THERE is a Buddhist tradition that when the Worldhonoured One was at the assembly on the Vulture Mount a man offered him a golden flower and asked him to preach the holy Doctrine.

The Buddha twisted the flower in his fingers, showing it to the people in perfect silence. All were bewildered and at a loss for his meaning except the disciple Kashyapa who quietly smiled at the teacher. The Buddha then said there had been a transmission of the inmost spirit of his teaching to Kashyapa who was to be his successor and to whom he gave his robe and begging-bowl. Kashyapa, having thus become the First Patriarch, later transmitted the secret in the same way ” from mind to mind ” to Ananda, and so the succession continued. The patriarchs of the Buddha-mind transmission (now generally known by its Japanese name Zen) include some of the greatest names in Indian Buddhism, Ashvaghosha, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva and Vasubandhu.

The Twenty-seventh Patriarch was called Prajnatara, and it is said that he was once invited to the religious assembly of a king in Eastern India. Noticing that the distinguished guest did not occupy himself all the time in reading the scriptures as did the others, the king asked him

” What is this not reading of the Sutras?” ” The poor man’s path,” was the reply. ” When breathing in, dis-identifying oneself with mind, with sense-activity, with empirical consciousness, with conceptions, with making judgments. Breathing out, not being entangled in the mass of external relations. When it is done, verily the Sutras are being read-hundreds, thousands, millions of volumes!”

This remarkable man found his successor in the third son of a great Brahmin king of South India, a boy of wonderful intelligence who rapidly mastered the Mahayana doctrines and became the famous Twenty-eighth Patriarch, Bodhidharma. He decided to preach the doctrine in China (there is a tradition that he was forced to leave India because of his strong opposition to the degenerate Buddhism of the time) and arrived by sea about 520 A.D.

On the throne was the Emperor Wu, a monument of piety and erudition, who gave an enormous impetus to Buddhism in China by building innumerable temples, supporting their monks and having the scriptures copied and widely distributed. The Emperor had an interview with Bodhidharma at which he listed his activities and inquired whether the sage thought them meritorious.

” No merit!” was the answer.
” What then is the principle of holiness?”
” Vastness, not holiness,” said the Patriarch.
” Who are you who stand before Us?” asked the bewildered monarch.
” Don’t know.”

Bodhidharma quitted the court leaving the Emperor speechless, crossed the Yangtse river and went to the distant monastery of Shao Lin where he spent nine years in meditation facing a wall. From this was derived his nickname ” the wall-gazing Brahmin “. Then the man who was to be his first and greatest disciple appeared seeking for instruction, but was not permitted to enter the temple. Seven days and nights he stood in the snow covered courtyard, and in the end cut off his left arm with a sword to show his determination to die rather than give up his application. Now he was admitted, but the teacher said : ” This is not to be sought through another.”

The master’s only instruction was : ” Externally, cease from associations ; within, have no pantings in the mind. When the mind is like an upright wall, you can enter the Way. “The pupil from time to time approached with his conclusions, but the Patriarch simply smashed these intellectual constructions with “Not this, not this!” Yet the teacher also warned him against supposing that the truth was an absolute void. After some time he ceased building theory-castles and asked directly

” My mind is restless. O master, will you not pacify my mind?”
” Bring out your mind here before me, and I will do so.” The disciple was taken aback, but finally said : ” I cannot find it to bring it out.”
” Then,” said Bodhidharma, it is pacified.”

With these words the transmission from mind to mind took place, the disciple became enlightened and received as Twenty-ninth Patriarch the robe and begging-bowl of Buddha. After this Bodhidharma returned to India according to some accounts, though others say he was finally poisoned by monks envious of his great repute. All agree that he was well over a hundred years old at his death. There is a legend that after the burial he was seen travelling to the West carrying a shoe in his hand ; the coffin was at once opened and found to be empty except for a shoe.

Bodhidharma’s method of abrupt and cryptic statement and action was followed by his successors. By collecting such examples it would be easy to give the impression that the Zen masters were entirely irrational. This is not so ; all disciples studied the Sutras and practised meditation, and the teachers taught rationally up to a certain point where words fall away and the pupil has to make a sort of intuitional jump. When this crisis comes, the master assists with some sudden remark or action which can not be understood by reason but only by the light of the Prajna (transcendental wisdom) which is about to awaken. Such actions mean nothing to the outsider ; they are like a gust of wind which lightly shakes the branch of a tree-the ripe fruits fall, but the unripe are unaffected.

Zen students frequently meditate on such incidents, however, to test their understanding and also to help it mature.

As an example of Zen style, here is a short poetical commentary by a famous Zen master on Bodhidharma’s interview with Emperor Wu and its sequel.

In olden days a man twice offered an unpolished jewel to kings.
But they thought it a pebble and cut off his legs.

At night rare gems are thrown to men
And in alarm they clutch for their swords.
An unexpected guest, but none to play the host
The borrowed virtue is not the real virtue.
A priceless treasure is offered, but he knows not what to do with it
The head of a dead cat,-try him with that !


Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great Teacher,
” What is the first principle of holiness?”

He replied : ” Vastness, not holiness.”
The Emperor spoke : ” Who is it that confronts Us?”
” Don’t know ” he said, and left the Emperor gaping.
He crossed the river and went to Shao Lin
Nine years facing the wall.


Vastness, not holiness !
The moment came, but the Emperor was outside the gate

and the teacher was within.
Like the master axeman of old, he would have cut the mud
from the face but never harmed the flesh-Oh profit !
It was not to be,-Oh loss ! The pot smashed to the ground
but he never turned his head.
Alone, alone, he sits at Shao Lin in the cold:
Silent silent, he fulfils the great tradition.
In the clear autumn sky the moon’s frosty disc is wheeling:
The river pales ; the stars of the Dipper seem to descend to earth.
When the heir comes, he in turn will receive Robe and Bowl.
From this arise medicine but also illness for men and gods.


(The last line refers to later wrangles over possession of the Robe and Bowl, when some monks had fallen away from the teaching of ” vastness not holiness ” and wanted, as the Emperor had done, outward tokens and acknowledgements of their sanctity.)

There is only one work definitely attributable to Bodhidharma. It is called the “Two Entries and the Four Practices.” In this short text he says that there are many ways but they can be divided into Entry through the Principle and Entry by Practices. The first means through the scriptural teaching to come to a deep faith that there is the same essence in all beings but covered by the dust of erroneous thinking. Discarding the false and returning to the true, firm in ” wall-gazing ” (meditation), he finds there is neither self nor another, and sage and sinner are the same. Established in this realization, he needs no more books. He is at one with the Principle, there is no distinction of being and not-being, he is pure and actionless. Such is the Entry through the Principle.

The Entry by Practices means, first, not to retaliate when attacked or slandered : second, to accept what happens as the karmic result of our own past actions : third, not to seek outside,-the Sutra says that where there is seeking there are all sufferings, and where there is no seeking there is Paradise : fourth, to follow dharma ; to practise the six perfections for removing wrong thinking, yet really to be actionless, this is following Dharma.

The Zen sect has been the inspiration of many poets and artists of China and Japan, and there are few painters who have not painted Bodhidharma. There is a remarkable similarity in most of the portraits. He is shown as a thickset vigorous man with a large head carried on a short powerful neck. He is bald, but rough hairs bristle from his chin. His hands are often invisible under his cloak, which he is firmly holding round him as though the wind would pluck it away.   The nose is thick, the ears long, sometimes with plain circular earrings set in them. The expression especially the wide mouth shows unbending will, but a will that has become irresistible,-there is no hint of strain. The great eyes are wide open ; in the middle of the whites, tiny pupils stare fixedly up and out of the picture.

The meaning is said to be that it is possible to withdraw from all objects and all thoughts, that when such withdrawal is complete something yet remains which can be known, and that in this process the chief factor is the will.

There is a fine picture at the great Japanese Zen temple at Tsurumi, which shows Bodhidharma crossing the river after his interview with Emperor Wu. The master has no weight, and he sails across the rising waves standing on a large leaf. The wind catches his red robe and acts as his boatman. The master’s eyes are immovably fixed on the far bank, which is hidden from us by the autumn twilight. The scene would be melancholy and cheerless were it not for the vitality of the master’s expression and posture ; as it is, it is awe-inspiring and burns itself into the memory.

Two interesting paintings by Torei, a Japanese Zen master, show the Patriarch in meditation. He sits upright on the ground, cross-legged, with the abdomen thrown forward (Zen Buddhists lay great stress on this last point.) In one picture he faces us with his eyes almost shut and his robe fallen open so that we see the chest and navel. At the navel is a grey circle, and the commentary explains that the vital energy is first concentrated there and then taken up into the breast near the heart.

Faint lines lead from the regions of eyes, ears, mouth, navel and limbs, meeting in a ring at the centre of the breast. This is explained to mean that the senses and vital energy are turned back, within, and concentrated at that point. Within this first ring is another, jet-black, which represents Mind. Transcending Mind, we see within the black circle a vacuity, and in that vacuity is faintly seen the figure of Buddha. The other picture is similar in most of the points, except that the Buddha has not yet appeared in the inner vacuity. This picture is called ” Bodhidharma at Shao Lin “. and here the master has opened his eyes wide and is looking straight out of the picture at the beholder, with a serene but piercing glance. There is perhaps a reference to two famous Zen phrases:

” Pointing direct at the human heart : see the essence and be Buddha.”

What happens to those who cannot see the essence? The Emperor Wu makes his inglorious appearance in all the Zen textbooks. Is he simply dismissed as a failure? There is no doubt that he had expected to impress the visitor with his learning and benevolence ; the reaction was a blast that swept away his pride, poise and borrowed plumes of self-conscious virtue. But the incident must have had a profound effect on him. This Emperor reigned forty-seven years, and the interview with Bodhidharma came well before the middle. The Emperor’s long reign planted Buddhist culture firmly in Chinese civilization.  It may be that at first he was prompted by a desire to shine as a second Ashoka, a royal sage, but towards the end of his life it had become otherwise.      His policy was to press on although he knew he risked going too fast for the country ; in fact in his old age his opponents organized a revolt and forced him to abdicate.

But they could not arrest the tide of Buddhism which caught up the whole of South China and later broke into the glories of the Tang dynasty. The Emperor remained serene in catastrophe ; he did not long survive the abdication, but just before death wrote a famous poem, worthy of a Zen master:

By my own free action I won it (the throne ):

By my own free action I lost it
Where is there any cause for regret ?

For the last three years of his reign he had rarely been at the capital, but wandered through the country as an itinerant Buddhist preacher.

© Trevor Leggett

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