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#189. SPEAKING IN SILENCES. One approach to understanding the vast heterogeneity of the Buddhist tradition is to look at its path and variety of languages. From the sobriety and restraint of the early Pali-language scriptures, the later Sanskrit texts balloon outward not only in length (moving, say, from the brevity of the Metta Sutta, only a few paragraphs long, to the massive, thousand-page Avatamsaka Sutra) but also in extravagance of language and fantasy. (The population rate rises as well: his first teaching, at Sarnath, was given to five disciples, the teaching of the Lotus Sutra to an audience of twelve thousand: “bhikshus, bhikshunis, upasakas, upasikas, gods, dragons, yakshas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kinaras, mahorgas, human and non-human beings, as well as minor kings and the holy wheel-rolling kings.” Nice to know the holy rollers got in.) From there you have the tantric texts and, as the tradition moved west into Tibet, the termas, the “treasure texts,” which barely touch the ground of any world we know from chapter to chapter.

Where do you go from there? Backwards, as it were, and away from language altogether. In the manner of Yeats’s gyres, as the tantras and termas were edging out to the almost hallucinogenic far end of Buddhist ritual and philosophic elaboration, the stark stripping down of Zen practice was taking shape. Its origin is suggested in an eleventh century Chinese tale: the Buddha picks up a lotus blossom and holds it up to his disciples in place of a spoken teaching. The disciples are all baffled by this, except for Mahakasyapa, who breaks into a smile. The Buddha then speaks of a teaching that would not rest on words or writing but would be “a special transmission outside the scriptures. I entrust this to Mahakasyapa.”

The specific practice of Zen is often dated to the arrival of Bodhidharma in China from India, sometime in the fifth or sixth century, with a copy of the Lankavatara Sutra in his backpack (wordless teaching or no, some sutras are very specifically associated with Zen). The Sanskrit word for meditation, dhyana, became, in Mandarin, ch’an, later to be pronounced, as the word went south, zen, and common to all schools of Zen are long hours of sitting in meditation. It flourished in China and then moved through Korea, where it is still widely practiced, thence into Japan, from which a large number of the American schools are descended.

D.T. Suzuki wrote that the three most important figures of Japanese Zen were Dogen, Hakuin, and Bankei. Dogen’s works are a peak in Japanese spiritual writing; his stature is unchallenged. Hakuin is seen as a revitalizer of the specifically Rinzai tradition, integrating meditation with the practice of the koan; like Dogen, he left behind a substantial body of writing. So—who is Bankei, of whom so slender a record survives, and what places him in this hallowed company?

His biography shows the classic shape of Zen hagiography. Buddhist teachers were rarely happy-go-lucky children: though not an orphan, Bankei manifested an early and consuming fear of death. Dissatisfied with his conventional religious training, he underwent a walkabout period, in search of an effective teacher. He lived as a vagabond and devoted himself to an obsessive practice of meditation, contracting tuberculosis nearly to the point of death. Then came the pivotal Zen moment of escape: contemplating a black mass of phlegm he had coughed up, he experienced a moment of liberation. He verbalized the experience as “All things are perfectly resolved in the Unborn.” It became the basis for all of his teachings.

The notion of the Unborn will not sit still for any easy definition, but is used to express the Buddhist notion of dependent arising: that no identity, fact or event exists in isolation; it is based always on—that recurring phrase—“causes and conditions,” existing behind and generative of all particulars. But the term, anutpada, is, like the English word “uncouth,” a negative that has no positive. It is like nothing so much as the curious incident of the dog in the Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze,” who did nothing in the night-time. “’That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.”

This puckish resistance to everyday logic is expressed in the sermons Bankei gave and the anecdotes of his dealings with followers. Again: language. In Dogen, we have a master steeped in the lore of Zen teaching, and the English edition of his Eihei Koroku, for instance, is full of necessary annotation to prevent our misreading Dogen’s thirteenth-century Japanese rendering of classical Chinese. Reading Dogen, there’s always something you can do, deciphering and recognizing those allusions, even if doing it will probably just distract you from Dogen’s central intent. Hakuin, likewise, thinks and systematizes, and, with the koan, gives you the challenge of those seemingly nonsensical riddles. Reading Bankei, in contrast, is a bit like standing at the edge of a cliff—there you are, without printed instructions, and Bankei is likely to smile at you and say, “See?” It all looks so casual, even so obvious, until you realize you’re staring at the great hurdle of all Zen practice. Curious indeed.

There is one specific difference. Dogen’s teachings were given to an educated and committed monastic community; many of the stories of Bankei show him dealing with ordinary folk. (Again: language. Many of these were part of a lay, devotional form of Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, whose practice consisted of repeating the nembutsu, “Namu Amida Butsu”—an entire practice refined to seven syllables.) In these dealings Bankei resembles no one so much as Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth century Dominican preacher about whom D.T. Suzuki wrote with such affection and respect. Bankei offers only his vision and encouragement rather than any form of instruction. Eckhart’s apophatic language was so strange to Christians of his day that he came within an ace of being condemned as a heretic (he died before the verdict arrived). To his uneducated German pastorate, Eckhart would say, “Thou shalt know God without image, without semblance, and without means.” To those who did not understand his discourse, Eckhart said, “That we all may so live as to experience it eternally, may God help us. Amen.” With both Eckhart and Bankei, here we are at the edge of the cliff; there is no path leading back, no manual of instruction. See?


For decades now we have been blessed to have two superb books of Bankei’s talks in translation: The Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, by Norman Waddell (North Point Press) and Bankei Zen: Translations from The Record of Bankei, by Peter Haskel (Grove Press). Both are in print, and Waddell’s book is available online at

Raymond Blakney’s Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation (Harper, 1941) also for years a standard text, can be picked up easily secondhand online; it’s also available free online at

An excellent new translation and selection is also available: Meister Eckhart, Selected Writings, translated by Oliver Davies (Penguin). D.T. Suzuki’s essay on Meister Eckhart can be read in his book Mysticism Christian and Buddhist; it’s is still in print from Routledge, or can be read online at


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