Bodhidharma Sparkles



This week we continued our study of “Records of the Transmission of the Lamp”


To reiterate, this collection of koans focuses on the succession of past masters and their enlightenment experience.  Last week we studied the “root case” which was the enlightenment experience of Shakyamuni Buddha.  Roshi noted that in this case, we see that Buddha viewed the morning star, and had instant realization.  If we think back to our studies of Vasubandhu, we will remember that he said that the senses are the portals to our consciousness.  What is true 2500 years ago with the Buddha can be true for us today.  For instance, how do we break free of endless narratives in our mind during Zazen?  All we need to do is look back at Shakyamuni and recall Vasubandhu’s insight.  The Buddha LOOKED at the morning star.  He used the sense of sight.  For us, we study our breath.  We feel and experience our breath.  Here Roshi was clear, the senses are not a distraction, rather they are yet another tool we can use to become present right here and right now.  


For this week, Roshi explored case #29 which is Bodhidharma’s enlightenment experience.  The case is very brief.  Below is one translation…


The Venerable Prajnatara asks Bodhidharma, “What is it that is formless amongst things?”

Bodhidharma says, “Formlessness is unborn.”

Prajnatara asks, “What is the highest amongst things?”

Bodhidharma says, “The Actual Nature is the highest.”


At this point, Roshi noted that all of these koans, with the exception of the one on Shakyamuni, take place within a student/teacher experience.  Also, in most of these koans, something actually happens to trigger a realization.  For Bodhidharma, this is not the case.  Nothing really happens in this koan because Bodhidharma already has the “perfect” answer.  The purpose of this koan collection is to instruct us on the nature of enlightenment and how it is transmitted, however Bodhidharma is already quite wise at the young age when this exchange took place.  


Roshi also noted that in the commentaries Keizan dispels many of the myths about Bodhidharma.  For Keizan, Bodhidharma is a great master but holds no magical powers.  For instance, he did not ride into China on a magical reed.  In reality, he took a boat made out of reeds.  In addition, Keizan dismisses the story about Bodhidharma sitting facing a wall in a cave for nine straight years to gain his understanding.  No, Bodhidharma studied and meditated in a temple like most monks of his age.  Lastly, Bodhidharma did not build the Shaolin temple, however he did study there.  The point is that Bodhidharma was a great master and he did practice intensively, we do not need to “decorate” his achievements and understanding with magical fireworks.  For Keizan the focus was on the real person and what he understood and taught.  


Roshi remarked that Bodhidharma stayed with his teacher for over 40 years – long after achieving his realization.  The lesson here is that the journey is never really finished – even after achieving some level of understanding.  Roshi also noted that Bodhidharma remained with the same teacher for such a long period of time.  One would think that after achieving understanding the teacher is not longer necessary.  This is not true.  In fact, in many cases, the teacher is even more critical once a student matures and has some degree of enlightenment.  This is why Keizan focused so much on the student teacher relationship in this koan collection.


Roshi recounted another famous story about Bodhidharma.  When he was younger, his father, the king of Koshi in southern India, showed him and his brothers a jewel.  The brothers were very impressed with the gem.    Bodhidharma (then known as Bodhitara) looks at the gem and agreed the gem was impressive, but it was not the most impressive thing, however.  He said, 

“This is just a mundane gem and cannot be counted within the highest rank because the highest of all jewels is the jewel of reality. This has only a mundane glittering and cannot be considered to be the highest because the luster of wisdom is supreme. This has a mundane clarity and cannot be considered to be the finest because the clarity of Awareness is supreme.”

(Remember, at this point, Bodhidharma was just a child when he said this!)


Roshi noted that there are worldly values and there are values which are greater.  We judge everything in our mind every day.  The issue with this judging is not the objectification of everything, but the objectivation of ourselves.  Everything we judge is filtered through our objectification of ourselves.  What type of person am I?  How much do I make?  What do I look like?  Roshi pointed out, however, that we are really bad at judging ourselves.  How do I really know what I look like?  How do I really measure my intelligence.  These worldly judgements are not the supreme values.  Practice allows us to know the truth of this predicament.  You look at the gem and you see the sparkle – but the mind tells us how valuable it is.  All of our karma up to that point tells us how to value this object.  However, if we understand reality as it really is, then we sparkle for all time.  Bodhidharma understood this which is why he sparkled so brightly.