Zen and the Eastern Spirit

Ishida Baigan

With the attitude “Discard nothing, Hold on to nothing.”, Baigan embraced Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, and Japanese literature without preferences to cultivate the human mind. In this way, he established his own “Science of the Heart” and enriched many ordinary people, especially merchants, and attracted many extraordinary followers. Thus, he had a profound influence on future generations.

1, From the Teaching of the Sages to the Investigation into the Original Heart

Ishida Baigan (1685 − 1744) was a merchant who lived in Kyoto. Having received a Confucian education as was customary at the time, since the age of fifteen Baigan wished to study the sublime sayings and doings of the sages and wise men of the past, and to thereby lead his own life in such a manner as to become a model for others.

In the East "study" implies not just learning but also putting into practice the right path for living as a human being. It has the aim of polishing oneself and embodying virtues, and thereby living in a state of true joyfulness that knows nothing of the egoistic distinction of self from others.
While many scholars of the Confucian classics, immersing themselves in detailed literary studies, had become alienated from this pristine state of existence, Baigan avoided falling into the trap of becoming what he called a "geisha of letters."

Baigan keenly perceived that in order to truly understand what the sages wrote, it was necessary to know the heart/mind behind their words, and this insight led him to encounter the difficult question:
"What is the essence of my own original heart/mind?" In the course of searching with his whole body and spirit for the answer to this question, he met his teacher Oguri Ryoun, a lay master of the Obaku school of Zen.
At the age of forty the longstanding cloud of doubt that hung over him dissipated, and the mist before his eyes evaporated. With great joy he realized: "The Way of the ancients was simply that of filial piety and respect for others; cormorants skim over the water while other birds soar through the air; the ups and downs of the Way are clear; the essence of the mind is the mother of all things."

But his strict teacher pointed out the insufficient level of his liberation, saying:
"What you have seen is nothing extraordinary. Like the story of a blind man who encounters an elephant, you have seen only the tail or the leg and not yet the whole body.
In your case, when you say that you have seen that your original nature is the mother of all things, does not your eye that sees this still remain outside?
In the original essence there is no eye (which objectifies the self). Now go and come back when you have abandoned that eye!"

2, Baigan's State of Enlightenment

Baigan went on to practice day and night, forgetting to eat and sleep, for more than a year. Then one morning, after he fell asleep from the exhaustion of practicing late into the night, he awoke to the sound of sparrow chirping in the woods nearby.
And at that instant, he suddenly let go of the state of seeing into his original nature, that is to say, he attained the true state of emptiness that is empty even of the awareness of enlightenment.

In Zen there is a tradition of writing an "enlightenment verse" at the time of a great awakening, and Baigan wrote the following:
"Swallowed down is the heart/mind which has now become but a soft white ball/Of a newborn baby who cries out a single whaaa!"
Unlike professional poets, Baigan, who spent many years as a merchant, did not have any special scholarly training; nor was he concerned much with literary techniques of composition when he composed his verse. For him what was presumably most important was the great matter of clarifying his original heart/mind.

Developing the thought of this verse, he wrote the following:
"After that time I thought neither that my original nature is great, nor that it is the mother of all things, nor that it was deluded, nor that it was awakened. When hungry I eat, when thirsty I drink. In the spring I see the flowers in the mist; in the summer I view the vibrant green grasses in the clear sky.
When it becomes very hot I enjoy the water, adoring the dew on the rice plants. From the change in the tint of the clover bushes, I sing of the autumn colors; the thin frost that collects on the leaves of trees changes and changes again until it becomes snow.
When one meditates on the many wondrous transformations of each and every moment, one truly becomes like an innocent infant. Spring mist; summer mountain changing its dress; autumn leaves blowing in the breeze; snow falling."

Here is unreservedly expressed the "sublime naturalness"―that is, the selflessness of the non-ego and the unselfconsciousness of the no-mind―which forms the essential core of the Eastern way of life. The course of Baigan's path of practice and his great awakening recall us to the original ideal of Zen training.

3, The Stage of Rounding Out and Maturation

At this point Baigan left his life as a merchant behind, and at the age of forty-five he began teaching free of charge in the city of Kyoto.

He relates his state of mind at this time as follows:
"Since I began my study late, I have learned but little. Moreover, it would be redeeming if I could say that I have performed deeds that resembled those of great men, but this is also far from clear.
But then 'What then do you intend to teach?' you may well wonder. I respond that my intention to educate others is founded on the fact that without exaggeration I can say that, within a period of a few years, I have investigated the heart/mind, and have managed to attain a general intuitive understanding of what holy wisdom is.
If one comes to know this heart/mind, then one can easily be released from the desire for fame and fortune, as well as the toil of the life and death of the ego (samsara).
Of course, because my lectures are not based on great intellectual learning, it is likely that few will attend them. Even if no one comes to hear me, I intended to stand and speak my mind on a street corner if necessary."

It can be said that Baigan's unshakable confidence in having awakened to the true self, which is very the root of the Great Way itself, together with his ability to act with sincere humility, evidence the state of mind attained through his process of maturation.

As stated in the beginning of this section, as resources for refining his heart/mind, Ishida Baigan was willing to learn from any of the teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism, Shinto and native Japanese literature. He did this without preference and with an attitude of "discarding none, and becoming attached to none." While some scholars criticize him for lack of consistency of principle, this is a superficial way of looking at the matter. Rather, what can be witness in Baigan's versatility is the wondrous workings of his state of enlightenment, a state attained by the complete uprooting of his ego.

Because his lectures and methods of education were based in his fundamental experience of the Great Way, his " Science of the Heart " was able to educate and enlightened many lay people, particularly merchants, facilitating the expression of exceptional talent, and greatly influencing later generations.

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