The Zen tradition has plenty of interesting characters. The koan literature is full of them—cocky young monks, unpredictable teachers, old women on the roadside who know way more than anyone gives them credit for. But in 1500 years, no one has caught the imagination of Zen students quite like Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of Zen (Chan) in China. Every year, temples in Japan remember and celebrate him on October 5th: Bodhidharma Day.
His story starts like this: he was born a prince in southern India and later became a Buddhist monk. I’ve never heard stories of either his upbringing or his training. But we know his teacher was Prajnatara, who, in the Korean tradition at least, is understood to have been a woman (noteworthy because, sadly, most depictions of the Zen lineage don’t include any women teachers at all). As a middle-aged man, for reasons unknown (a famous koan simply asks, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?”), he left India for China, where he was welcomed by Emperor Wu, a great patron of Buddhism.
Up to this point, there isn’t much to the story. This was sixth-century China—Buddhism had been in the region for about five hundred years, and monks from India were esteemed but not uncommon. Emperor Wu had probably greeted lots of them already. It’s the exchange that happened next that matters.
The emperor showed Bodhidharma the monastery he’d funded and the stupas he’d built; he talked about the translation projects he’d funded; he explained how passionate he was about supporting Buddhism, how that’s really where his heart was. Then, after he’d laid out all his good works, he turned to Bodhidharma and asked, “Now that you know all that I have done, I want to ask you: what merit will I receive?”
Bodhidharma replied, “None.”
Emperor Wu was outraged. “None? None?! Who—who are you, standing before me?” (We might take this as “Who do you think you are?”)
Bodhidharma, never one for words, said simply, “I don’t know.” And he left, making his way to a cave where it’s said he sat facing the wall in meditation for nine years. At one point, to fight sleepiness, legend has it that he even cut off his eyelids (thus the bug-eyed version that appears in so many paintings). This short encounter with Emperor Wu is still played out in Zen temples today—monks in training shout Bodhidharma’s words, trying on that classically Zen posture of not-knowing and reminding themselves and others that none of this is for merit, none of this can be pinned down at all.
There is a second pivotal encounter in the legend. Years into his time in the cave, a man named Huike—a man consumed by suffering and doubt—became determined to be accepted as this mysterious, uncompromising monk’s disciple. But Bodhidharma was sitting still; he wouldn’t even acknowledge Huike. One snowy day, in desperation, Huike stood outside the cave, in the snow, and cut off his own arm. He stumbled into the cave, threw his arm in front of where Bodhidharma sat, and pleaded, “Pacify my mind.” Bodhidharma still didn’t move, but he responded, “Show me your mind, and I’ll pacify it.” Huike stood there, bleeding, swirling through his own confusion until finally he said, “I can’t find it,” to which Bodhidharma simply said, “There—I’ve pacified it for you.”
It’s a gruesome scene, but it’s touching, too; from it, we inherit teachings that say this path is about resolving nothing less than the “great matter of life and death.” For the teacher who braved an ocean to sit in a cave, and for the student who cut off his own arm, the stakes were as high as they could get.
Bodhidharma is remembered as the first patriarch of Zen; Huike became the second. Their stories came to inform the flavor of the tradition. If the pair of them had never come along, the Zen tradition probably would have invented them—and let’s face it, that’s probably what happened. When we take a moment to remember characters like these, it isn’t about history. It’s more about a felt truth, a sense that certain qualities can be embodied, that perhaps we can embody them ourselves. We don’t need to cut off our eyelids or sit still for nearly a decade; we don’t need to cut off any limbs. But we can feel Bodhidharma’s gaze—his unblinking gaze—that asks directly, to each of us, “How serious are you?”
I feel it. I feel it all the time.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
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