbiage. After five minutes or so, open your eyes and see if the thoughts stop or continue on their merry way.

Bankei is telling us that our own mind or self is the cause of our suffering. Whatever concerns we have are ours; the self responds to the world and in its responses creates a certain amount of suffering. What is the mind made up of? Primarily, it is constructed of thoughts and emotions. And, although thoughts themselves are not suffering as such, it is our emotional responses to them that contain the suffering that blights this earthly existence. Being aware of this process, as Bankei encourages us to be, doesn’t free us from it, but it is a beginning from which we can take the next step which is to let go of our thoughts, and therefore our sense of being a separate self, and realize the Unborn.

6 comments:

jack said...

Front door to back door, mankind sleepingly stumbles along, while all the time most assuredly thinking he is wide awake!

G said...

Yes, Jack - being awake and thinking we are awake are two completely different things. Reading the wisdom of Bankei can inspire us to the former...

Kristi in the Western Reserve said...

This past two weeks I had a sort of cancer scare (it now seems that I do not have cancer) and I really had a struggle. I am very attached to being alive! I don't feel terrible about that, at the moment, but my reactions were very interesting, and I did observe them while it was going on which was a help. The last two days before the surgery I was calmer and slept better. I think I am aware of having no separate self, but what I think and what reality is are never quite as congruent as I would like! ;-)

Still, I came away from the experience feeling how much I love and am grateful for being alive. And a little confused about what this means. (I think gratitude is good, but perhaps I should not care?)

This post was very interesting.I'm printing it out. (I find all your blogs entries very interesting.)

G said...

Thanks Kristi for a really inspirational comment.
Your recent experiences were indeed an opportunity for you to observe and understand the workings of the mind, and it appears from your words that you did just that! Being attached to life isn't something that we should fight or have a problem with - we should simply be aware of the way the mind is, and wisdom will grow out of nonjudgmental awareness.

Thank you for your extremely kind words regarding 'Buddha Space' - feel free to print off whatever you want from this blog. (And that goes for anyone else, too.)
Hope you recover swiftly, Kristi - and stay awake to your thoughts; your innate wisdom will blossom, for sure.

Chana said...

I just am finishing the book "THE UNBORN - The Life and teachings of Zen Master Bankei"..... I would recommend it to anyone interested in "BUddhism" no matter what kind. Here is one of my favorite passages about Bankei...

As Bankei saw it, the whole approach of koan Zen was hopelessly contrived. He rejected the need for familiarity with classical Chinese as an unnecessary encumbrance, and rejected the koan itself as artificial technique. The original koans, he argued, were not "models" but actual living events. The old masters had simply responded to particular situations that confronted them, naturally accomadating themselves to the needs of the students involved. That was the business of any Zen teacher, to meet each situation on its own terms. There was no need to make people study the words of ancient Chinese monks when you could simply have them look at their own "cases", the way in which the Unborn was at work here and now in the actual circumstances of there lives. This is what Bankei called his "direct" teaching, as opposed to koan practice, which he referred disparagingly as "studying old waste paper." The koan, Bankei said, was merely a device, and teachers who relied on it, or on any other technique, were practicing "Devices Zen" Why rely on a device, he argued, when you could have the thing itself?

Chana

G said...

I just finished the same book, Chana. (I'd also recommend 'Bankei Zen' by Peter Haskel.) Bankei is indeed an inspiration to us all to live in this moment from the Unborn Buddha Mind that we already are. Koan or not, this Unborn (which is ajata in Pali and fusho in Japanese) is the heart of Way, whatever tradition(s) we associate with. Thanks for the comment, Chana.