Zen Master Bankei and Applying the Unborn Mind to your Life
While reading this article, if a speaker started blasting hip-hop music, you wouldn’t mistake it for country music. In the same way, you wouldn’t mistake a child’s voice for an adult’s voice. Without even thinking “Oh, that’s a child speaking”, something inside of you would recognize it immediately for what it was. According to Bankei Yōtaku(1622–1693), this is the wisdom of the Unborn Mind.
A Bit of Bankei’s Life and his Enlightenment
Bankei was a prolific Zen Master. He made it his life’s mission to achieve enlightenment from a young age. His practice was so extreme that he only focused on mediation for many hours each day. Around the age of 24, he contracted tuberculosis. The doctor that was taking care of him predicted that he would soon die.
At one point during Bankei’s near-death experience, he was choking and eventually spit up a huge ball of phlegm at the wall. At that moment, watching that nasty thing travel down, he recovered from his sickness and achieved instant enlightenment.
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.
Besides the story of his Enlightenment and the concept of the Unborn, he was also renowned for his lectures and approach to teaching others. Unlike some other Zen masters of this time, he lectured to people of all classes, genders, and backgrounds. That isn’t to say he struggled to find an audience. Some of his discourses had up to 50,000 people in attendance.
What is the Unborn Mind?
It can be especially difficult to wrap up ideas in Zen due to the whole contention that everything is nothing and nothing is everything. I’ve been digging through Zen books since High school (and maybe that’s part of the problem) and I still find myself stumped sometimes.
But, to simplify and hopefully not water down the Unborn, practicing the Unborn Mind is being instead of doing anything else. And the great thing about the Unborn is that everyone reading this article (and not reading this article) has it within them.
As Bankei said in one of his most famous sermons “Each of you received the Buddha Mind from your mothers when you were born, and nothing else. In the Unborn, all things are perfectly resolved.” Despite whatever thoughts you’re having at this moment— be it what you’re planning to eat for dinner or that mean thing that someone said to you today, you have the Unborn and the capability to resolve these disturbances in an instant.
I’m sensing some eye-rolls and scoffing coming at the screen. You’re probably thinking “All right, if we’re all born so perfect with the Unborn Mind, why am I reading an article about a Zen master?” If you’re anything like me, you probably ask yourself “Why the hell am I reading all these books about Zen masters and mindfulness for? Why can’t I just resolve this inner turmoil?”
The simple answer is that we are always trading the Unborn Mind for something else. This is just like being out with your friends for the night and suddenly wondering if you remembered to lock the door to your apartment. A night out with some of your closest friends turns into an uneasy whirlpool of anxiety as you try to sort yourself out and retrace your steps.
Then comes the question of why you don’t remember locking the apartment door in the first place. What were you doing then? Were you checking your phone? Wondering if your outfit was alright? Debating if you should stay home instead? If you had simply been present, wouldn’t you have remembered if you’d locked the door or not?
And, all of this happens in an instant because we move from the spontaneity of socializing and interacting with others to anxious projections about the future. In this way, we tend to create our own suffering because we form attachments to illusions.
I also see this most often in my own life with fear. If I find myself in a state of panic, I freeze and I can’t bring myself to do anything about the terrible situation. Even if I know (with my rational mind) that I need to move forward, I can’t. This is where the trade is made. Instead of dealing with the situation for what it is, I project and make it into something that it’s not.
Bankei said “It’s only your ignorance of the Buddha-mind that makes you go on transforming it into a hungry ghost, fighting spirit, or animal… Until you transform it, you live just as you are in the unborn Buddha-Mind; you aren’t deluded or unenlightened.”
Applying the Unborn to our Lives
So, how can we apply the Unborn to our lives? I think this is one of those things that is easier to do than to talk about. Partially because by talking about it or speculating, you’re already falling behind.
Go for that afternoon walk, text your crush, and face that thing that is bothering you. Stop letting all those small thoughts delude and get the best of you. Live in the Unborn.
The clearing of the mind and acceptance of the present moment is a recurring idea found in Zen thought for a reason. However, I’ve been hard-pressed to find someone who can hit the nail on the head like Bankei.
TL;DR: To live in the Unborn Mind, follow your instincts and live in the present moment — stop trading your immediate experience for speculation and projections about the past/future
P.S.: You can find the book that I pulled quotes from for this article on Amazon (affiliate-free link). If something about the Unborn Mind has spoken to you, I would highly recommend picking it up.