You often hear religious people talking about samsara, or living and dying, being the same as nirvana. But when they speak about it they do so from the standpoint of samsara, so in fact it has nothing to do with nirvana. They make this mistake because they haven’t grasped yet that the unborn Buddha-mind they always have with them sets everything right this very day by means of the Unborn. To look for “samsara is nirvana” anywhere else and involve yourself in words and letters, is pointless.
What they’re doing is changing the unborn Buddha-mind into the thought, “samsara is nirvana,” and senselessly spending every second of the day and night, without a moment’s rest, confined within samsara. Since the Buddha-mind takes care of everything by means of the Unborn, it has nothing do to with samsara or nirvana. Seen from the place of the Unborn, both of them are like shadows in a dream. But because the Buddha-mind has the marvelous dexterity it does, if a person who until just yesterday was busily engaged in samsara should today realize his mistake and henceforth stop changing his Buddha-mind into the three poisons, he will henceforth dwell in the Buddha-mind free of all concern with such things as samsara.
When the time comes for his physical elements to disperse in death, he will give himself completely to the dispersal and die without regret or attachment. A person like that is living the truth of “samsara is nirvana” and is, at the same time, living and dying at will.
Here, I always urge people simply to live in the unborn Buddha-mind. I don’t try to make anyone do anything else. We haven’t any special rules. But since everyone got together and decided that they wanted to spend six hours each day doing zazen, I let them do as they wish. That amount of time has been set aside for zazen. But the unborn Buddha-mind has no connection with those sticks of incense.
It’s just being at home in the Buddha-mind, not straying into illusion, and not seeking enlightenment beyond that. Just sit in the Buddha-mind, stand in the Buddha-mind, sleep in the Buddha-mind, awake in the Buddha-mind, do everything in the Buddha-mind, then, you’ll be functioning as a living Buddha in all that you do in your daily life. There’s nothing further.
Now, in zazen, it’s a matter of the Buddha-mind sitting at rest. It’s the Buddha-mind doing continuous zazen. Zazen isn’t limited to the time you sit. That’s why, around here, if people have something to do while they’re sitting, they’re free to get up and do it. It’s up to them, whatever they’ve a mind to do. Some of them will do kinhin for one stick of incense. But they can’t just continue walking, so they then sit down and for another stick of incense they do zazen. They can’t be sleeping all the time, so they get up. They can’t talk constantly, so they stop talking and do some zazen. They aren’t bound by any rules.
In recent times, wherever you go you find that Zen teachers use “old tools” when they deal with pupils. They seem to think that they can’t do the job without them. They’re unable to teach directly, by thrusting themselves forward and confronting students without their tools. Those eyeless bonzes with their “Zen tools” –if they don’t have their implements to help them, they aren’t up to handling people.
What’s worse, they tell practitioners that unless they can raise a “great ball of doubt” and then break through it, there can’t be any progress in Zen. Instead of teaching them to live by the unborn Buddha-mind, they start by forcing them to raise this ball of doubt any way they can. People who don’t have a doubt are now saddled with one. They’ve turned their Buddha-minds into “balls of doubt.” It’s absolutely wrong.
My religion has nothing to do with either “self-power” or “other-power.” It’s beyond them both. My proof is this: While you face me and listen to me say this, if somewhere a sparrow chirps, or a crow caws, or a man or woman says something, or the wind rustles the leaves, though you sit there without any intent to listen, you will hear and distinguish each sound. Because it isn’t your self that’s doing the listening, it isn’t self-power.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t do you any good if you had someone else hear and distinguish the sounds for you. So it isn’t other-power. That’s the reason why I can say that my teaching has nothing to do with self-power or other-power and is beyond them both. When you’re listening like this in the Unborn, each and every sound is heard as it occurs. And all other things as well, in just the same way, are perfectly well taken care of in the Unborn. Anyone who lives his life in the Unborn, whoever he may be, will find this to be true. No one who lives in the Unborn is concerned with self or other. He’s beyond them both.
Excerpted from The Unborn – The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei
For those of us who have read the stories of Zen masters lives, Bankei’s enlightenment story is among the more powerful ones. His dedication is inspiring, and his insights shared from that ground give us a rich perspective to his deceptively simple sounding teaching.
“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.”
After fourteen years of hardship, he had broken through. He started teaching people of all backgrounds hoping to spare others the hardships he had been through and became the most popular Zen masters of his time.
When reading Bankei there is a directness and simplicity of realization that seems unbelievable at times. With the proliferation of schools, teachings, sutras, meditation styles, one can sometimes feel overwhelmed with the question of who to practice with or even how to sit. It is refreshing to listen to a teacher who is direct, offering insight in the moment. There is no long process of many koans to solve, or stages of enlightenment. Bankei was one of the most unique teachers in all of Japan or China.
Due to our various temperments there are multitudes of teaching styles and practices. Bankei is for the student of the “nothing extra” approach. For some this will feel like a fresh mountain breeze on a direct path to the hermitage at the peak.