BODHIDHARMA: Reverence - The Way to the One Heart

Oneness' requires the heart to be empty of 'I', this is why reverence is such an important spiritual sentiment. This article explains how it also acts as a gateway to the heart-wisdom of the Zen masters.

Betende Hände… By Albrecht Dürer


Wikipedia Commons

Bodhidharma is a central figure in Zen, one of the giants like Master Rinzai and Master Hakuin. He is known as the First Patriarch in China and is considered the First Patriarch of Zen.

Master Torei (1721-92) speaks of the importance of reverence. We remember Bodhidharma with reverence. We look up to him and recognise his significance in our lineage and remember the events in his life that serve as pointers for our practice. It should be said that true reverence, which is a religious impulse, can only come about through practice, through sincere practice. We can have reverence for the Dharma but we can only begin to appreciate its depth, it’s function, its wisdom, and the compassion that arises from it through practical experience, through getting to know the Dharma; then true reverence arises.

Many of us for example may have known of Ven. Myokyo-ni but it was only when one met her, had interviews with her and so on, that a true reverence, not based on my picture, but on the true experience of her, arose. One quite different from the one we had when we had only heard about her. The same with Bodhidharma and all the patriarchs. So, we could ask ourselves, how can we know them?

We can know them because they practiced the same Dharma that is also available to us. If we practice as they did then we can come to know them too. Hence the expression ‘mingling eyebrows with the old masters’. It is available to us only because they broke their bones on it. Therefore we have gratitude and a debt to repay, not only to give thanks to them but also to benefit the future generations to come.

This reverence then helps us in our practice because it reduces and undermines the delusion of I. ‘I’ don’t like holding something up above myself, greater than myself, because it diminishes me. However, unless we do this, we will remain rigid and bound to ‘myself’. Therefore we develop reverence for Bodhidharma and also gratitude, and look at what he did and aspire towards it in our own practice.

Bodhidharma lived in the 5-6C, AD, a long time ago, yet we have a direct connection with him. He brought Buddhism from India to China. Buddhism was already present in China at the time but it was not really being practiced; it existed more on an intellectual basis. Bodhidharma was the one who established its practice in China and truly started the line of the Chinese transmission which can be traced to the Japanese succession, and all the way down to Venerable Myokyo-ni.

He was the 28th Indian Patriarch and was the third son of a King in Southern India. Prajnatara, the 27th Patriarch and his teacher, told him to go to China after his, Prajnatara’s, death.

Bodhidharma indeed remained Prajnatara’s disciple for 40 years until the teacher died. He stayed and taught in India until, due to the persecution of Buddhism, the time was ripe for him to go to China.

One of Bodhidharma’s characteristics was a fearless sticking to what is right for the situation. We see this with his interview with Emperor Wu when he first arrived in China.

Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty was a very cultured and devout man who had studied Confucianism and then embraced Buddhist teachings. During his reign, Buddhism began to flourish in China. However, it was based on book learning.

When Bodhidarma arrived in China, the Emperor heard about him and invited him to an audience.

Emperor Wu had done all kinds of things to help Buddhism flourish, such as founding monasteries, casting Buddha images, copying Sutras and so on. Clearly he thought to himself that he had done wonderful things. When he heard of a great monk who had arrived in China he sent for him. The exchange between them is well known:

After much anticipation Bodhidharma finally appeared before him and the Emperor asked:

“I have built temples and ordained monks; what is my merit?”

Bodhidharma immediately replied, “No merit whatsoever.”

This took the Emperor aback; How was that possible - all the good things he had done and yet accumulated no merit?

We can understand the Emperor’s surprise. It is something we hear in Buddhism, - that merit gained and accumulated through good deeds such as Right Speech, Right Action and Right Living helps the practitioner eventually reach Nirvana. So we are encouraged to accumulate merit.

We ourselves can sympathise with him. After all, being practitioners we are expected to do things; attend memorial services, come to the evening sittings twice weekly, have a timetable, go to sesshins, long ones and short ones, sit longer during Rohatsu (the first week in December which commemorates the Buddha’s Enlightenment), come and work in the temple and so on.

All these things we do, and unconsciously we may feel that we are accumulating some kind of merit, that we are chalking up good points for ourselves, somehow somewhere.

I recall early one morning putting on my coat to leave for work and then realising that it was a memorial day, and that it was now too late to go and that I had therefore missed it. I felt a real sense of disappointment. However, the realisation then arose that I didn’t know whose memorial day it was and actually how could I be going to the memorial of someone when I didn’t even know who that was. The only remaining conclusion was that I was not going for the memorial of someone but was actually going for myself, for my own practice, for me, for ‘my’ merit.

This can easily happen, as it is a substantial effort to do all these things and we do give up much of our time, and of our life, so unconsciously we may expect some reward or merit. Yet if that is what we expect, we are straying from the path.

It is true that it is unrealistic to expect us to be completely altruistic. But the first vow is to assist all sentient beings, and we ourselves are included in that. That is why we have the expression of ’turning over the merit to all beings’; it is not just us, nor does it exclude us.

So the Emperor, having encouraged the spread of Buddhism by building monasteries and so on, using many of resources and spending a lot of money, not only wanted the ‘pat on the back’ and someone to say to him ‘good job, well done’ but also wanted to be sure that he was accumulating some personal spiritual merit too and was looking to a great monk, to Bodhidharma, to confirm this.

The fact that he looked to Bodhidharma for approval shows that he had missed the point. We don’t do this practice to gain approval from anyone and Bodhidharma confirmed this with his reply: ‘No merit’.

As we know, the Dharma and walking the Buddha’s Way is not just about attending, or participating in, rituals or putting up Buddha statues. It is all about the state of the heart when these things, or anything else for that matter, is done. What is this state of heart?

Dogen said “If you want to travel the Way of Buddhas and Zen masters, then expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing.”

This is the empty heart we cultivate, a heart which does not grasp.

The Emperor then asks Bodhidharma,

“What is the first principle of the holy teachings?”

The Emperor is stuck because he thought that accumulating merit through good deeds was going to get him to Nirvana so he asks; well what is the fundamental principal if it is not gaining merit? What is it that needs to be done?

Bodhidharma replies, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”

The Emperor is stumped again. He was expecting a thing, a something he could hang his hat on, so to speak. Something tangible and preferably holy to grasp.

But Bodhidharma replies ‘Vast emptiness, nothing holy’. What he refers to is not Nothing, but no-I,; no enduring self, that all is subject to change, that there is nothing special, holy or apart, rather that all is included, nothing is excluded. Hence the ‘Vast emptiness’, and it comes back once again to the fact that it is about the state of the heart, about being at-one-with in this very moment, without self, whatever the moment is ; not about one specific thing, a holy thing, that brings merit, in contrast to another one that doesn’t bring merit.

If we only desire the holy, we are just worshipping our own created image of holy and are missing life completely, which is to be found in the ordinary day-to-day. This is where we find life, where we find the Dharma, in the ordinary day-to-day things; after all, where else can we live?.

Finally, as we know, the Emperor, exasperated, asks;

“Who is standing before us?”

Bodhidharma replied, “Not known”

If nothing is holy, then the Emperor wants to know who is Bodhidharma? He is supposed to be a great holy man; if he is not, then who is he, what is he?

Bodhidharma gives him a truthful answer, one that was actually in accord with all the other answers he had given, but unfortunately one that would have been incomprehensible to the Emperor. The Emperor again was expecting a defining answer so that he could label, put in a box or categorise Bodhidharma and so grasp him in some way. However, Bodhidharma wasn’t having any of that and just answered ‘not known’. No enduring self, just that vast emptiness, nothing holy, all experienced and lived fully in this moment.

With this final question and answer, Bodhidharma knew that the time was not yet ripe for true Buddhist practice and he left the Emperor's kingdom. The Emperor realised afterwards what a mistake he had made and asked if they could get him back. However, he was told that he would not return.

This fearless clarity was characteristic of Bodhidharma. He simply did the right thing without any concern for his life; after all, he snubbed an Emperor, and not in search of any kind of approval or favour.

This story of Bodhidharma’s audience with the Emperor Wu was significant and even appears as the first case of The Blue Cliff Record, one of the famous koan collections. It contrasts delusion and wisdom. It shows that delusion cannot grasp wisdom. It also shows that one is not ready to understand the Dharma unless there has been practice.


Text copyright to Dr Alan Sidi

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