Unborn Mind

Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group


When I was pretty new to Zen practice, I came across a quote, Unborn mind is Buddha mind. I was baffled at this term “unborn”. Subsequently, I've learned that whenever our interest is piqued by some Buddhist teaching, like Unborn mind is Buddha mind, it is a good idea to pay attention. This is our body's way of asking us to grow. At the time, however, I was confused. How could something be “unborn”? Was this some sort of baffling Zen koan? It kind of got under my skin. So, I decided to set out and try to find out and understand this expression. The expression was used and popularized by a 17th century Japanese Rinzai Zen teacher named Bankei who lived between 1622 and 1693.


Bankei describes the unborn mind in glowing terms,

What I call the “Unborn” is the Buddha-mind. This Buddha-mind is unborn, with a marvelous virtue of illuminative wisdom. In the Unborn, all things fall right into place and remain in perfect harmony.1


Bankei gives an idea of how the unborn mind functions with this quote,

The Unborn manifests itself in the thought, “I want to see” or “I want to hear” not being born … The reason I say it's in the “Unborn” that you see and hear in this way is because the mind doesn't give “birth” to any thought or inclination to see or hear.2


What we see from this quote is that the unborn mind deals with the immediate sensory input, before thoughts about the direct experience arise. Consider when you eat something like ice-cream. You immediately have some sensation of taste. You don't have to try to taste. If you have a meditation practice, you might notice that this sensory input sets off a chain of events. There is the taste, then there is identification of the taste, then there is an evaluation of “good” or “bad”, then, of course, the final stage, of thinking “I want more” or “I don't want more”. The mind that just tastes without adding anything extra to the immediate experience is the unborn mind of Bankei.


It turns out, that Bankei didn't just make up this term, “unborn”. It appears in the Heart Sutra as the characters fu-sho which gets translated as “not born”, “uncreated”, “not appear”. We can go even back to the Pali Cannon and find the Buddha speaking about the unborn. In the Udana book of the Khuddaka Nikaya (Ud 8.3):3


There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.


So, from this sutta, we get some synonyms for the unborn: “unbecome”, “unmade”, and “unfabricated”. In addition, the Buddha is saying because we can discern or notice the born or the fabricated, we can escape this fabricated way of being in the world. This is simply the Second and Third Noble Truths of Buddhism.


Another important piece of the puzzle is that “birth” is one of the 12 links in the teaching of dependent origination which provides a model of how suffering arises from experience as a function of time. In this teaching suffering is “born” after a series of mental events. If you do not want to suffer, prevent it from being born as a mental state. The teaching on dependent origination suggests ways to do this.


The term unborn also appears in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras of Mahayana Buddhism. Without going into detail, I'll just say that in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras unborn is a synonym for emptiness or “lacking inherent existence”. So, unborn dharmas are empty dharmas (here dharma means a moment of experience). That is, they are empty of inherent existence (also called “own nature”, or “self-nature”). It is vitally important to note that the sutras do not say that unborn phenomena don't exist at all, but, rather, they don't exist inherently. According to Mahayana Buddhist teachings, if a phenomenon (a mental state) does not exist inherently, then it exists in dependence on causes and conditions. So, given all this, we can say that unborn mind is the dependently arising mind (of the moment) which is created by moments of dependently arising sensory input.


A passage in the Hsin Hsin Ming which gives another perspective on the experience of unborn mind reads,


When discriminating thoughts do not arise the usual mind ceases to exist. When thought-objects vanish, the thinking-subject vanishes. When the mind vanishes, objects vanish. Object is object because of the subject. Subject is subject because of the object.


The “usual mind” referred to in this passage is what Bankei would call the “born”mind and is the product of discriminating thoughts. As Bankei put, Your self-partiality is at the root of all your illusions.4 The “subject” and “object” referred to in this passage from the Hsin Hsin Ming are what are produced and perceived at the end of a long chain mental events and removed from the immediate sensory input. They are illusory because in our normal way of thinking this discrimination seems very real and solid. We perceive our experience through this lens of “subject” (self) and “object” (other). They appear to be independent of each other. The apparent independence is illusory. When one collapses, the other collapses as well. Unborn mind is the non-dual mind – the mind without attachment to conceptions of subject and object.


As Bankei says over and over again, the unborn mind is immediate. You just hear the bird, you just taste the ice cream. A moment of hearing consciousness or a moment of taste consciousness arises. This is the moment of mind before we conceptualize an experience, before we make a narrative about the experience, before we produce notions of self and other, before we evaluate as desirable or undesirable. This is, as Bankei puts it, Buddha mind.


What good is this immediate unborn mind? This mind is free of suffering. Having an experience of unborn mind, let's us know we aren't trapped in the fabricated reified or “born” mind of words and concepts. This confirms what the Buddha taught in the Khuddaka Nikaya sutta quoted above. By having an experience of the unborn, we know the “born” as artifice.


One might think, “well if an experience of unborn mind is good, wouldn't it be better to abide in the unborn all the time?” The answer is no. First, that kind of attitude implies a certain grasping of trying to make such an experience “permanent”. It is like being an addict who wants to be high all the time. Trying to cling to the unborn mind, like any other clinging, will lead to suffering. Second, experiencing unborn mind is like taking medicine. It is a cure for delusion. We create delusion all the time. However, through an experience of the unborn mind, we realize our delusions are delusions. Then, in some sense, there are no longer delusions.


Very often in enlightenment stories of Zen masters, the story concentrates on the moment of enlightenment. What these stories don't say is that such an experience is the result of much effort before the experience and then after the experience the Zen master will have spent years integrating the experience into their everyday lives. So, it is if you have an experience of unborn mind. The important questions is, “How do you live in and realize its truth without becoming a junkie hooked on seeking the next unborn experience?”


Now, it is completely possible to have multiple experiences of unborn. However, if we try to have a particular experience in zazen, it will elude us. As the Hsin Hsin Ming, puts it,


The great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. … If you want it to appear have no opinions for or against it.


So, we are left with how do we practise both in zazen and in our lives off of the cushion? When I consider this questions, two thoughts come to mind. The first thought is that Zen practice is Bodhisattva practice. The same attitude which is conveyed by the Bodhisattva vows, we apply to our daily practice. We focus on the effort and being thorough rather than results. The second thought is to root ourselves in a correct and concrete practice.


What is a correct and concrete practice? Zazen, of course. When seated in zazen, we practise awareness. In particular, because we have bodies and sense organs, we become aware of our sensory stimuli. This sensory input gives rise to sensations (vedana) in our body and we become aware of those bodily sensations as well. These sensations can form the basis for craving, attachment, and finally suffering.


In my experience, if I can abide meditatively at the stage of sensation, I find that my experience doesn't evolve toward craving and attachment. Different sensations come and go, the total sensory experience is always immediate and changing. The conceptualizations accompanying attachment remain “unborn”. We are abiding with unborn mind. The more we are able to do this, the more we weaken the habit of grasping subjects and objects in our everyday lives. Untrained people grasp at subjects and objects as a way to try to be OK, to try to avoid pain and uncertainty. Through zazen practice, we realize that we are still OK if we don't grasp. The unborn mind described by Bankei begins to diffuse subtly into our everyday life.


And, yet, the experience of unborn mind is easily lost. The moment we grasp, the moment we wish something is different from the way it is, “heaven and earth are set apart”. As Bankei says, The moment you turn it into something else, you become an ignorant, deluded person.5 Again, our zazen practice is a good model. When our mind wanders off in zazen, we simply bring it back to our intended practice. Bringing ourselves back to our intended practice has 3 parts: First, we become aware that we have drifted off, second, we decide to return to our intended practice, third, we return to our intended practice. The first part is the really important part. We don't waste time or energy reprimanding ourselves for drifting off. As the Hsin Hsin Ming reminds us, “The burdensome practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness.” That is simply an indulgence of the fabricating mind. We simply become aware and return. This is true both sitting zazen and in our lives off of the cushion.


The last thing I wanted to mention regarding the unborn mind is the its connection to the Six Paramitas (Perfections) of a Bodhisattva. The third perfection is normally translated as “patience”, “tolerance”, or “forbearance”. The full Sanskrit term is anutpattika-dharma-kshanti which means “having the patient acceptance of the non-origination of all dharmas. “Non-origination” is, of course, a synonym for “unborn”.


Normally, most people take some set of beliefs or views as unquestionably self-evident. They ascribe to and invest in a sort of solidity and stability to what they believe are “facts”. In other words, they have taken these bedrock views and beliefs as being inherently existent. This is unconsciously comforting for people. As we experience unborn mind in zazen and other parts of our lives, we may begin to realize that all these views and beliefs we have unconsciously taken as existential axioms, are neither as solid nor as absolutely true as we once believed. In reality, they are without basis. They are unborn dharmas, the same as all other unborn dharmas. There is nothing special about them. If you have ever witnessed someone's (or your own) beliefs shattered, you know how disconcerting and upsetting it can be to have your whole edifice of belief tumble down in short order. This is where Kshanti Paramita, the Perfection of Patience, Tolerance, and Forbearance kicks in in the patient acceptance of unborn dharmas. As aspiring Bodhisattvas delving into the unborn mind, we are able to tolerate the realization that there is no solid place for us to stand.


To conclude, experiencing the unborn mind is always available to you. No preparation is necessary. Just drop the fabrications (that's the hard part, isn't it?). Bankei's talks on the unborn along with many other Buddhist teachings are focused on letting go what we have fabricated rather than trying to achieve or create some sort of higher spiritual state. Paradoxically, it is the drive to attain which makes what we are seeking all the more inaccessible. You cannot create an experience of the unborn mind, only stop creating the obstructions which inhibit the experience. We study and practise Buddhist teachings not to gain, but to lose, to let go of those mental habits and conditioning which creates obstructions. As Zen ancestor Sekito Kisen put it in a traditional Soto Zen teaching poem, Song of the Grass-Roof Hut,


Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,

are only to free you from obstructions.

If you want to know the undying person in the hut,

do not separate from this skin bag here and now.


Buddhist teachings won't give us “the answer”. They give us the tools to start asking the right questions, to start the body/mind inquiry. More importantly, the way of Zen is a practice, and this practice is done with our bodies, and with our real lives. Thus, we delve into Bankei's Unborn mind is Buddha mind. Thank-you.

1The Unborn: Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, Norman Waddell, North Point Press, New York, 1984, 2000, page 59.

2Waddell, page 88


4Waddell, page 55.

5Waddell, page ??


Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2016