The message of the seventeenth century Zen master Bankei Yotaku can be both direct and modern in language. In the above three verses, we have ample evidence of both qualities, giving the words an immediacy that grabs the heart’s attention, pulling us back into the present moment, which is right where we need to be if we wish to experience the Unborn Buddha Mind, the Wonder that Bankei’s teachings consistently point to. Here, the master uses the age-old concepts of demons and hell to illustrate the nature of the egoistic mind, which is the true origin and location of our suffering. He pulls no punches laying the blame where it lies right from the outset:
There are two important points to attend to in these two lines; firstly, that there is something Bankei calls “the demon mind,” and secondly, that we create it for ourselves. A demon is a tormented, evil being that cannot desist from doing wrong and selfish things. It is used here to characterise self-centred thoughts, hence, “the demon mind.” Another important aspect of this mind pertinent to this reflection is that it is also the contraction of what Bankei describes as the Unborn Buddha Mind, mentioned above. This is our natural state, unmoved and unmoving, whereas the delusion-based demon mind is a movement of mentality away from the Unborn. Furthermore, this movement is created by the mind; it does not come from without. True, it is influenced by outside forces, but it is mental processes themselves that forge the sense of being a separate being that necessarily suffers.
All kinds of negative thoughts and feelings go around and around these ego-minds of ours. In fact, we cannot have one without the other, for the tormented contents of the demon mind are its very parts; it grows out of, and is constructed of, thoughts and feelings of ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine.’ Every time we identify with our emotions and notions we build up the sense of being a ‘me’ with all the torments that accompany such an idea. Here are a few examples of the kinds of harmful mental states that the demon mind is involved with: anger, frustration, agony, regret, torment, hatred, sadness, jealousy, greed, superiority, inferiority, and delusion (including the delusion of being an ego-self). Being the cause of, and subsequently the product of, such negative mindscapes as these, the demon mind is caught in a perpetual loop of self-made misery. We cannot blame the Devil, Mara (the Buddhist counterpart of Satan), nor anyone or anything else for our anguish. It is always a case of psychological D.I.Y.
Bankei now turns his attention to a place that most of the world’s religions and mythologies attest to the existence of – hell. He boldly declares that hell is not “to be found outside,’ a pretty darting statement for a Buddhist monk of the seventeenth century to make. This is because most Japanese Buddhists at that time – and probably at this time, too – believe in the actual existence of an external place called jigoku (‘hell’ in Japanese). Not wishing to affirm nor deny such claims, here we can at least recognise, just like Bankei, that right now it is the inner hell that is of more immediate concern to us. This psychological Hades is part and parcel of our suffering existence, rising out of our unwholesome thoughts, speech, and actions, colouring everything we experience with the taint of Mara.
We know, either through tuition or intuition, what is basically right or wrong, most of us putting kindness, politeness, generosity, compassion, altruism, peacefulness, and honesty under the heading ‘right,’ and hostility, rudeness, miserliness, cruelty, selfishness, violence, and dishonesty under the heading ‘wrong.’ Bankei is not promoting an amoral attitude to life here, but pointing out that attaching to what we like (“longing for heaven”) and fighting what we dislike (“abominating hell”) is not enlightenment. This does not mean that we abandon our moral precepts, but that we do not psychologically cling to them, thereby reinforcing the sense of ego that covers over our actual Unborn Buddha Mind. For, while it is better to be moral than immoral or amoral, the enlightening position to take is to do good without desiring heavenly rewards. This avoids the arising of guilt from selfish deeds, whilst at the same time transcending any sense of a ‘me’ doing any good deeds.
According to the Buddha Dharma, doing bad has worse repercussions than doing good, but clinging to either type of actions creates a screen between what we really are and what we think we are. What we think we are includes notions of a good person, a bad person, an animal, a soul, a body, a mind, or any other separate entity or thing. What we truly are is none of these, but an ineffable ‘No-thing’ that lies behind all our notions of good, bad, heaven, hell, deity and demon. If we can see through these various delusions, we will break through to the “joyful world” that Bankei writes of. This joyful world is neither some heaven above us nor hell below us, but is here where we are in the present moment, waiting for us to see it. To do so, all we need do is look at the world with a pure eye, a Buddha Eye, and it will be revealed to us; please conduct the following exercise and see if “a joyful world” springs up before you.
Close your eyes and imagine doing something good, noting all the feelings and thoughts that the mind produces in relation to it. Next, do the same whilst imagining doing something bad. (These can be actual events that took place or purely imaginary ones. The former may give more concrete responses, however, more readily reflected upon.) Re-examine both imagined acts and the mind’s reactions to them, but this time seeing them as what they really are; fleeting thoughts in awareness. Ultimately, is the good deed any different to the bad deed in its relation to naked awareness? Ditto, both sets of mental responses. Open your eyes and look around you. Do ‘solid’ objects have any more or less reality to them than thoughts? Right now, are you a separate suffering being or the Buddha Eye seeing all things as so much ‘Mind-stuff’ occurring in the Unborn Buddha Mind?