Bodhidharma: The First Patriarch of the Zen

Once when Buddha was preaching, he plucked a flower and smiled. Among his thousands of  followers, only the disciple Kashyapa understood the significance of this act. Between him and the Buddha there passed a wordless communication of Absolute Truths. This communication was silently passed on by Kashyapa to his disciple, and so ultimately to Bodhidharma, who brought it to China.

Bodhidharma was the younger son of an Southern Indian Prince. He arrived at Canton in the year 520 A.D.

The reigning Emperor of China was a munificent patron of Buddhism. He had built monasteries, given alms, distributed scriptures, and defended the faith. Hearing that a Buddhist prince had arrived from India he summoned him at once to his Capital. The following conversation took place in the Palace at Nanking:

Emperor: What are you, who have come before my Throne?

Bodhidharma: I do not know.

Emperor: You will be interested to hear that I have built many monasteries, distributed scriptures, given alms, and upheld the Faith. Have I not indeed acquired merit?

Bodhidharma: None at all.

Emperor: In what then does true merit consist?

Bodhidharma: In the obliteration of Matter through Absolute Knowledge, not by external acts.

Emperor: Which is the Divine and Primal Aspect of Reality?

Bodhidharma: Reality has no aspect that is divine.

The Emperor could make nothing of him. Monasticism, a huge vested interest, decried him, and after a short stay in Nanking he started northward, towards the Capital of the Wei Tartars, who then ruled over a large part of China. The Wei Emperor, like his Chinese confrere, was also a great patron of Buddhism, and he, too, desired an interview with the Indian priest. But Bodhidharma had done with Emperors, and settled in a small country temple, where he lived till his death nine years later. According to the legends, Boddhidarma sat with his face to the wall in silence for nine years in the Shorin Monastery on Mount Sung. Some say that he tried to visit the Capital of the Weis, but was prevented by the intrigues of the monks there.

He left behind him a few short tractates, the substance of which is as follows:

There is no such person as Buddha. Buddha is simply a Sanskrit word meaning “initiate.” The Absolute is immanent in every man’s heart. This “treasure of the heart” is the only Buddha that exists. It is no use seeking Buddha outside your own nature. Prayer, scripture-reading, fasting, the observance of monastic rules — all are useless. Those who seek Buddha do not find him You may know by heart all the Sutras of the twelve divisions, and yet be unable to escape from the Wheel of Life and Death. One thing alone avails — to discover the unreality of the World by contemplating the Absolute which is at the root of one’s own nature.

Someone asked him: “Why may we not worship the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? “He answered:

Ogres and hobgoblins can at will assume the outward form of Bodhisattvas; such are heretical and not of the true Buddha. There is no Buddha but your own thoughts. Buddha is the Way. The Way is Zen. This word Zen cannot be understood even of the wise. Zen means ‘ for a man to behold his fundamental nature.’ ”

The highest truths cannot be written down or taught by speech. A man who cannot write a word, can yet contemplate his own heart and become wise. Knowledge of 1,000 Sutras and 10,000 Shastras cannot help him to realise the Absolute within him.

He was asked: “Can a layman with wife and children, one given over to the lusts of the flesh, achieve Buddhahood?”

He answered:“Provided he contemplates his own inner-nature, he will achieve Buddhahood. It does not matter about his lusts. Even a butcher can achieve Buddhahood, if he searches in his own heart.”

“What,” cried his listeners, “a butcher, who lives by taking life, and he achieve Buddhahood?” The master replied:

“It is not a question of the man’s trade. If he has learnt to know his own nature he will be saved.

“I have come from India only to teach you that Buddha is Thought. I care nothing for monastic rules or ascetic practices. As for walking on water or through fire, climbing sword-wheels, fasting, sitting upright for hours without rest — all such practices are heretical; they belong to the World of Being.

“Thought, Thought, Thought! It is hard to seek. Expanding, it covers the whole world ; shrinking, it is too small to lodge a pin.

“I seek the heart ; I do not seek Buddha. For I have learnt to know that the outer world is empty and untenanted.”

Such was the teaching of Bodhidharma.  Yet though his whole teaching turned on this “meditation” or “Zen,” he left behind him no exact directions for the practice of it. Having shown the end, he left it to each individual to find his own means.Rules, dogmas and definitions were precisely what he set out to destroy. (ARTHUR WALEY)


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