The Zen of Bodhidharma

Outline of Practice / 四行觀

Bloodstream of Practice / 血脈論

Waking Up / 悟性論

Bodhidharma (菩提達摩) is the legendary founder of Chan Buddhism in China. In 520 CE, after a perilous three-year-long sea journey, Bodhidharma arrived in China from India and began his mission to spread Mahayana doctrine, the teaching of the Greater Vehicle. Compared to other more popular Buddhist traditions in China at that time, Bodhidharma’s way of teaching was unconventional, stark and penetrating. Its essence may be summed up as follows:

A special transmission outside the scriptures
Depending neither on words nor on letters
It is a direct pointing at the mind
Seeing into one’s innermost nature
And the sudden attainment of Buddhahood.

Bodhidharma’s method of meditation was the simplest, understood only by practitioners of highest caliber. As legend has it, he spent nine years in a cave at the Shaolin monastery, sitting in deep meditation gazing at a wall. At some point, in order to conquer drowsiness, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. At the very spot where they fell, the first tea plants sprang up. From then on, Chan practitioners have been drinking tea to help themselves stay awake for meditation.

Yet the most famous story must be Bodhidharma’s meeting with Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty, who was a dedicated Buddhist and keen on building temples and copying sutras. The first question Emperor Wu directed at Bodhidharma was, “How much merit have I gained for all my good deeds?” And Bodhidharma replied, “No merit whatsoever.”

Emperor Wu stressed it further, “But isn’t generosity the first principle of Buddhism?” Bodhidharma said, “Emptiness is. Nothing is what it is not.”

Emperor Wu tried again, “Then who is this that is talking to me right now?” And Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know.”

What Bodhidharma imparted to Emperor Wu were two profound teachings – First, all things should be seen as they are, without attaching any manmade ideas to them; being mindful of our ingrained habit of forming views and opinions is the first thing we should realize as a practitioner. Second, keep the mind open and spacious; a not-knowing mind is a wisdom mind.

Unfortunately Emperor Wu didn’t get it at all, and the meeting ended on a sour note. Not until Bodhidharma died that Emperor Wu realized his grand loss, and he wrote this inscription for Bodhidharma’s monument:

I saw him without seeing him
I met him without meeting him
I encountered him without encountering him
Alas! Now I regret this so deeply!