The words employed by the questioner change, as does the time, place and situation of the exchange. And the answer is always the same. As goes the question, so goes the reply.
What does that mean? It means just what it says, although this meaning cannot be understood. And if it is understood, then that is not the meaning.
This is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West.
Bodhidharma, the son of an Indian king, is said to have brought the Zen teachings from India to China in the 6th century. The successor of the Master Hannyatara, Bodhidharma is considered in our Zen lineage to be the 28th patriarch after Shakyamuni Buddha and the first patriarch of Zen, which originated as Chan in China. There are many legends about Bodhidharma, who founded the famous Shaolin Monastery in northern China. One of the more celebrated stories involves his encounter with the Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty, who invited him to his court in Nanking not long after his arrival in China.
The emperor was a follower of Buddhism and had done much to support it and foster its propagation, building and helping sustain monasteries and temples in his realm. Having heard of this eminent Indian teacher, the emperor summoned him and asked what merit would be his in future lives as a result of his good deeds in this life.
Bodhidharma’s reply was succinct: “No merit.”
The emperor, somewhat taken aback, was nonetheless intrigued by this stranger’s seeming irreverence. What, he wanted to know then, is the essence of this most sacred teaching?
Again, Bodhidharma was relentless.
“Vast emptiness,” he replied, “nothing sacred.”
Nonplussed, Emperor Wu now demanded of this Indian barbarian, “Who is this person confronting me?”
At this, Bodhidharma revealed the essence of the teaching.
“I know not,” he replied.
The emperor, however, did not realize what had been presented. Bodhidharma left. The emperor’s attendant suggested that he should not have let the great master take his leave thus. But although Emperor Wu then sought to retrieve him, he did not return. (It has been suggested by some researchers that the emperor’s daughter followed Bodhidharma and remained to study with him, eventually becoming his successor.)
So what, then, is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China? What did he reveal to the emperor? That is, what is the essence of his teaching?
One of the finest summaries of Zen practice that I know is from a teacher who is not officially a Zen master. It is a statement from Nisargadatta Maharaj, a Vedantist guru who lived in India in the mid-20th century:
“When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom.
When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s love.
Between the two is where my life turns.”
It tells us what to do (look, inside and outside) and where (here, my life) and what could be called the “goal” (through wisdom and love, living my life).
This is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West. This is the essence of his teachings.
What does it mean, though, “living my life”? What does it mean to see that I am nothing? What does it mean to see that I am everything? Until we experience this nothing that is everything and this everything that is nothing, we have only a universe of ideas. In fact, the universe itself is nothing but an elaborate idea of shapes and forms until we open to its non-idea of non-form.
Half a century ago, some other Zen “foreigners” ventured with the teachings to new lands. The Japanese Zen monks who journeyed to America (and elsewhere in the West) came for the most part intending to serve their compatriots who had moved abroad. They founded temples in which they performed marriages and funerals and dispensed various other religious rites and services to a grateful Japanese community bound by its devotion to the ancient traditions of their culture. The members of these communities were not seeking to develop a regular practice of sitting, however, and they were not adepts hoping to awaken to the true nature of all beings and things.
Soon, however, something unexpected happened: Strangers started knocking at the temple doors. The newcomers were not Japanese, and they were generally not interested in tradition or ceremony. They were not attracted by the aesthetics of Japanese art and culture or by the language and literature. They came not for the exotic and beautiful shapes and forms. They came for what these shapes and forms indicated. They came for the essence of Zen. They came for what Bodhidharma had brought.
What is the meaning of these modern monks coming from the East, we might ask?
Bodhidharma’s Chan had come from China to Japan in the 13th century thanks to the great Zen Master Dogen. But seven centuries later, the essential Zen teachings in Japan had long since been lost to the general public. While Zen ritual remained popular among lay people, the teachings and daily practice of Zen meditation were available only within the restricted confines of monastery walls. In the West, however, there were no Zen monasteries, and thus no walls. Zen was therefore submitted to none of the limits imposed on it by Japanese tradition.
As has occurred throughout the history of Buddhism, Zen was being transformed by its transmission to the West. From its origins in India, Buddhism traveled to China, to Tibet, to Southeast Asia, to Japan and Korea. In each new culture, the forms were altered by the precise situation: the time, the place, the social structures and traditions, the people who transmitted and those who received the teachings and practiced them. The extent of the changes is unfathomable and unending. In more than 2,500 years, this is what has not changed. And this is the very essence of the teaching.
The questions take many forms, the languages differ, the contexts vary, the voices and faces are never the same. Those who begin reading this sentence are not the same as those who are reading it now at its end. And they are not the same as those beginning again with these words in a new sentence. It is this ever-changing flow that remains unchanged.
As Dogen wrote in the final verse of his beautiful Genjokoan, “Because the nature of wind is permanently abiding, the wind of the house of the buddhas makes manifest the earth as pure gold and turns the long river into sweet cream.”
Dogen is inciting us to awaken to the truth of things as they are, to our true nature. What we usually think of as uninteresting and ordinary, even burdensome — the everyday earth of our long-river life —- is in fact the world of absolute beauty and perfection, the pure gold and sweet cream of liberation. This whole everyday life that is yours and mine is the life of the Buddha. This is the true meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West.