Making Zen Your Own - Selections

Giving Life to Twelve Key Golden Age Ancestors


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1. Bodhidharma: No Knowing Stands Here

Zen is about exploration of the unknown. It is about leaving the safety of one’s accumulated mind-based knowledge and its sense of certainty, and moving ever so slowly into the unknowable, unimaginable experience of “absolute” or “essential” reality, which is none other than one’s very self. Exploration of the unknown is never easy, whether it is physical travel to a new land, psychological travel into the complex layers of one’s psyche, or travel into the limitless mystery of one’s essential self. It requires a strong sense of longing to find or realize “something other” than that which is familiar. It requires willpower, focus, discipline, and determination. It requires facing fears and proceeding regardless. It requires faith. It requires resolve.

Such an exploration, then, such a journey, could have no better metaphor than the sea voyage undertaken by the man who brought the essence of what came to be called Chan (Zen in Japanese) from India to China. His name is Bodhidharma, and though his history is unclear, one characteristic seems to stand out: Bodhidharma did not turn away from the unknown—he sailed right into it.

The earliest record tells us that around the year 475, a Buddhist monk in his early thirties, born into privilege as the son of an Indian rajah, crossed the sea from India to China. Bodhidharma’s voyage took three years. Nothing much has been written by scholars about this voyage, primarily because there is very little documentation of it, but we have the freedom to look at the trip imaginatively and learn a great deal from it for our own journey of self-discovery. Lacking details, it is easy to have the impression that Bodhidharma sailed across effortlessly and without challenge. But did he? What about perilous seas, pirates, unfamiliar languages, strange lands, and different customs? Who was there in China to encourage him? There were no teachers around, no family, and no servants. He was young and he was alone. Was he scared? Did he feel lost? It is hard to imagine that he did not. Could romantic visions that he might have formed in India about the Buddha Way have crashed mightily on such a journey? Could he have had doubts about his desire to bring the essence of the Dharma to China, doubts about his capability to carry it out, and perhaps even doubts about the Dharma itself? Surely he must have lost his compass more than once. One is reminded of Andre Gide’s words: “In order to discover new lands, one must be willing to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

Bodhidharma surely lost sight of the shore, both literally and figuratively, for a very long time. Do we lose sight on our journeys of self-discovery? Are there not times when we too feel lost, alone, and scared? Is our faith in, and our longing for, an intangible “something” often battered by doubt? Don’t our romantic visions of enlightenment often become confused? If so, perhaps we can find determination and resolve in Bodhidharma’s journey across the sea. Perhaps we can find in his journey the courage to steer ourselves ever deeper into the perilous waters of our own particular unknowns, just as he did. Bodhidharma did not turn back, even though he did not know what lay ahead. And for us, the sooner we discover the fruits of moving forward through the unknowns of our own explorations—accepting that true awakening is never an easy journey—the sooner turning back will become impossible.

Recent scholarly discoveries, as well as the earliest records, indicate that Bodhidharma was born around the year 440 in the southern Indian kingdom of Palava. He was a member of the warrior class, the third son of the ruler of that kingdom, and at a young age he developed a deep interest in the Buddha Way. This is why his father invited the great Mahayana Buddhist teacher Prajnatara, the twenty-seventh Indian ancestor of the Zen lineage, to travel from the northeastern Buddhist heartland of Magadah to instruct his son.

Prajnatara’s name means “pearl of wisdom,” and he had received that name from his own teacher because of his deep insight into the nonduality, or Oneness, of all that exists. He had realized that essential or absolute reality is One, and that this One is expressed as everything, experienced as everything. We, then, are not separate from One—it is us. In “just this moment” we are complete—all we have to do is realize this startling truth. Now, these are encouraging words for those of us who long to discover who we really are, as they no doubt were for the young prince. We don’t become the reality or truth of who we are. Rather, we awaken to the truth of who we already are, a truth hidden from us by our ignorant ego-mind. Such awakening cannot be understood with this ego-mind, it can only be experienced when that mind is still, when all separations (or discriminations as Zen calls them) drop away and we fully realize that everything, including our ignorant ego-mind, is one essential reality. As Bodhidharma later wrote in a work attributed to him called the Bloodstream Sermon, “to search for enlightenment or nirvana beyond this mind is impossible.” In other words, Oneness is not something outside of us—it is us.

This is the prajna, or wisdom, that Prajnatara allowed to rise up in his gifted student, letting him proceed slowly until he had grasped the principle of nonduality for himself and awakened to the truth. After this awakening, the young prince requested ordination as a Buddhist monk and received the name Bodhidharma (“Awakened Teaching”). Prajnatara then encouraged him to leave India and bring his innate wisdom and noble spirit to the vast regions of China. So it was that Bodhidharma left his homeland and set out for unknown lands to the northeast. He sailed from the southern port of Mahabalipuram, traveling across the Indian Ocean (at that time the overland route between India and China was blocked by the Huns), with presumed stops at various ports in such modern-day countries as Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia. He arrived in China around the year 475.

At this time, Buddhism in China was thriving, having been brought from India through overland routes during the first century. In the northern kingdom, more than five thousand Buddhist temples flourished,
while in the southern kingdom there were about two thousand. Emphasis in these early years of Buddhism in China was on doctrines, philosophical discussion, rituals, the building of monasteries, and the copying and translating of texts, although meditation, the heart of the Buddha Way, was certainly practiced and taught by these early monks. The Indian “Sutra on Concentration by Practicing Respiratory Exercises” was translated into Chinese during the second century, and chan became the Chinese character for the Sanskrit word dhyana (meditation), though the popular notion of meditation was that it produced magical powers.

The Chinese were especially attracted to the wisdom teachings (the Prajnaparamita sutras) of Mahayana Buddhism. A major reason for this was that these teachings found special affinity with the Chinese wisdom of the Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu (written about a thousand years earlier, around the time of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha) and the writings of the fourth-century sage Chuang Tzu. It is easy to see this affinity because even today the Tao resonates strongly with Zen practitioners. Heinrich Dumoulin, in an excellent chapter on early Buddhism in China in his book Zen Buddhism: A History, India and China, also tells us that the naturalistic spirit of Taoism found deep connection with the Mahayanist sutras (Buddhist scriptures). “Where the Indians had been inhibited by their agonizing struggle for salvation, the Chinese, who desired nothing so much as to penetrate the secrets of nature, were attracted to Taoist-Buddhist naturalism.” All in all, Buddhism and Taoism connected. As Dumoulin writes, “The fusion of Mahayana metaphysics and the Chinese view of life was so complete that the borderlines between influence and originality can no longer be clearly defined.”

So this is the China in which Bodhidharma landed when he arrived at the southern port of Nanhai somewhere around 475, with his teaching of “pointing to mind.” Being Indian, he must have stood out among the Chinese teachers, not only because he looked different and was a Buddhist from India, the country of Buddhism’s origin, but also because the Dharma he spoke about must have sounded so extreme. Bodhidharma taught direct experience of absolute reality, while the Chinese Buddhist teachers were primarily concerned with philosophical discussion about absolute reality.

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”?

Around 495, the emperor of the northern kingdom moved his court to Luoyang and soon after began the construction of Shaolin Temple on Mount Song. This seems to have been the catalyst for the anti-­institutional Bodhidharma to leave his cave, cross the Yangtze River (on a reed, tradition tells us) and move to the southern kingdom, possibly to be near his disciple Seng Fu in Nanjing, capital of the Qi dynasty that ruled in the south. It was during this time that the famous meeting between Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu (which comes to us as the first koan in The Blue Cliff Record) probably took place. Emperor Wu had ascended the throne of southern China in 502 and, according to Andy Ferguson, “his long rule, from 502–549, saw an intimate connection between Buddhism and the imperial throne hardly matched by any other era of Chinese history.” Though Ferguson opens up the possibility that Wu may have used Buddhism to enhance his imperial power, there is no doubt that he was an ardent Buddhist. He “lived in a single room without furniture at the rear of the palace, sleeping on a plain mat on the ground, spending much of his time studying the scriptures.” He supported Buddhist monasteries, built temples, and had texts translated. Bodhidharma’s radical teaching surely must have come to his attention, and this is why the Indian monk was invited for an audience at court—though why Bodhidharma decided to shake off his distrust of power and accept the invitation is unclear. Perhaps his disciple Seng Fu persuaded him to go, or perhaps he saw that the emperor’s interest in Buddhism was genuine. No matter, the important thing is that he went. The meeting has become part of Buddhist lore.

As the story goes, Bodhidharma stood before the emperor, who said to him: “Since coming to the throne, I’ve had temples built, sutras translated, monks ordained. Tell me, what merit have I gained?” “No merit at all,” replied Bodhidharma. What astonishment that must have caused—to stand in front of the emperor and tell him he had gained no merit. The twelfth-century commentary on this in The Blue Cliff Record says: “He threw dirty water on the emperor right away.” To his great credit, the emperor did not have Bodhidharma thrown out, but asked, “Why no merit?” This was a legitimate question, since “merit” for one’s good deeds was very much part of the Buddhist teaching the emperor had been taught. “These works of merit are all illusions and are not real,” Bodhidharma replied. Again, the emperor must have been stopped in his tracks but continued to remain engaged. He asked a logical question: “So what is the meaning, then, of the holy truths?” Bodhidharma replied: “Vast emptiness. Nothing holy.” Dumbfounded, the emperor asked, “Who is this who stands before me?” “I don’t know,” was the reply.

Let’s examine this famous exchange, for it offers parallels for our own lives. “What merit have I gained?” Surely this is a familiar question for us, as well as the emperor. If I sit in meditation, if I put in my hours, if I do service at the zendo, if I study, if I work on koans, if I impress the teacher, I will surely gain something, right? I will surely achieve something, right? No, I will not gain or achieve anything: no gain, no merit. So then we might ask, “If there is nothing to gain, why do it at all? Why go through all this Zen madness? Why sit? Why practice?” And there is no answer that anyone can give us, only the answer we arrive at on our own, just as Emperor Wu was left to determine his own answer for himself. How do we find our answer, though? By practicing zazen, or sitting meditation. There is no other way. For it is only through the practice of stilling the mind through meditation that we can answer the questions that Bodhidharma’s responses raise. As The Blue Cliff Record says, “If you can grasp this statement ‘no merit’ you can meet Bodhidharma face to face.” “What, then, is the holy teaching?” we ask, along with the emperor. “What is it that I’m supposed to be seeking? What is holiness, what is goodness, what is the mystery?” No holiness, no teaching, no goodness, no mystery, Bodhidharma ultimately tells us. Just emptiness. “But what is emptiness?” The only way to find out is to practice and realize that it is everything.

The emperor was truly at a loss after asking about the holy truths, so he demanded, “Who are you?” Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know,” or, as Katsuki Sekida Roshi says is the correct translation, “No knowing. No knowing stands here.” Now, “no knowing” has to be true “no knowing,” not just a concept that makes sense intellectually but is not lived out and therefore entangles us more. We should not make “no knowing” into another idea the way we tend to make “enlightenment” into an idea that we have to then smash to pieces. So the “I don’t know” that we so regularly say in frustration when we practice Zen—“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” “I don’t know what this means”—is necessary. “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” is the entry point into the “not-knowing” of Zen. It is the letting go of our mental entanglements, and we must begin to trust this truth whenever we become frustrated. It is easy to put ourselves down when we don’t “get it,” as if there were something wrong with us. But there is nothing wrong with us. Confusion, turbulence, and doubt are all part of the not-knowing of Zen.

Through his insight and practice, Bodhidharma had developed the confidence to stand in front of an emperor and say “I don’t know” because he really did not know. The mind, which creates “knowing,” was completely still as he stood there. But a still mind is not a dead mind, or an ignorant mind. It is an alive mind—just one that doesn’t know. So if you’re confused, if you don’t know what you’re doing, if you feel dumb or stupid when you’re engaged in Zen practice, learn to trust it. Strange as it may seem, this is the Way—the awakening way. Don’t change course. Keep sitting in not-knowing with the strength of a Bodhidharma, all the time seeking to realize no merit.

After the exchange with Emperor Wu, Bodhidharma left the court, but according to the commentary in The Blue Cliff Record, the emperor remained intrigued. Perhaps he intuited something about that “I don’t know.” He asked Master Chi, one of the monks at court, “Who was that man who stood before me?” And Master Chi answered, “This is the Bodhisattva of Compassion directly transmitting the mind of Buddha.” The emperor felt regret and was going to send an emissary to bring Bodhidharma back.

But truly, was there anyone to “bring back”?

Bodhidharma seems to have stayed on in the southern kingdom for some years, but then at some point returned to the north. According to Huike’s biography in Continued Biographies, Bodhidharma died on the banks of the Luo River in the year 528 but, as Andy Ferguson writes, “Any conclusion about Bodhidharma’s final days and place of death remains very speculative.” An enigma to the end, he died, his essence now awakened in a middle-aged, one-armed Chinese man who passed on the Dharma in the streets with the same resolve and determination as his teacher until his own death in 593 at the age of 107. In The Transmission of the Lamp, Tao-yuan records Bodhidharma’s prophecy, the five-petal reference being to the future five schools of Zen:

I came to this land originally to transmit the Dharma
And to bring deliverance from error.
A flower opens five petals
The fruit ripens of itself.

Looked at as a whole, then, what did Bodhidharma do? From the perspective of oneness, he did nothing. Everything is complete already. The fruit ripens of itself. Even from the relative point of view, he didn’t seem to achieve very much. Yet how like our journey is his journey. He awakened through teaching—so must we. He studied, he practiced—so must we. He took an arduous journey, far from the safety of the shore—so must we. He came to a foreign land, the land of not-knowing—so must we. He stood up to outer authority—so must we. He sat, in discipline, facing a wall, facing his unknowns, his limitations, his vastness, and his boundlessness—so must we. He taught the Dharma by embodying it—so must we. He passed away—so must we.

He passed away with no sangha, no buildings, no followers, no fame, no success, just unbridled confidence in the Dharma of not-knowing. And out of this thin reed of seeming failure, Zen flourished. What teaching and inspiration for us who always have to know the outcome before we take even the smallest step, who continually base everything on results, on how things look, who need titles and positions and acknowledgment, who don’t dare take risks, who can’t bear to let go of our safety nets. What teaching and inspiration!

However, the final teaching of this man’s life, strangely enough, might have come from Emperor Wu, who mourned Bodhidharma’s death and personally wrote an inscription for his monument:

Alas, I saw him without seeing him.
I met him without meeting him.
I encountered him without encountering him.
Now, as before, I regret this deeply.

Who do we see without seeing? Who do we meet without meeting? What do we encounter without encountering? Do we regret this deeply? And if we do, what are we going to do about it?

Where is Bodhidharma right now? Wake up! Bodhidharma is sitting on your cushion.


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