Monday, December 15, 2014




Recently we have talked about certain individuals who were neither monks nor masters but were ordinary folks who practiced Zen . . . .

Wait, wait. I mean ordinary folks who not merely practiced Zen but taught and lived Zen on their own terms.

Such people were not followers but freethinking nonconformists.

          Today we will consider Bankei Yotaku.

          Bankei Yotaku was born in the year 1622 in the southwestern Japanese province of Harima. The family was a big one, and it was well educated. His father was a former samurai who had become a medical doctor. Of his eight siblings, his eldest brother was a physician, and his second eldest brother was a practitioner of the Pure Land school of Buddhism.

          According to the record, Bankei was a mischievous youngster, always rebellious and always getting into scrapes. In other words, he was a perfectly normal kid who queried everything.

          When Bankei was eleven he entered school where he was drilled on Confucian texts. Many of those classics confused him, so he questioned them.

          One day, his teacher read a passage from Great Learning, one of the four books of Confucianism. One line claimed, "The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue."

The other students nodded in acceptance, but Bankei balked.

“So what is the meaning of this bright virtue” he demanded of the teacher.

The teacher wasn’t used to such queries from his pupils and mumbled a stock answer. Bankei was miffed, feeling he was being given a run around by someone who was reputed to know everything.

For Bankei it was only the beginning of his doubts. He questioned many Confucians and Buddhists on their knowledge, but he was unable to get any straightforward replies.

He became so distraught in his need to find answers that school became a nuisance. So he quit school and left home. A friend allowed him to stay in a small hut to think things over. Between solitary meditation sessions Bankei carved into a slat of wood the words "Practice hermitage" and placed the board outside his shelter.

Always searching for answers, Bankei spent the greater part of his life traveling around Japan, asking questions and passing on what he understood. He did not accept the then-formal methods of teaching but imparted his own simplified version of Zen. Koan study was fine and good but it was unnecessary.

“If your mind is right you can grasp your Buddha-nature right where you sit,” he said. “That does not require long, painstaking practice.”

Over the years Bankei conducted retreats that centered on his lectures rather than on koan study. He bent the monastic rules by saying that if people have something to do while they are sitting they should forget the rulebook. Get up and do what needs to be done rather than feeling obligated to sit still. He did not shout at people or swat them. He said, “This is what I have to tell you. Listen and take your own path.”

Bankei’s retreats became so popular they attracted not just Soto and Rinzai practitioners but people from the Tendai, Shingon, Nichiren, and Pure Land sects. His teachings were a fresh breeze in Zen instruction.

To paraphrase Peter Haskel, in the book Bankei Zen, Bankei was “. . . a heretical figure who didn’t believe in rules . . . who tried to simplify the serious business of enlightenment.”

One of the stories told of Bankei concerns a priest who 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," the priest told Bankei. "Can you make me obey you?" Bankei asked the man to come to the front and the priest pushed through the crowd. Bankei asked him to sit by him, which the priest did, then to change places, and the priest stepped over. "You see," observed Bankei, "you are obeying me and I think you are a very gentle person. Now just sit down and listen".

          According to writer Colin Oliver, Bankei spoke to the people directly rather than from the sutras. He adhered to no particular school and his teaching was of the essence of Zen. His concern was with the truth as an immediate experience, not with a systematic approach to a distant goal.

          Another day Bankei was approached by a priest who boasted that his master possessed miraculous powers. According to the cleric, his master could take a brush and write Amida—another name for the Buddha—in the air and the word would appear on a sheet of paper in the distance.

Wow! Such a wondrous feat.

Wait a minute. What did such hocus-pocus have to do with daily life, or the human condition?

Bankei replied, "My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink."


When Bankei stated, “Don’t side with yourself,” he meant don’t give your own wants and desires such importance; don’t reinforce your own sense of being a separate, unchanging self; don’t be selfish; don’t take sides.

The Buddhist universe doesn’t have sides or edges.   It doesn’t have an inside or an outside. It doesn’t favor the east wind; it doesn’t favor the west wind.  It doesn’t prefer sunny days to thunderstorms. 

Bankei emphasized that everything is just as it is.

This might raise the question, what does it mean to be socially and politically involved if one doesn’t lean in one direction or another?  Politics demands to know “Which side are you on? Are you this or are you that?”  The Abrahamic religions believe in good against evil, Christianity pits God against Satan. 

Our Western culture reflects this everywhere.  We find ourselves in the midst of multiple wars both here and abroad, whether the war against terrorism, or the culture wars between fundamentalists and secularists, conservatives and progressives.

Buddhists do not see the world as a conflict of absolutes.  Buddhists understand that everyone has his or her own limited interests, points of view, and desires, and that these clash with each other. The universe does not favor the east wind or the west wind. Everything just happens and just is.

Bankei’s Zen teachings were numerous, but he didn’t leave behind any written record, and he gave strict orders that no one else was to reduce his words in writing.

But his followers were unable to bear the thought that their master’s words and deeds should go unrecorded, and they chronicled them. So we should be grateful for the record that has been preserved. It is our sole means of learning about the man’s Zen.

While Bankei’s teaching sounds almost too simple, it is a very deep teaching and a true direct approach. He doesn’t give the students a practice or a set of precepts to follow. There are no sutras to read or other Zen writings; neither does he push for meditation.

He said, "My part in this is simply to tell you about it and to try to get you to confirm the Buddha-minds you were all given when you were born."

In other words, learn to think for yourself.


To wind down this talk, getting back to the notion of “bright virtue,” which triggered Bankei’s initial dissatisfaction, it’s a key concept in Chinese philosophy meaning "inherent character; inner power; integrity" or "moral character; virtue; morality."

That is what “bright virtue” means, but apparently Bankei never really bought into it.


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