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Biographies > Bankei Yotaku - Unborn Zen

by Peter Holleran

   The life of Zen Master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693), considered by D.T.Suzuki to have been one of the greatest of all Zen Masters, illustrates the depths of liberating despair that often precedes an awakening. Further, we will see that, contrary to many popular notions, such awakening is often the beginning of true practice, and not the end. Bankei never tired of emphasizing to his own students, however, that much of his difficult personal ordeal would have been unnecessary had he been able to meet an enlightened teacher early in his practise. He exhorted them in the strongest terms to make the best use of his company, and to realize how fortunate they were, and said repeatedly that they themselves could realize without great struggle - so long as a true desire for enlightenment was present. in doing so we suspect he may have been going easy on his disciples, downplaying the extent of the ordeal required. Many these days appear to be attracted to his teachings for just this reason. Considered somewhat of a maverick, his “Unborn Zen” was a refreshment of the tradition, employing few of the classic methods of his antecedents, dealing with aspirants directly as he found them, cutting through limited doctrines, and placing emphasis on the realization of one's “Unborn” mind. (1)

   Bankei was very devoted to his mother, and once confessed to her that more than anything else it was his desire to communicate the Truth to her which motivated his pursuit of Enlightenment. His childhood schooling consisted of little more than rote memorization of a Confucian classic entitled The Great Learning. Bankei was struck by the opening words of the book: “The way of Great Learning lies in illuminating the Bright Virtue.” He searched and searched but could find no one to satisfactorily explain this verse to him. His family, his teacher, and the local priest confessed their ignorance, and one day, his great heart-need unsatisfied, Bankei simply left school. He was obsessed with finding out what “Bright Virtue” meant, and he knew at the very least that he would find no answers there. His action, however, would never be acceptable to his elder brother, the head of the household, and knowing this Bankei decided to kill himself. His method of achieving this was to eat a handful of “poisonous” spiders, but to his great disappointment he did not die. When he refused to attend school his brother expelled him from the house, and at the age of eleven Bankei began a life of wandering, meditating and visiting spiritual teachers in search of the Bright Virtue.

   For fourteen years he moved about, practising harsh austerities and paying scant attention to the needs of food and shelter. At one point he decided to find the answer within himself, and he built a tiny hut for meditation, leaving only a small hole through which food could be brought to him. He sat until the flesh on his buttocks was flayed and his health broke down. The wall of his hut was marked by gobs of thick black phlegm he would spit up. Finally, Bankei realized that he was dying, and in his despair he experienced a fundamental breakthrough:

   “The master, frustrated in his attempts to resolve the feeling of doubt which weighed so heavily on his mind, became deeply disheartened. Signs of serious illness appeared. He began to cough up bloody bits of sputem. He grew steadily worse, until death seemed imminent. He said to himself, “Everyone has to die. I’m not concerned about that. My regret is dying with the great matter I’ve been struggling with all these years, since I was a small boy, still unresolved.” His eyes flushed with hot tears. His breast heaved violently. It seemed his ribs would burst. Then, just at that moment, enlightenment came to him - like a bottom falling out of a bucket. Immediately, his health began to return, but still he was unable to express what he had realized. Then, one day, in the early hours of the morning, the scent of plum blossoms carried to him in the morning air reached his nostrils. At that instant, all attachments and obstacles were swept from his mind once and for all. The doubts that had been plaguing him ceased to exist.” (2)

   Bankei’s satoris could be said to represent a transcendance of unconscious identification with the ego, and the realization of consciousness or Mind as the substrate of all experience, that became the basis for his further practise. It was the Buddhist “seed of enlightenment”, a profound glimpse, not the final achievement, but which nevertheless wiped doubt and uncertainty from his mind.

   “For about thirty years I wandered searching for the real Tao everywhere.. But at this moment, seeing the plum blossoms, I am suddenly enlightened, and have no more doubts.” (3)

   He also said:

   “I pressed myself without mercy, draining myself mentally and physically; at times, I practiced deep in the mountains, in places completely cut off from all human contact. I fashioned primitive shelters out of paper, pulled that over me, and did zazen seated inside; …never lying down even to rest for a moment. My utter neglect of health…and the years of physical punishment finally took its toll, and came to a head in a serious illness…My condition steadily worsened, I grew weaker and weaker by the day. I felt a strange sensation in my throat. I spat against a wall…suddenly just at that instant, I realized what it was that had escaped me until now: All things are perfectly resolved in the Unborn. I realized too that what I had been doing all this time had been mistaken. I knew all my efforts had been in vain.” (reference misplaced)

   Bankei nevertheless had a deepening of his realization three years later under the guidance of a Chinese priest, who confirmed that he had indeed penetrated to the Self-essence but still needed to clarify the “matter beyond”, “discriminating wisdom”, or "the practise after Enlightenment". A Taoist sage called this interim period the difference between "enlightenment" and "deliverance."

   Wu Men said:

   "Even though Chao Chou became enlightened, he should continue to work for thirty years more to graduate." (3a)

   Master Po Shan similarly discoursed:

   “Therefore the proverb says, after enlightenment one should visit the Zen Masters.” The sages of the past demonstrated the wisdom of this when, after their enlightenment, they visited the Zen Masters and improved themselves greatly. One who clings to his realization and is unwilling to visit the Masters, who can pull out his nails and spikes, is a man who cheats himself.” (4)

   Garma C.C. Chang brings to our awareness the recognized distinction made in Zen and Ch’an Buddhism between the first glimpse or awakening to transcendent wisdom, emptiness, or 'no-self'), and Cheng-teng-cheuh (sabyaksambodhi), which is the final, perfect, complete enlightenment of Buddhahood, where the emptiness has become absolute Fullness and one has gone completely beyond personal identification:

   “A great deal of work is needed to cultivate this vast and bottomless Prajna-mind before it will blossom fully. It takes a long time, before perfection is reached, to remove the dualistic, selfish, and deeply rooted habitual thoughts arising from the passions. This is very clearly shown in many Zen stories, and in the following Zen proverb, for example: “The truth should be understood through sudden Enlightenment, but the fact (the complete realization) must be cultivated step by step.” (5)

   As contemporary teacher Adyashanti points out in his book, The End of Your World, the awakening to such a transcendant witness position can make one initially 'drunk on emptiness', even exuberantly so, while one's egoic conditioning has yet to be completely unraveled or uprooted. This further process generally takes some time, but is necessary for one to awaken lastingly to the non-dual Self. Paul Brunton (PB) calls this second feat the harder of the two, essentially a work of many years or even lifetimes.

   A similar progression can be seen in the enlightenment story of Rinzai teacher Hakuin, considered the "greatest sage in five hundred years," who had his first experience of satori after meditating on the koan ‘Mu’ for four years:

   “He shouted: ‘Why, the world is not something to be avoided, nor is Nirvana something to be sought after!’ This realization he presented to the Abbot and some fellow disciples but they did not give their unqualified assent to it. He however burned with absolute conviction, and thought to himself that surely for centuries no one had known such a joy as was his. He was then twenty-four. In his autobiographical writings, Hakuin warns Zen students with peculiar earnestness against this pride of assurance.” (6)

   After this he endured three years of merciless hammering by the Master Shoju, who “utterly smashed his self-satisfaction.” He had another satori, which he classified as a ‘great satori’, and which his teacher confirmed by saying, “You are through.” Nevertheless, Shoju admonished him not to be content with such a small thing but to perform the ‘practise after satori.’ This is known as the “downward” practise, where one ‘descends from the mountaintop’ to become the Great Fool, highly revered in the Zen tradition. It was not until more than ten years later, and much meditation under extremely austere conditions, that Hakuin penetrated to the depths of the Lotus Sutra, and gained a most fundamental awakening:

   “The meaning of the ordinary life of his teacher Shoju was revealed, and he saw that he had been mistaken over his great satori realizations. This time there was no great reaction in the body-mind instrument.” (7)

   In Hakuin’s own words:

   “I reached forty, the age when one is not supposed to be bothered any longer by doubts. One night, I decided to take another look at The Lotus Sutra. I got out my only lamp, turned up the wick, and began to read it once again. I read as far as the third chapter, the one on parables. Then, just like that, all the lingering doubts and uncertainties vanished from my mind. They suddenly ceased to exist. The reason for the Lotus’s reputation as the “king of sutras” was now revealed to me with blinding clarity. Teardrops began cascading down my face like two strings of beads - they came like beans pouring from a ruptured sack. A loud involuntary cry burst from the depths of my being and I began sobbing uncontrollably. And as I did, I knew without any doubt that what I had realized in all those satoris I had experienced, what I had grasped in my understanding of those koans I had passed - had all been totally mistaken. I was finally able to penetrate the source of the free, enlightened activity that permeated Shoju’s daily life.” (7a)

   PB similarly writes:

   “The glimpse, because it is situated between the mental conditions which exist before and afterwards, necessarily involves striking - even dramatic - contrast with their ordinariness. It seems to open onto the ultimate light-bathed height of human existence. But this experience necessarily provokes a human reaction to it, which is incorporated into the glimpse itself, becomes part of it. The permanent and truly ultimate enlightenment is pure, free from any admixture of reaction, since it is calm, balanced, and informed.” (8)

   Adyashanti calls this enlightenment "a mutation at the very core of your inner self."

   The idea here is that there are many, many hidden tentacles of what Plotinus called the "audacious self-will", and St. John of the Cross called the "Old Man", remaining to be dealt with - which is why the sutras said that AFTER enlightenment one should visit the Masters who can perform the needed spiritual operation. And we are writing here of the great religious geniuses, so what does that say for more ordinary souls such as ourselves?

   These basic ideas are found in the great Lankavatara Sutra, where it speaks not only of a fundamental "turnabout in the deep seat of understanding" (awakening or satori), but also that in "the perfect self-realisation of Noble Wisdom that follows the inconceivable transformation death of the Bodhisattva's individualised will-control, he no longer lives unto himself, but the life that he lives thereafter is the Tathagata's universalised life as manifested in its transformations." (9) This is far beyond anything resembling a quick enlightenment. PB described this as if the ego of the sage were "pressed into" the World-Idea [i.e., the universal expression of the World-Mind, “God,” or Isvara]. He furthered adds:

   "The awareness of Truth is constant and perennial. It cannot be merely glimpsed; one must be born into it, in Jesus' words, again and again, and perceive it permanently. One must be identified with it."

   "When the glimpse has been repeated many times it will come to be looked upon as a natural experience. The state which it induces will seem to be a normal one. The miracle which the beginner makes of it will seem an unnecessary exaggeration to the matured proficient man."

   "It is true that illumination is itself an instantaneous experience, since we pass into it from one moment to the next, and since the Real is timeless. But to hold this illumination against the intrusions of negative personal habits and negative personal characteristics is another matter and success in it is quite rare."

   Bankei many years later confessed:

   "When it comes to the truth I uncovered when I was twenty-six and living in retreat at the village of Nonaka in Ako in Harima - the truth for which I went to see Dosha and obtained his confirmation - so far as the truth is concerned, between that time and this, from beginning to end, there hasn't been a shred of difference. However, so far as penetrating the great truth of Buddhism with the perfect clarity of the Dharma Eye and realizing absolute freedom, between the time I met Dosha and today, there's all the difference of heaven and earth!" (11)

   PB again summarizes the basic idea:

   “ Those who believe in the Short Path of sudden attainment...confuse the first flash of insight which unsettles everything so gloriously with the last flash of insight which settles everything even more gloriously...He has to move from one point of view to a higher, from many a struggle with weaknesses to their mastery. Then only, when he has done by himself what he should do, may he cease his efforts, be still, and await the influx of Grace. Then comes light and the second birth."(11a)

   This sort of thing has been recorded so many times in the spiritual texts that one can only remain silent in the face of those exhulting in an initial glimpse of 'no-self', or the unreality of the ego, and claiming complete understanding. Usually after a first spiritual glimpse there is not clear understanding. This often takes years of overall maturation of the whole person. That one must then realize what that no-self is, as well as what the world is, and their relationship, and also fully live on that basis, is often not stressed enough. Khenpo Ngawang Palzang (1879-1941), a great teacher and master in the Longchen Nyingthig lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, experienced the 'union of emptiness and clarity' in deep meditation when he was only twenty-one, yet his teacher would not give him his validation:

   "Khenpo, a most gifted person, had the experience of the true nature in his early meditation trainings. However, his teacher would not tell him that this was the important realization. If he did so too early, there could arise a subtle conceptual grasping in the mind of Khenpo, an attachment to the so-called "important realization," and instead of Khenpo's being encouraged by having his realization confirmed, he could be distracted from the journey. That is the very reason why Paltrul Rinpoche says, "Do not rush to call it Dharmakaya!" (12)

   After further studies and practice, three years later he reached "the ultimate nature of the primordial wisdom, the naked union of intrinsic awareness and emptiness." Khenpo, while himself becoming a famous teacher, for the next twenty-five years engaged in further practice, continued to pursue additional scriptural study, received transmissions from many masters, and deepened his realization. At the age of forty-nine he did advanced Nyingma sadhanas, from which he "experienced many attainments and visions". At fifty-five he received the vision of Yeshe Tsogyal and "many Vajrakila accomplishments." It should be noted that the type of 'visions' referred to here entails actual living empowerments from inner adepts or deities. All of this was after his 'enlightenment'.

   The essence of these stories can be summed up by another Tibetan saying, "don't mistake understanding for realization, and don't mistake realization for liberation."


(1) V.S. Iyer points out in his commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, "Advaita also uses the term "unborn," in reference to the Atman, only to refute those who say it is born, i.e., created, produced. So we say it is "uncreated" in reply. For "birthless" is only a word, i.e., a thought...not the truth. It is a thorn to pick out the thorn of causal-grounded ideas." In Zen terms, then, the word "unborn" is not the truth but rather a "pointer" to the non-dual truth. Commentaries, Vol. 1 (edited by Mark Scorelle, 1999), p. 268
(2) Norman Waddell, trans., The Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei 1622-1693 (San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1984), book jacket
(3) Ryuji Akao, Bankei zenji zenshu (Complete records of Zen Master Bankei) (Tokyo: Daizo Shuppan, 1976), Ryakuroku, p. 349 (quoted in Waddell, op. cit)
(3a) as quoted in: Paul Brunton, The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1988), Vol. 16, 2.63
(4) Garma C.C. Chang, The Practise of Zen (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1959 (1970), p. 104
(5) Ibid, p. 162-163
(6) Trevor Leggett, A Second Zen Reader (Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1988), pp. 130-131
(7) Ibid, p. 132
(7a) (Norman Waddell, trans., The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin, p. 33)
(8) Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 16, Part 1, 2.27
(9) excerpted from Dwight Goddard, ed., A Buddhist Bible, "What Is Nirvana?"
(10) Brunton, Ibid, 2.29, 41, 72
(11) Peter Haskel, Bankei Zen (New York, N.Y.: Grove Press, 1984), p. 113
(11a) Brunton, op. cit., 2.65
(12) Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles (Boston: Shambhala, 1999), p. 270-274