Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 42-44

“The mind that’s not conditioned
Is originally unborn
What is unconditioned doesn’t exist
That is why there’s no delusion

Though the years mat creep ahead
Mind itself can never age
This mind that’s
Always just the same

Wonderful! Marvelous!
When you’ve searched and found at last
The one who never will grow old -
‘I alone!’”

In the teachings of the 17th Century Zen master Bankei Yotaku we have the words of truly amazing man. He cuts through the delusions of the ego-mind with the sword of wisdom that leaves us in doubt who is the victor! And, with this incredible master’s ‘Song of the Mind’ poem, verse after verse acts as such a sword. If we are brave enough, we may offer up our necks, and leave behind our egotistical existences that are built on delusion and suffering. It seems a fair swap, but there’s effort involved – such as doing the exercise in italics below – and an open mind is required, for the wonderful and marvellous truth that awaits us is not like anything we might have imagined. So, without further delay, let’s sharpen that sword!

“The mind that’s not conditioned
Is originally unborn”

This is the heart of Bankei’s message to us, for when he uses the word unborn in reference to the mind, he is referring to what he frequently liked to call ‘the Unborn Buddha Mind.’  All things that are born (or anything that comes into being for that matter) are conditioned. We are conditioned by our genes, inherited from our parents, as well as by the people and events that we have encountered during our lives. If someone comes from a devoutly Christian family, he or she will probably be conditioned (or brainwashed!) into sharing the beliefs of their parents; someone born to a Buddhist family will be similarly treated, turning out to be ‘a chip off the old block.’ It depends where and when we are born as to how we will be conditioned. If one person is bitten by a dog at a very young age and traumatised by the experience, she or he may well be conditioned to have very different attitudes towards dogs than someone else that had very positive experiences with any canine companions. So, in very simplistic terms, we’ve seen how conditioning may well make one person a dog-hating Christian, and another person a Buddhist dog-lover.

Bankei is not describing the mind that can be conditioned in such ways, however. He is pointing to an aspect of our being that is beyond the reach of any conditioning factors. This is the aforementioned Unborn Buddha Mind. Elsewhere, the Master taught that, “The body, being created, has a birth and a death, but the mind, which is originally the Unborn Buddha Mind, does not.” (Taken from the Hoshin-Ji Sermons, a collection of teachings given by Bankei in 1690) Of course, the brain, as part of the body, is also conditioned and has a beginning and an end; the everyday, deluded mind is also conditioned by many, many factors, and has a limited life span. The Unborn Buddha Mind, on the other hand, can be seen to be without any features that require conditioning factors; it is unconditioned.

“What is unconditioned doesn’t exist
That is why there’s no delusion”

Here, Bankei deepens his teaching somewhat, making it necessary for us to pay a little more attention to exactly what he is saying. The Unborn Buddha Mind is unconditioned, as we established above, so, the Master instructs us, it doesn’t exist. Now, if it doesn’t exist, why give it fancy names like the Unborn Buddha Mind – just call it nothing. But nowhere does Bankei – or the Buddha for that matter - describe the Unborn as simply nothing. As it is unconditioned, however, it is unlike any thing we can imagine. The Unborn Buddha Mind is ultimately indescribable, and therefore, in the conventional sense of the term, it does not exist. In conclusion on this point, we can say that the Unborn both exists and does not exist, for although it doesn’t exist in the conventional understanding of the word, it nevertheless is, and it can be known and experienced, as we will hopefully explore below.

Delusion, like all other things and processes is conditioned. Bankei tells us that because the Unborn Buddha Mind is unconditioned, there is no delusion in it. This is the reverse of the traditional way that Buddhists approach this matter, for usually we describe delusion first, then its dissolution, which leaves the unconditioned shining brightly beyond the grasp of all nescience. This illustrates Bankei’s unique teaching style, and his lack of fear when dealing with ideas that most would dogmatically cling to as doctrines that cannot be tinkered with. If it can help us realise the Unborn and transcend delusion and suffering, Bankei doesn’t care too much if it is unconventional. Indeed, this is how we might sum up the wonderful teachings of this most distinctive of Zen masters: unconditioned and unconventional!

“Though the years may creep ahead
Mind itself can never age”

The ordinary, worldly mind is subject to aging, as is everything in this world. The (Unborn Buddha) Mind is extraordinary not ordinary, however, and it is not of this world. It knows the world, for sure, and in thus sense is not ‘otherworldly,’ as such. If it were at the mercy of time, the Unborn would have to be redubbed the Born, for everything that is born (comes into being), must age and then die (cease to be). In meditation, we can observe the (ordinary) mind to be conditioned; each thought has it predecessors, along with other conditioning factors such as the prevailing mood of the mind when the thought arose. That which observes this process is something else altogether, however, and if we turn our attention to it instead, we may reconsider our views on what this life is, and what we truly are. (See the exercise below for more on this.)

“This mind that’s
Always just the same”

Everything changes, that’s one of the basic teachings that the Buddha left us with. Watching the mind in meditation or just peering out of our window we can observe this ongoing process. The physical world, its contents, and the individual mind are all subject to change just as they are aging and death. Our bodies are not the same as the day we were born, nor are our minds. The places where we were born have changed also; perhaps they no longer exist at all. The Unborn Buddha Mind has no individual, conditioned elements to change, however. It is unchanging. It’s somewhat akin to space; whilst the objects that inhabit space may alter, space itself remains the same space. There’s nothing to change. The Unborn (or ‘Buddha Space’ as we might call it) is the same today as it was when the world came into being and will not have altered one iota the day that the earth finally comes to an end. (So, if the doom-mongers are right this time – they’ve been wrong every time previously – it doesn’t matter if the world ends in 2012, because the Unborn Buddha Mind will still be here! Not long to wait to find out, anyway. The clocks ticking down...)

“Wonderful! Marvelous!
When you’ve searched and found at last
The one who never will grow old -
‘I alone!’”

In the oldest extant Buddhist scriptures, known as the Pali Canon in English, the Buddha uses many synonyms for enlightenment, some of which are also used by Bankei. The most famous of these is the ‘Unborn,’ which in Pali is Ajata. Another such word is the ‘Unconditioned,’ which is Asankhata in Pali. Wonderful and Marvelous are also synonyms used by the Buddha for Nirvana, being Acchariya and Abbhuta respectively in the original scriptures. Whether or not this is a deliberate ploy by Bankei to lend an orthodox flavour to his Dharma soup or not is debatable, since he would not have had access to the Pali Canon in 17th Century Japan. That he uses words like wonderful and marvelous to describe finding the Unborn is most appropriate, for it is indeed a wonder, and it’s a marvellous feeling to see it after looking every but here, where it was all along.

“The one who never will grow old” is the one right here, of course; not the conditioned body and mind, but that which is awake to their fleeting presence. For, Bankei is bringing our attention to the most important of Buddhist teachings: the Unborn Buddha Mind is this very mind right here and now. The difference between enlightenment and delusion is that the Unborn does not cling to desires, and therefore does not create delusion and suffering. When this is realized, the Unborn is revealed to be the very core of our being, nowhere else. In it is no division, no separation, and what’s more, my awakening is your awakening, and our awakening is the Buddha’s. Why? Because it is “I alone” that is enlightened.

“In heaven and on earth, I alone am to be revered!” announced the Buddha upon his birth – or, at least, that’s how the traditional myth goes. This statement could be read as being particularly egotistic, until we analyse it a little closer. It is not the conditioned ego (or mind) that the Buddha is declaring should be revered, but the Unconditioned. Now, whether we take the birth story of the Buddha literally or not is up to each individual, but that’s not the crucial point in all of this from the Buddhist perspective. The important thing is that we realise the No-thing that lies beyond the reach of aging and death, delusion and suffering. It is this “I alone” that we need to discover and live from if we are to awaken fully to the reality of this life. So, without further ado, let’s now use thinking to examine the facts of this moment in an open-minded manner.

For better focus, it’s a good idea to do this exercise with the eyes shut, so the visual world does not interfere with our observations. Having closed your eyes, take a few moments to calm the mind down. If you don’t know how to do this, one way is to watch the in-breaths and out-breaths as they pass the nostrils, putting your full attention on them. Do this as long as it takes for the mind to quieten down a little, focussing on your breathing. Next, turn your attention to your thoughts. Sometimes when we do this, they get shy and hide for a while! But, the mind being the mind, it can’t keep quiet for long, so once thoughts do start popping up in your head, take a good, long, unhurried look at them. What are your thoughts right now? How many different ones did you have in past minute or do? Is there a recognizable pattern in your thoughts, one leading to another and so on, or do they seem random and unpredictable? What ever your answers to these questions, isn’t it the case that your mind flits from one thought to the next, forever changing its direction like a psychological eel. Now, turn your attention around to that which is observing those thoughts: does it have any characteristics or conditioning factors? Does it appear to change, or is it its contents that change? Is it ‘loud’ like the thinking mind or quiet in its peaceful awareness of the mental processes?

Now, if you found in the above exercise that the conditioned mind was revealed to be a changing set of phenomena, but that that which watched those fleeting thoughts was consistant and silently alert, isn’t it possible that the latter is in fact that very Unborn Buddha Mind that Bankei is so keen for us to discover? Is it not unconditioned and without the delusion of being a separate, egoistic self? Is it not ageless and unchanging? And, if we recognize that it possesses all these qualities, is it not fair to declare that it is both wonderful and marvellous? Then, along with Bankei and the Buddha, we too may announce that it is “I alone am to be revered!”

Please click the following link to go to the homepage of 'Buddha Space,' where this article originated: http://buddhaspace.blogspot.com/


Anonymous said...

hard line post the "I alone" for my understanding the I alone does not mean "my, ego, accomplishment or my conquest" i think for a buddhist this is like removing the small ego. they now see the world as them the accomplishments of people as them the working of nature as them success and failure as them life and death as them. the small ego removed and all embracing via the unconditioned awareness. awareness is either the true "self" or simply thats life, thats the way things are or simply in tune with nature. es sos todos or asi es la cossa.

G said...


Anonymous said...

i can safely say IM ALL after the decimation of my small ego. no conflicts, wars, disputes because youre everything theres no more to be desired at or jealous at. youre not the person you "used to be" but simply awareness. everything in the eyes of awareness are like your body part to be cared at or just let it be.