From the Autobiography of Priest Bankei
(The Priest Bankei lived in Japan in the 16th Century A.D.)
MY father was a Ronin (samurai) of Shikoku, and my parents were Confucians. Soon after I was born my father died and I was brought up by my mother.
My mother said I was the leader among the children and a naughty boy. From the time when I was only three years, I hated to hear the word ” death “. If I was crying and somebody imitated a dead man, or even talked about dying, I stopped crying, or if I was up to some mischief I at once became quiet.
As I got older, my mother taught me how to read the Confucian classics, especially the ” Great Learning “. When I was reading it I came across the phrase : ” The way of the Great Learning is to make the Bright Virtue shine forth.” I wondered what that Bright Virtue might be but could not understand what was meant, and for a long time pondered on it. When I asked a group of Confucian believers what Bright Virtue was, and what sort of thing was meant by the words, no one knew. One of them said that such a difficult point was the kind of thing the Buddhist priests would know and told me to ask them. ” Bright Virtue ” came in all the books in our homes and all the time the phrase was on everyone’s lips, but what it was, what we meant when we said it, none of us knew. The matter remained there, we were not Buddhists and I had no opportunity to ask a Buddhist priest.
As I thought about it, and how to get a solution, I realized that the matter was more urgent for my aged mother than for myself, and I wanted to find out to communicate it to her before she died. So whenever I heard that there was to be a sermon I used to hurry to it, and after hearing the noble truths come back and repeat them to my mother. But in spite of all this, the problem of the Bright Virtue remained unsolved.
Finally I went to a famous abbot and asked him about the Bright Virtue.
He said : ” If you want to know what Bright Virtue is, practise meditation. Practise meditation until you know it.”
Immediately I took up meditation. For a week or ten days I used to go into the nearby mountains without any provisions. Bundling my kimono round me, I would sit in meditation on a low rock. Careless of life, I did not rise from the meditation posture until I had sunk into Nature. Many days there was no food ; other times someone brought something. Earnestly striving to find out what was the Bright Virtue, I did not mind the hardship nor feel the austerities. But still the riddle was unsolved. I returned in the end to the village and lived in seclusion day and night practising the Samadhi of the mantra of the Name of Buddha. In spite of my struggles and efforts, the Bright Virtue was no clearer to me.
I neglected my health too much, and my body began to crumble. There were obstructions to my meditation practice. When I look back to those times, I realize it was a purification : in the end there was not even a shadow of wandering thoughts.
The illness advanced. One day when I was walking in the street I collapsed. I was taken home, to the hermitage where I looked after myself. I got worse, and then for seven days I took no food, and nothing passed my lips except warm water. Now I realized I was dying. Right and wrong disappeared, and there was nothing left of the world. All the hopes and fears of ordinary life dwindled to nothing and the only thought in my mind was death.
Suddenly, like a flash, that dying settled everything. I realized how I had been meaninglessly breaking my bones, I saw what had been wrong. My whole spirit became clear. I was filled with joy, and I suddenly realized I was hungry. I took a little gruel, and from that day on my illness gradually disappeared.
In this way I passed through the great Doubt, the great Inquiry. When the great Doubt comes, everything can be doubted, but the Buddha Heart which lies under all the doubts, that can never be doubted.