Awakening, Buddhism, Zen Buddhism

What is Unborn Zen?

Having studied Zen Buddhism for over thirty years, I’ve recently uncovered the distinct teachings of Bankei Yōtaku.

This unexpected discovery, emerging from the rich tapestry of Zen traditions I’ve studied, introduced me to a philosophy that stands out in its uniqueness and profundity. Bankei’s emphasis on the “Unborn” serves as a transformative insight, redirecting the seeker’s gaze inward to recognize inherent enlightenment. Furthermore, his critiques of established practices and his direct approach to Zen offer a refreshing break from conventional Zen doctrines. 

In this article, we will embark on a comprehensive exploration of Bankei’s unique teachings, understanding their historical context and core tenets.

A Unique Take on Zen

Originating from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (aka the Buddha) in ancient India, Zen Buddhism made its way to China as Chan Buddhism and eventually to Japan, where it blossomed into the Zen we recognize today. Over the centuries, Zen has been characterized by its various schools and the practices they emphasize. 

One of the most universally recognized is zazen or seated meditation. For many practitioners and schools, zazen is not just a practice but a doorway to understanding the nature of the self and attaining enlightenment.

As we saw before, Zen Buddhism is not an homogeneous tradition, yet Bankei Yōtaku stands out as a maverick. Born in 17th-century Japan, he charted a path that deviated from established Zen norms. Rather than focusing on rigorous monastic practices or intensive meditation, Bankei introduced and emphasized the doctrine of the “Unborn.” According to him, every individual inherently possesses an enlightened nature, which he termed the “Unborn.” This enlightening concept and Bankei’s critiques of traditional practices sparked intrigue and debates, leaving a lasting impact on the landscape of Zen Buddhism.

Who is Bankei Yōtaku?

Bankei Yōtaku was born in 1622 in the Harima Province of Japan into a samurai family. His formative years were marked not by martial pursuits but by an insatiable curiosity about the nature of existence and the essence of enlightenment. This was unusual for someone of his status and upbringing. 

By age eleven, his questioning nature led him to study Confucian classics, searching for answers to life’s big questions. Yet, Confucianism’s ritualistic and ethical codes couldn’t quench his spiritual thirst. At fifteen, he left home to train under a Rinzai Zen teacher, immersing himself in traditional monastic practices. Here, he rigorously engaged with koan study, a Zen method involving pondering paradoxical questions or statements.

However, the traditional methods of Zen, particularly the koan system, proved to be a source of profound distress for young Bankei. His intense dedication to solving koans and inability to find satisfactory answers led to significant mental and physical strain. He would seclude himself fast and push his body and mind to the limits, resulting in severe health issues, including a bout with tuberculosis.

Throughout these trials, two things remained constant: his unwavering determination to uncover the truth and his growing disillusionment with traditional Zen methods, which he felt were more about rote and ritual than genuine enlightenment.

One day, amidst the turmoil of physical suffering and spiritual distress, Bankei had an insight that changed the course of his spiritual journey. He realized that the very nature of existence, the core of every being, was an unchanging essence he termed the “Unborn.” This wasn’t an abstract concept but a direct, experiential understanding. 

For Bankei, the “Unborn” symbolized an ever-present state of pure awareness, untouched by societal influences, opinions, or temporal concerns. It transcended the dualistic notions of birth and death, right and wrong. With this revelation, Bankei set out to share his insights, emphasizing the immediacy of realization over years of laborious practice.

The Concept of the “Unborn”

Unlike many traditional Zen philosophies that detail intricate paths to realization, Bankei’s “Unborn” emphasizes the innate nature of enlightenment, a concept both simple in its essence and profound in its implications.

Innate Enlightenment and Perfection

At the heart of Bankei’s teachings lay a radical assertion: every individual, from birth, embodies a state of perfect enlightenment. This inherent state termed the “Unborn,” is unsullied, untainted by societal constructs, personal biases, or dualistic perceptions. Regardless of life’s vicissitudes, it remains consistent, a beacon of purity and clarity. This contrasts sharply with many traditional Buddhist teachings that often depict enlightenment as a state to be attained through rigorous practices and discipline.

Universality and Inclusivity of the “Unborn” Concept

One of the most compelling aspects of Bankei’s teachings was their universal applicability. He fervently believed and taught that the “Unborn” was not a lofty state accessible only to seasoned monks or spiritual elites. It was the birthright of every individual, irrespective of their life circumstances, past deeds, or societal status. This democratization of enlightenment was liberating and empowering, offering hope and a direct path to realization for all.

Contrast with the Established Zen Narrative

The Zen tradition, especially during Bankei’s time, was characterized by its structured methodologies — set practices, rituals, and a delineated path leading the practitioner toward enlightenment. Bankei’s introduction of the “Unborn” disrupted this established narrative. Rather than viewing enlightenment as a distant summit to be reached, Bankei posited it as the very ground on which we stand. While revered by many, this paradigm shift also drew criticisms from traditionalists.

Bankei’s teachings on the “Unborn” invite us to reconsider many of our deeply ingrained beliefs about the nature of enlightenment and the path to realization. They urge us to look inward, to recognize and embrace the inherent perfection and enlightenment that is our birthright. In a world where spiritual paths can often seem complex and elusive, Bankei’s “Unborn” offers a direct and immediate return to our true essence.

A Direct Approach

Amid the traditional Zen practices and teachings, Bankei introduced a distinctive approach to realization that bypassed intricate rituals and rigorous disciplines. Central to his teachings was the immediacy and directness of the path to enlightenment.

Immediate Realization over Gradual Cultivation

While most Zen traditions propound a gradual path to enlightenment, involving years of practice and cultivation, Bankei’s message was radical in its simplicity. He emphasized the immediacy of enlightenment, underscoring that it wasn’t a distant state to be attained but the essence of our being, ever-present and accessible.

Guiding Students to Their “Unborn” Nature

Bankei’s method was direct and uncomplicated in his interactions with students and followers. Instead of offering complex koans or prescribing rigorous meditation schedules, he often pointed them to their inherent “Unborn” nature. Through simple yet profound dialogues, Bankei guided countless individuals to recognize and resonate with their innate state of perfection and enlightenment.

Challenging Conventional Zen Norms

Bankei’s direct approach often stood in stark contrast to established Zen norms. By emphasizing naturalness and the ever-present nature of enlightenment, he challenged many deeply ingrained beliefs within the Zen community. This drew a dedicated following and sparked debates and discussions, further highlighting the transformative nature of his teachings.

Bankei’s direct approach to Zen, emphasizing enlightenment’s inherent and immediate nature, offers a refreshing perspective in spiritual teachings. It serves as a beacon, guiding seekers back to their intrinsic nature, free from complexities and external pursuits, and inviting them to recognize and reside in their “Unborn” essence.

Bankei’s Critique of Zazen

While zazen is a revered practice within many Zen traditions, Bankei’s stance on it was unorthodox and thought-provoking. Contrary to the conventional reverence for zazen, Bankei audaciously proposed that meditation practice was, in fact, unnecessary to realize one’s true nature.

Questioning the Necessity of Zazen

Bankei, based on his realization of the “Unborn,” asserted that since every individual was inherently enlightened, the rigorous and systematic practice of zazen was not necessary to attain enlightenment. For him, practices like zazen became redundant in the face of the immediacy and accessibility of the “Unborn” nature.

The Trap of Mechanistic Practices

Bankei observed that many Zen practitioners had become entangled in the routine of practices, transforming tools of realization into mere ritualistic habits. Zazen, to many, became a task, a means to chase after an external state of enlightenment rather than a reflection of an inner, inherent state of being.

Naturalness Over Rituals

One of Bankei’s recurring themes was the emphasis on naturalness. Instead of engaging in zazen with a sense of duty or as a means to an end, Bankei encouraged practitioners to live naturally, in tune with their “Unborn” nature. Suppose one felt genuinely inclined towards zazen or any other practice. In that case, they should engage in it – but always from a place of naturalness, not obligation.

Bankei’s critique of zazen challenges many traditional Zen perspectives, urging practitioners to shift their focus from external practices to internal realization. By declaring zazen unnecessary, he highlighted enlightenment’s immediate and ever-present nature, steering the spiritual seeker’s attention inward to the “Unborn” essence within.

Relevance of Bankei’s Teachings

As we navigate the complexities of the modern world, ancient wisdom often provides timeless insights. Bankei’s teachings, rooted in the 17th century, still hold profound relevance today, offering guidance and clarity in an era marked by rapid change and existential quests.

Simplicity in a Complex World

Today’s world is often characterized by information overload, numerous external stimuli, and a relentless pace of life. Amidst this chaos, Bankei’s emphasis on the “Unborn” and the inherent simplicity of existence provides a refreshing counterpoint. His teachings remind us that, despite external complexities, our inner nature remains pure and immediately accessible.

Relevance in Modern Mindfulness and Meditation Practices

Mindfulness and meditation have seen a resurgence in modern times, often touted as tools to combat stress, anxiety and the general malaise of contemporary life. Bankei’s perspective on zazen and his emphasis on naturalness and immediacy align well with many modern practices. While he may not have advocated for structured meditation, the essence of his teachings — being present and recognizing one’s innate nature — finds echoes in contemporary mindfulness movements.

Challenging Dogmas and Established Norms

Just as Bankei challenged established Zen practices and norms in his time, his teachings can inspire modern-day seekers to question dogmas, rituals, and overly structured spiritual paths. His approach encourages direct personal experience over blind adherence. This sentiment resonates with many who seek authentic spiritual experiences beyond institutionalized religions or practices.

Universal Appeal Beyond Cultural Boundaries

While rooted in Japanese Zen Buddhism, Bankei’s teachings are universal. The essence of the “Unborn,” the emphasis on naturalness, and the direct approach to realization transcend cultural and geographical boundaries. Today, Bankei’s words find relevance not just in Japan or Zen communities but among global audiences seeking spiritual clarity and simplicity.

Bankei’s teachings, while centuries old, hold a mirror to many of the challenges and quests of the modern soul. In an era where complexity often overshadows essence, Bankei’s emphasis on the “Unborn” and direct realization offers a path of simplicity, directness, and profound insight. His legacy is a testament to the timeless nature of genuine spiritual wisdom.

Takeaways from Bankei’s Philosophy

Bankei’s philosophy stands as a beacon of simplicity and directness in the landscape of Zen teachings. Distilling his teachings into key takeaways allows modern seekers to integrate his insights into their lives and spiritual journeys.

  • Inherent Enlightenment: Central to Bankei’s teachings is the notion that every individual is inherently enlightened by virtue of their very existence. This contrasts sharply with many spiritual paths that view enlightenment as a distant goal. Bankei challenges us to recognize and reside in our innate, enlightened state, termed the “Unborn.”
  • Naturalness Over Structured Practices: Bankei emphasized the importance of living naturally, in harmony with one’s true nature. While he didn’t dismiss traditional practices outright, he believed that genuine spiritual living should arise from a place of naturalness rather than rigid adherence to rituals or practices.
  • Immediate Realization: Unlike many spiritual traditions that propose a gradual path to realization, Bankei’s approach is rooted in immediacy. He taught that realizing one’s “Unborn” nature is accessible in the present moment without prolonged practices or rituals.
  • Challenging Established Norms: Bankei’s teachings often clashed with established Zen traditions. His emphasis on the “Unborn” and his critique of established practices like zazen underscored his belief in direct experience over tradition. This perspective encourages seekers to prioritize personal experience and insight over blind adherence to established norms.
  • Universal Accessibility: Bankei’s teachings on the “Unborn” are not exclusive to any religion, culture, group, or elite. He believed that this inherent enlightened state is universally accessible, irrespective of one’s background, status, or previous experiences.

As you can see, Bankei’s philosophy offers profound insights for spiritual seekers. While anchored in the Zen tradition, his teachings carry a universal message of inherent enlightenment, naturalness, and the immediacy of realization. They serve as timeless reminders of our intrinsic nature and the direct path to recognizing it.


In the tradition of Zen Buddhism, Bankei Yōtaku shines with a distinctive light. His revolutionary emphasis on the “Unborn” and his audacious critiques of established practices like zazen reflect a profound and direct understanding of the human spiritual condition. 

Bankei’s teachings challenge us to question, reflect, and, most importantly, recognize our inherent perfection and enlightenment. In an age where complexity often overshadows essence, and the external often drowns out the internal, Bankei’s voice serves as a clarion call. It beckons us back to simplicity, immediacy, and our authentic selves.

While rooted in a specific cultural and temporal context, his legacy transcends boundaries, resonating with individuals across cultures and epochs. It’s a testament to the timeless nature of genuine spiritual insights and the universal yearnings of the human spirit.