Zen resisted the Japanese tendency to formalize institutions by making them dependent on state support, which in practice meant protection by the imperial household or by one or another of the samurai families which vied for de facto control of the country. Nonetheless, even Zen schools were affected by political and social events. For a school to operate freely and to expand its activities, it had to win some degree of official sanction, and this initial need set it on the path to formalization and political dependency. Zen schools resisted this inevitability by becoming ever more technical and arcane, with the result that they increasingly removed themselves from direct contact with the population at large.
When the Kamakura period came to an end in 1333 C.E., a time of serious cultural disintegration began. Just as the imperial court had isolated itself in its remote, if cultured, world and had become hostage to the rising provincial samurai, so the ruling samurai had gathered in the great cultural centres, whilst their lands were managed by deputies. In time these local chieftains overthrew their masters and seized power in their turn.
The Ashikaga period (1333–1568) was marked by a steady decline in discipline, learning and spiritual striving in the monastic communities of Japan. Temples could gain great wealth by shrewd alliances with local war-lords, and they shunned teachings which might require their benefactors to renounce their worldly concerns. As Zen schools and temples were drawn into the social maelstrom, a few seemingly eccentric monks sought to reverse the trend. Late in the fourteenth century, Ikkyu, who was affectionately called Crazy Cloud, tore up his inka or certificate of enlightenment and railed against the corruption of Zen teaching and practice. His wild poems won him a following, but he stands out because he is a rare exception to the rule. In addition to internal strife, Japan had encountered Europeans, beginning with Portuguese merchants in 1542, and had been introduced to Christianity through St. Francis Xavier, who arrived in 1549. By the beginning of the Tokugawa period at the dawn of the seventeenth century, serious Buddhists agreed that the schools were morally and spiritually bankrupt, including Zen.
Under Tokugawa rule, peace returned to Japan but at the price of strict military control of every aspect of life, including the temples and schools. Although the government was officially Confucian, and Buddhists were held to be generally corrupt, the Tokugawa shoguns patronized Buddhist institutions because they were useful in their war against Christianity. Every family in Japan had to maintain affiliation with a local temple, and the certificates of membership issued by the temple priests became another source of corruption. Although Buddhists recognized the need for a spiritual revival, they found no agreement on how to nurture it. Zen followers were especially sensitive to the need, and the Soto school sought to return to the doctrines of Dogen, whilst the Rinzai school began to systematize the use of the koan. A few monks thought that the spiritual enervation of Zen was too profound for solutions which appealed to an idealized past, and they looked for new ways to revitalize Zen. Bankei was perhaps the most remarkable of this small band of adventurous monks.
Bankei Yotaku was born in 1622 to a Confucian family in Hamada, a town which is now part of Himeji. His father was a ronin, or samurai without a leader, who had retired to Hamada to practise medicine. Although raised in the Confucian tradition of rigorous study and strict obedience to elders, Bankei was a natural rebel and became something of a village ruffian. Shortly after his father died in 1632, his elder brother Tadayasu placed him in the local Confucian school. Without much enthusiasm, Bankei took up the Ta-hsueh (The Great Learning) and considered its opening lines: "The Way of the Great Learning lies in illuminating the Bright Virtue." Although he knew that "Bright Virtue" referred to a human being's innate moral intuition, he pressed his teachers for a full explanation. Concluding that no one really knew what the Bright Virtue was, Bankei refused to continue his studies. After some considerable family drama, Tadayasu in exasperation expelled Bankei from the family home. Although Bankei had not studied much, the questions which he had raised regarding the Bright Virtue continued to haunt him, and he sought the aid of several Confucian scholars in his efforts to resolve them. His labours confirmed his belief that no one knew, and so he turned to Buddhist teachers. By the time he was thirteen, he had entered the family temple. There the question of the Bright Virtue was transformed into the question of man's original nature, but it remained unanswered. He studied for a while in the Shingon school, but soon moved from one Buddhist tradition to another until he met Umpo, a Zen teacher. In 1638 he became Umpo's disciple and received the name by which he is known to history.
Although little is known of what Umpo taught Bankei, he seems to have had an extraordinary sense of the guidance Bankei needed. After spending several years with Umpo, Bankei was allowed to go on a pilgrimage in 1641, and when he returned in 1645 he took up residence in an isolated hut. Convinced that no one else could resolve his questions, Bankei set himself a sequence of severe tasks which centred around intense meditation on man 's original nature and included a near-starvation diet. By 1647 he had become so weak that he could no longer take food. Feeling an oppressive mass of phlegm in his throat, he summoned his waning energy and coughed it up. Immediately his weakness vanished and he understood the answer to his question: original mind is the Unborn; it is always present, though obscured, and its activities, when unhindered, are perfectly natural. Bankei returned to his normal diet, resumed the regular activities of a monk and lived peacefully for four years. Then news arrived that Tao-che Ch'ao-yuan, a renowned Chinese teacher, had taken up residence in Nagasaki, and Umpo suggested that Bankei visit him. Although Tao-che spoke no Japanese, he communicated with Japanese students by writing, since ideographs can be read with the same meaning in both Chinese and Japanese. Tao-che recognized Bankei's depth of insight at once, but he declared that his enlightenment was not complete.
Bankei entered the circle of Tao-che's disciples and listened attentively to his instruction. Sitting one evening in the dusky shadows of the meditation hall, Bankei experienced a new illumination, and following the old Zen tradition, he went straight to Tao-che and informed him of his experience.
"What about birth and death?" Bankei asked, writing his question with a brush.
Tao-che wrote in response: "Whose birth and death is this?"
Bankei merely extended his hands. When Tao-che took up the brush to write again, Bankei seized it and tossed it on the ground. The next morning, Tao-che announced to the assembly of disciples that Bankei had completed his study of Zen.
For the next few years, Bankei's life unfolded amidst disappointment and confusion. Though he received his certificate of enlightenment, he saw limitations in his Chinese teacher. Returning to Hamada, he was not well received, and soon he retired to a mountainous region where he was warmly supported by rustic followers. When he heard that his first teacher was seriously ill, he went to attend upon him, but he arrived only in time to witness Umpo's funeral. Back in Nagasaki, he saw a new Chinese teacher rapidly replace Tao-che in the hearts of his patrons, and he bid him farewell when Tao-che returned to China in 1658. Umpo's successor, however, conferred the inka on Bankei, and this allowed him to become a teacher in his own right. Although he had no more respect for the Japanese inka than he had for the Chinese one, he used it as a means to secure attention for what he had to say.
Bankei's brother Tadayasu had come to admire him, and joined with others in building a temple for him in Hamada. The Ryomonji or Dragon Gate Temple was the first of numerous temples and retreats given to him as his fame spread. Most were located in the districts controlled by samurai who supported him, but he was also given temples in the capitals of Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). Using one or another retreat, Bankei taught small groups of disciples and spent long periods in seclusion, refining his teachings and methods. Eventually, in 1679, he set forth the ideas and modes for which he has been revered. He abandoned individual instruction for the most part, favouring collective practice and public discourses, especially at kessei, the traditional three-month period of meditation held at Zen centres in winter and summer. Although he held private interviews and encouraged collective chanting and meditation, he forbade begging by monks, scoldings and beatings. Though he adhered to patterns common to most Zen monastic communities, he sought to establish an environment of warmth, tolerance and mutual support, free from mental harshness and moral oppression. He scrupulously upheld, however, the traditional Buddhist precepts.
By 1690 Bankei had become a major national figure. Both monks and lay men and women gathered in large numbers to hear his discourses, all of which were practical and pervaded by a homespun flavour. The emperor bestowed upon him the title Butchi Kosai Zenji, 'Zen Master of Beneficent Enlightened Wisdom', and Bankei gave discourses in the palaces and castles of the most powerful leaders. His kessei at Ryomonji Temple that year drew seventeen hundred monks from every corner of Japan and from every school of Buddhist thought. His words were faithfully recorded during this retreat, and they constitute the majority of his preserved teachings. Bankei's health began to fail, however, and he had to curtail his almost ceaseless travels between the various temples placed in his trust. By 1693 he took a severe turn for the worse, and his followers realized that he had little time left in his life. The congregation of Ryomonji was spontaneously galvanized into remarkable activity. Volunteering their time, money and labour, they hastened to erect a pagoda for Bankei. Lay men and women worked by day on its construction, and samurai joined in after the day's duties were done, often building by the light of the moon. When Bankei became seriously ill, he delivered a final three days of lectures and then retired into the peace of the temple. He died in September, and his ashes were distributed to his two main temples, the Ryomonji and the Nyohoji in Iyo. In 1740 he was given the extremely rare imperial title of Kokushi, 'National Master'.
Bankei's renown might have rested on his infectious goodwill and abiding faith in the potential of every human being for attaining enlightenment, since each person is, he taught, originally the Unborn. But his fame persisted because his teachings were straightforward, simple, fundamental and susceptible to practice at many levels. His doctrine, insofar as he had one – which some of his contemporaries doubted – can be summed up in the phrase he made famous: "Abide in the Unborn."
Although the idea of the Unborn or the Unborn Buddha Mind is an ancient one, Bankei gave it fresh vitality by insisting that one is fundamentally mistaken in trying to attain it or even in seeking to practise it. Either effort inserts a false note, suggesting, however subtly, that one has to gain something or do something. Rather, Bankei taught, the Unborn is already present, perfect and complete. It is, in fact, the core of one's being. Instead of struggling to do or become something, one needs to cease struggling entirely, thereby eschewing even the "one little slip". If one is truly natural and innocently spontaneous, the Unborn will appear. The key to realization is not some method or practice, however helpful these may be, but letting go of everything which is not the Unborn. This involves no special method as typically understood; it involves the total openness of one who has no presumed goal, intention, desire or wish. Rather than striving to become a zero by frenetically factoring some quantity one thinks one is, one should naturally become a zero through a profound inward spiritual relaxation. Letting go is possible because of the nature of the mind.
For Bankei, the mind is inherently dynamic – a vibrant, living mirror of the world. It reflects within itself the world it beholds, and it records what it reflects. Because it records, it also recollects what has been seen before. Changing circumstances, which in themselves are neither good nor bad, stimulate ceaseless permutations and combinations of reflection, recording and recollection, resulting in a seemingly endless chain of thoughts and feelings which appear and vanish, only to appear again. In itself, all this is the natural activity of the mind. The human being who does not abide in the Unborn, however, is impulsive and even compulsive, because they suffer from attachment. Given the dynamic nature of the mind, attachment is an unnatural or pathological condition, for it enslaves people to their own responses. By clinging to some passing impressions and fleeing others, they become ensnared in webs of delusion and impede the natural functioning of the mind. The mind becomes divided against itself, and one succumbs to the operational principle of pleasure and pain by actually creating within consciousness the pairs of opposites which cause suffering and delusion.
If one lets go of all impressions, they will not miraculously cease, for it is not in the nature of mind to be a blank. But they will pass unhindered, without disturbing one's original and pristine awareness of the Unborn. By analogy, just as one who is focussed on a discourse nonetheless registers all the surrounding sights and sounds without paying them any notice, so too one who lets go is centred in the Unborn, undistracted by the flow of impressions. Letting go means freeing oneself from mi no hiiki and kiguse, self-centredness and bad habits, which together constitute delusion. Self-centredness gives rise to a false self or ego, which is nothing but a kind of reflex. Its deadly potency lies in its capacity to force one to see everything from a single standpoint. Although self-centredness produces an ego which justifies that constricted point of view as 'fundamental', 'realistic' and even 'necessary', it is in truth quite arbitrary and wholly misleading. This capricious egotistical perspective is nurtured and sustained by bad habits which were adopted as one grew up. Surrounded by imperfect beings, one imitated the qualities they exhibited and made them one's own, until one reached the pathological condition of mistaking them for one's real nature. In doing so, the innate Unborn Buddha Mind was obscured and impeded. The supervention of duality alienates one from the Unborn, which one essentially is, resulting in births in various conditions as hungry ghosts, fighting demons, beasts or hell-beings.
Since self-centredness and bad habits are not innate, identification with them is neither natural nor spontaneous, and it can be let go. This cannot be done, however, through mere suppression, for suppression itself is an aspect of the complex process which ensnared one initially. Rather, one needs simply to return to what alone ever is – the Unborn. Taking anger as an illustration of what he had in mind, Bankei taught:
Bankei refused to impose rules on others, and he just as insistently refused to deny rules. For him, rules, rituals and practices were too easily assimilated as bad habits, through attachment, to afford any help in realizing the Unborn. On the other hand, fear of rules just as certainly represented attachment, though of a negative kind. As a result of this conviction, Bankei did not care for the growing tendency to use formal koan study as a means of achieving insight. He noted that koans grew out of spontaneous interchanges between teacher and disciple, and the spontaneity of the encounter, rather than the content, represented the Unborn. Similarly, he rejected any narrow or formalized notion of zazen or practice of meditation.
Just as Bankei deliberately blurred the distinction between monastics and laity, he rejected any alleged spiritual distinction based on class, background, race, culture or sex. Once a lay woman came to him and said, "I have heard that, because women bear a heavy karmic burden, it is impossible for them to realize Buddhahood. Is this true?" Bankei replied simply, "From what time did you become a woman?"
Bankei's teaching was as relaxed as his methodology was diffuse. Consequently, he offered spiritual succour to everyone freely, and though he received temples and gained many followers, he did not seek to align himself with any single tradition. Nor did he found a school or inaugurate a tradition. Rather, he taught in ways that could be of use to anyone and which all schools could appreciate. His teachings were absorbed into the schools of others, and he left no special mark in subsequent Japanese history. This, perhaps, is what he would have wanted, for he believed that name and fame, ritual and formality, all lay on the side of attachment. Revered and respected in his later years, he accepted adulation just as he had earlier accepted adversity. For him, only letting go mattered. If his simple injunction "Abide in the Unborn" is as easy to state as it is difficult to do, he was convinced that it was the only fundamental and permanent solution to the problem of suffering and delusion. He captured the spirit of his teaching and his life in a poem some think he originally wrote for children: