Friday, October 1, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 12-14

“Your longing for the one you love
Is for the present time alone
It only exists by reason of
The past before she'd come along

To recall someone
Means you can't forget
Not to recall them
That you never had forgot

Thinking back over the past
You find it was an evening's dream
Realize that, and you'll see
Everything is just a lie”

Much of our suffering is born of time. As these illusory separate selves, we are temporal beings tied to time, our lives slipping away to the rhythm of a ticking clock. As the Unborn, however, we are nothing of the sort, and we neither age nor die, but rest in the spacious no-thing that we truly are. The seventeenth century Zen Master Bankei lived from this no-thing, calling it the Unborn Buddha Mind. And, because he lived from nowhere and no-time, he was able to dispense wisdom to whoever came his way, giving advice to monks, nuns, and the laity. Although most monks and nuns (hopefully) do not ache for a lost love, most of us laypeople have done so – some of us many times for many years. In the above verses, Bankei is not only referring to the longing for past love(s), however; he is also talking of those we currently have close relationships with.

“Your longing for the one you love
Is for the present time alone”

We miss those we love in the present. When we go through our day thinking about them, we colour everything we do with their image and fragrance. This intrusion into the present moment can cause much discomfort, for as the Buddha taught, one major form of suffering is to long for that which we desire but do not presently possess. And, the yearning for a loved one is the most gut-wrenching of desires, tearing at our heart and causing us to go off our food. Of course, in this scientific age we can rationalise much of this process with empirical analysis, noting that it is procreative urges and the push of our genes that creates such emotions. But, even scientists fall in love and suffer the consequences. Systematic thinking alone will not release us from the sufferings of a lonely heart; we need the wisdom of the Buddha for that, and reflecting on the words of Bankei can assist us in our endeavours.

“It only exists by reason of
The past before she'd come along”

By “it” Bankei is referring to the longing for another, and he states that its ultimate cause is that prior to knowing the object of our desires, we were a vacuum waiting to be filled with romantic love. This vacuum is not the Void that is free of all identification with selfhood and its sufferings, but rather an aspect of the individual ego that longs for union with another person. So, whether we possess our loved one and are desperately trying to cling on to her or him, or wishing to gain the affections of someone, according to Bankei it is the original egoistic desire for self-fulfilment that makes us desire another in the first place.

“To recall someone
Means you can't forget”

Memory clings to the image or idea of a loved one, fantasising about it, holding imaginary conversations with it, and even blotting out present circumstances with its aroma. This image is ensnared within the mind, which constantly returns to it every time it threatens to escape the memory’s grasp. So, even when we are in a moment of respite from the longing for another, its seed is buried in our psyche, ready to sprout again when we least expect it to.

“Not to recall them
That you never had forgot”

This part of the verse seems at odds with the last one. In the previous lines, Bankei stated that because we cannot forget someone, we continually recall them, but here he says that in not remembering them, we have never forgot. This apparent contradiction is lifted when we realize that in the second segment of the verse he is not talking of forgetting the same thing as in the first. In the first two lines he is indeed referring to forgetting a person, but in the second he is talking of not forgetting something completely different – the Unborn.

The Unborn is the central concept in Bankei’s teachings on Buddhism. It is not a concept in the sense of an idea that we need to intellectually understand, but rather an abstraction used to represent that which is beyond all concepts. In this way, the Unborn is a teaching that Bankei wants us to see rather than think. To not forget the Unborn is also to be fully awake in this present moment. This is why Bankei declares that one who never forgets does not recall their loved one(s): he or she is so completely alive to what’s happening right now that they do not dwell on anything else, even those they desire the most. He continues:

“Thinking back over the past
You find it was an evening's dream”

Here, Bankei is encouraging us to reflect on the past, and actually see what it is in this very moment now. Is the past real now, or is it, as Bankei claims, “an evening’s dream”? To experience an event is clearly not the same as considering it afterwards, is it not? If I think back to what I ate for breakfast this morning, this is not the exact experience that I had when I actually consumed it. I can’t see the colours of my breakfast in the vividness that they possessed early today, and the taste and smells are a pale imitation of the sense data that I received just a few hours ago. If this is true of this morning’s breakfast, then it is equally true for every other memory that I have; each one is indeed “an evening dream.”

“Realize that, and you'll see
Everything is just a lie”

Everything becomes a memory eventually; unless it is completely forgotten, of course. This is the fate of every single thing in existence, as well as every single event in time. In this sense, things and events are not real, in that they are not our true nature. Our true nature is not a thing or a process, but is the No-thing that experiences them whilst remaining unchanged itself. We can experience this No-thing by looking at our memories with detachment, and the resultant realization of what we truly are transforms our relationship with both our memories and the world as it is at this current time. Please take a few minutes to conduct the following exercise, and see if what you’ve been reading is in fact the case.

Close your eyes. Recall an event from the past, dwelling upon each image long enough to give it a firm appearance. Next, focus your attention on your original feelings towards the images within your memory; are they positive, negative, or indifferent? What emotions arise now as you view these mental objects? What are all these images arising in? Does it have a particular appearance that you can analyse? Does it have any features that give rise to emotional responses in you? Or, to the contrary, is it a simple and transparent awareness that pays attention to your thoughts and reveries but is void of any particular characteristics itself? Is it, in fact, free of attachments and the sufferings that accompany them? Is it your Unborn Buddha Mind?

We live in the world with each other. We live, we love, and we die. All this is perfectly natural and to be expected, and not to be avoided, unless one feels the pull to an alternative lifestyle, that is. And yet, if Bankei and the exercise above are to be believed, whilst on the conventional level we may love and lose, laugh and cry, there is another aspect to life that liberates us from the suffering normally associated with such activities. Seeing the Unborn Buddha Mind, as Bankei describes the indescribable, is to free ourselves from the restrictions of time and place. Furthermore, if done fully and continually, seeing and living from the Unborn frees us of our biggest enemies: our selves. This doesn’t mean that we cease to be humans living human lives, but that we live in the knowledge of the Unborn, ultimately free from the chains of time, self, and suffering.

19 comments:

Rence said...

Without the commentary the topic is difficult to digest. Yet reading through it line by line, consuming it through the frame work as presented, it makes sense and creates a harmony and flow that acts as a true gift. Thank you.

G said...

A comment like that makes the enjoyable process of reflecting on these verses all the more rewarding, Rence. Thank you!

Dean Crabb said...

Hi G,

I've really been enjoying this series you've done on Bankei's "Song of the Mind". I haven't ever read his work but I'm interested to go and read the whole thing now and I think you are doing a marvellous interpretation of them. Is there a link of the web for the whole thing? Or is it from a book?

I have a different take on this verse you've posted that I wanted to share with you. To me this verse is about the pursuit of enlightenment, this is the "one you love", and returning to her and being complete, then looking back and realising it was all the illusion created by the love affair.

Putting myself in the shoes of Bankei, he is a monk who dedicated his life whole-heartedly to enlightenment and realising enlightenment. He ate, drank, slept and walked enlightenment. Hence this verse is all about this life, the challenges of the practice and as a master he is pointing us to directly experience it. Its common for teachers to use metaphors of commonplace things in life so that we may come to know the parallels to enlightenment so that we can understand it. I feel his use of the love affair is done in this way.

Your longing for the one you love
Is for the present time alone

Your longing to return to enlightenment (the one you love) is your own burden, only you carry it in this present moment. While you seperate yourself from the oneness of everything then you are alone in the pursuit.

It only exists by reason of
The past before she'd come along

It only exists as a goal in your mind because of everything in your life that has come before that lead you up to the idea of enlightenment, since you set your eyes on the goal.

To recall someone
Means you can't forget

You can't forget the pursuit, you can't turn your back on it. You are stuck in your own thoughts, stuck in your own reality, in the fantasy, chasing the goal. As soon as you think of it, as soon as you recall (stop being mindful) this whole construct returns. Being stuck in this reality you can't forget that you are stuck, so you must continue the pursuit.

Not to recall them
That you never had forgot

If you let it go, if you break through this thought, this reality, there is the realisation that you never stopped being the unborn. The unborn never forgot about being the unborn. (The "you" that Bankei uses in this sentence is not the old you of the small self that you once knew but the new You of the Unborn, this is why it appears difficult to understand). So he is saying "When you stop this cycle of self and thought and the reality it creates, enlightenment is present, the "you" in this context takes on a new meaning and You "as the enlightened one" never ever forgot who You are."

Thinking back over the past
You find it was an evening's dream

With this awakening you look back at everything that came before and it appears like a dream. How wierd the fantasy, and the pursuit of the goal

Realize that, and you'll see
Everything is just a lie

And you see that everything, including the love affair, was an illusion.


Anyway, that's how I view the verses. Keep up the great work with the blog, I really enjoy your work and look forward to your posts each week.

Cheers
Dean

Justin said...

Gary-

Glad to see you are still writing. You were always far more talented than I and it seems that since i last checked out your blog you have gotten one hell of a following. In case you forgot I used to maintain DhammaReflections but in a twist of what I would call Grace I had this sudden experience where I simply lost my faith in Buddhism and became a traditionalist Latin Mass going Catholic. I had never really given up a belief in God deep down even as a Buddhist and the whole Theravada cosmology of endless aging, illness, death, separation and seeming meaninglessness apart from escaping into the abyss of deep meditation literally drove me to deep despair. I would have been a liar and a counterfeit to keep up that blog and been deceiving people into thinking I was someone I wasn't anymore. I can say that I am happier than ever nowto be honest. I don't follow much in the Buddhist world but I'm struck by how little Christians know about what the Buddha taught, the same way I am struck by how many Buddhists don't really know what the Church( I can only speak from a traditionalist Catholic perspective) really teachesor has historically taught. I just thought I'd drop by. You were one of the first blogger friends I ever had and the one that actually gave me the idea to blog in the first place. Hope you are doing well in Thailand with your family Gary. May you be well.

G said...

Thanks to Dean (Crabbie) for his reflections on these verses by Bankei.

It's the nature of the words of such great masters as Bankei that they can be interpreted in many ways, but always benefificially for the reader.

Your commentary, Dean, takes these verses to a different level by relating them to the pursuit of enlightenment, as well as more mundane things such as emotional attachment to a lover. Thank you!

The relevant book in which we can read the whole translated poem (plus much more by Bankei)is Peter Haskel's "Bankei Zen.' Another excellent translation of his teachings (but with none of Bankei's poetry) is Norman Waddell's 'The Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei.'

G said...

Hi Justin; good to 'hear' from you.
So, you abandoned the Buddha for Christ. That's fantastic - if you find solace in Catholicism. Yes, Theravada Buddhism can seem austere and world-denying, but it depends on how we use it. (Those are looking for solace, often find it in those beliefs added to Theravada Buddhism, rather than in it's doctrines themselves.)

Recently, I've been reading Meister Eckhart again; what a great Catholic he was, describing God as " a not-God," and stating that "The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which I see God." He is certainly worth inestivating, Justin.

Be well in Christ,
G

Justin said...

I'll check him out Gary.

jack said...

I would like to suggest to Justin that it is not necessarily a case of the "all or nothing" when it comes to the question of the compatibility of Christianity with Buddhism. I would higly recommend the reading of the writings of Thomas Merton on this question, who was himself also a trapist monk . I will close with this quote from D. T Suzuki.

"The basic idea of Zen is to come in touch with the inner workings of our being, and to do this in the most di­rect way possible, without resorting to anything external or superadded. Therefore, anything that has the semblance of an external authority is rejected by Zen. Absolute faith is placed in a man's own inner being. For whatever authority there is in
Zen, all comes from within. This is true in the strictest sense of the word. Even the reasoning faculty is not considered final or absolute. On the contrary, it hinders the mind from coming into the directest communication with itself. The in intellect ac­complishes its mission when it works as an intermediary, and Zen has nothing to do with an intermediary except when it desires to communicate itself to others. For this reason all the scriptures are merely tentative and provisory; there is in them no finality. The central fact of life as it is lived is what Zen aims to grasp, and this in the most direct and most vital manner.Zen professes itself to be the spirit of Buddhism, but in fact it is the spirit of all religions and philosophies. When Zen is thor­oughly understood, absolute peace of mind is attained, and a man lives as he ought to live. What more may we hope?"



An Introduction to ZEN BUDDHISM
Essays in Zen Buddhism Manual of Zen Buddhism
DAISETZ TEITARO SUZUKI
With a Foreword by Carl Jung

G said...

One of my many favorite writings of Suzuki there, Jack.
It's worth noting that D.T. Suzuki also wrote a lot about the faith-based form of Japanese Buddhism called Shin, especially in the latter years of his life. Suzuki often wrote of Zen as a 'self-powered' path to enlightenment, whereas Shin was 'other-powered.' Christianity clearly has more in common with Shin than Zen, and I'll endeavor to bring out both aspects of Suzuki's writings in the future.

Justin said...

Jack-- I'll try check out some of Mertons later works wen he got into Zen. Thanks for the suggestion. Although I do not consider myself a Buddhist anymore but a traditional Ctaholic ( latin Mass, traditional devotions, etc.) I am still interested in Buddhism to a certain degree. I couldn't have been involved with it for almost a deacde just throw it all into the garbage like that even though I no longer meditate or any of that.

Gary-
I'm interested in your post on Meister Eckhart. I know that for awhile many in the Church considered his writings heretical but to my knowledge he was never formally condemned and I also know that there has been some renewed interest in him as of late. I have never read him though as his works are hard to find.

I know this is technically "Buddhaspace" but it would be cool if you could do a series of posts on some of the Christian mystics (John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Brother Laurence, etc. And not just Ctaholic but Orthodox as well, as there are many in the so called "hesychyst" movement on Athos that are mystics too. The divine light they talk about could be, from the Buddhist view, the lights of the jhanas but I'm not really qualified to make any serious say in the matter. The Philokalia is a wealth of eastern Christian "mysticism" if you wish to call it that. Have you ever read Christ, the Eternal Tao by Heiromonk Damascene? Anyone in any way interested in Christianity and the east ought to check it out. His premise is that the Tao was really Christ or the ogos prior to the Incarnation. Very interesting.

G said...

Fascinating stuff about Eastern Orthodox mysticism, Justin. I'll certainly look up the Philokalia and Heiromonk Damascene.

As to writing about the Christian mystics, I only really know about Eckhart, and am still exploring his teachings. Although I have read the other mystics you referred to, along with others, it has been only to a somewhat superficial level. But, there will be a series of posts on Meister Eckhart coming up this year, so perhaps the others can be incorporated onto those.

Jack said...

Gary,


I totally agree with you on your point that Christianity today is much closer to Shin then it is to Zen, however I am of the firm belief that there would be much gained in the spirit if it was more balanced between the two.

I look forward to your post on D.T Suzuki.

Jack said...

D. T. Suzuki quotes Meister Eckhart many times in his writings and below is something to check out.



Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist
by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki
[1957, copyright not renewed]
http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/mcb/index.htm

G said...

Thank you, Jack, for the link to Suzuki's book. I recently read it again, and that's what rekindled my interest in Meister Eckhart. I strongly recommend that any reader interested in this discussion check the link out immediately!

As Suzuki presents it, Shin is a kind of middle path between devotional religion and Zen - and a lot simpler in it's application than either of them. It's interesting that Shin has not caught on in the West as much as other forms of Buddhism. (Perhaps people turned off by Christianity aren't inclined to follow another devotional path like Shin. But then, what about all the Western followers of Hindu gods and gurus? Ah, well...)

Jack said...

Zen and The Birds of Appetite

By Thomas Merton
THE STUDY OF ZEN

Better to see the face then to hear the name.

ZEN SAYING




www.escapefromwatchtower.com/mertonzenchapone.html

Jack said...

This is a redo of the previous link


Zen and the birds of appetite

http://www.escapefromwatchtower.com/mertonzenchapone.html

G said...

Better to see the Original Face than to hear the name!

jack said...

Essays in Zen Buddhism
(First Series)
DAISETZ TEITARO SUZUKI


PREFACE


THE most fruitful growth of Buddhism in the Far East has resulted in the development of Zen and Shin. Zen attained its maturity in China and Shin in Japan. The vigour and vitality which Buddhism still has after more than two thousand years of history will be realized when one comes in contact with these two branches of Buddhism. The one appeals to the inmost religious consciousness of mankind, while the other touches the intellectual and practical aspects of the Oriental mind, which is more in­tuitive than discursive, more mystical than logical. If Zen is thy ultra 'self-power' wing of Buddhism, Shin represents the other extreme wing known as the 'other-power', and these two extremes are synthesized in the enlightened Buddha-consciousness.


A one legged man stays out of balance.




Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance


http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=5539613947839465921#

G said...

There, what did I say? Bodhidharma and Amida teaming up against the ego...

As for the one legged man, he's always full of hop!