Monday, November 29, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 25-26

“Mysteries and miracles -
There are no such things!
But when you fail to understand
The world's full of weird happenings

This is the phantom
Who deceives
Who makes us take the false world
To be real”

Buddhism, just like all the religions that humanity has developed contains much that modern people consider superstitious or even fantastical: Miraculous births, prophecies, mythical beasts, heavens, hells, gods, angels, demons, incarnations, levitation, reincarnation, teleportation, telepathy, telekinesis, and television! Many of the world’s religions require their members to believe in specific wonders such as Jesus’ resurrection, Muhammad’s ascent to meet Allah, Krishna’s defeating of demons, and the Buddha’s talking and walking immediately after his birth. Bankei (1622-1693), as the matter-of-fact Zen Master that he was, will have nothing to do with such beliefs. He states that “There are no such things” as mysteries and miracles, sounding rather like a modern sceptic who only accepts what is scientifically verifiable as true.

“Mysteries and miracles -
There are no such things!”

There’s more to Bankei’s statement than mere iconoclasm for its own sake; he is denying the authenticity of these beliefs, and therefore any importance we might attribute to them, for a specific purpose. And, his purpose is not to present us with an alternative view of the world to a supernatural one, at least not one based on a particular ideology, that is. Bankei wishes to demystify our experience of the world so we do not waste too much of our time on the miraculous, but instead pay attention to this present moment, as it is in itself. So, this is not attaching to any view as an alternative to the superstitious one, but rather experiencing reality. For, as he says:

“But when you fail to understand
The world's full of weird happenings”

When we know the importance of this moment, we will practice in accordance with that knowledge. Otherwise, when we “fail to understand” this, we think that “The world’s full of weird happenings,” and we are led astray from developing the mindfulness that results in the realization of what Bankei called ‘the Unborn.’ When we’ve already given up immersion in fantastic phenomena and committed our efforts to cultivating awareness in the present, we may forget that this is not so for most people. Most religious people in the world profess faith in the kind of magical occurrences cited above, preferring creationism to evolution and superstition to contemplation. And, because such amazing things are much more (inner) eye-catching than the world as it is, it’s very difficult for people caught up in such visions to let go of them and experience humdrum reality. Bankei uses colourful language to emphasize this point:

“This is the phantom
Who deceives”

The “phantom” of superstitious belief deceives us when we are under its spell, populating the world with all kinds of imaginary beings and powers that just aren’t there – or, if they are, aren’t that important to enlightenment anyhow. Psychologically speaking, this “phantom” is our own imagination, latching onto certain things we’ve heard and making them ‘real,’ at least to the extent that anything false can be. Moreover, the imagination itself is part of that other, greater phantom – the ego. The ego itself is a conglomerate of various parts, an important one being the will, of which the Buddha said, “It is will that I call karma.” It is the will that directs the mind in certain directions, also motivating it to cling to certain things and rejecting others, altering our perceptions of reality along the way.

“Who makes us take the false world
To be real”

When we believe the world to be inhabited with miraculous creatures and amazing incidents, we take the “false world” as experienced by the ego to be real. Furthermore, Bankei is prodding us to not only let go of fantastic beliefs, but to relinquish the egoistic experience of existence altogether. If we wish to experience the Unborn, first we must give up any incredible ideas we cling to, then, we also need to throw away the notion that we are a separate self living in the world, in competition with other people and animals for our survival.

This latter understanding of life is the scientific one, of course, and although it isn’t explicitly mentioned on the two verses examined here, Bankei knew only too well that this paradigm must also be surrendered if the Unborn is to be experienced. There can be nothing in the mind to act as a barrier between knower and known, for the two are in fact one, and this is the heart of awakening. Please take a little time now to experience this present moment free of all preconceptions, by doing the following exercise:

Firstly, imagine a miraculous occurrence, such as Christ walking on water, or the Buddha appearing a great distance from where his body is. (It can be some other supernatural happening, if you wish.) Really envisage it, seeing not only the event, but also the surroundings, any people present, etc. Secondly, imagine an ordinary occurrence, such as someone sinking in water, or being confined to their body. (It can be some other everyday happening, if you wish.) Thirdly, reflect on these two imagined events; in this present moment is either more or less true, or are they both products of the mind’s eye? In this moment, is this not the way of things; that is to say, right now isn’t life what it is, rather than our ideas of what of it is? And what do all these thoughts arise in right now? Is it a soul, a mind, or is it the Unborn, free of labels and limitations?

In truth, as the great Zen Master Bankei pushes us to see, life is not the way we envisage, whether that is supernatural or not. Life s the way it is and we superimpose our concepts of how it works for our own peace of mind. But, what happens when life contradicts those beliefs? We suffer. Bankei wants us to go beyond these suffering minds by seeing how they limit our experience of life, trying to chain it in a prison of views. Thankfully, if we take the time to observe our mind, we can see these chains for what they are, and break them with a mighty swipe from the Dharma sword. Then, they are known in their true context: the Unborn.

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