One of our senior students, Barbara Green, gave the Dharma talk this week as Tesshin was away traveling. The topic was the first patriarch of Zen. Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th or 6th century CE. He is considered the first patriarch of Zen because he introduced Zen/Chan to China. It is believed that Bodhidharma was born in either central Asia or India where he learned Buddhism and then migrated east to China. Buddhism was already thriving in China at this time, but Bodhidharma brought a new message of an austere practice which operated “outside of scriptures” and relied on intuitive understanding of reality.
Bodhidharma is normally depicted as an irritable bearded monk. Some sources also call him the “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian.” This label probably has more to do with him being a foreigner in China than any real physical appearance. However, it is known that he taught a very strict form of Zen and gave no credence to fools or those merely casually interested in the Buddhist practice. In fact, it is said, that when he arrived in China, he encountered Emperor Xiao Yan. The king asked how much merit he had accumulated by supporting Buddhism and building many temples. Bodhidharma said NONE. All your worldly deeds mean nothing if your true desire is to find the noble truth. The king asked what is this noble truth – to which the Zen master could only respond emptiness! The frustrated king then asked, if emptiness is the only truth, who is standing in front of me? To which Bodhidharma answered – I know not! If you think this sounds like a Koan – you are right! It is the first Koan of the Blue Cliff Record!
https://terebess.hu/zen/Blue-Cliff.pdf (full 23 MB text of the Koan collection)
Needless to say, the Emperor Xiao was not exactly happy with Bodhidharma’s answer and sent him away. The master then spent the next NINE years in a cave facing a wall in silent meditation. It is from this story that many Zen centers throughout history have used “Wall Gazing” in their mediation techniques. Personally, I find this practice very practical as it removes distraction – especially the constant comparison with other mediators across the hall. Oh that one just moved! This one is listing to a side. That other one is so much better. Bodhidharma said it best in “Two Entrances and Four Acts” …
“Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on the walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason.”
There are also many legends about what happened during those nine years of intense mediation. For instance, it is said that to prevent himself from falling asleep during meditation – Bodhidharma cut off his eyelids!! (Not something we suggest – even if you find yourself dozing off during a zazen session!!) It is said that when his eyelids hit the ground they became tea plants – and this is why tea is so connected with Zen practice.
While the stories such as these are entertaining and interesting, there are real lessons for all of us in Bodhidharma’s life. First, I think we can take inspiration from his dedication. Many of use struggle through a single zazen session – imagine going for nine years straight. However physical endurance is just the beginning. I think we can also take inspiration from his single minded focus to solve the question of life and death – namely what is this “suchness” or the reality we find ourselves in. What does it all mean? Lastly, Bodhidharma focused on the actual experience of suchness and not on academic study, devotional rituals, or doctrinal debates. For him it was about the intuitive grasp of “Buddha Mind” through concentrated meditation. It is this active rather than academic effort which so characterizes Zen to this day.
To close, here are a few famous Bodhidharma quotes…
“Not thinking about anything is Zen. Once you know this, walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, everything you do is Zen. To know that the mind is empty is to see the Buddha…Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness. Freeing oneself from words is liberation.”
“To find a Buddha all you have to do is see your nature. Your nature is the Buddha.”
Again, special thanks to Barbara Green for putting together such a wonderful talk!
Image Credit: Bodhidharma, Ukiyo-e woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1887. (Taken from Wikipedia entry)