Extract | Bankei Zen: Translations from the Record of Bankei by Peter Haskel

Book Extracts

After pushing his body too far in the pursuit of insight, a young Master Bankei finds himself on the verge of death when something miraculous suddenly happens.


Grove Atlantic Publishing

At this time I was young, Confucianism was very popular hereabouts, and my mother sent me to a teacher to learn to read the Great Learning aloud by rote. But when I came to the passage that states, ‘The Way of the Great Learning lies in illuminating the Bright Virtue,’ I couldn’t make out what this Bright Virtue was, and, beset by doubt, puzzled over it for some time.\

“At one point, I went and questioned some Confucian scholars. ‘What sort of thing is this Bright Virtue? I asked them, “Just what is the Bright Virtue, anyway?’ But there wasn’t one of them who knew. 

“However, one of the Confucian scholars told me: ‘Difficult matters like this are the kind of things Zen monks understand, so go and ask a Zen monk. Even though with our mouths we can talk endlessly about the meaning of the words and letters in the Classics, when it comes to just what sort of thing the Bright Virtue is, we realy have not idea.’…

… “Next, I made up my mind to visit a master of this Zen school. When I asked him about the Bright Virtue, he told me: ‘If you want to understand the Bright Virtue, do zazen and the Bright Virtue will be understood.’

“As a result, after this I immediately took up the practice of zazen.  Here, I’d go into the mountains, eating nothing for seven or even ten whole days; there, I’d find some cliffs, and, seated on a pointed rock, pull up my robes, with my bare backside right against the stone, determined to meditate to the very end], even if it killed me, and refusing to leave my seat until I simply tumbled down. Since there was no way I could even ask anyone to bring me food, I often didn’t eat for days. But all I cared about was resolving the Bright Virtue, so I didn’t mind that I was faint from hunger, and refused to let it bother me. Despite it all, though, I still couldn’t settle my question about the Bright Virtue….

… “The strain of those years finally caught up with me, and I became gravely ill. Without having settled my question about the Bright Virtue, I’d struggled with it tirelessly for a long time, enduring bitter hardship. My illness gradually worsened now, my body grew weak, and when I’d bring up phlegm, there’d emerge thumb-sized gobs of bloody sputum that rolled along congealing into balls. Sometimes when I’d spit against the wall, the sputum was so heavy it rolled right down. At this time, everyone concerned about me dais: ‘This simply won’t do! You’ve got to rest and nurse yourself back to health.’ So, following their advice, I retired to my hut, taking on a manservant.

“But gradually my illness reached a critical point, and for a full seven days I was unable to swallow any food and could get nothing down apart from some thin rice gruel. Because of this I realized I was on the verge of death. ‘Ah, well,’ I said to myself, ‘there’s nothing to be done.’…

“Just then, I had a strange sensation in my throat, and when I spit against the wall, I noticed the sputum, had congealed into a jet-black lump like a soapberry, rolling down the surface. After that, the inside of my chest felt curiously refreshed, and that’s when it suddenly struck me: ‘Everything is perfectly managed with the Unborn, and because up till today I couldn’t see this, I’ve just been uselessly knocking myself out!’ Finally, I saw the mistake I’d been making!…

… After that, I gradually got well again and have lived to this day. So I realized my cherished desire after all, and explained things to my mother too before she passed away.

Bankei Zen: Translations from the Record of Bankei by Peter Haskel, ed. Yoshito Hakeda, pub. Grove Press NY 1984

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