Bankei Yōtaku (1622-1693), Sakyamuni and Maitreya, ink on paper, 11 1/4x221/4”, private collection.
There is no one among you who does not wish to become a Buddha.
Bankei’s preaching on the unborn Buddha mind is grounded in his own experience. Transcriptions of his talks written down by his audience—all dating from his final years—contain his central ideas in slightly differing formulations. The frequent repetitions of the same ideas, often in the identical words, can only partially be explained by textual tradition. More important is to realize that they can be attributed to Bankei himself, who, as he once confessed, always talked about the same thing in his sermons—namely, what was most important to him. The differing formulations all bring out the mature message of the aging master.
Unremittingly, Bankei tried to make clear that the unborn Buddha mind was innate in people. As he says in a sermon:
What I say to everyone is that the Buddha mind is innate in them from their parents. Nothing else is innate. The Buddha mind innate from their parents is unborn; it enlightens the mind. All things have their rightful place in the Unborn.
Yet all persons must recognize and decide to give themselves over to the Buddha mind and with their whole beings live according to it.
Those who opt for the unborn Buddha mind that enlightens the mind remain, from the very moment of this birth on, a living Perfected One (thatāgata). Because they are living Buddhas, I call my school the Buddha mind sect.
The same fundamental idea resonates in another text:
The Unborn that I am talking about is the Buddha mind. The Buddha mind is unborn, and it illumines the mind. In the Unborn everything is properly ordered. Those who carry out all things according to the Unborn find their eyes open to other persons so that they can today behold all other persons as living Buddhas…These people recognize the loftiness of the Buddha mind and are no longer prey to confusion. Because people do not know of the loftiness of the Buddha mind they cause illusions in all things, even in small things, and hence live as unenlightened beings (Jpn., bombu, Skt., pṛthagjana).
In their urgency, Bankei’s sermons are reminiscent of Lin Chi’s discourses, though they do not match the intellectual and literary power of the great Chinese master. As Lin-Chi had taught his disciples, so did Bankei remind the common people that they are perfected beings and Buddhas, if they could but realize their unborn Buddha mind. His admonitions touched on the realms of the Absolute. But the Unborn is inexpressible, and there were not words for Bankei’s school to mediate it. Buddha is a word, a name, but the Unborn is nameless. As he says in one of his sermons:
The Unborn is the ground of everything; the Unborn is the beginning of everything. Because there is no ground for anything outside of the Unborn and because before the Unborn there was no beginning for anything, the Unborn is the foundation of all the Buddhas.
In terms of their content, Bankei’s sermons were clearly within the bounds of Mahayana teaching, and yet presented his audience with something new and unusual. The gray-haired master could look back at the early years when he first preached the authentic Dharma of the Unborn: “When I was young, there wasn’t anyone who really understood me; when they heard me they thought I was an outsider or a Christian. Everyone was afraid to draw close to me….” In time this situation was to turn around completely. Bankei went on the recount how once people had begun to understand and to realize that he was preaching the genuine Dharma of Buddhism, they flocked to him until eventually he scarcely had time for peace and quiet any more.
The older and more mature Bankei grew, the more he became a man of the people. In his sermons he avoided difficult expressions or quotations from the sutras and the sayings of the masters. In one of his sermons, for example, he provoked the hearts of his hearers with these words: “There is no one among you who does not wish to become a Buddha.” He went on to assure them that not a one of them was unenlightened since all possessed the unborn Buddha mind:
Those who live according to the Buddha mind and do not succumb to illusions have no cause to seek enlightenment outside of themselves. Sit with the Buddha mind, keep company only with the Buddha mind, sleep with the Buddha mind, arise with the Buddha mind, dwell only with the Buddha mind; then in all your daily activities—walking and waiting, sitting and lying down—you will act like a living Buddha. Nothing else remains to be said.
Nothing is more important than to know the Buddha mind. “Whoever does not know the Buddha mind falls into illusions.” Bankei made great efforts to aid his hearers with their burden of illusions and passions. A peasant once asked him:
By nature I am impulsive and easily angered. As a farmer, I am absorbed by my chores and find it difficult to follow the Buddha mind. How can I follow the unborn Buddha-mind?
The master replied:
Since all people possess the unborn Buddha mind from their birth, you are not now seeking for the first time to follow it. If you perform your chores with all your energies, you are practicing the unborn mind. Also, if while hoeing in the field you speak with people and hoe at the same time, then you hoe while speaking and you speak while hoeing. But if you hoe in anger, your anger is an evil work that deserves the punishment of hell, and your work is toilsome and painful. But if you hoe without the clouds of anger or other passions, your work will be easy and pleasant. It is a work of the unborn, unperturbed Buddha mind.
In grateful appreciation to Bankei Yōtaku, Henrich Dumoulin and translators James W. Heisig and Paul Knitter. Transcribed from Zen Buddhism: A History (Vol. 2 Japan), “The Zen Schools During the Tokugawa Period”, The Rinzai School Before Hakuin
Image via Sweetcake Enso
Your unborn mind is the Buddha-mind itself, and it is unconcerned with either birth or death. As evidence of this, when looking at things, you’re able to see and distinguish them all at once. And as you are doing that, if a bird sings or a bell tolls, or other noises or sounds occur, you hear and recognize each of them too, even though you haven’t given rise to a single thought to do so. Everything in your life, from morning until night, proceeds in this same way without your having to depend upon thought or reflection. But most people are unaware of that; they think everything is a result of their deliberation. That is a great mistake.
If you harbor the least notion to become better than you are or the slightest inclination to seek something, you turn your back on the Unborn. There is neither joy nor anger in the mind you were born with – only the Buddha-mind with its marvelous illuminative wisdom that enlightens all things.
The place in which there’s no difference
Suppose that outside the temple walls someone started to beat on a drum or strike a bell. When you heard these sounds would the women here mistake the drumbeat for the bell, or the bell for the drumbeat? No. As far as hearing those sounds is concerned, no difference exists between the men and the women. It’s not only true of men and women, there are people of all kinds in this hall: old people and young, priests and laity, and so on. But there wouldn’t be any difference in the way that a young person, or a monk, or a layman heard the sounds either. The place in which there’s no difference in the hearing of those sounds is the Unborn…and it’s perfectly equal and absolutely the same in each one of you. When we say “This is a man,” or “This is a woman,” those are designations that result from the arising of thought. They come afterward. At the place of the Unborn, before the thought arises, attributes such as “man” or “woman” don’t even exist.
—Bankei Yōtaku (1622-1693), in Crazy Clouds: Zen Radicals, Rebels & Reformers (Shambhala Pubications)