The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Monday Mindful Morsel: Making Zen Your Own

by Lydia Anderson
March 24, 2014
Mon, 03/24/2014 - 12:30 -- landerson

This week’s morsel comes from Janet Jiryu Abels’ Making Zen Your Own. In this book, Abels traces the life stories of twelve Chinese Zen masters who, together, shaped what was to become known as Zen’s Golden Age. In today’s selection, she looks at the life and patience of Bodhidharma.

Virtually nothing definitive is known about Bodhidharma’s activities during his early years in China. Presumably he took time to learn Chinese and become accustomed to his new landscape, but what happened to him during the first fifteen or twenty years in his adopted country is unclear. One thing does stand out, however: he seems to have been extraordinarily patient. I mean, if you were sent on a mission by your revered teacher, could you spend up to twenty years in obscurity without trying to do something—without trying to become well known, trying to find students, trying to get a publicist? (Bodhidharma probably did teach during this time, but since no record of such teaching exists we can assume his teaching was not very extensive, or at least it didn’t take hold in people.) What an example this period of his life can set for us. It shows us that we too must learn to develop patience and not be in a hurry; that we do not need results in order to trust that we are on the right path; that we too must develop confidence in ourselves by simply being open, being attentive, and allowing events to unfold in their own time—which, after all, is the only time in which they can unfold. But all this is difficult, for to live this way is to live counter to immense societal forces that constantly demand from us immediate success, immediate results, with no room allowed for slow maturation. It takes courage, confidence, and sheer determination not to get sucked under by such forces, and that is why the discipline that Zen offers is essential.

The first indication we have of Bodhidharma’s whereabouts after his arrival in China is from Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks, a seventh-century text by the monk Dao Xuan, which placed him near the northern kingdom city of Luoyang between the years 485 and 497. (As noted in the introduction to this book, recent scholarly discoveries by Andy Ferguson and others offer a possible account of Bodhidharma’s activities from this time on; it is this account I will be following for the rest of this chapter.) During this time, tradition says Bodhidharma chose to live among “peaks and caves” on nearby Mount Song, the central peak of China’s sacred mountains. Perhaps this is because, as Ferguson surmises, he feared the Buddhist establishment, which was closely allied to the northern imperial court, and which did not look kindly on iconoclastic teachers. Some Buddhist and Taoist temples already existed on Mount Song (although not, as is widely held, Shaolin Temple—still active to this day—which was not built until a decade later), but Bodhidharma did not join them. Rather, he chose to live for six years (some texts say nine) on Mount Song, in a cave facing a wall, thus becoming known as the Indian Brahmin Who Faces a Wall.

Bodhidharma is well known for this wall facing, but the significance of his choice to do this can easily elude us, given the context of his mission from his teacher. This Indian brahmin, this holy man, sat facing a wall for six years—and that is all he did. He didn’t work at getting a name for himself or developing a profile or getting influence. The confidence of his choice is almost breathtaking. And just what was this “wall facing”? What was he doing? He was doing nothing—other than disappearing, so to speak, allowing his ignorant ego-mind to drop off. Once again, he was opening into the unknown—just as he had done when he chose to leave his homeland. Such risk-taking, leaving the safety of mental certainties for exploration of the unknown, is the true work of meditation, for it is the only way one can realize one’s essential reality. But does one have to be in a cave to face a wall? Does one even have to have a wall to face a wall? What is it that one faces when one faces the wall? Who is it facing the wall? And just what is the wall? These questions are up to each of us to resolve.

Bodhidharma did, however, attract some attention. Buddhist and Taoist seekers came to these mountains and some of them were eventually drawn to him. His first documented disciple was a man named Seng Fu who stayed with him until sometime around 495, at which time Seng Fu moved south to Nanjing. Bodhidharma’s other known student, Huike, was the man who would become the second Chinese patriarch (for although Bodhidharma was an Indian, he is considered to be the first Chinese patriarch). Huike had assiduously studied Buddhist teachings but he was still not satisfied. Even after many years of searching—he was into middle age by this time—something was still not resolved for Huike. And here he models for us another basic Zen tenet: we must seek, we must practice, and we must strive, until we resolve the Great Matter, as Zen calls it. Someone else’s resolution (often presented in the form of books and lectures) will not suffice. Through determined Zen practice we must each resolve the Great Matter of life and death for ourselves, no matter how long it takes. And that is why Huike’s awakening, as tradition tells it, is so encouraging. It is one of the great Zen stories of all time. It is perhaps the ultimate Zen story of determination.

In his search, Huike heard of the wall-gazing brahmin from India and traveled to Bodhidharma’s cave on Mount Song. But Bodhidharma wanted nothing of this seeker. Even though it was a cold and snowy day in December, Bodhidharma would not let him enter, calling out to Huike that he, Huike, was shallow and arrogant, with little wisdom—in other words, not up to the task. Bodhidharma sure was a tough fellow, wasn’t he? No wonder he had virtually no disciples. But he had met his match, for Huike was equally tough. As he stood, rejected, shivering in the snow, he took a knife and cut off his arm to show how he would do anything to awaken—and, the story goes, his blood dripped on the white snow. On seeing this, Bodhidharma realized the man’s strength and resolve, and accepted him as his student.

Zen is hard. To wake up to the truth of who we really are is difficult. Many people come to this practice with great enthusiasm, but when they begin to see how challenging it is, they say, “this is not what I bargained for,” and, sadly, walk away. Realization cannot happen without a strong desire to awaken and it cannot happen without sacrifice. Only one who has struggled with his or her own inner torments can fully appreciate Huike’s intense and desperate need to see clearly. The teaching here is that such intense need must be there and it can only be fulfilled through struggle and sacrifice. To die to self, which is what waking up is all about, means that metaphorically our blood, just as Huike’s, must be spilled on fresh snow. Dying to self so that we can see clearly is very painful. How intense is your need to see clearly?

Once in front of the master, Huike pinpointed the source of his angst, angst so intense that he had been willing to cut off his arm. He said, “I have studied, I have read, I have dedicated myself to becoming awake, but my mind is not yet at peace. Bring me peace, master.” In other words: “Something doesn’t fit. There is still a hole inside of me. I am not complete. Help me.” And Bodhidharma replied: “Well, bring me your mind and I will set it at peace.” What a brilliant response. He didn’t deny the mind, and he didn’t deny the torment, the truth of Huike’s experience of not being at peace. Like the Buddha, Bodhidharma approached the problem scientifically: “Bring me your mind,” he said, “and I will set it at peace.” So Huike set about looking, really exhaustively searching, for his mind. After some time he came back and said, “I’ve searched everywhere for my mind but my mind is unfindable.” “Then,” said Bodhidharma, “I have set it at peace.”

Huike stayed with his teacher for eight years. He became the second Chinese Zen patriarch, spending most of his rather obscure life teaching in the streets of the capital city, Yedu, and eventually passing on the Dharma (teaching) to his student Sengcan, who became the third Chinese patriarch in the Zen lineage.

“My mind is not at peace. Please bring me peace.”

What about you? Are you also seeking to put your mind at peace? Are you trying to outrun something, change something, become something, achieve something, know something, awaken to something? Is your mind, too, not at peace? Why not follow Bodhidharma’s advice? Look for your mind. What do you find? Do you find your mind? Or do you find “just this”?

To learn more about Making Zen Your Own, click here.

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