Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 45-46

“The Pure Land
Where one communes at peace
Is here and now, it’s not remote
Millions and millions of leagues away

When someone tosses you a tea bowl
-     Catch it!
Catch it nimbly with soft cotton
With the cotton of your skilful mind!”

Master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) has given us a wonderful gift in the form of his teachings. And, as the Buddha taught, the greatest of gifts is the Dharma (Buddhist teachings), so thank you, Bankei! I write this now, because we have come to the last two verses in his superb poem ‘Song of the Mind.’ Throughout these reflections, it has become apparent that there are two themes that run through the whole thing, and that they are crucial to its true appreciation; but more of that after we’ve taken a look at the two verses above. As ever with these reflections, the accompanying exercise is included to help open the ‘Dharma Eye’ that both the Buddha and Bankei want us to see with, so please take a few minutes to try it out. Read on!

“The Pure Land
Where one communes at peace”

The most popular form of Buddhism in the Far East is not Zen, which is the most well known in the West, but Pure Land Buddhism. Where the former is austere and most difficult to understand, Pure Land Buddhism is a religion of the masses, based on faith rather than knowledge. Pure Land devotees put their faith in Amida Butsu (Amitbha Buddha – ‘the Awakened One of Infinite Light’), who has taken a vow to accept all his followers into his heavenly paradise – the Pure Land – where they can achieve liberation under his compassionate guidance.

The common ways to worship Amida are through rituals and ceremonies and the nembutsu (‘remembrance of the Buddha’) where the devotee chants ‘Namu Amida Butsu’ (‘Homage to Amitabha Buddha’). Different sects of Pure Land Buddhism advise their practitioners in various ways of doing this, some recommending several thousand recitations per day, and others stating that just one heartfelt utterance of the nembutsu is enough to be reborn in the Pure Land. Once there, it is agreed that Amida’s infinite light will shine peaceful wisdom on his devotees, each of whom will be sat atop a giant lotus flower, meditating their way to enlightenment.

“Is here and now, it’s not remote
Millions and millions of leagues away”

As ever, we can expect Bankei to cut through any cosy beliefs and bring our attention right back to the here and now, rather than adrift in some never-never land. As with some other notable Zen adherents, such as the 20th Century’s D. T. Suzuki, Bankei tells us that the Pure Land is actually in our present location, not in some ethereal realm, and it is in this present moment, not in some future time. To be fair, according to Suzuki, some Pure Landers of the Shin sect have taught as much, including the poet Saichi who declared, “Shining in glory is Buddha’s Pure land,/ And this is my Pure land!/ Namu Amid Butsu! Namu Amidsa Butsu!” In such a practice as Saichi’s, the recitation has become his rebirth in the Pure Land, and the chirping bird produces heavenly music, the shining sun produces heavenly light, and the squatting dog produces heavenly cra – well, you get the idea!

“When someone tosses you a tea bowl
Catch it!”
Sound advice, O Master, for if one does not catch the tea bowl, it will smash into myriad pieces, and Polly will have to put the kettle on again! Zen masters used to do some crazy things, including throwing objects at their devoted followers. (Maybe they still do – let me know if you have some information on this.) But, it’s pretty safe to presume that Bankei is not being literal here; he isn’t about to toss us a piece of valuable Japanese ceramic, but instead is using the image of a tea bowl to represent something else even more delicious – the Dharma. And that’s saying something, coming from an Englishman!
“Catch it nimbly with soft cotton
With the cotton of your skilful mind!”

If he was pitching us a tea bowl, soft cotton might just enable us to catch it without any damage, but Bankei makes it clear exactly what we should to catch his teachings: the mind. Nevertheless, there’s more to this cotton analogy, because the mind too must be nice and soft to “catch” the Dharma, for if it’s too hard it will reject it without due consideration, or else take it literally or logically and not really understand it. Bankei is telling us to be reflective and wise when considering the Dharma, and if we do so, we will surely see the Pure Land sparkling all around us, even when we step in the stuff that the dog was so busy producing earlier! Seriously, let’s try an exercise that might help us to have at least a glimpse of Amida’s Pure Land. Are you ready?

Take a look at the room you’re in, or better still at the world outside your window. Observe the different objects and any people or animals present, noticing their shapes and colours and your mind’s reactions to them. Perhaps some of them inspire pleasant reactions in your mind, others unpleasant, while some evoke a neutral response. The world is imperfect, isn’t it? Some stuff is nice, some not so nice, and some just plain boring. But, wait. There’s more (or less!) to the world than this. Look at something (or someone) you like. Where is the emotion of liking in that person? Can you see it in them? Sure, there are qualities about their appearance that you like, but that’s your reaction to what you see. Your liking of them is in you, not them. Now look at something (or someone) that you don’t like. Again, where is the disliking? Is it in their appearance or in your reaction to them? In truth, the world is the way it is, however we respond to it. It is just so, it is already ‘the Pure Land.’ We just can’t see it properly because of the mind’s reaction to things. If we can just look at things in and of themselves, without judging them, they are the only way they could be, dependent upon causes and ‘just so.’ Accepting the way the world is opens us up to experiencing it as the Pure Land – we just have to look with a non-discriminative mind. Difficult? Keep looking!

It’ fitting that this is the last of the reflections on Bankei’s ‘Song of the Mind,’ because the final verses sum up the whole poem really well. (Well, I guess Bankei knew what he was doing!) Put very simply, he’s saying a) This is the Pure Land, and b) Look clearly. I’ll add a third point for us dumbos that are just a little slower than he: c) Enlightenment! Whether we use the exercises promoted on ‘Buddha Space,’ or zazen, or the nembutsu, or some other technique to open up to the way-things-are (the Dharma), it’s okay. The main point is to see beyond these limited and limiting egos that we take ourselves to be and see the bigger picture. It’s been a pleasure sharing these reflections with you: bon voyage on the Path!

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


Jeff said...

I've always enjoyed Bankei. This is a pretty good description of Pure Land Buddhism, but misses some essentials. For instance, the majority sect in Japan is Jodo Shinshu (Shin Buddhism). They don't believe that you sit on a lotus flower meditating until you reach enlightenment: their founder Shinran taught that the Pure Land is nirvana itself. At the instant of death one enters the Pure Land and achieves buddhahood, and then instantaneously returns to the suffering world to perpetually assist others with their difficulties and struggles toward liberation. Furthermore, for Shinran birth in the Pure Land is achieved (at least provisionally) during this lifetime through the awakening of shinjin (the trusting heart), which we might say is a sort of Pure Land analog to satori in the Zen tradition.

G said...

Thanks so much for the generous comment, Jeff. Your description of Shinran & Jodoshinshu is much appreciated, helping this little known form of Japanese Buddhism to be better understood in the West. Kudos!

Jeff said...

My pleasure. Keep those groovy Bankei commentaries coming, if you would please.

G said...

More Bankei commentaries are possible...in the future, Jeff. This post is the last of 15 on the Song of the Mind, so it's time to focus on other dharmas (things) for a while. But, as a fellow fan of Master Bankei, I'm sure he'll reappear on these pages sometime.

Anonymous said...

I find that the song makes a lot more sense when the word 'conditioned' is used.
- K

G said...

K - in what way are you using the phrase "makes a lot more sense," however? Intellectually? Emotionally? :)