Sunday, November 14, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 22-24

“You think that good
Means hating what is bad
What's bad is
The hating mind itself

Good, you say,
Means doing good
Bad indeed
The mind that says so!

Good and bad alike
Roll them both into one ball
Wrap it up in paper and then
Toss it out - forget it all!”

Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) was an amazing Zen master. In simple, direct language he cuts to the chase, and reveals the heart of the matter with a pithiness to die for. Take the three verses under scrutiny here; firstly, he dispels any notion of being holier than thou; secondly, the master destroys all ideas of goodness being the point of Buddhist practice at all; and thirdly, he invites incredulity, apparently rejecting morality altogether! And yet, if we were to stop our reflections on these verses at this point, we would be missing at least half of Bankei’s meaning. For, as with any great Zen master or mystic, he requires our careful attention if we’re not to make fools of ourselves just when we thought our wisdom was shining oh-so brightly!

“You think that good
Means hating what is bad”

Usually, we do exactly what Bankei describes here: we presume that to dislike whatever’s bad is the height of goodness. For example, if we covet our neighbour’s ass, so to speak, we might fight such lowly feelings, classifying them as ignoble and destructive. And, depending on just how attractive our neighbour’s ass actually is, it might take a lot of aversion to our desires for them to be denied through suppression. Putting our neighbour’s ass aside for a moment, another important thing to note is that Bankei writes of what we “think” being good is. He is encouraging us to reflect on the value of thoughts compared to actions: Is thinking about what constitutes being good actually being good or merely thinking about it? You see, Bankei is a consummate Zennist, pushing us to open our Dharma Eye wider and wider with each word.

“What's bad is
The hating mind itself”

Here’s where Bankei really starts to challenge us. Not only is he telling us that to hate badness isn’t necessarily good, but that in hating what is bad, we are creating a divisive, unwholesome mind state. The Buddha taught that the three poisons, or unwholesome psychological roots, are greed, hatred, and delusion. Whenever one of these mindsets is present, we are creating bad karma, and negative results will be the eventual result. So, even when we have hate for something that itself is unwholesome, such as covetousness, we are still making a rod for our back, as it were.

“Good, you say,
Means doing good”

Conventional thinking dictates that good consists in doing what is good, and here is nothing out of the ordinary. And, moreover, Buddhist ethics agree with this appraisal, putting much value on keeping the five precepts, which involve avoiding the following actions: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants. Now, a man of Bankei’s wisdom surely kept these as well as his monkish precepts, for virtue is the foundation of the Buddhist Path to enlightenment. Only repentant murderers, thieves, adulterers, liars and drunkards realize enlightenment. (This is one sure-fire way to tell if you’ve picked the wrong spiritual teacher; if he or she is indulging in any of the above, get the hell out of there!)

“Bad indeed
The mind that says so!”

Hang on a minute! Isn’t Bankei contradicting the point made above that he almost certainly was a precept-keeping monk who promoted virtuous behaviour? Not at all! The master is actually referring to “the mind that says so,” rather than the person that does so. He is concerned here with helping us to see beyond our attachments to both ideas of good and ideas of bad. This doesn’t mean that we can be anarchists or libertines, doing what the hell we want, for we will surely end up in hell if we do so! It simply means that we don’t cling to either. Certainly, on the conventional level of existence, if we do good, we will get good karmic results, and if we do bad, we’ll reap the negative results of that, too. However, if we do bad stuff, we also have the added barrier to enlightenment that we’ve created unwholesome mind states that’ll create barriers to the mind seeing beyond itself. Nevertheless, Bankei declares:
“Good and bad alike
Roll them both into one ball”

This “one ball” of Bankei’s means concepts or ideas. If we put all our ideas of what constitutes good and bad (and anything else for that matter) into a ball of assumptions, we are in a position to rid ourselves of it. We can do this by recognizing mental objects as they arise as just what they are, and not attaching or rejecting them. In meditation, for example, watching each successive thought as it arises reveals its ephemeral and ethereal nature, allowing us to loosen or let go of any attachment to it. Another technique is to look at that in which all thoughts occur, seeing again that they are transient and transparent phenomena. Whatever way we achieve this awareness, it is crucial to the realization of enlightenment, for the latter is not an idea or concept, no matter how good or profound a notion may be.

“Wrap it up in paper and then
Toss it out - forget it all!”

So, Bankei wants us to throw out all ideas of good and bad, leaving us free of any conceptual formations to be bound with. Not only that, he wants us to wrap this “ball” in paper first. The question arises here as to what particular kind of paper does the master have in mind? Is it wrapping paper we should use, making our notions at least look beautiful before we discard them? Or perhaps an old newspaper will suffice, covered as it is in the pathetic tribulations of worldly types? Then again, it might be that Bankei has no specific kind of paper in his thoughts at all – but he isn’t such a clumsy poet as that! No, by “paper” Bankei does indeed have one particular type of paper in mind: scripture. As a Zen Buddhist, he knew only too well that we have the tendency to cling not only to ideas of what’s good, but also to descriptions of the spiritual life. Therefore, even our attachment to our favourite sutra (or poem!) must be relinquished if we wish to be truly free. Are we ready to do so? Let’s see...

Think of a piece of scripture, poetry, a mantra, or treatise (etc.) that you consider to be holy, wise, inspirational, or some similar lofty quality. Focus your attention on your feelings towards it, taking in the depth of your appreciation of it. Now, see its physical – or digital – form as merely form, its words as simply words, and its concepts as only concepts. What are your emotions towards it now, if you have any? Turn your attention to that which is doing all this looking; on current evidence, does this have any specific form or concept attached to it. And, if it does, does that form or concept actually represent it accurately or not? What is it that surrounds all these thoughts and emotions? Is it describable in any way, or is it beyond any notional imagery? Who is it that is ‘doing’ all this, right now?

As long as we accept and fulfil the basic moral precepts that prevent us from doing any radical harm to ourselves or others, we are in a position to do what Bankei demands of us, and toss away all our ideas of good and bad. Doing so is a massive step towards real freedom, which is truly without conceptual constraints. And, once this is achieved, it can be combined with seeing who it is that observes this process. Thereafter, seeing who it is that lets go of our habitual clinging encourages further release, which in turn promotes extended insightful seeing: they are forever spirally deeper into enlightenment, leaving us without words or concepts, but naturally residing in our True Nature which is beyond notions of good and bad.


Aryashakya said...


Dan Arnold; Richard Mahoney; Franz Metcalf ; Charles Muller; Gail Chin; Paul Hackett; Gereon Kopf; Dan Lusthaus; Boris Oguibenine; John Powers; Jin Y. Park; Alexander Soucy; Will Tuladhar-Douglas; Bill Kirtz; Christian Wittern; William Bodiford; Jamie Hubbard; John McRae; Charles Prebish.

According to your:

“The Buddhist Scholars Information Network (H-Buddhism) … is not a list intended for general discussions of issues regarding Buddhism as a religion, …”


There is no other way to regard Buddhism except as a Religion.

And ‘Buddhist Scholars’ are supposed to be members of the Buddhist religion, by way of any of its traditional schools of Buddhism, otherwise they do not have the legal right to entitle themselves ‘Buddhist’.


G said...

Aryashaka - what has this to do with Bankei and experiencing the Unborn? Look at the thought 'BUDDHISM IS RELIGION" and see the gaps between the words, the sounds. See the spaciousness that precedes the thought and follows it; see that this spacious awareness exists whilst the thought is happening - it's what the thought appears in. What does these observations say about your thought, or any other thought for that matter,a s well as the mind itself?

They call him James Ure said...

Great essay on this teaching. I especially liked the part where he says,

“What's bad is
The hating mind itself”

Your analysis was a great enjoyment and benefit. Thanks!!

G said...

Yes, Bankei's ability to penetrate to the crux of the matter is most impressive, isn't it, James? Seeing "the hating mind" for what it is will reveal the truth that's lies beyond, and vice versa. All hail the Unborn Buddha Mind!