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A View of Bankei

Colin Oliver

Bankei Zenji (1622-1693) was a great Japanese religious teacher who spoke to the people directly rather than from the sutras. He adhered to no particular school and his teaching was remarkably individual and raw, of the essence of Zen. His concern was with the truth as an immediate experience, not with a systematic approach to a distant goal.

An account of Bankei's life reveals his great character. He was born into a Samurai family. His father, a Confucian, died when Bankei was young. At an early age he became concerned about death and his tantrums could be quietened by mention of it. He disliked school so he often played truant. When the ferryman was instructed not to take him across the river on the way home until school was ended, Bankei plunged in and swam across. He was unruly and a gang leader. Frequent quarrels with his elder brother caused him to be so frustrated and depressed that he attempted suicide. He swallowed a large number of spiders which he thought to be poisonous and sat in a shrine waiting for death. When nothing happened he changed his mind.

As a young adolescent Bankei was sent to a teacher of Chinese. While studying a Confucian classic he was forcibly struck by a passage stating that the Way of Great Learning was to make clear the Bright Virtue. Puzzled and wishing to understand the teaching he questioned a number of Confucian scholars. They admitted that they possessed no deep knowledge and disappointed Bankei. He next approached the Buddhists, attending sermons and discourses, and reported back to his mother. He was determined to enlighten her as to the meaning of Bright Virtue before she died. With the Buddhists too he was disappointed.

At last he decided to search for a Zen master. When he found one he was instructed to practise zazen in order to gain direct knowledge of Bright Virtue. Bankei approached zazen with characteristic determination. He sat cross-legged in a cave for hours on end and did not eat for a week. Apart from his falling over with exhaustion, nothing happened. In a hut in his village he tried reciting the Nembutsu. Despite the appearance of sores he refused to relax but remained sitting with pads beneath him. He continued his life of meditation for a long time and eventually became a sick man. Bankei's friends were concerned and provided a servant to care for him. He thought he was going to die and his one regret was that the problem of the Bright Virtue remained unsolved.

Then, on the verge of death, Bankei came to the realisation that he had never been born. He saw into the illuminating source of all things, by which all things are well managed. Bankei was convinced that he could live from the Unborn. It was a totally life-changing insight. He felt immediately revitalised and asked his astonished servant to prepare a meal.

When he was fully recovered Bankei told his mother of his discovery so that she died happy. He was disconcerted by the difficulty he then experienced in finding a master who could confirm his insight. Eventually he found one who encouraged him and he decided to devote his life to helping others, to sharing the truth.

Bankei became a man of the people. He preached to large audiences composed of ordinary country folk as well as Zen students. His language was simple and direct. People were impressed by his sincerity. One of the stories told of him illustrates his winning way. A priest was angered when many of his own sect went to hear about Zen. So he attended a meeting himself with the intention of debating with Bankei.

"A man like myself does not respect you," he informed Bankei. "Can you make me obey you?" Bankei asked the priest to come to the front and he proudly pushed through the crowd. Bankei asked him to sit by him and he obeyed, then to change places and he stepped over. "You see, " observed Bankei, "you are obeying me and I think you are a very gentle person. Now sit down and listen".

Another story relates how Bankei was approached by a priest who boasted that his master possessed miraculous powers. This master could take a brush and write Amida in the air and the word would appear on a sheet of paper in the distance. Challenged to equal this, Bankei replied, "My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink."

Bankei's teaching was altogether different from the Zen koan system. Meditation on the koan produces a prolonged build-up of tension and subsequent release in satori. The truth is hard-won and therefore profoundly valued. Bankei relied entirely on his own conviction, exhorting his followers to experience the simple truth directly and naturally and be persuaded of its worth.

It might be argued that Bankei's own long and difficult path was necessary for him to discover and value the truth. Bankei denied that such a course was necessary. He maintained that the truth was readily available. Life lived from the Unborn would bring experiences to deepen the appreciation and inspire one-pointedness.

Some followers felt that meditation was appropriate to focus the attention. It was enough, Bankei said, to sit on the floor and be a living Buddha. His great emphasis was on meditation in action, in day to day living. His general precept was beautifully simple: "Only sit up with the Buddha-heart, be only with the Buddha-heart, sleep and arise only with the Buddha-heart, and live only with the Buddha-heart."

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