Thursday, February 3, 2011

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 33-35


“Praying for salvation in the world to come
Praying for your own selfish ends
Is only piling on more and more
Self-centeredness and arrogance

Nowadays I'm tired of
Praying for salvation too
I just move along at my ease
Letting the breath come and go

Die - then live
Day and night within the world
Once you've done this, then you can
Hold the world right in your hand!”

Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) was an uncompromising Zen master. Now, many readers will be familiar with the uncompromising Zen masters in the texts, especially the ones from Tang Dynasty China such as Mazu, Huangbo, and Linji. Bankei was different from these masters, however, in that he did not usually, if ever, shout or hit his disciples to shock them into awakening to the Dharma. Instead, Bankei used words, often reminding his students that the only tool he had was his tongue (for speaking with, that is). Moreover, he used words to direct his listeners back to that which was listening, often specifically referencing the act of hearing in an attempt to help arouse enlightenment. As can be seen below, he did not support those practices that he saw as unhelpful to awakening.


“Praying for salvation in the world to come
Praying for your own selfish ends
Is only piling on more and more
Self-centeredness and arrogance”

The phrase “Praying for salvation in the world to come” may sound like it was directed at Christians, Muslims, or other such theistic religionists, but it was probably aimed at Japanese Buddhists, as there is a strong salvation-based tradition in the East known as Pure Land Buddhism. Most Pure Land devotees practice with the intent of being reborn in Amitabha Buddha’s heavenly realm, or pure land, where they can then achieve enlightenment. Bankei, however, clearly didn’t see this as a useful use of one’s time, and even condemned it as “Praying for your own selfish ends,” and “Self-centredness and arrogance.” Wow, he really was uncompromising!

If we practice simply for our own salvation or enlightenment, we are being self-centred, are we not? What about everyone else; don’t we wish to help them awaken, too? Here, Bankei is getting at the sense of being a separate egoistic self, and encouraging us to have a broader perspective when it comes to spiritual awakening. If we put off any serious attempt at realizing enlightenment in this life, for whatever selfish reasons we may have, we deny all those other people that we might have helped if we had achieved a high level of awakening in this life. And, it’s useful to know that devotional religions like Pure Land Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, et cetera, all have mystical traditions that encourage both compassion and awakening right now, rather than at some undisclosed point in the future.

“Nowadays I'm tired of
Praying for salvation too
I just move along at my ease
Letting the breath come and go”

In this verse, Bankei gives precedence to “Letting the breath come and go” over “Praying for salvation.” This can be taken two ways, and it’s highly probable that Bankei wished it so, being the shrewd old Zen master that he was. Firstly, “Letting the breath come and go” can refer to simply living life spontaneously, allowing things to arise and dissolve as they may. Very Zennish and typical of the post-enlightenment verse and sayings produced by many a Zen master.

The second interpretation of this term, “Letting the breath come and go” is that it alludes to anapanasati, or ‘in-out-breath meditation,’ which is the main from of meditation taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon. Although Zen Buddism is famous for its zazen style meditation, where the sitter either focuses on a Zen riddle (koan in Japanese), or just sits with a quiet, alert mind, in also makes use of breath meditation. In Japanese Zen monasteries today, a new meditator will often be given a form of breath meditation to begin with. Anyway, it’s clear from the above verse that Bankei does not give much credence to praying for salvation, which leaves us with the rather radical words below to deal with:

“Die - then live
Day and night within the world
Once you've done this, then you can
Hold the world right in your hand!”

Is Bankei asking us to really die, and then be born again? Well, he writes about dying and then living, but then puts them in the context of “Day and night within the world.” He clearly isn’t referring to actual physical death and rebirth – so what kind of death is he promoting here? He is calling our attention to the death of the self – or at least the death of the delusion of being a self. Bankei is challenging us to see our true nature, which lies beyond the everyday notion of selfhood and the limitations that go with it. This is the spiritual death and rebirth that is found in the literature of such awakened masters as Rumi, Eckhart, and Dogen. As it’s said in some movie, “It’s a good day to die!”

The last line in this verse is just so Zen: “Hold the world right in your hand!” We could take this to be symbolic language, that is, when one is enlightened, it is like one is able to hold the world in one’s hand. But, this sounds somewhat contrived, and makes Bankei out to be a peddler of hyperbole. Is it, in some way, literal, then? Well, we can only truly test this hypothesis if we were actually enlightened in the first place, and thereby able to answer this query. Is this possible, then, to taste enlightenment right now, and then see if the world fits in one’s hand? Let’s try an experiment together and see what occurs...

Listen to the sounds that you can presently hear. Take a few seconds to recognise and label each sound, working through them one by one, until you cannot identify any new ones. (You may be surprised by the number of different sounds that you can detect – we are so often caught up in our own little world that we fail to notice the actual world around us.) Next, turn your attention around from those sounds to that which is aware of them. Does this have a sound associated with it, or is it soundless? Surely sounds arise in that which is absent of sound, which is to say, there must be a space for objects to exist in. Where is this space right now? Is it located somewhere in front of you or behind you, or is it found to your left, or right, above, or below you? Surely not. Is it not the case that all the sounds that you can hear occur in a spacious silence that is where you previously thought ‘you’ were? (Similar enquiries can be done with the other senses, as well as the mind itself, showing that this is a universal truth that lies at the heart of whichever sense-base we choose to investigate.)

Now, we conducted the above experiment in the hope that we might discover the enlightened state, from which we might see if we can really hold the world in one hand. If, and it’s up to each of us to decide on this matter, we consider experiencing the silence that contains the world of sounds to be enlightenment, then we are now in a position to see where the world is, right now. As we discovered above, the world of sound exists in this silence. We can therefore reckon that the world of sight exists in the silence (which equals the invisible) here, too. Looking now, we can see the world in this silent, invisible awareness, without any division between them. The world is me, I am the world. The world is contained in this hand in the sense that it is this hand; world, hand, and awareness are unified, and Bankei sits laughing in the corner, “You have died, but now live! You have died, but now live!”

20 comments:

Pixie said...

Now, remember I am new to all this, so what I say may be complete and utter nonsense!

However, I really related to these verses. Without knowing anything about Yotaku or his teachings, I read the verses blind, if you like. I sensed an exhaustion, a frustration. To me it says, one can pray for others, but you can only "hold the world right in your hand" if you yourself choose to follow the correct path. We can hope and pray for salvation, but we can only change ourselves. Verse 35 spoke to me in a different way; as one who experiences day and night, light and dark, each day, every day. 'Die', he says, and I have experience of this 'dying'. Not actually dying, fortunately, but rather the death of what I once was. And now I can live through the nights and the days, the dark and the light. I can see it, reflect upon it, learn from it, move on from it. But a 'death' was required before I got to where I am now.

Anyway, that could all be rubbish, but at least the verses got me thinking!

My mind is opening up after many many years of sleeping. So I thank you for these posts.

:-) Pixie

Anonymous said...

what we thought that silence is somewhere turned out to be you "were"... strong words from emptiness. all things came from emptiness and all things end with emptiness... i know now even the buddha's truth is only permanent until every being enligtened after that all dissolved into one hell of a sunyata.


holding the world for me means that right path makes persons live without fear and worry so what the world can offer bad or good will not affect a person's psyche..

G said...

Pixie, there are many deaths (of ignorance, which equals the egotistic self) along the Buddha's path, so your comments have much worth in them, Pixie. Also, we much all take from the teachings what we can, which will be valid for where we are in this moment. Your reflections on Bankei's verses are most welcome, as they give us another way of understanding his wisdom. Keep them coming, Pixie!

G said...

"i know now even the buddha's truth is only permanent until every being enligtened after that all dissolved into one hell of a sunyata."

Love the above words, Anonymous, especially the phrase "one hell of a suyata." Ajahn Sumedho once told me that we must eventually let go of the Buddhist teachings themselves, because they too can become obstacles to what he calls 'ultimate simplicity' (or emptiness).

Anonymous said...

G, i think you mean there are a alot of sounds right? the person failed to notice that while he is busy enumerating it all or searching for that nothingness. still the real point is the silence is just anywhere even unto the extent that silence resided what we once called "us" or "I". mindfulness is not about closing eyes and thinking it is discovering theu nity of all things whereas observed and observer are just impersonla awareness. theb uddhist teachings are just raft effective only while the 3 states are still in the samsara. like christianity what jesus tells like the truth is just effective until the end of the world after that a whole diff reality. good job G. you gave a solid hint what nirvana is like. compared to others they give obscure descriptions.

G said...

Right now, Anonymous, there are various sounds that can be heard: cicadas, an electric fan, the typing of these words, and the inner sound that's heard within the ears. (The latter is a kind of high-pitched buzzing sound that can be detected when the mind has quietened down.)

These sounds occur in relation to consciousness, which itself exists in emptiness. (The latter can also be viewed as silence, sunyata, the unconditioned, Buddha-nature, etc.)

This emptiness and its contents are not separate to each other, however, but are experienced as one event. As it is written in the Heart Sutra, emptiness is form & form is emptiness. This is not only a theory or belief, but is knowable in this present moment, if we look with a clear awareness.

Anonymous said...

ok ok ok Gary, emptiness and phenomena s no dualism here. emptiness is always existent its just unawareness pervades. like we thought illusion is real but in fact its just a passing cloud to nothingness.

G said...

And, the thought, "Illusion is unreal" needs to be relinquished, too, if we are to experience awakening, doesn't it, Anonymous? To think tHat the self is an illusion is just that, a thought. When all such thoughts have ceased, and the quiet mind gazes into it's own heart, then the void is known, beyond the reach of words and concepts.

Pretty Pauline said...

Very interesting and enlightening. I am a Christian who could easily become addicted to this blog! LOL! I love histories. This was so beautifully shared.

Anonymous said...

do you think the self is only "your" perception? i think so accd to buddhist beliefs the self is thought or concepted by people as existing but accrding to buddhism labels are just your egoistic perception. jagar posted a new video. there is actually no label or thoughts only bare phenomena? by the way does a buddhist think everything in earth is simply unified experience? grounded in the ontology of emptiness?

G said...

Pretty Pauline, the more Christians reading this blog, the better! You are most welcome, and any reflections you have on the posts here from a Christian perspective would be most welcome.

Peace be with you,
G.

G said...

Anonymous,
The self is no one's perception, as there's no one to have a perception! It is an effect of mental phenomena combining to create the sense (delusion) of self.

This isn't only philosophy or belief, it can be observed if we are attentive enough (which usually takes meditative practice to achieve). Labels and thoughts occur at certain levels of consciousness, but besides those there is bare experience, yes. It depends on the quality of mind that is observing.

I don't know what "a buddhist" thinks, Anonymous, I only know what this Buddhist thinks, and I'm not sure of that half the time!

Again, depending on the state of consciousness, "everything in earth" can be seen as a "unified experience" or not; it depends on the mind that's doing the observing. How about you, Anonymous - how do you experience "everything in earth?

Ontology is the branch of philosophy concerned with metaphysics, and I'm not concerned with such matters, just what is knowable here and now, so I have no opinion on your last question. (Also, emptiness is not just a metaphysical theory, is it? We can experience it right now.)

Anonymous said...

talking of dependent origination? are we humans just a bunch of consicious states if there is no thinker self observer or sufferer who is the one generating thoughts is it the person or only mere mental states? talking of the real state i think paticca samuppada is very impersonal in contrast of typical human conception. humans are only mere mental states very impersonal...

G said...

Anonymous, you wrote:

"talking of dependent origination? are we humans just a bunch of consicious states if there is no thinker self observer or sufferer who is the one generating thoughts is it the person or only mere mental states?"

Yes.

You also wrote:
"talking of the real state i think paticca samuppada is very impersonal in contrast of typical human conception. humans are only mere mental states very impersonal..."

Yes.

It is is only when the impersonal natural state is realized here that there's no ego to get in the way and foul things up. Person there to person here, there's plenty of room for fighting & conflict. Person there to no-person here, there's no room for conflict because the emptiness here is full of the person there. We need to get out of each others way to really get on well, Anonymous, and to do that we need to first discover the lack of self at home.

"Anonymous," what's your name (or moniker) by the way? We've been communicating for some time and it seems rude to keep calling you "Anonymous." :-)

Anonymous said...

in dependent orignation actually no thinker too it is mere phenomena coming and rising supporting others. very radical conception of a human being that time.. what we think of a human being is simply illusion like a boat or a car. in fact DO use the conentional aspect of human beings simply as a means of enligtenment when seen deeply fullo fstress mass and suffering. there is one person say how can there be free will in buddhism if people are actually discrete states. well i answered them just a means for emptiness needs a radical realization. btw my name is gerardo.

G said...

Thank you, Gerardo, for another interesting comment.
All things are conditioned, but what is revealed in enlightenment is no-thing, and therefore is called (by the Buddha) the unconditioned. What comes out of this no-thing could be called the will of the enlightened, as it is certainly not the will of the conditioned & unenlightened. Then, again, perhaps it would be better to call this 'no-will.' Or, maybe it's best to not call it anything...

gerardo said...

ok looks like this we see a person thinking and seems good and bad he recieves him but when we took deeper no other way than meditatin we will see like that person is not a person at all but discrete moments. he is not as someone who thinks like a personal being but a series of momentary states? enligtenment is not perfection fed up by ego but stopping only what paticca samupadda is? i think free will is only an ego's perception in fact saying dependent origination its either the phenomena continues or stops?

G said...

Reads good to me, Gerardo.
Now it's time for us to see it! (And as you wrote, meditation is the key to this. Then, we can "die - then live" as Master Bankei says.)

gerardo said...

if only people knew dependent origination their value is not what they seem to cling on. in fact the only value is to stop the cycle thats all.

who thinks, who does or who suffers? am i correct that neither but mere process?


hey G, if people dont have senses do you think things will not exist in the first place? i heard this quote that both needs each other if only one then nothing...

G said...

"who thinks, who does or who suffers? am i correct that neither but mere process?"

These are questions well worth investigating, Gerardo, and the best way is to meditate and see what is revealed through letting things go their own way.

"hey G, if people dont have senses do you think things will not exist in the first place?"

Well, deep sleep might suggest that this is so, Gerardo. Putting an end to one's senses would seem the best way to answer this question, either through deep meditation or suicide. On balance, I think the former is the better course of action!