Apr 17, 2022

Bodhidharma Reverence -  The Way to the One Heart.

Dharma Talks

When we hear the word ‘reverence’ in a religious context, this may give the impression that we should be apologetically meek in the face of a god who may smite us at any moment. This is not so Buddhism.

Dr Alan Sidhi Investigates.



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

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 act, can only come about through practice, 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. By getting to know the Dharma true reverence arises. 

Many of us for example, may have known of Venerable Myokyo-ni, but it was  only after one had met her, had interviews with her and so on, that a true reverence arose,  a reverence not based on the pictures created in the mind but on the true experience of her. An experience that was quite different from the one we had when we had only heard about her. The same is true with Bodhidharma and all the patriarchs (the founders of Zen). 

So, we could ask ourselves, how can we come to know these old Masters? 

We can know them because they practiced the same Dharma available to us, and if we can practice as they did then we can come to know them too. Hence the expression ‘mingling eyebrows with the patriarchs’. The path of Zen is only available to us because of the hardships they went through. Therefore we have gratitude for the patriarchs and a debt to repay, not only in giving thanks to them but also in passing on the teachings for the benefit of future generations to come.

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

Bodhidharma was the 28th Indian Patriarch and was the third son of a King in Southern India.  It was his teacher Prajnatara, the 27th Patriarch, who instructed him to go to China after his death. He lived sometime around the 5-6C AD, a long time ago, yet we have a direct connection with him. Bodhidharma brought Buddhism from India to China and although it already had a presence there, it existed on more  of an intellectual basis and was not really being practiced. It was Bodhidharma who established this tradition, one heavily rooted in the practical, a transmision that begins in China, can be traced right across the Japanese succession, and all the way down to Venerable Myokyo-ni.

Bodhidharma remained Prajnatara’s assistant for 40 years until he 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 is a fearless sticking to what is right for the situation. We see this in 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 the 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 images of the Buddha, 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, the Emperor sent for him. The exchange between them is well known:

After much anticipation Bodhidharma finally appeared before the Emperor who asked:

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

Bodhidharma immediately replied, “No merit whatsoever.” 

The Emperor was taken aback; How was this possible - all the good things he had done and yet he had not accumulated any merit, why?

 We can understand the Emperor’s surprise. It is something we hear a lot of in Buddhism, - that merit is gained and accumulated through good deeds that help the practitioner to eventually reach Nirvana. Doctrinally we are encouraged to accumulate merit, so it’s easy to sympathise with him. After all, being practitioners we are also expected to do things; attend memorial services, sit for longer periods during Zazen, come to the evening sittings twice weekly instead of once weekly, have a timetable, go to sesshins, short ones and longer ones, come and work in the temple and so on.

With all these things we do, we may (perhaps unconsciously) 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 give up much of our time and our life, 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 of the Bodhisatva path 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 about us, nor does it exclude us.

So the Emperor, having encouraged the spread of Buddhism by building monasteries, using a great amount of resources and spending a lot of money, not only wanted a ‘pat on the back’ and someone to say to him ‘good job, but also wanted to be sure that he was accumulating some personal spiritual merit too and was looking to a great monk, 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 thought that accumulating merit through good deeds was going to get him to Nirvana and so finding himself stuck he now 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, 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 Bodhidharma is refering 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 in it’s completeness, 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 me?” 

Bodhidharma said, “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 in order to 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, everything 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 so 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 the monk 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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