Bodhidharma’s Beard

Bodhidharma's Beard


Tesshin used his talk this week to cover the fourth case in the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate) collection of koans.


The Case:

Wakun complained when he saw a picture of the bearded Bodhidharma:  `Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?’ 


Mumon’s comment:

If you want to study Zen, you must it with your heart. When you attain realization, it must be true realization. You yourself must have the face of the great Bodhidharma to see him. Just once such glimpse will be enough. But if you say you met him, you never saw him at all.


The Verse:

One should not discuss a dream

In front of a simpleton.

Why has Bodhidharma no beard?

What an absurd question!


So what does this mean?  Tesshin first gave us a bit of background so that we could understand this koan better.  First, the term “barbarian” simply means that a person is a foreigner.  Bodhidharma is traditionally understood as a traveling monk from India who came to China and established Zen Buddhism.  Next, Bodhidharma’s beard was his “trademark” and every image we have of him has this prominent and bushy beard.  Wakun would definitely have known this!  This serves as a hint.  Everyone knew he had a beard, so why does Wakun state that he does not have one – and what does this have to do with realization?  You may notice that this koan is very short and to the point – the bearded monk has no beard – figure it out!  This is very much in keeping with the way Zen started in China.  


Tesshin explained that this Koan is trying to get you out of your everyday phenomenal or “relative” understanding of reality and get you to think in more spiritual or “absolute” way.  So there is a phenomena where Bodhidharma always has a beard – but this is not his essence.  We can test this by simply imagining that we cut off his beard.  So do we not have the sage anymore? – of course not! – it is just one of many relative phenomena we use to contingently describe Bodhidharma.  So what is his essence??  Ah, that is the question isn’t it!  Tesshin tried to help us by using the analogy of the dual nature of light.  Sometimes it exhibits the phenomena of a particle and sometimes it acts as a wave.  So what is the essence of light?  In quantum theory, the minute we try to answer that question the true essence of light disappears and we are left with only a particle or wave and not the truth.  Sounds a lot like our bearded barbarian!!


Let’s see if Mumon’s commentary can help us…

“If you want to study Zen, you must it with your heart.”

This as meaning that this is not going to be easy or trivial – well if you have studied koans, you already know this.


“When you attain realization, it must be true realization.”

This means that your first answer is probably going to be wrong – try again!  Again, this is not easy.


“You yourself must have the face of the great Bodhidharma to see him. Just once such glimpse will be enough.”

Ah!  Now here there is something interesting!!  You must have his face!!  There is no separation between you and the sage!  Your face is his face.  There is no separation, no faces, and no beards.  In fact, this whole question about beards is beside the point!!  As in the previous example, there is no particle and no wave – there is just light.  This is where we must work with all of heart to gain true realization.


“But if you say you met him, you never saw him at all.”

And of course, the final warning from Mumon.  If there is no separation then how could you ever see him?  Do you see it?  What is your face before you were born?  How could you see it?  Particle or Wave – one cannot take a measurement!  It is really all the same question!


The verse poetically reinforces the point.

   One should not discuss a dream

   In front of a simpleton.

   Why has Bodhidharma no beard?

   What an absurd question!


There is no book or article we can read which will give us this answer.  Even reading a description like this is probably a distraction.  One must realize this truth through practice.   Adding words only muddies the water.