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.