Zen Master Bankei And European Intellectuals On The Unruly Passions

In his magisterial essay The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (1977), the late intellectual historian and economist Albert Hirschman canvasses three strategies that seventeenth and eighteenth century European intellectuals entertained for dealing with the unruly passions:

1. Repress: push down this unruly passion

2. Harness: sublimate the unruly passion by transforming into into something salutary

3. Countervail: pit one stronger, more innocuous passion against a weaker, more vicious passion

From a Zen point of view, it can be seen that all three strategies suffer from the same mistaken assumption. That starting point is the divided mind. From this divisiveness, one part represses, harnesses, or countervails another part. All three strategies, thus, fail due to their unexamined starting point.

Zen master Bankei, living in seventeenth century Japan, had a better answer:

“Well,” you may wonder, “then what can I do to stop them [anger, clinging, etc.–in short, strong passions]. Even if suddenly, despite yourself and wholly unawares, rage or anger should appear, or thoughts of clinging and craving arise, just let them come–don’t develop them any further, don’t attach to them. Without concerning yourself about whether to stop your rising thoughts or not to stop them, just don’t bother with them, and then there’s nothing else they can do but stop. You can’t have an argument with the fence if you’re standing there all alone! When there’s no one there to fight with, things can’t help but simply come to an end of themselves.

Bankei Zen, p. 50

Do not divide mind; keep it unified. And just let thoughts and passions come while remaining in the Unborn Buddha Mind. We do well to let this sink in:


just let them come–don’t develop them any further, don’t attach to them. Without concerning yourself about whether to stop your rising thoughts or not to stop them, just don’t bother with them, and then there’s nothing else they can do but stop.

Very wu wei. Amazingly wise. For Bankei, no passion is inherently unruly, for that is already a judgment issued by divided mind. Metacognitive awareness, gentleness, and compassion non-linguistically surround the rising phenomenon–which falls away of its own accord.

A Very Brief Summary Of Zen Master Bankei’s Exquisite Teaching

Proposition #1: All beings are essentially the Unborn Buddha Mind.

Teaching: Just abide in the Unborn.

Evidence: “When you dwell in the Unborn itself,” Bankei states, “you’re dwelling at the very wellhead of the Buddhas and patriarchs” (The Unborn:The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, 1622-1693, p. 53).

Proposition #2: The Unborn has a natural tendency to vibrate temporary beings into being; this is its natural “dynamic function.”

Teaching: Right now, without effort you are hearing my voice, this crow, and that wind chime. (Cf. wu wei.)

Proposition #3: The cause of delusion involves substituting the Unborn for “I am this or that.”

Teaching: Return from any “I am this” to the Unborn.

Evidence: “Until you transform it [the Unborn], you live just as you are in the unborn Buddha-mind; you aren’t deluded or unenlightened. The moment you do turn it into something else, you become an ignorant, deluded person. All illusions work the same way” (The Unborn, p. 44).

Proposition #4: Thoughts and emotions come naturally–without any resistance, without any fight, struggle, or strife.

Teaching: From the no-point point-of-view of the Unborn, just let thoughts and emotions come, persist for a bit, and dissolve (back) into the Unborn.

Evidence:

“Well,” you may wonder, “then what can I do to stop them [anger, clinging, etc.–in short, strong passions]. Even if suddenly, despite yourself and wholly unawares, rage or anger should appear, or thoughts of clinging and craving arise, just let them come–don’t develop them any further, don’t attach to them. Without concerning yourself about whether to stop your rising thoughts or not to stop them, just don’t bother with them, and then there’s nothing else they can do but stop. You can’t have an argument with the fence if you’re standing there all alone! When there’s no one there to fight with, things can’t help but simply come to an end of themselves.

Bankei Zen, p. 50

The Buddha Was Right About The Dental Clinic

The Buddha was right.

Yesterday my wife and I went to a dental clinic for a routine checkup and cleaning. While I was sitting in the lobby, I overheard one older woman who, upon checkout was told that she had a payment, exclaim about how the treatment was supposed to be covered; she’d spoken with her insurance company the day before and then had learned that the treatment would be covered in full. And now she was distraught.

Later on, a younger woman with stooped shoulders spoke in a defensive and agitated way with someone at reception. She too thought that her treatment that day was to be covered and she too was told that it wouldn’t be. Angry, she left without being seen.

While I was waiting for my teeth to be cleaned, I could make out (perhaps) someone in billing or (perhaps) a dental hygienist discuss the costs of taking out what sounded like quite a few cavities. In particular, removing one or two in the front could be, it was implied, rather risky as there is a nerve as well as a blood vessel running through both teeth. What was the patient thinking just then? What was he feeling?

Do you not only see the point but also feel the anguish?

One reason to meditate deeply is to feel, with greater sensitivity, the subtle and overt forms of anguish experienced by those around you.

Then there were the professionals. The first, cheery and people pleasing and kind also, had a nervous disposition while the dental hygienist, who was perhaps from Taiwan or China, was quite talkative. I could tell that he tended toward ambient anxiety and that he liked it when someone could not just make out his broken English but also take him–and what he had to say–seriously. He meant well even if he was itchy in his own skin.

When I checked out, I noticed that some of those working in reception were frazzled, out of breath.

And all this in just two hours… What kind of transformation will be necessary in order for all beings to find, and be, Home Anywhere and Everywhere? May all beings be free from suffering! May all beings be peace!