Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 8-11

“When you've got money
You despise the poor
But have you forgotten how it was
Back when you were poor yourself?

The money you amassed in life
Amassed with a demonic heart
You'll watch with horror and alarm
Seized upon by hungry ghosts.

Throwing your whole life away
Sacrificed to the thirst for gold
But when you saw your life was through
All your money was no use

Clinging, craving and the like
I don't have them on my mind
That's why nowadays I can say
The whole world is truly mine!”
Possessions, and the desire for them, are a big part of our suffering. We want what we don’t have and cling to what we do have, either way creating the circumstances for both present and future suffering. Present suffering is created when we live with the desire for something that we do not possess, for we are in a state of want or incompleteness, longing for that object; and the seeds for future suffering are sown because we will continue to suffer while we fail to take hold of that which we crave. And, even when we already possess that which we want, we still suffer, both now and in times to come, for we fear the loss of our possessions. In this, it can be seen that rich people are in a worse position than the poor, for they have more to lose, and therefore more possessions to worry about. The 17th Century Zen Master Bankei has some interesting insights into desire in his poem ‘The Song of the Mind’:
“When you've got money
You despise the poor”

Regarding the rich, Bankei says that not only do they avoid the poor, but that they actually despise them. Why? Well, if you’re rich, and you wish to retain your wealth, then the poor may be perceived as a threat to your continued prosperity, for they will no doubt desire what you already have. On a subtler level of human psychology, it may well be that whilst consciously we may be unaware of the fact, subconsciously we may feel guilty that we have a lot whilst others have very little, and this can result in resentment towards those that trigger such inner conflict. Of course, these are generalisations, and there do exist philanthropists that willingly give to those less fortunate than themselves through a genuine sense of compassion or fellowship. But how many of us have given to charity or the poor in the past, but part of us has resented the fact, regretting the loss of part of our wealth? Bankei suggests that we reflect upon our life in relation to the poor, rather than merely acting out of subconscious motives:

“But have you forgotten how it was
Back when you were poor yourself?”
Now, again, not all of those who are rich were once poor, for some people are born into wealth. But, for many of us that are well-off to one degree or another, we can recall earlier times in our lives when we weren’t so affluent. Remembering what it was like back then, and how we felt about not having what we wanted, we can then imagine how those poorer than ourselves feel right now. They do not deserve to be despised or even disliked for being less fortunate, if anything they are worthy of our empathy. Out of such empathy for the poor can come the motivation to help them, and if acted upon, such altruistic behaviour can be the source of much pleasure, counteracting any feelings of guilt referred to above.
“The money you amassed in life
Amassed with a demonic heart”

Here, Bankei has a perhaps shocking accusation to make, that the accruing of money through our lives is motivated by a “demonic heart.” This is a powerful and challenging assertion; powerful in that it grabs our attention, and challenging in that it demands we look at the mindsets we have when pursuing and stockpiling our wealth. To understand Bankei’s use of the word “demonic” it’s crucial to remember that the Buddha taught that desire and clinging are the ultimate causes of our suffering, and therefore that if we live with such feelings in our minds we are doing the worst thing possible if our ultimate intent is to attain enlightenment. In this sense, it is “demonic” and must be recognised and let go of if we are to progress along the Buddha’s Way.

“You'll watch with horror and alarm
Seized upon by hungry ghosts.”

The belief in hungry ghosts is long-established in the Buddhist traditions of Asia, perhaps going back to at least the lifetime of the historical Buddha. In Asia, hungry ghosts are usually believed in literally as the spirits of dead people who were greedy during their previous life and therefore now live as a ghostly being with a massive belly but a tiny mouth, unable to satiate their enormous hunger. But, Bankei’s reference to hungry ghosts may well mean something less fantastical, as he was renowned for not indulging in the more supernatural and superstitious elements of traditional Buddhist culture. Rather than meaning the ‘leftovers’ of actual dead people, he seems to be using the term “hungry ghosts”  to mean either our own psychological reactions to our greed or other living people that grasp after our wealth and associated happiness. Perhaps for modern-minded Buddhists the latter interpretation is more useful, and as the Buddha Dharma consists of skilful means to help us realize Nirvana, it is surely both efficacious and acceptable to view Bankei’s use of the words “hungry ghosts” in this way.

If we take “hungry ghosts” to mean either other people’s effects on our riches or our own psychological states regarding our wealth, we have some interesting and productive areas for reflection. Certainly, those who cling to their possessions will react with “horror and alarm” if other people threaten their privileged positions in society. It may be a thief or a business rival to name but two kinds of “hungry ghosts” in this interpretation of the term. Or, it may be the fear of being thieved or out-manoeuvred in business dealings that create mental turmoil akin to such ghostly beings. Whether physical or psychological, and ultimately such a division is misleading in itself, rich people definitely have “hungry ghosts” haunting them, but this is not the worst fate that can befall them, or any of us fir that matter:

“Throwing your whole life away
Sacrificed to the thirst for gold
But when you saw your life was through
All your money was no use”

This verse reveals another, greater, foe to not only the wealthy but every single living creature – death. We are all subject to death, and Bankei states that if we spend our lives in the pursuit of “gold” (or material wealth), from the perspective of the Dharma, we have wasted our time on earth. He creates the image of someone rich dying and finding that all their money is of no use now. What could have benefitted them in preparation for their demise was the practice of Buddhism, but since they neglected thus in favour of amassing as many possessions as they could, they are in quite a predicament, full of fear and confusion as they face their final moments. If only they had walked the Path of the Buddha whilst still healthy, now as death approached, they would have the wisdom to face it with equanimity.

“Clinging, craving and the like
I don't have them on my mind
That's why nowadays I can say
The whole world is truly mine!”

This verse reveals the wisdom of Zen Master Bankei, for he gets right to the heart of the matter and highlights the central issue here: “clinging, craving and the like.” As the Buddha taught over two-and-a-half millennia ago, when we cling to our desires, whether we already possess them or not, we create our own suffering. As an enlightened master, however, Bankei does not cling to any thoughts or desires that may arise in his awareness and therefore he does not suffer. Furthermore, and here we have another indicator of this man’s greatness, he states that “the whole world is truly mine!” Is he a megalomaniac or engulfed in a kind of solipsism? No, he is enlightened, that’s all!

When we see the true state of affairs we see that there is no separation between me and that object, between me and you, nor me and the world. In reality, ‘I’ am not separate from the things I might desire or cling to, and therefore I need not suffer at the thought that I do not have them or might lose them. You might protest that whilst this sounds great in theory, in practice it isn’t so easy to experience, to which I counter, “Poppycock!” All we need to do to set the wheel of Dharma rolling is to actually look at the way things are right now with an open mind and heart (which are in fact not two, by the way). If you are willing to do this, please conduct the following exercises in a spirit of inquiry.

Look at an object. It might be a car, a house, or even the sky. Take time to notice its features, those aspects of it that you might consider desirable or at least attractive. Now, gaze at your own face – or lack of, in truth – and note whether there is any gap between ‘you’ here and the object ‘there.’ It is true, on present evidence, that there is no distance separating ‘you’ and ‘it,’ but rather that there is only one seeing here that includes both seer and seen? Congratulations, you’ve just opened your Buddha Eye!

This Buddha Eye that is referred to above is none other than the Unborn which Bankei liked so much to talk about. It is the pure seeing that transcends both seer and seen, leaving awareness intertwined with whatever it is aware of. In this naked knowing, everything already is part of awareness, and therefore is already ‘mine’ as what I really am at centre is this very awareness. Living thus, there is no self from which the desire to have and to hold will arise; instead, everything and everyone is seen as an expression of the same awareness, worthy of the wisdom and compassion that flows from this empty heart. Then, all the “hungry ghosts” in the world can come to haunt us and we will be beyond their grasp, as will be every single object in the cosmos.


Tom Davidson-Marx said...

This is a very helpful commentary. I have held Bankei's wisdom teachings in my highest regard (found your blog by searching Bankei). Also had a look around and am very happy to have found this site. Thanks for all the hard work you put into it. Tom

G said...

Thanks for your encouraging comments, Tom.
Yes, Bankei manages to present the Truth without clinging to doctrines, which is a sign of genuine freedom. In this, he displays the understanding of the Buddha's statement that the Buddhadharma exists as a set of skillful means to awaken with, not dogmas to attach to. Moreover, Bankei does this with such directness and style.
Nice to make your acquaintance, Tom.