Bodhidharma's Emptiness - Case 2 Book of Serenity
By Norman Fischer | January 14, 2010
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Deborah Russell
Let me introduce another case. This is the second case in the Book of Serenity:
Emperor Wu of Liang asked Great Teacher Bodhidharma,
"What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?"
Bodhidharma said, "Empty - there's no holy."
The emperor said, "Who are you facing me?"
Bodhidharma said, "Don't know."
The emperor didn't understand. Bodhidharma subsequently crossed
The Yangtse River, came to Shaolin, and faced a wall for nine years.
Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of the Zen school in China, who initially sets the tone for the Zen tradition, is anything but friendly. In fact, this story shows a character who is uncompromising, severe, totally serious, and completely uninterested in social niceties.
As I always say when talking about these Zen stories, let's not worry about whether or not the story is true. In fact, I think we can safely assume that this story - along with a number of other koans - is not true. Whether the story is true or not, it doesn't really matter, because the story is significant. Another way to say this is that stories are always true - even when they're false - because they always tell us something true about the person or persons telling the story. Therefore, they are always telling us something true about ourselves and about our world.
Just like last week's case told us something about Zen's way of understanding its own pedagogy, this case tells us something about how Zen sees its religious mission, in contrast to the mission of normative Buddhism, as it was understood in China at that time. So this is a story about the founding of Zen, the particular flavor of Zen as a new spirit in Chinese Buddhism.
Emperor Wu of Liang was a pious Buddhist. It is said that he studied the scriptures; he sponsored many lectures and convocations; he gave donations to the sangha; he built temples, and he endowed monasteries. This is really early on in the transmission of Buddhism to China, and at the time of Emperor Wu of Liang, Buddhism as a way of life and thought was pretty new to China. It was different from the pre-existing ways of thinking about the world that were Chinese. Chinese culture before Buddhism was, on the whole, literary and social. As some people say, it was almost like there wasn't religion per se, as we would understand religion in China, until Buddhism came to China. When Buddhism came, there were many people who rejected it as a weird, foreign cult. Throughout Chinese history there were times when Buddhism was rejected. For example, Mao's regime tried to eliminate Buddhism. It was just going along with an ancient Chinese tradition of every three or four hundred years getting rid of a religion. "Get rid of this foreign teaching!"
So there were people who looked at it that way; but then there were others who, like Emperor Wu and beyond, took on Buddhism, but understood that it was foreign. They understood that they didn't understand it. So, Emperor Wu must have been really happy: "Here comes this sage from the East, and I can get him to come to the court, and I can ask him questions." He must have been really happy about that, in anticipation of it, and perhaps disappointed after the encounter actually happened.
The "holy truths" in the case here refer to The Four Noble Truths, which are the grounding doctrine of Buddhism. Certainly the Emperor would have understood these truths and studied them: Suffering, cause of suffering, end of suffering, path. Like all good Buddhists, he would have respected and honored this holy teaching, and he would have wanted to ask a visiting sage exactly about the holy truths of Buddhism. "What is the most profound understanding of these truths?"
Bodhidharma, somewhat perversely, I think, refuses to engage the Emperor in this conversation about doctrine in the acceptable and expected way. Basically he says, "I'm not going to explain any holy truths, because there are no holy truths to be explained. Everything is empty. Nothing is holy." We don't know whether the Emperor is offended or upset by this brusque, off-putting answer, but he must have been, at least, shocked.
Anyway, he says to Bodhidharma, "Who is this facing me, saying this?" Again Bodhidharma answers in the rather severe and unfriendly spirit of strict emptiness: "Don't know." At which point, he turns and leaves. He goes off to remote Shaolin in the mountains, where he meditates facing a wall for nine years, not engaging students and not paying attention to the Emperor or anyone else. Eventually, as we all know, he does have a few disciples, but they have to go to great lengths to get his attention.
For the first five generations of Zen in China, a period of about 200 years, Zen is this intense, hermit-like meditation, whose main scripture is the Lankavatara Sutra, a Mahayana sutra of the Mind Only school. This sutra emphasizes that the world is a projection of the mind and that the supreme spiritual task is to turn the mind around, so as to overturn attachment to outward things. Later, with the the Sixth Ancestor, Zen begins to emphasize not the Lankavatara Sutra, but the Diamond Sutra, which deals with the teachings of emptiness in a dialogic rather than an introspective style. Zen shifts quite a bit after the Sixth Ancestor, but it never repudiates its origins with Bodhidharma and the Mind Only school and this intense practice of meditation.
Wansong's commentary on this case repeats the legend of Prajnatara, the Indian sage who is said to be Bodhidharma's teacher. The story goes that Prajnatara predicted that many years after his death, Bodhidharma was going to go to China. Prajnatara advised that when he went to China, he should avoid the sophisticated people of the South, and, instead, practice in the more rugged North. Emperor Wu of Liang is in the South, and Shaolin is in the North. So, that is exactly what Bodhidharma did.
If the ultimate goal of Zen is to be willing to share the teachings, which I think Bodhidharma would have agreed with, the question is, "At what pace? In what way?" Prajnatara's idea is that there is no rush. Take your time. No need to rush to the capitol and run around and schmooze with a bunch of people. He says to Bodhidharma, "Be careful not to go too fast and wither in the sun."
Then Wansong quotes a verse:
Willing to endure the autumn frost
So the deep savor of the teaching will last
This is all given as commentary to the Bodhidharma story in the case. It's telling us, "Don't rush out too fast. You will get burned in the sun. You will get stuck along the way. Endure the autumn frost, and the deep savor of the teaching will last. Take your time."
So this is the idea: just practice. Continue to practice and ripen. Brilliance is no substitute for time. Just time. Going on in time. Ripening long. Not being too quick to show yourself in the world. The time for that will come, if it is supposed to. In the case of the historical case here, it's a long time, five generations before Zen really takes root and becomes important in China. But the time expended doesn't matter. We're not in a hurry, because there is no hurry here.
That part of the story is the part about Zen - the Zen attitude, the Zen concept of how it wants to understand and view itself. Since we are practicing Zen, we shouldn't be naïve. We should know about these things, think about them, and study them. However, this is not the actual point of the story. The story has two important points. First: empty. Second: not knowing. I think we all understand these points. And, we can understand them better, as we go on in a lifetime of practice. In addition to that - and it is not the same thing as that - we can live these points. We can integrate them into our personality and the way we act in the world.
I will discuss these points a little, under the assumption that everybody already knows about them. The first point: empty. The Heart Sutra says that all dharmas are empty, which means that nothing is as it seems, or the other way around, everything is not how it seems. Material things of the world - ideas, concepts, one's self, others - are not the way they seem to be. So we have a world view, and it is deeply built into our perceptions, our attitudes, our motivations, our actions. All the ways we talk to ourselves and think about ourselves are based on this. And it is all, pretty much, incorrect.
We all know that things are impermanent. We all know that nothing lasts. We know that everything changes, but we don't really appreciate how radical a fact this is. We basically think that something is here and it changes. Maybe after a long time, and after it goes through many changes, maybe it is gone altogether. But this is an unexamined assumption. The closer we look at the process of change - and that is one of the great pleasures and immense things about intense meditation practice- the more obvious it is that there is nothing that changes. There is only change itself, and it is a continuous process. It's not isolated instances of change. It's a matter of one constantly turning process. The Sanskrit word sunya, which is pretty accurately translated into English as "empty," means not full of anything, vacant, insubstantial.
This word sunya, which stymied the Chinese and Japanese, was one of the main points that the Chinese could never get, for hundreds of years, about Buddhist teaching. They could never get that. They translated the word sunya into Chinese with the character that means "sky." So the Heart Sutra actually says in Sino-Japanese, "All dharmas are like sky," floating, completely open, with no contents, and, especially, with no boundaries. I mentioned before that Kaz Tanahashi made a translation of the Heart Sutra in which he translated the word for emptiness as "boundlessness," which is quite correct if you are working from the Asian languages and not from Sanskrit.
In Mahayana Buddhism, emptiness - boundlessness - always implies love. It is the same thing as love, the immense process of endless change. From the point of view of holding onto anything, it means endless loss, because we are literally losing everything as soon as it appears. Love is the endless sharing of nothing, with nothing, in boundless freedom.
What is the highest meaning of the holy truths? It is just this: freedom and love, with nothing to name, affirm, or hold on to. When we sit for a long time, paying attention to the body and the breath, and then eventually leaping off the body and breath, this is what we are aiming at: an appreciation of this truth. Zen awakening, or kensho, which translates as "seeing into your true nature," is this: seeing the empty, boundless nature of one's self, which means seeing the empty, boundless nature of everything. There are no boundaries. As the sutra says, "In emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perceptions, no impulses, no consciousness, no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue," and so on. How could there be anything separate and distinct from anything else?
So that's "empty." Emptiness is an ontological reality. It's something that points to the way that things are. The second point, "not knowing," points to a psychological or epistemological truth. Given emptiness, who are you? Who are we? The only thing that we can say is what Bodhidharma says: "Don't know." Of course, I'm like you; I know a lot about who I am. Having lived a long time, I have had a lot of experience of myself. I am quite used to myself, you know? Insofar as I am my history and my associations, I know a lot about what this individual life is and has been. Also, having sat down on my cushion, and interacted with lots of people over a long period of time, I have discovered quite a bit about my own confusion and my own foibles and my own weaknesses and strengths.
So, in a way, if you ask, "Who are you?" I could write a novel. But all of that is nothing compared to the most important fact about me and about you: that we are living/dying human beings. About this - when it really comes down to it - we know nothing. So we know nothing about nothing - about everything. This "not knowing" is not an ignorance that I would hope to correct one day with more information. This is a different kind of not knowing. This not knowing is a deep and humble appreciation of the actual human condition. That's the "not knowing" that Bodhidharma is evidencing, and kindly offering to the Emperor. If I could be as honest and forthright with the Emperor as Bodhidharma was, when he asks me, "Who is this," I would have to say the same thing. "I don't really know."