Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Unborn

Mysterious realm,

No other...


Without walls,

Where can the Mind

Not go?

This little poem was written several weeks ago, during a period when I was reading several books on the seventeenth century Japanese maverick/reformer Zen priest Bankei. Bankei was an interesting character, he came onto the Zen scene at a time when traditional Zen seemed to have lost it's way in empty ritual and form. Bankei attempted to cut through this with his preaching about "the Unborn", the unborn, deathless, eternal Buddha-mind that is the basis of all consciousness, in fact , the basis of all everything!

"When your awake, you're awake in the same Buddha-mind you were sleeping in. You sleep in the Buddha-mind while you sleep and are up and about in the Buddha-mind while you are up and about. That way, you always stay in the Buddha-mind. You're never apart from it for an instant."

He urged his followers (and he had many followers, his message spoke directly to a great many people in his day) to observe the Unborn at work in all things, especially in the sounds of birds, the rustling of leaves and the like. He said that the fact that we can instantly recognize these sounds for what the are without even trying in any way was the proof of the functioning of the Buddha-mind.

Even though he had put himself through the wringer of austerities and severe practices in his youthful quest for enlightenment, Bankei came to reject these extreme measures (like the Buddha himself), in favor of simply sitting Zazen and keeping the functioning of the Unborn in mind at all times.

There are two pretty good translations of Bankei's talks in print in English, Norman Waddell's "The Unborn: The life and Teaching of Zen Master Bankei" and "Bankei Zen" by Peter Haskel. There is also a chapter on him in the newly published "Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers" by Perle Besserman and Manfred B. Steger.