Bankei Yōtaku
Zen Master of the “Unborn”— Fu-shō

Compiled from various sources [1] (see endnotes) by Timothy Conway (1992).

Bankei’s Tremendous Significance for Zen History and for Our Spiritual Awakening

The Japanese Zen master Bankei Yōtaku (1622-93), posthumously honored with the Imperial title Kokushi, “National Master,” was one of the most illustrious and renowned Zen masters of all time. Initially enlightened at age 25, fully enlightened four years later, he left behind all sectarianism, formalism, elaborate methods (e.g., the traditional curriculum of kōan-riddles for students), and use of classical Chinese in discourses, to radically point his many listeners—men and women, rich and poor, literate and illiterate—back to the Unborn / Fu-shō Original Nature as unconditioned spiritual Reality. This is the birthless, deathless, timeless, spaceless, boundless Awareness-Isness-Aliveness, Our Real Identity.

We hear that some of Bankei’s informal mass trainings consisting of discourses and question-answer sessions saw 3,000, 5,000, 10,000 or even up to 50,000 people attending, having to be accommodated in shifts. Yet almost no rules were needed, and here and at his monasteries none of the traditional Zen beating or scolding was allowed, since Bankei trusted the natural goodness of our perfect Buddha-nature to prevail over our human nature. His followers came from all over Japan and included monks, nuns and laity among both Rinzai Zen and Sōtō Zen Buddhist schools, as well as followers from the several other schools of Buddhism and the native Shintō religion, too. He usually had both monastics and laity training together under one roof, both male and female.

His main advice, given to everyone from rich aristocrats and menacing samurai to merchants, peasant farmers and children, was quite frequently and simply expressed as: “Abide as the Unborn.” “Don’t get ‘born!’” That is, don’t fall into identification as a “me,” a “Buddhist,” “enlightened,” “unenlightened,” “young,” “old,” etc. For instance, when a woman complained that her gender was a karmic obstacle, he retorted: “From what time did you become a woman?” So he taught the multitudes: let go all selfishness and bad habits—they’re not part of your Original Mind (honshin) anyway, and just be at great ease in/as the Unborn Buddha-Mind.

His main three temples were the Ryōmon-ji, founded for him in 1661 at his hometown of Aboshi (present-day Himeji) in today’s Hyogo prefecture (well worth visiting, it contains some of the many religious statues he carved, his calligraphy, etc.); the Nyōhō-ji in Osu, Ehime; and the Kōrin-ji in Edo/Tokyo’s Azabu district. Other notable temples of his were the Hōshin-ji in Marugame and Jizō-ji in Kyoto (now defunct). Because of his renown, Bankei was also associated with several other temples by invitation or appointment, such as filling a stint as abbot of the leading Rinzai monastery, the Myōshin-ji in Kyoto (Rinzai Zen traces its lineage back to the great 9th century Chinese Chinese Chan master Linji).

Two generations later, the great Rinzai Zen reviver Hakuin Zenji (1685–1768) strongly criticized Bankei’s approach (misrepresenting his views in the process) for making things too easy for practitioners, Hakuin being a staunch advocate of rigid training regimens and a long, formal course of kōan-training. And so Bankei’s legacy within his own Rinzai tradition was almost forgotten. Had Bankei been ordained and trained within a Sōtō monastic line (the Chinese Caodong Chan school, brought to Japan and established by Dōgen Zenji in the 1230s), Bankei’s great reputation likely would have been preserved. But in the mid-20th century, the Zen scholar-mystic D.T. Suzuki resurrected his name as one of Japan’s three greatest all-time Zen masters along with Dōgen and Hakuin, and declared that Bankei’s “Unborn Zen” is one the most original developments in the entire history of Zen thought. “… In the whole history of Zen, both in China and Japan, there is none, it may be said, who has displayed so independent a view as Bankei.” Old dusty records of Bankei’s life and teachings have been unearthed and edited by Japanese scholars and translated into English (best version is by Peter Haskel and his team), bringing Bankei’s renown and his “Fu-shō Zen” approach once again to the fore. As will be seen in the teachings section below, Bankei’s is a straightforward, no-nonsense style of direct intuitive pointing back to Source-Awareness right HERE, a style that surely accords with what we know of the teaching approach of many illustrious Chan masters of ancient China, often lost in later centuries of China and Japan.

Life of Zen master Bankei Yōtaku (1622-93)

Bankei’s appearance in the world came in 1622 in Harima province in Hyōgo prefecture at Hamada, a small village and port on the Inland Sea. His father, Suga Dosetsu, was a Confucian scholar and a samurai without a patron who then turned to the practice of medicine. In his boyhood Bankei was called Muchi. He had three older brothers and four sisters. A very intelligent lad, he also displayed a very unruly, rebellious streak of mischief. His father died when Bankei was only 11 and he was raised by his mother, to whom he was extremely devoted, and by his eldest brother, with whom he clashed. In the next year he entered school and began studying some of the old Chinese Confucian classics, but these texts greatly confused him.

One day the teacher read a line from one of the four Confucian classics, the Great Learning (Ta-hsüeh): “The way of great learning lies in clarifying Bright Virtue.” He asked his teacher the meaning of this “Bright Virtue” (ming-te), but felt that no good answer was given. Bankei began to be filled with doubts and questions, and took to grilling every teacher he could find on their knowledge. Like Socrates, he asked penetrating questions of Confucian and Buddhist scholars and attended religious gatherings in search of answers. But to no avail. Bankei wrote that his motivation throughout all this was not merely an individual concern: “I felt duty bound to teach my mother the path of Great Learning before she died.” He became so distraught in his quest that he neglected school; his older brother Tadayasu kicked 11 year-old Bankei out of the household for his truancy. By age 13 Bankei was studying with the priest at the family temple, and the next year a nearby family friend, Nakabori Sukeyasu, constructed for Bankei a small hut on the mountain behind the Nakabori home. The young spiritual prodigy etched the words “Practice hermitage” into a slat of wood and placed it outside his small hut.

Bankei likely took up practice of devotional Jōdō Shin "Pure Land" Buddhism during this time, piously uttering the names of Buddha Amitābha and Bodhisattva and Avalokiteshvara (Jap.: Amida and Kwannon). At age 15 he trained at a Shingon tantric Buddhist temple, where he entered more deeply into study of the Buddhist sūtra-texts. But Bankei wasn’t satisfied with Shingon tantric formalism and left the following year. At 16, he walked from Hamada to Akō to see the Rinzai Zen priest and Confucian scholar Umpō Zenjō (1568-1653) at Zuiō-ji temple monastery. Bankei begged Umpō to reveal the meaning of “bright virtue.” Umpō advised him that understanding would come only by practicing zazen meditation. Bankei thereupon ordained as a monk at Zuiō-ji under Umpō. He received his Buddhist name Yōtaku, “Long Polishing of the Mind Gem.”

Bankei left Zuiō-ji shortly after turning 19, and sojourned on a four-year pilgrimage (angya) through Kyōto, Osaka and Kyūshū in search of a final answer to his question. During his travels he spent his nights at temples or slept in the open wilderness, begging scraps from all and sundry. In 1645, a 24-year-old Bankei returned to Zuiō-ji no wiser than when he left. Umpō now informed him that the solution sought could only be found within, not through any intermediary.

Bankei left shortly after this return and built a small hut in the nearby village of Nonaka and lived as an isolated hermit. He sat for long, rigorous hours immersed in zazen meditation. He abandoned all bodily comforts and focussed intently on arriving at a complete understanding of life and phenomena. “Often I would go into the mountains and sit in Zen without taking a morsel for a week, or I would go to a rocky place and, choosing the sharpest rock, meditate for days on end, taking no food, until I toppled over. The results? Exhaustion, a shrunken stomach, and an increased desire to go on. I returned to my village and entered a hermitage, where sleeping in an upright position and living arduously, I gave myself up to the old spiritual exercise of repeating the name of Amitābha. The results? More exhaustion, and huge painful sores on my bottom.”[2] Eventually Bankei’s complete neglect of his body led to serious illness: tuberculosis. “Soon I was bringing up blood, lumps the size of a thumb end.” He sought a doctor’s care, but the man issued a prognosis of death.

During this near-death period Bankei attained initial enlightenment or kenshō. He later described the epiphany: “I felt a strange sensation in my throat. I spat against a wall. A mass of black phlegm large as a soapberry rolled down the side...Suddenly, just at that moment...I realized what it was that had escaped me until now: All things are perfectly resolved in the Unborn [the Eternal, Absolute, Open, Infinite Awareness].”[3]It struck me like a thunderbolt that I had never been born, and that my birthlessness could settle any and every matter.”[4]

This breakthrough ended Bankei's doubts and questioning. Moreover, “daily my health improved and soon I was able to accomplish the greatest desire of my life: I was able to get my mother to see the truth, the secret of birthlessness, before she died.”

Once he had become strong enough to travel again, he returned to Umpō to share his experience with him. Umpō confirmed his enlightenment and dispatched Bankei to have his spiritual realization further evidenced by Gudō Toshōku, another Rinzai master.

Thus, at age 26, in the year 1647, Bankei went to Gifu Prefecture to Daisen-ji monastery where Gudō was the abbot. But when Bankei arrived Gudō was attending to another temple of his in the vicinity of Tokyo. So Bankei visited the temples of other Zen teachers in the area, but found no one with the direct intuitive understanding to confirm his awakening. After a year living in the countryside near Daisen-ji, Bankei again came back to Umpō.

In 1651, Bankei heard that a Ch’an master from China had arrived in Nagasaki by the name of Tao-che Ch'ao-yüan, in Japanese known as Dōsha Chōgen. Umpō advised the young Bankei, not yet 30, to go see the Ch’an master, and Bankei set off for Nagasaki to have his enlightenment confirmed. Bankei found Dōsha Chōgen at Sōfuku-ji, a Chinese style temple. Dōsha confirmed the authenticity of Bankei’s enlightenment on their first meeting, but also informed Bankei that his realization was not entirely complete. Bankei was initially offended by this and refused to accept it. Yet he stayed at the temple for a while to observe Dōsha’s ways, and eventually knew that what Dōsha had insisted was true. So Bankei stayed at Sōfuku-ji to practice under Dōsha’s mentorship.

While Bankei lived among the other monks, he refused to chant the old sūtra-texts with them in Chinese. In 1652, at age 30, while meditating with the congregation, Bankei experienced irreversible enlightenment (Sanskrit: anuttara-samyak-sambodhi). Dōsha confirmed this the following day, announcing that Bankei had finally settled the Great Matter. The Master bestowed on Bankei the seal of recognition (inka-shōmei), but in classic “Crazy Wisdom” Zen style, Bankei seized it and tore it up—by this point he had no need of written authority. He also refused a senior position in the monastery, preferring to remain humbly working within the kitchen. Dōsha Chōgen made him the tenzo or temple cook.

The following year Bankei returned to Harima for a short time, then left for Yōshino in Nara prefecture to live as a hermit once again, for it seems that few monks or laymen could understand his highly intuitive spiritual teaching. In the mountains of Yōshino, in 1653, while living in silent retreat, Bankei composed some Buddhist songs on the Unborn, including his nearly 50-verse Song of the Original Mind (Honshin no uta). The song was apparently composed for the children and adults of Yōshino who were suffering from drought—and a plentiful rainfall followed their recitation of it. Some cogent verses communicating his deep Zen wisdom are as follows (in a translation by Peter Haskel[5]):

Unborn and imperishable is the original mind…. / Search back to the time when you were born: you can’t remember a thing at all! / Keep your mind as it was when you came into the world, and instantly this very self is a living “thus-come-one” [tathâgata, or Buddha]…. / Clinging, craving and the like—I don’t have them on my mind. That’s why nowadays I can say the whole world is truly mine! / … Thinking back over the past, you find it was an evening’s dream. Realize that, and you’ll see everything is just a lie…. / Since, after all, this floating world is unreal, instead of holding onto things in your mind, go and sing! / … When you don’t attach to things, the floating world will cease to be [as a separate, merely objective appearance]. Nothing is left, nothing at all. That’s what “living tathâgata means.” / When you do wrong, your mind’s the demon, there’s no hell to be found outside. / Abominating hell, longing for heaven, you make yourself suffer in a joyful world. / … Mysteries and miracles—there are no such things! But when you fail to understand, the world’s full of weird happenings. / This is the phantom [ego-mind] who deceives, who makes us take the false world to be real. / … When your study of Buddhism is through, you find you haven’t anything new. / Enlightenment and delusion too never existed at the start. They’re ideas that you picked up, things your parents never taught. / If you think the mind that attains enlightenment is “mine” your thoughts will wrestle, one with the other. / These days I’m not bothering about getting enlightenment all the time, and the result is that I wake up in the morning feeling fine! / … Nowadays … I just move along at my ease, letting the breath come and go. / Die—then live day and night within the world. Once you’ve done this, then you can hold the world right in your hand! / It’s the buddhas I feel sorry for; with all those ornaments they wear, they must be dazzled by the glare! / … The mind that’s not conditioned is originally unborn; what is conditioned doesn’t exist—that is why there’s no delusion. / Though the years may creep ahead, mind itself can never age. This mind that’s always just the same. / Wonderful! Marvelous! When you’ve searched and found at last the one who never will grow old—‘I alone!’ The Pure Land where one communes at peace is here and now, it’s not remote, millions and millions of leagues away.

At some point during his period as a hermit, Bankei began to be discovered as a great holy man by a wider community of spiritual aspirants, and by now he knew how to present the spoken Dharma-teachings in a more intuitively comprehensible way. Later in life he reminisced: “When as a young bonze [Zen priest] I began preaching birthlessness there wasn’t anyone around who could understand. They were frightened and must have thought me a heretic, as bad as a Roman Catholic. Not a single person dared approach me. But… today all you have to do is look around you to see how many come to me.” Thousands and thousands. Bankei became the most popular Buddhist preacher of his era. “People trekked from every corner of Japan to hear his talks, and the overflow audiences had to be accommodated in separate shifts.”[6] Monks, nuns, and laypersons, high and low, rich and poor, from both “houses” or schools of Zen—Sōtō and Rinzai—and Buddhists from the Shingon, Tendai, Pure Land, Vinaya, and Nichiren schools, as well as persons from Confucian and Shinto faiths, and “samurai with their families and retainers, merchants, artisans, farmers, servants, even gamblers and gangsters”[7] —all came to hear Master Bankei share his wisdom, for they saw that Bankei was “too great to limit or bind himself to what was called the Zen sect, in his eyes a stereotyped form.”[8]

Bankei was notable for the many women disciples coming to hear him, and, cutting against the grain of patriarchy, he encouraged them in full realization: “I understand that women feel very distressed hearing it said [in certain texts and from many teachers] that they can’t become Buddhas. But it simply isn’t so! How is there any difference between men and women? Men are the Buddha-body [Dharmakāya] and women are the Buddha-body, too…. In the Unborn, there’s no difference whether you’re a man or a woman. Everyone is the Buddha-body…. Everyone intrinsically possesses the One Identical Buddha Mind.” To a woman who wondered about any inability to realize buddhahood due to “women’s heavy karmic burden,” Bankei replied, “From what time did you become a ‘woman’?” And in another context he went even further against prevailing attitudes: “Unlike [most] men, women are sincere. It’s true they’re also more foolish than men in some ways. But when you tell them that by doing evil you fall into hell, they don’t doubt it in the slightest; and when you teach them that, … they whole-heartedly resolve to become buddhas…. That’s why women, being sincere, will realize buddhahood more readily than men with their phony cleverness.”[9]

In 1661, Bankei's headquarters temple, the Ryōmonji, was established by his childhood friend Sasaki Nobutsugu and the latter's brother Naomori, at Bankei's hometown, Aboshi. Bankei also traveled on invitation to teach. And he spent time at the quiet little Jizōji temple that he founded in 1664 in Yamashina in a district in Kyōto. (This temple no longer exists.) In 1669, a very large temple, the Nyohōji, was founded for Bankei by his patron Katō Yasuoki in Iyo, an old province on Shikoku island, now in Ehime Prefecture. Here great crowds would gather to hear him. In 1672, at age of 50, he was appointed abbot of the prestigious old Myōshin-ji Rinzai Zen monastery in Kyōto. In 1678, yet another monastery-temple was founded for him, the Kōrinji in Tokyo/Edo, by the nun Yōshō-in, foster mother to Lord Kyōgoku Takatoyo, another of Bankei’s patrons.

These places became the main teaching centers for Bankei. He traveled extensively among them and to other sites, especially those temples needing restoration, to train disciples (male and female) and preach to the masses of people. He led long retreats, conducted in a very loving and non-restrictive manner. On occasion he went into personal retreat, and also spent time in seclusion just to rehabilitate his health, which was frequently problematic (e.g., severe coughing fits), due to those stressful early periods in his life when he overworked himself to near death. Bankei also took time to create artworks, most notable of which are fine bronze statues of the Buddha and Bankei’s teacher Umpō, some Zen-style calligraphy, and a beautifully flowing brushstroke painting of Bodhidharma, the ancient founder of Ch’an Buddhism.

The great simplicity and profundity of Bankei’s enlightened message led to a Rinzai Zen revival, in which ritual preoccupations and obsession with the classical traditions of Chinese formalism and kōans (mental riddles) were dropped. (Yet in the next century, Zen master Hakuin and his followers would restore a very formal, rigorous kōan practice to most Rinzai Zen centers.) Bankei’s talks were both profoundly wise and liberating, yet also couched in a simple, straightforward way that avoided needless obscurity and refrained from the formalisms of old Chinese vocabulary or test cases (gong-ans). Although Bankei prohibited the recording of his teaching, some ample instructions and dialogues from this period have survived (most notably, two sets of numerous sermons given in 1690 at Ryōmonji and at Marugame Hōshinji).

“Powerfully eloquent, he was unequaled in attracting multitudes of hearers. His audience reputedly reached fifty thousand” on occasion, according to Heinrich Dumoulin. “Bankei dispensed with complicated [obscurantist] citations from the Buddhas and patriarchs; in explaining the Way to simple people he spurned all artificial devices [allegedly deployed by the old Tang dynasty Chan masters], such as beating and shouting. He laid all emphasis on the ‘unborn Buddha-heart.’”

Bankei repeatedly drove home the profound if paradoxical point that no sentient being, in their Absolute Identity as Buddha-Nature (Skt.: Buddhatā, Jap.: Busshō), has ever really “been born.” That is to say, no one has actually ever gotten entangled in phenomena, bodies, minds, experiences, relationships, etc. We are always already none other than the One that is also Many; our real Nature is the undefined, unstructured, infinite Openness-Emptiness (Skt.: Shūnyatā) of Pure Awareness that is also simultaneously appearing as all phenomena. We are Formlessness associated with and permeating forms, but never “born” or caught up as these forms.

Hence, Master Bankei famously summed up his entire teaching as Fu-shō—“Unborn!” This key word was often issued verbally by Bankei and also was inscribed by him as the simple caption to his famous calligraphy painting of the Zen circle that he drew as the visual summary of his Way. The Master always advised people, “don’t get born,” i.e., don’t take on seriously even for a moment any false, limiting identifications of being a man, a woman, a Buddhist, a Confucian, good, bad, old, young, angry, elated, mortal body or even a distinct, immortal soul. In our True Nature we are always only the unmanifest Absolute, which manifests as the conventional “dream” of life while yet always remaining Absolute. Freedom is always Free, and our Real Identity is this Spiritual Freedom or Mind/Heart of Buddha-Nature.

When Bankei told his disciples that his death was near, they asked him for the customary Zen farewell poem. He replied that they should listen to the sounds of everyday life, as the gist of his teaching is this: “Awaken to the Unborn in the midst of everyday life.”

Stryk and Ikemoto have stated, “Being an uncommon man, Bankei was able to influence many, but after his death, his type of Zen had, by its very nature to die out; he wanted people to attain satori [awakening] without effort, but it is an iron law of Zen that great effort be made, the sort of effort that Bankei himself had to make. Dōgen [1200-53] insisted on the importance of sitting in Zen, Hakuin [1685-1768] employed the kōan systematically, and so on…. Bankei was above the use of special devices in making people achieve the satori of the birthless Buddha-mind. He simply preached and exhorted.”[10]

These authors overstate the matter here, for Bankei confessed that most of his severe efforts in his youth were “one blunder after another … [and] fruitless.” He also said that “non-birth is really a very practical doctrine… we’re very down to earth here.”[11] He did have what might be called a “methodless method,” namely, to be extremely earnest and careful that one “not get born,” that one stay free of identifications and the concomitant agitating states of anger, greed, lust and self-love. “Once rid of hot temper, it will be easy for you to strip yourself of other illusions [e.g., subtle conceit or pride in being “enlightened,” etc.]…. My advice, then, is that you accustom yourself to remaining in a state of non-birth. Try it for thirty days, and you’ll be incapable of straying from it; you’ll live in the Buddha-mind for the rest of your life…. Give your ear to me, and forget as so much rubbish all your preconceptions. Indeed, at my one word of exhortation, you can gain satori [awakening].”[12]

He also distinguished between a basic enlightenment or satori and a complete, thorough, established enlightenment, a flawless realization of Buddha-Mind or wholly Awake Awareness. As he reflected on his own life: “When it comes to the truth I discovered [in 1647] when I was twenty-six and living in retreat at the village of Nonaka… the truth for which I went to see Dōsha 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 Dōsha and today, there’s all the difference between heaven and earth! All of you must have faith that this sort of thing can happen, and live in expectation of the day when you’ll completely realize the Dharma Eye… There’s no question of there being a particular [amount of] time. When the Eye of the Way is clear, without a single flaw, you’ll have realized it completely. And your realizing it will be due to your earnest and single-minded cultivation.”[13]

In another context, he said of his simple, natural, yet absolutely profound way—which in many ways seems more characteristic of the “no-dilemma” spirit of Sōtō Zen than Rinzai Zen tradition, “The only thing I tell my people is to stay in the Buddha-mind. There are no regulations, no formal discipline. Nevertheless, they have agreed among themselves to sit in Zen for a period of two incense sticks [an hour or so] daily. All right, let them. But they should understand that the birthless Buddha-mind has absolutely nothing to do with sitting with an incense stick burning in front of you. If one keeps in the Buddha-mind without straying, there’s no further satori to seek. Whether asleep or awake, one is a living Buddha. Zazen means only one thing—sitting tranquilly in the Buddha-mind. But really, you know, one’s everyday life, in its entirety, should be thought of as a kind of sitting in Zen. Even during one’s formal sitting, one may leave one’s seat to attend to something. In my temple, at least, such things are allowed. Indeed, it’s sometimes advisable to walk in Zen for one incense stick’s burning, and sit in Zen for the other [this would mean less sitting and more kinhin walking meditation than is customary in Zen temples, where kinhin is done for only about 10 minutes out of the meditation hour]. A natural thing, after all…. There are no binding rules here. Most masters these days use devices [kōan, etc.] to teach, and they seem to value these devices above all else—they can’t get to the truth directly. They’re little more than blind fools! Another bit of their stupidity is to hold that, according to Zen, unless one has a doubt [induced by the kōan] he then proceeds to smash, he’s good for nothing. Of course, all this forces people to have doubts. No, they never teach the importance of staying in the birthless Buddha-mind. They would make of it a lump of doubt. A very serious mistake.” [14]

In the rich Chan/Zen tradition in Korea, called Sŏn, many masters of the past and present have left off the long series of complicated kōans (Korean: kong’ans) and instead have deeply focused for as long as needed on just one or maybe a few “apex questions,” what Chinese Chan tradition calls the huatou (K: hwadu, J: watō), such as “What am I?” “What is this?” “What is Nothingness?” “What is aware of the breathing?” In this context, we see that Bankei’s entire message to the multitudes of followers was really the big "apex question," variably asked as: “Was I really born?” “Am I really just a finite being?” “What am I prior to all identifications?”

Peter Haskel, our best translator of Bankei’s teachings, has offered a nuanced view of the impressive Zen master and his striking legacy of immediate, intuitive wisdom: “Bankei’s teaching remains uniquely his own. Ironically, its failure to survive was probably due to the very qualities that made it so distinctive and so attractive to Bankei’s students: its close identification with Bankei’s own personality and its refusal to associate itself with particular procedures or techniques [such as the kōan or deliberate meditation regimens and strategies, the former, as we have seen, heavily emphasized by Hakuin and his successors.] Ultimately, Hakuin Zen, which revived and systematized kōan study in Japan, swept the monasteries of the Rinzai school, even infiltrating the Ryōmonji and the other temples of Bankei's line…. But the twentieth century has seen renewed interest in Bankei’s Zen. The noted Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki (1886-1975) became the leading modern champion of Bankei’s teaching, hailing it as a refreshing antidote to the strictures of the kōan method and ranking Bankei with Dōgen and Hakuin as one of Japan’s three great Zen masters…. Bankei’s continued appeal is easy to understand. Though his world was very different from our own, there is something contemporary in much of what he has to say. His sense of freedom, his humanity, his intimate approach to the ultimate problems in terms of people’s daily lives seem wholly attuned to the spirit of the present day. And when we turn to the pages of the sermons, Bankei is still there, still curiously alive and ‘marvelously illuminating.’” [15]


Further teachings from Zen master Bankei:[16]

Bankei told a layman who thought all of this was a rather insubstantial teaching: “By no means! Those who make light of the [Unborn] Buddha-mind transform it when angry into a demon’s mind, into a hungry ghost’s when greedy, into an animal mind when acting stupidly [and so on with the “hell-dweller’s mind” and the “heaven-dweller’s mind” attached to pleasure and beauty. See this essay on the 6 kinds of karma. ] I tell you my teaching is far from frivolous! Nothing can be so weighty as the Buddha-mind. But perhaps you feel that to remain in it is too tough a job? If so, listen and try to grasp the meaning of what I say. Stop piling up evil deeds, stop being a demon, a hungry ghost, an animal [etc.]. Keep your distance from those things that transform you in that way, and you’ll attain the Buddha-mind once and for all. Don’t you see?” The layman replied, “I do, and I am convinced.” (SI 83)

A layman asked: "If you become a Buddha, where do you go?" The Master replied: "If you become a Buddha, there's no place to go. You fill the vast universe to its very limits. It's when you become any other sort of being that there are different places to go." (H 103-4)

A certain priest told Bankei, “You teach the same thing over and over again. Wouldn’t it be a good idea, just for the sake of variety, to tell some of those old and interesting stories illustrative of Buddhist life?” Bankei said, “I may be an old dunce, and I suppose it might help some if I did tell stories of that kind, but I’ve a strong hunch that such preaching poisons the mind. No, I would never carry on in so harmful a way. Indeed, I make it a rule not to give even the words of Buddha himself, let alone the Zen patriarchs. To attain the truth today all one needs is self-criticism. There’s no need to talk about Buddhism and Zen. Why, there’s not a single straying person among you: all of you have the Buddha-mind. If one of you thinks himself astray, let him come forward and show me in what way. I repeat: there’s no such one here. However, suppose on returning home you were to see one of your children or a servant doing something offensive, and at once you got yourself [emotionally or mentally] involved, went astray, turning the Buddha’s mind into a demon’s, so to speak. But remember, until that moment you were secure in the birthless Buddha-mind. Only at that moment, only then were you deluded. So: don’t get involved! … Remain in the Buddha-mind. Then you will never stray, then you will be a living Buddha for all time.” (SI 80-1)

It is my desire to bear witness to your satori [awakening]. Come forward and let me know if you have had an awakening, and those of you who haven’t had the experience, listen carefully to my words. It’s in each of you to utterly change your life. The birthless Buddha-mind can cut any and every knot. You see, the Buddhas of the past, present and future, and all successive patriarchs shouold be thought of as mere names for what has been born [i.e., as personalities or historical figures, they are mere phenomena]. From the viewpoint of birthlessness, they are of little significance. To live in a state of non-birth is to attain Buddhahood…. A blessed state. From the moment you have begun to [authentically] realize this fact, you are a living Buddha, and need make no further efforts on your tatami mats…. [But] you must not consider yourselves enlightened Buddhas, of course, until you are able to see into others’ minds with your birthless eyes. I suppose you may think what I say doubtful, but the moment you have awakened you’ll be able to penetrate the minds of others [to sense what is binding them]. To prepare you for this is my greatest desire…. The doctrine of birthlessness died out long ago in China and Japan but it’s now being revived—by me. When you have fully settled in the immaculate Buddha-mind of nonbirth, nothing will deceive you…. When you’ve achieved the final enlightenment, you’ll be sure of the truth at all times. (SI 78-9)

A priest confessed to Bankei, “I was born with a quick temper and, in spite of my master’s constant admonitions, I haven’t been able to rid myself of it. I know it’s a vice, but, as I said, I was born with it. Can you help me?” And Bankei said, “My, what an interesting thing you were born with! Tell me, is your temper quick at this very moment? If so, show me right off, and I’ll cure you of it.” Said the priest: “But I don’t have it at this moment.” Declared Bankei: “Then you weren’t born with it. If you were, you’d have it at all times. You lose your temper as occasion arises…. Your mistake is one of self-love, which makes you concern yourself with others and insists that you have your own way. To say you were born a hothead is to tax your parents with something that is no fault of theirs. From them you received the Buddha-mind, nothing else. This is equally true of other types of illusion. If you don’t fabricate illusions, none will disturb you. Certainly you were born with none. Only your selfishness and deplorable mental habits bring them into being. Yet you think of them as inborn, and in everything you do, you continue to stray. To appreciate the pricelessness of the Buddha-mind and to steer clear of illusion, is the one path to satori and Buddhahood. (SI 81-2)

To someone who said “when you are successful in making me think of my birthlessness, I find myself feeling idle all day,” Bankei responded, “One in the Buddha-mind is far from idle. When you are not in it, when you ‘sell it,’ so to speak, for worthless things you happen to be attached to, then you are being idle. Remain in non-birth, and you will never be idle.” (SI 83)

If you live in accordance with the Buddha-heart and do not become confused, you need seek no further enlightenment. Only sit with the Buddha-heart, and dwell only with the Buddha-heart! If your normal walking and standing, your sitting and reclining are the work of a living Buddha, nothing further remains to be done. To sit contentedly in the consciousness of the Buddha-heart is zazen. It is zazen perpetually, and not merely during the time of the [formal meditation] practice called zazen. (D 133)

Since all beings possess the unborn Buddha-heart from their birth, you are not now seeking for the first time to follow it. If you perform your chores with all your might, you are practicing the Unborn Buddha-heart. Also if while hoeing in the field you speak with the people and hoe at the same time, then you hoe while speaking and you speak while hoeing. But if you hoe in anger, your anger is an evil work… and your work is toilsome and painful. But if you hoe without any clouds of anger or other passions, your work will be easy and pleasant. This comes from the Buddha-heart and is unborn and eternal labor. (D 133)

[Sample verses from his short poems in Chinese:]

The Great Function manifests itself without fixed rules, meeting each situation on its own terms…. When you’re in harmony with Buddha-Mind, arms and legs operate on their own. (H 123-4)

Not angry when abused, not happy when praised, a great blockhead of the universe! Going along as circumstances carry me—north, south, east, west, without hiding my ugliness and clumsiness between heaven and earth. (H 122)

[Instructions in Chinese to a Confucian:] From the outset, the Great Way knows no distinction between worldly and transcendental. Let Buddhism and Confucianism return to the Source, and all differences cease to exist. When you penetrate directly, beyond words and letters, going forward or backward, whatever you do creates a refreshing breeze. (H 123)

[To a layman who complained of being unable to “advance,” Bankei said:] Once in the [unborn] Buddha-mind, there’s no need to advance, nor is it possible to recede. Once in birthlessness, to attempt to advance is to recede from the [undefined] state of non-birth. A man secure in this state need not bother himself with such things: he’s above them. (SI 84-5)

[To a Zen priest who wanted to understand an old Ch’an story from the Mumonkan collection of kōans, Bankei told him:] We shouldn’t concern ourselves with such old wives’ tales. The trouble is you’re still ignorant of the Buddha-mind which, birthless and immaculate, unties any and every knot. (SI 85)

None truly strays from It if he is aware of doing so. It is that you turn the Buddha-mind into something else…. Whether here or at home, remain just as you are now, listening to my exhortation, and you’ll feel firmly in the Buddha-mind. It’s only when you’re greedy or selfish that you feel yourself astray. Remember this: there isn’t a sinful person who was born that way. Take the case of a thief. He wasn’t born that way. Perhaps when a child he happened to have a sinful idea, acted upon it, and let the habit develop of itself. When apprehended and questioned he will of course speak of an inborn tendency. Nonsense! Show him he’s wrong, and he will give up stealing, and in so doing he can immediately attain the everlasting Buddha-mind…. I tell you, no one is born to sin. It’s all a question of will. (SI 84)

[To an over-eager Zen monk wanting to realize Buddhahood on that occasion:] Even wanting to attain Buddhahood right away is something artificial. When you realize that you're producing all aspirations yourself and, without getting involved with particular things, remain as you innately are, your own intrinsic nature will be revealed. (H 103)

[On how passing thoughts are not an obstruction to being awake and enlightened, unless you chase after them or obsess about them:] The Buddha-mind in each of you is immaculate. All you’ve done is reflected in it, but if you bother about one such reflection, you’re certain to stray. Your thoughts don’t lie deep enough—they rise from the shallows of your mind. Remember that all you see and hear is reflected in the Buddha-mind and influenced by what was previously seen and heard. Needless to say, thoughts aren’t entities. So if you permit them to rise, reflect themselves, or cease altogether as they’re prone to do, and if you don’t worry about them, you’ll never stray. In this way, let one hundred, nay, one thousand thoughts arise, and it’s as if not one has arisen. You will remain undisturbed. (SI 86)

Don’t hate the arising of thoughts or stop the thoughts that do arise; simply realize that our original mind, right from the start, is beyond thought, so that, no matter what, you never [actually] get involved with thoughts…. Thoughts arise temporarily in response to what you see and hear; they haven’t any real existence of their own [like the objects seen and heard]. You must have faith that the original mind that is realized and that which realizes original mind are not different. (H 136)

The One Mind, Unborn—this is “the one” that, in everybody, sees images via the eyes, hears sounds via the ears and, generally, when it encounters the objects of the six senses, reveals whatever is seen or heard, felt or thought, with nothing left concealed. (H 101)

As you are, right here at this moment, is it. There’s no getting anywhere or not getting anywhere. This is what’s meant by the teaching of sudden enlightenment. Hesitate, and it’s lost; waver and it draws further and further away. (H 158)

For one who at all times conclusively realizes the Buddha Mind, when he goes to bed, he goes to bed with the Buddha Mind; when he gets up, he gets up with the Buddha Mind; when he stays, he stays with the Buddha Mind; when he goes, he goes with the Buddha Mind; when he sits… stands… speaks… is silent… eats rice… drinks tea… puts on clothes (etc.), [he does so] with the Buddha Mind. At all times he abides continually in the Buddha Mind…. He functions with perfect freedom in accordance with circumstances, letting things take their way. Just do good things and don’t do bad ones. If you pride yourself on good deeds, however, becoming attached to them and abominating the bad, that’s going against the Buddha Mind. The Buddha Mind is neither good nor bad, but operates beyond them both. (H 92)

Enlightenment only exists in contrast to delusion. And since everyone possesses the substance of Buddhahood, not even a trace of delusion [fundamentally] exists. So what is it you need to realize? … To neither come nor go, but to remain just as you innately are, without allowing the mind to become obscured—this is what’s meant by tathāgata [Buddhahood]. (H 97)

Trying to suppress delusion is delusion too. Delusions have no original existence; they’re only things you create yourself by indulging in discrimination. (H 93-4)

My message to everyone is that the Buddha Mind is innate in them. From their parents, nothing else is innate. The Buddha Mind is Unborn because it is always here, innate, and it enlightens the mind.

The Unborn is the Ground of all appearance and the Source of all appearance…. Thus the Unborn is the foundation of all Buddhas.

[From a letter written in the mid-1670s to an old woman:] At the time of death, there’s no need for any special state of mind. Just meet your end with the ordinary [natural] zazen mind. Everybody’s mind is the Buddha Mind, which is originally enlightened, so it’s not something that is “born” or that “dies”; it neither comes nor goes, but is eterrnal, unalterable buddhahood [awakeness]. Thus, it’s not a matter of your becoming a buddha now for the first time since you’ve been a buddha right from the start. (H 137-8)



1. My sources are Peter Haskel (with Yoshito Hakeda, Ed.), Bankei Zen: Translations from the Record of Bankei, Grove, 1984; Norman Waddell, The Unborn: The Life & Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, Berkeley, CA: North Point Press, rev. ed., 2000; Lucien Stryk & Takashi Ikemoto (Ed. & Tr.), Zen: Poems, Prayers, Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1965; and others.

2. Quoted in Stryk & Ikemoto (Ed. & Tr.), Zen: Poems, Prayers, Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews, pp. 75-6.

3. Waddell, pp. 10-11.

4. Quoted in Stryk & Ikemoto, p. 76.

5. For the full English translation of this "Song of Original Mind" poem, see Peter Haskel, Bankei Zen, pp. 125-32.

6. Ibid., p. xvii.

7. Ibid., p. xvii.

8. Stryk & Ikemoto, p. 72.

9. Haskel, Bankei Zen, pp. 36, 105, 40-1.

10. Stryk & Ikemoto, p. 73.

11. Ibid., p. 85.

12. Ibid., p. 82.

13. Haskel, p. 113.

14. Stryk & Ikemoto, pp. 87-8.

15. Peter Haskel, Bankei Zen, p. xxxvi.

16. The following teachings come from these sources, abbreviated as:

SI = Lucien Stryk & Takashi Ikemoto (Ed. & Tr.), Zen: Poems, Prayers, Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews, op. cit.;

D = Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism (Paul Peachey transl. from the 1959 German original), Boston: Beacon ed., 1969).

H = Peter Haskel, Bankei Zen.