Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 36-38


“It’s the Buddhas I feel sorry for:
With all those ornaments they wear
They must be dazzled
By the glare!

Still too soon for you to be
A Buddha in the temple shrine
Make yourself a Deva King
Standing at the gate outside!

If you search for the Pure Land
Bent upon your own reward
You’ll only find yourself despised
By the Buddha after all!”

Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) was a Zen master that never stood on ceremony when he felt it obstructed the truth of enlightenment. Neither was he a man to engage in empty rituals simply because everyone around him did so. He also had a lack of fear which is a characteristic of fully enlightened ones, who no longer take themselves to be a self that needs to fear for its safety. This transcendence of both ritualism and fear are wonderfully illustrated in the three verses above, and I will do my utmost to expand on them in as enlightening manner as is possible. Hopefully, the old Zen master will not spit on me from on high!
“It’s the Buddhas I feel sorry for:
With all those ornaments they wear
They must be dazzled
By the glare!”

Bankei had wit and knew how to use it; he was also no idolater. In this verse he pokes fun at those people who focus too much attention on statues, and not what such images symbolize. In Buddhist countries to this day, temples are full of statues of buddhas, bodhisattvas, arahants, and the like. All of them prayed to and pleaded with to help people with their personal affairs, rather than used to contemplate the qualities that they represent. Bankei feigns sympathy for these highly worshiped idols, suggesting that they are sorry beings trapped in ostentatious prisons built by overzealous acolytes.

As hinted at above, there is a place for images of the Buddha and other Buddhist figures in the Buddhist way of life. Although some Pali Canon enthusiasts will correctly inform us that there were no such images during the Buddha’s lifetime, and apparently for several centuries afterwards, others will tell us that if used skilfully, they can be an important aid to our practice. And, this is surely the more important approach to Buddhist imagery; use it wisely to cultivate positive mind states and wisdom. We don’t need to be a kind of Buddhist Taliban, destroying statues to prove our own sense of righteousness, but neither should we misuse them, making them into false gods.

“Still too soon for you to be
A Buddha in the temple shrine
Make yourself a Deva King
Standing at the gate outside!”

Bankei continues in a playful mood, teasing his reader that they are not ready for enlightenment just yet, neither to be considered a Buddha nor worthy of residence in a temple shrine! If we are wise we will not take offence at such remarks, but use them as a source for reflection: is this true or untrue? Are we as enlightened as we think we are; are we enlightened at all? (On the other hand, he may still be toying with the statues themselves, remarking that despite all their outer glory, inwardly they posses no enlightened awareness, and are therefore not as important as the people that like to worship them.)

Bankei next makes reference to the ‘Deva Kings’ that can be found at the temple gate, who are there to act as guardians of the temple, preventing evil spirits from entering the temple grounds. These are a common sight in Japan, and equivalent statues of similar beings, often ferocious in appearance are found in other countries’ Buddhist temples, as well. These beings are not enlightened like the figures to be found further in the temple, and are therefore not so generously decorated. Bankei seems to be suggesting that these more worldly figures are freer than the buddhas within that are weighed down with all their ornaments.

There’s a slightly deeper point here, of course, as we might expect from a wise Zen master like Bankei. Zen Buddhism has always promoted a somewhat worldly view of Buddhist awakening, with the well known idea of ‘marketplace enlightenment,’ where wise ones take their realizations out from the temples and monasteries into the ‘real world.’ Whilst the statues of the Buddha may be taken to symbolize the highly-lauded monastic and priestly lifestyles, the Deva King images can be seen to represent the lay life.it may well be that Bankei is encouraging us to live the awakened life in the midst of the marketplace, or the World Wide Web, for that matter!

“If you search for the Pure Land
Bent upon your own reward
You’ll only find yourself despised
By the Buddha after all!”
Here we return briefly to the subject of the previous verses covered in Reflections on Bankei’s ‘Song of the Mind’ Verses 33-35.’ But now the master is more explicit, mentioning Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land by name. Bankei makes it clear that to spend our time and efforts in the hope of personal salvation in Amitabha’s heavenly realm is basically a selfish endeavour – unless of course we do so with other people’s benefit in mind as well. Knowing us as he does, however, Bankei brings into focus our usual selfish motives when wishing for heavenly rewards.
Even in this verse, we are treated to Bankei’s wit, when he sates that if we practice with our own salvation as the main motivation, the Buddha will despise us! (Does the Buddha ‘despise’ anyone?) Presumably, he does mean the heavily ornamented Buddha in the shrine hall, but the inner Buddha that is found in the heart of us all. In other words, we will despise ourselves if we are motivated by purely selfish means. Perhaps this resentment will be subconscious – negative feelings towards one’s self are often repressed – but it will be there, for deep down we all know that we are one and that your salvation is my salvation and my enlightenment is your enlightenment. Please take a few moments to complete the following exercise – you might find it enlightening!
Look at a statue of a Buddha. (If you don’t have one, a picture will do.) Take in the expression on its face; what qualities are reflected in that facade? Serenity? Contentment? Wisdom? Compassion? Look at the overall posture of the image. If sat, is it relaxed, alert, and/or peaceful? If standing, is it dynamic, graceful, and/or mindful? Now, where are these qualities perceived – in that image or in you? Who is aware in this moment – that image or you? Who is enlightened right now – that image or you?
So, was Bankei correct? Are Buddha statues often over-decorated? Should we worship them, and hang expensive ornaments on them or cover them in gold? Does the Buddha reside in such images, and if not, what are our motives for bowing to them? Are they to be treated with the utmost respect, or is it okay to occasionally poke fun at them (and those that worship them)? And what of you – are you a Buddha or a Deva King...or neither?

2 comments:

religiousprayer said...

Nice Post. Keep it up. Let the peace travel ur mind through prayers

G said...

Thanks. Your blog looks good, too, 'Religious Prayer.'