What does it matter, the new year, the old year?
I stretch out my legs and all alone have a quiet sleep
Don’t tell me the monks aren’t getting their instruction
Here and there the nightingale is singing: the highest Zen!
-Zen Master Bankei (1622-1693)
You don’t have be Zenish to appreciate Bankei or his New Year message.
Bankei was mostly forgotten until the 1940s, when he was rescued “from the obscurity of two and a half centuries of near-total neglect.”
This is understandable. While he was trained and respected in traditional Zen disciplines, his iconoclastic conclusion was that the teaching could be reduced to a single concept that didn’t involve those practices. He preached this to thousands of ordinary people who weren’t involved in more rigorous and formal practice:
“Unlike the other masters everywhere, in my teaching I don’t set up any particular object, such as realizing enlightenment or studying koans. Nor do I rely on the words of the buddhas and patriarchs. I just point things out directly, so there’s nothing to hold onto, and that’s why no one will readily accept [what I teach]. To begin with, those who are wise and learned are obstructed by their own cleverness and calculation, so for them it’s impossible to accept. On the other hand, there are lots of ignorant women who can neither read nor write, who haven’t any special ability and can’t be pushed on to become Zen masters, but possess a truly heartfelt realization and don’t engage in intellectualizing.”
Is it any wonder that conventional teachers might be resistant and challenged enough to leave Bankei behind?
We will not leave Bankei behind. This year, he says, stretch your legs out, have a quiet sleep, listen to the nightingale singing. It is the only instruction you need.
Happy New Year.