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August 17, 2014

by Stephen Damon

The master Bankei’s talks were attended not only by Zen students but by persons of all ranks and sects. He never quoted sutras nor indulged in scholastic dissertations. Instead, his words were spoken directly from his heart to the hearts of his listeners.

His large audiences angered a priest of the Nichiren sect because the adherents had left to hear about Zen. The self-centered Nichiren priest came to the temple, determined to debate with Bankei.

“Hey, Zen teacher!” he called out. “Wait a minute. Whoever respects you will obey what you say, but a man like myself does not respect you. Can you make me obey you?”

“Come up beside me and I will show you,” said Bankei.

Proudly the priest pushed his way through the crowd to the teacher.

Bankei smiled. “Come over to my left side.”

The priest obeyed.

“No,” said Bankei, “we may talk better if you are on the right side. Step over here.”

The priest proudly stepped over to the right.

You see,” observed Bankei, “you are obeying me and I think you are a very gentle person. Now sit down and listen.”

Before we get into our story, I’d like to say a few words about Bankei.  He was a well known and highly respected Zen teacher, who was posthumously given the title Kokushi, or National Master.  Unlike other masters of the time he did not use classical Chinese or give lengthy commentaries on sutras in his talks.  His talks were attended by women and men, rich and poor, literate and illiterate—everyone.

He said, I won’t tell you that you have to practice such and such, that you have to uphold certain rules or precepts or read certain sutras or other Zen writings, or that you have to do zazen. . . . If you want to recite sutras or do zazen, observe precepts, recite the Nembutsu or the Daimoku, you should do it. If you’re a farmer or a tradesman and you want to work your farm or your business, then go ahead, do it; whatever it is, that will be your personal samadhi. I think that this teaching is especially valuable today as American Zen moves from the monastery to our homes and workplaces.  As Zen practitioners living in the world, we will need to find our “personal Samadhi” outside the monastery gates.

His teaching was very simple.  He directed his students to make contact with Buddha nature, which he called the Unborn or Fu-shō, a birthless, deathless, timeless, spaceless, boundless awareness and aliveness. He told his students, you have received the Buddha-mind from your mothers when you were born, and nothing else. This inherited Buddha-mind is beyond any doubt unborn, with a marvelously bright illuminative wisdom.  He told his students “to abide as the unborn,” to “not get born.”  Don’t become anything—not a “me” nor a “Buddhist,” nor “enlightened.”  Buddha Nature has existed from beginningless time, and has no cause. It just is.

The Nichiren priest thought of himself as something.  He had been “born” a teacher and a priest of the best sect of Buddhism and had no need to learn from anyone else. He identified with an “I” that stood out in relief from “others.” He identified himself, not from the point of view of his original nature, but in relationship to external things. We all do this. We are husbands in relation to our wives and mothers in relation to our children.  At work, we are subordinates in relation to our superiors.  But Bankei was an expert in showing people how to make contact with the life that exists before it is defined by relationships to external conditions.  No matter how a person would define himself, Bankei would ask, “what were you before you became [that].” I remember reading that a student once asked Phillip Kapleau if a Jew could be a Zen Buddhist.  Kapleau responded, “What were you before you were a Jew?”

I don’t know about you, but I knew that when Bankei asked the priest to “come up beside me,” he had already won the dharma debate. Bankei used skillful means to trick the priest into responding to his simple request without interference from his previous judgments about Zen. Skillful Means, sometimes translated as tactfulness or ingenuity, is an essential concept in Mahayana Buddhism. It is the practice of transmitting the Dharma in different ways to the diverse variety of practitioners.

 When Bankei said “You see, you are obeying me” the priest was no doubt shocked, and at least for an instant was able to let go of everything with which he had been identified. His ego had been outsmarted! For a moment or two, he wasn’t a Nichiren priest or a wise man or an anything—he just was.  Letting go of all his previous judgments about Zen and Bankei as well as all of his cherished beliefs about himself, he was able to take a seat beside the teacher and listen to the Dharma. 

We all need to have this kind of experience.  We need to be freed from our dreams of self sufficiency so that we can experience the urgency and opportunity of each moment.  But the ego is very good at what it does, and it needs to be outsmarted so that it can let go of the life it has created and rest in the unborn. Sometimes we can do this by putting ourselves into intensive conditions such as Zen sesshins, and sometimes we need a teacher such as Bankei who is adept at using skillful means.




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