Saturday, October 16, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 15-18

“Those who feel embittered by
life in this floating world of grief
Anguish themselves, distress their minds
Brooding over empty dreams

Since, after all, this floating world
Is unreal
Instead of holding onto things
In your mind, let them go!

Only Original Mind exists
In the past and in the future too
Instead of holding onto things
In your mind, let them go!

 When you don't attach to things
The floating world will cease to be
Nothing is left, nothing at all
That's what "living Tathagata" means”

Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) wasn’t your typical Zen master – if such a thing exists! Even more than most Zen monk-teachers of his time, he did not adhere to traditional teachings or methods of Buddhist training if he felt they didn’t work. An example is his dismissive attitude towards the use of koans (Zen riddles), used for centuries before him - and since - in the Rinzai Sect of Zen Buddhism with the intent of inducing satori (= Bodhi = ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’). This initial satori is also known as kensho which translates as ‘seeing into one’s true nature,’ and is the true beginning of the Buddhist Path, being comparable to the term ‘opening the Dharma Eye’ found in the teachings of the Lord Buddha in the Pali Canon.Bankei felt that by his time the koan had become a redundant tool and therefore did not utilize it. Instead, his preferred method was, in his own words, his tongue, by which he meant his preaching of the Dharma. According to the records we have, massive crowds of Buddhists would gather at his retreats to hear the master talk of the ‘Unborn Buddha Mind,’ Bankei’s usual term for referring to our true, enlightened nature. Another skilful means that he employed to awaken us was his poetry, much of which has also survived in its original Japanese. One such poem, probably Bankei’s longest and most famous, is the present one that we are studying, the ‘Song of the Mind.’ Let’s delve into this amazing monk’s verse once more, and see what gems of wisdom we can find to illumine ourselves, opening our Dharma Eye to the experience of satori, the most precious event possible in this “floating world.”

“Those who feel embittered by
Life in this floating world of grief
Anguish themselves, distress their minds
Brooding over empty dreams”

A term common to Oriental Buddhism is “this floating world,” which Bankei writes of here. The word ‘this’ is a clue to which world he is alluding to exactly – the earth, the planet that we humans, along with other beings, currently reside upon. But why ‘floating’? This word is used by Buddhists to indicate the ephemeral, ultimately unreal or dreamlike nature of this existence – in comparison to our true nature, that is. This world floats like a ghostly vista across the backdrop of eternity, more often than not blocking out the Immortal Sun like so many dark rain clouds. And dark those rain clouds are, for they do not merely release raindrops into our lives but storms of grief that darken our minds. We are not innocent in relation to our suffering, however, for it is in our ‘holding on to empty dreams’ that we ourselves sow the seeds of grief and misery.

“Since, after all, this floating world
Is unreal”

Again, due to its importance, Bankei reasserts the unreal nature of this world, and here he is nudging us to reflect on this point. The Buddha Dharma does not teach us that this universe is not real in the sense that it doesn’t truly exist, although some have interpreted its meaning thus, but rather indicates its relative lack of ultimate reality in relation to the deathless underlying Unborn. The world, and everything in it, is ‘born,’ or created, and as such is impermanent (anicca) and (ultimately) unsatisfying (dukkha). All things and processes will come to their end, and whilst they still exist they cannot supply us with continuous satisfaction or happiness. This is the First Noble Truth of the Lord Buddha, the Noble Truth of Suffering (= unsatisfying, dukkha in Pali). According to the Buddha, true happiness is found with what both he and Bankei called the Unborn.

“Instead of holding onto things
In your mind, let them go!”

Here, Bankei refers to both the second and third Noble Truths. “Holding on to things” is a colloquial equivalent to the Buddha’s declaration of the Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering, which is desire (tanha), whilst the injunction to “let them go” indicates the Noble Truth of the Cessation (nirodha) of Suffering. We cling (upadana) to things, looking for satisfaction in them, which when disappointed, leads to suffering. This process has its roots in desire, for it is when we cling to our desires that we create our own suffering. As the Buddha taught, when we don’t have what we want we suffer, and when we have what we don’t want, we also suffer. Furthermore, as things are by their very nature both impermanent and unsatisfying, it is in the very desiring of them that suffering has its origins.
Bankei encourages us to let go of things, not physically, but psychologically. Of course, if we experience pain because we are holding something in our hands, we can end the pain by letting go of the object, but Bankei isn’t referring to physical pain; he is concerned with the mental anguish that not only accompanies physical discomfort but also exists on the purely psychological level. Letting go of this kind of suffering by letting go of our desires is the Buddha’s Noble Truth of Cessation (nirodha). This cessation is the ending of holding on to things in our minds, and is another way of describing enlightenment or awakening, for nirodha is another synonym for Nirvana, Bodhi, or satori. If we really wish to stop suffering, we must relinquish our desires.

“Only Original Mind exists
In the past and in the future too
Instead of holding onto things
In your mind, let them go!”

As mentioned above, Bankei loved to talk of the Unborn Buddha Mind, and it is to this that he refers when he uses the term “Original Mind,” which has been used by Zen masters since its earliest development in China. This ‘Mind’ – which is really no mind at all in the conventional concepts of what a mind is – is timeless in nature, unlike our human minds. It is eternal, and therefore has always existed, and always will exist – it is outside of time altogether. It is the act of taking ourselves to be distinct time-bound beings that we lose sight of our true nature. The master is suggesting that if we stop “holding on to things,” we will cease to be these small, limited individual minds, and realize the Original Mind. 

“When you don't attach to things The floating world will cease to be”

The world exists in our conventional experience of the concept as being dependent upon the clinging mind. If we cease to cling to things, then they appear in their true from as “floating” entities in the eternal Original Mind. This doesn’t mean that they actually cease to be altogether, but that they are seen as they really are – ephemeral things in the No-thing that is the Unborn Buddha Mind. At this point there is no separate ‘me’ here and a floating world ‘there’ – the two are fused together in a completely interwoven experience that is dependent upon the unified Unborn Buddha Mind and not experienced as a dichotomy by an ego-centred mind. This is the heart of the Buddha’s fourth noble truth, the Noble Truth of the Path (Magga) that leads to enlightenment. For, the first step on the Path is Right Understanding, and transcending our normal egoistic assumptions is the way forward into eternity.

“Nothing is left, nothing at all
That's what "living Tathagata" means”

“Tathagata” is a title used initially by the Buddha himself, and subsequently by Buddhists, to refer to a Buddha. Its exact etymology is disputed, but it is usually translated either as “Thus Come One” or “Thus Gone One.” Both explanations work, for a Buddha is “thus come” in that he lives from the eternal Unborn and is therefore spontaneously present rather than created, and “thus gone” works because it indicates one that has crossed over to the ‘other shore’ (a synonym for Nirvana). Either way, Bankei here uses “Tathagata” to mean anyone that has awakened to the Unborn, rather than any one of a number of historical and mythological characters considered to be Buddhas. This usage of the term “living Tathagata” emphasizes this quality of a Buddha being manifest right here, right now.Bankei states that “nothing is left, nothing at all” when we let go of our desires and experience satori or enlightenment. Here, he refers to the emptiness (shunyata) of all phenomena, including the apparent experiencer. When we see things as they really are, we see that they are empty of separate eternal selves and are in fact alive in the No-thing that is without any sense of egotism or division. In this ‘suchness’ (tathata), seer and seen are one, not two, and are in fact the “living Tathagata.” This awakening is deepened through formal meditative absorptions (jhana), as taught throughout Buddhist history, and some Buddhists claim that it is only through specified meditation techniques that we can access the Unborn, but if this were the case Nirvana would be dependent upon a process and would therefore be the result of a process, rather than unconditioned, as all Buddhists admit it is. Therefore, at least in the sense of kensho, or opening the Dharma Eye, we can see our true nature without having to resort to complicated and drawn-out practices. No doubt such processes help to build on our initial insight, but if we wish to see our true nature, all we really need to do is look. If you fancy taking a peek at the “living Tathagata,” please conduct the following exercise in an open-minded attitude. What have you got to lose? Nothing!

What are you looking out of right now? Do you see two small blobs of flesh, or the endless Dharma Eye? Look at your reflection in a mirror. Notice those two little eyes in the mirror, noticing their shape and colour and opacity. Now, turn your attention around to look at the (apparent) seer. What do you actually see here? There are certainly no objects resembling those organs you see in the mirror, us there? (You might object that of course you can’t see your own eyes because they’re what you’re seeing with, and this is a valid argument. I’m not denying that you have eyes, but trying to point you to seeing what les ‘behind’ them.) What is every single thing occurring in right now, but this wide-open spacious No-thing that is without any separate individual features and instead accepts all things as they appear in it?

When we look Home with humility, we come to an incredible conclusion: the Buddha isn’t that statue of Shakyamuni or Amitabha, but is right here, where we normally take the ‘I’ to reside. Everything we see – and hear, taste, touch, smell, and think – appears in a wonderful No-thing, free of all the sufferings of a separate individual self. This doesn’t mean that such sufferings don’t arise, but that they don’t do so in relation to what we truly are – the living Tathagata. Spend the next few years from this understanding and not from identification with the self and see what happens to all your hang-ups, likes, dislikes, anguish, misery, and suffering. This is the challenge that Bankei presents us with. Shall we take him up on it?


Anonymous said...

Nice post. Though, always thought "floating world" was just a reference to the land that appears to float atop the ocean. That is certainly how things would have looked in Bankei's day. Just a thought.

G said...

Thanks, Truth.

"Floating world" - 浮世 ('ukiyo') in Japanese - can mean a certain urban pleasure-seeking lifestyle in Japan during the 17th to 19th Centuries. In specifically Buddhist language, it refers to this 'sorrowful world' of suffering. The Japanese word for 'sorrowful world' is written differently (憂き世) but also pronounced 'ukiyo' - and is thus a homophone with 'floating world.'

I like your image of a world floating above the ocean, however - this may well have been what Bankei was referring to!