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Wall Gazing

by Padmavajra

Wall Gazing

By Padmavajra

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM700
Talk given at Padmaloka Retreat Centre, 2004

01 Bodhidharma - the special transmission outside the scriptures

Sometime in the 6th century - looming out of the mists of history, but kind of concealed
by them as well - there emerges, or there is hidden, the figure of Bodhidharma. We
hardly know anything about him in terms of hard scientific fact, but for Chinese and
Japanese and Korean Buddhists, Bodhidharma emerges, appears, and continues to stand
as the great founder, the great father of Ch’an and Zen. I think there was a film made
some years ago, a Korean film, “Why Did Bodhidharma Come from the West?” I never
saw it. I’d quite like to track it down.

Bodhidharma is traditionally regarded as the 28th Indian patriarch of the Cha’an school
and the 1st Chinese patriarch. Patriarch means here the kind of lineage holder of the
special transmission outside the scriptures. For traditional Ch’an and Zen Buddhists,
Bodhidharma is regarded, therefore, as being in a direct line from the Buddha, to
Mahakashyapa, holding that special transmission – that direct wordless transmission of
the essence of reality.

There is a Tang Dynasty verse which expresses this transmission, tries to give expression
to it.

“A special transmission, outside the scriptures; No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind; Seeing into one’s own nature and realizing Buddhahood.”

This is regarded as the essence of Zen, and I really would warmly recommend you track
down Sangharashita’s book The Essence of Zen, which is a commentary on that verse.

Now Bodhidharma is said to have brought this special transition from India to China, but
as I’ve said hardly anything was really known about him. Traditionally he’s regarded as
south Indian, from a royal family, who left that family and became a wandering monk,
practised with the great teachers of his day – especially meditation. But not just
meditation, evidently, because it’s said that when he came to China he brought with him
one text, one sutra. That is the Lankavatara Sutra - the sutra of the entry of the
Buddhadharma into Lanka, meaning Sri Lanka - which teaches the Dharma in terms of
mind, in terms of consciousness. And which is especially concerned to point out the
experience of what’s called Ashraya-parivrtti – the revolution in the basis, or the turning
around in the deepest seat of consciousness. That realization, that experience, brings
about the realization that the whole of the cosmos is mind only. Empty, radiant, non-dual
awareness. Those who are here next week will be hearing more about that very
interesting-sounding teaching.

At some point Bodhidharma’s realization led him, out of compassion we’re told, to take
the Dharma into China. So he took the long and dangerous sea journey to communicate
his realization to the Chinese. Buddhism had been established in China for some four
centuries by the time Bodhidharma appeared on the scene, so there were monks and there
were monasteries. But for the Ch’an and Zen tradition Bodhidharma is regarded as
bringing something very special, something fresh and new, something altogether

In Chinese and Japanese art, probably Korean art too, Bodhidharma is frequently
depicted. And what you see usually is a powerful, imposing figure, wrapped in a dark
robe, the robe sometimes draped over his head, and he’s got great bulging, lidless eyes
that stare right out at you. And great bushy eyebrows. He has a beard and he has short
hair or he’s shaved. And he’s standing, holding a staff, and his eyes are really glaring at
you. He looks a bit crazy. Sometimes he’s depicted seated in meditation, eyes straight
ahead. So this is Bodhidharma and his mythic presence – it haunts, looms over the entire
Chinese, Japanese and Korean Zen traditions. He’s even sort of entered into popular
culture. I was reading a thing the other day about a certain festival in Japan where
everyone is selling these little dolls, Bodhidharma dolls, which are kind of egg-shaped.
When you flip them over they stand upright. That’s how far Bodhidharma has entered
into popular consciousness. But for the Zen tradition he’s famous.

And particularly the koan, the famous koan, the koan that’s always being brought up,
“Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?” Meaning, why did Bodhidharma come
from India? At some point, evidently, a master asked his disciple that question. What
did he bring? What is this special transmission outside the scriptures? And you have to
answer. Not from what you’ve read – the master isn’t interested in what you’ve read,
he’s not interested in any kind of history – you have to answer from the depths of your
consciousness. And the master is glaring at you. He wants to know. He really wants to
know what you’ve got to say for yourself. If you keep silent, as if to say it’s beyond
words, he will have you. He’s not interested in you playing games. Just as much as if
you come out with a trite, clichéd answer. He’s not interested. One master is depicted as
saying, “If you speak, I’ll give you fifty blows. If you stay silent, I’ll give you fifty
blows.” How do you answer that question? You’re just thrust up against that cliff face
again, pressed, and you have to find something deeper. Sometimes it can actually feel
like that in life, that whichever way the moves are presented to you – that you can’t do
them. All the moves that you’ve tried so far, they just don’t work. You’ve got to find
something else, something deeper. So Bodhidharma looms over the Zen tradition with
his bulging, lidless eyes and his bushy eyebrows. What did he bring? What did he

02 Emperor Wu's questions

The first person he tried to teach just didn’t get it at all – just didn’t get the teaching.
This was the famous Emperor Wu – the founder of the Liang Dynasty – who had done a
lot for Buddhism. He was a great supporter of Buddhism, of the Dharma. He built
temples, he made stupas and monasteries, he supported innumerable monks, he had sutras
translated and transcribed. And he was very pious, very keen on Buddhism. And he
especially like to meet Buddhist monks – especially any new, Indian monks who were in
town – and he’d heard that there was this new Indian monk, Bodhidharma, who had
arrived. He’d come, apparently, with the latest Indian teachings, and there was
something a bit special, apparently, about this guy. And the Emperor Wu wanted to
know all about it.

So Bodhidharma was invited to the palace. He turns up in his simple, patched robes with
his bulging eyes and eyebrows, he’s holding his staff and bowl, and he enters the court.
And the Emperor comes in, he ascends the throne, he’s dressed in all his finery and all his
brocade, his robes and all the rest of it. No doubt, pleasantries were exchanged and all
the rest of it. And then the Emperor asked, “Since ascending to the throne I have had
temples built and monks ordained. What merit have I gained?” Very important question
for the Emperor, very important traditional question. He’s done all these good works to
benefit people, to establish the Dharma. So that must have surely brought him merit -
good karma, good fortune. So, surely there’s going to be a good fruit for him. He wants
to know what that fruit will be. A good rebirth - as a god, maybe. Or maybe some
spiritual realization in the future. Maybe he wants Bodhidharma to predict some future
greatness for him, that in future years he’ll be a bodhisattva or a Buddha. And we can
smile at Emperor Wu’s question, “What merit have I gained?” But we’re probably like
him ourselves. We do good things – help people, help out, practice the Dharma, do our
bit, do good things for our family, and all the rest of it. Apparently selflessly – but
somewhere, always, usually, at the back of our minds, there’s a desire for reward. Maybe
it’s not heaven that we want. But certainly being liked, being accepted, being praised,
being thought well of, looked after when we get old or when we’re going through it a bit.
And of course we can get very disappointed if the reward that we expected, that we think
is our right, is not given.

So anyway, Emperor Wu wanted to know, “What merit have I gained?” And
Bodhidharma, standing there with those great bulging eyes, just said flatly, “No merit at
all.” Not a jot of it, apparently. You won’t get anything from what you’ve done. And
this is really shocking. It must have been incredibly shocking for poor Emperor Wu. He
must have been thinking, “I’ve done all this good for Buddhism, all this good for this
Indian barbarian religion. And this foreigner turns up and say I’ll get nothing!” You can
imagine what’s going through his mind. So the Emperor asked, “Why no merit at all?”
And Bodhidharma replied, ...

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