21 November 2012

Bankei's Blistered Butt

I had occasion recently to be reminded of Bankei's blistered butt.  Seems Bankei, while wholeheartedly devoting himself to a particularly strenuous, long, uninterrupted period of zazen, literally sat his ass off, the skin becoming blistered and inflamed from all the butt-to-the-board contact.  And that was not all: he continued in his austerities, contracted tuberculosis, and found himself beyond the scope of anything a physician could offer to help.  It was at that point, near death, that he achieved deep realization, which he expressed as "All things are perfectly resolved in the Unborn."  From that point on, "return to the Unborn" was his constant homily.  To farmers he would say, "Just practice your farming and return to the Unborn."  He would not encourage them to do anything else.

Bankei's blistered butt is a mainstay of sesshin encouragement talks and teishos: "What puny efforts ours are by comparison!  Let us resolve to emulate the greats!  Sore ass?  Nothing!  Aching legs? Meh!  How will you drink from the deep well unless you dig?  Step it up!  Death is waiting!  Bankei was willing to die in pursuit of the Great Matter!" 

"But wait," the earnest but unclear practitioner says, "What happened to 'just do what you're doing and return to the Unborn'?"

Seems like a fair enough question to ask.

One thing I have always appreciated about Buddhism is its insistence, at every juncture, that the Dharma has to be met with in the place one finds oneself.  There is no underlying assumption that practice is a "one size fits all" sort of thing.

And why?  Because the particular mess of things I bring to my practice is not the mess of things you bring to yours.  John tends to be lazy, so taking his cue from Bankei may be good medicine.  You tend to be an overachieving workaholic, so learning to lighten up may be good advice.  I may be overly analytical and critical, so learning how to accept ambiguity may be a good thing to work at.  The karmic forces that brought me to this point are pretty singular.  The way I act out the defilements is as unique as my signature and fingerprint.  Only I can set the bar of my aspiration in this life.

There's room in our collective practice for advice of all kinds, but teishos and references to the great masters can only hit the most common points of our collective humanity.  For the fine tuning, there's dokusan, the place were the teacher can say, if need be, "I know I said that in teisho, but in your case...."  It's this one-on-one, custom-tailored approach to spiritual work that is probably one of the very best treasures Zen has to offer, and it is what keeps me suspicious of the practice of anyone who only attends public talks or listens to materials intended for mass distribution.  Without that personal, open, honest appraisal of where I am and where I need to go, I run the risk of entertaining just another constructed story line about an ego that is nowhere to be found.

And that, if nothing else, is precisely not what it means to return to the Unborn!

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