Jul 30, 2020
Martin Goodson

The Two Entrances

A sermon by Bodhidharma plus commentary

The First Patriarch of Zen, Bodhidharma, lays out the two principles for practice in this sermon originally found in the caves of Dunhuang

Guadirikiri Cave



The manuscript of this sermon was found amongst the documents in the Dunhuang caves and was attributed to Bodhidharma.

The manuscript itself was written complied and added to by individuals and groups who looked to Bodhidharma as their guide and inspiration. This ‘adding to’ a text by those who follow in the footsteps of a patriarch was a common enough practice. It was justified by the understanding that having walked the way it was possible to elaborate a teaching in accordance with the spirit of the founder.

"Many roads lead to the Path, but basically there are only two: Principle and Practice.

To enter by Principle means to realise the essence through instruction and to see that all living things share the same true nature, which isn’t apparent because it’s shrouded by sensation and delusion.

Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved, even by scriptures, are in complete and unspoken agreement with the Principle. Without moving, without effort, they enter, we say, by Principle." [1]

The Buddha left home, attained his Enlightenment and then out of his Great Compassion set the Wheel of the Dharma in motion.

To begin with he taught the Middle Way, which at first pointed out that the way of true practice lay between the extremes of indulgence and privation. Later on a subtle interpretation arose to cultivate the heart that ‘doesn’t settle anywhere’ and is free from attachment.

This initial teaching was expanded upon in the Four Noble Truths with its ‘Suffering, I teach and the way out of suffering.’

This ‘way out of suffering’ was again elaborated in the teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path.

This was the path to Arhatship, to the cessation of suffering and attainment of Nirvana.

Later on with the Mahayana development a new motivation appeared encapsulated in the Bodhisattva ideal to attain the Full and Perfect Enlightenment of the Buddha for the benefit of all beings. Thus the Mahayana is known as the Great Way.

This Way or ‘Path’ is what is referred to in the above extract. The First Zen Patriarch says there are many ways to this Path and this is why it is said that there are 84,000 teachings. The Buddha was almost unique in making clear that it is important to teach according to the level of the hearer.

This approach is adopted here in this text because Bodhidharma points to there being a number of ways although essentially they come down to two.

These two ways of Principle and Practice reflect the Buddha’s teaching of the Two Truths.

After his Enlightenment, the Buddha continued sitting below the Bodhi tree as he did not know how to communicate his deep insight which went beyond all words and concepts. Eventually, according to tradition, it is said that the god Brahma came down and exhorted the Buddha to teach those whose eyes were ‘little covered with dust’. Thus the Buddha also realised that even if he could not teach the absolute truth which went beyond words he could at least teach the way to that absolute truth.

Therefore the Buddha taught that there were two truths, one absolute, and one relative which leads to the truth absolute.

It is this latter truth that makes up the content of most of the Buddha’s teaching and which can be found in the scriptures. This also includes the myriad practices: meditation, daily life practice which is made up of the six paramitas, devotional practices such as chanting, studying the scriptures and so on.

However these relative practices are not to be confused with the absolute truth and hence the distinction is made between ‘principle’ and ‘practice’.

The Tendai school, which arose in China around the same time that the principles of Chan/Zen were also forming, classified all the Buddhist Scriptures into five stages. It must be pointed out that these do not reflect the historical unfoldment however they do reflect a development of ideas in hindsight.

Initially, it was said that the Buddha spoke from the profundity of his insight in the Avatamsaka Sutra. The teaching of this sutra can perhaps be summed up as ‘One in everything and everything in the One’. But no-one understood it.

The second stage consisted of what are known to the Chinese as the Agama sutras these are formed from the Pali Canon and reflect just this adaptation by the Buddha of his teaching upon his realising that no-one understood.

The other classifications are known as the ‘Scolding stage’, the ‘Wisdom sutras’ and the ‘Time of Opening and Meeting’ epitomised by the Lotus Sutra which is considered supreme by the Tendai school.

The Lotus sutra teaches what is known as the ekayana or one way. That is, that all the teachings meet and open up to form one path for all to reach Buddhahood. Depending on whereabouts someone was on this path would cause the Buddha or the patriarchs to teach either the Principle or the Practice.

For one whose eyes were truly 'but little covered with dust', Bodhidharma says that such a one can be taught directly as they already have realised all beings have Buddha nature and that the 'ten thousand things (all phenomena), are empty of self-nature.

The encounters we find in the koan collections such as the Mumonkan or in the Record of Rinzai show this level of teaching.

However for most of us we have to start with the level of practice; establishing a meditation practice both seated and in the midst of activity; cultivating the practice of precepts and restraint of the passions and so on.

Out of his Great Compassion, Bodhidharma then explains how to go about this.

"To enter by practice refers to four all-inclusive practices: suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and practicing the Dharma.

First, suffering injustice. When those who search for the Path encounter adversity, they should think to themselves, “In countless ages gone by, I’ve turned from the essential to the trivial and wandered through all manner of existence, often angry without cause and guilty of numberless transgressions. Now, though I do no wrong, I’m punished by my past. Neither gods not men can forsee when an evil deed will bear its fruit. I accept it with an open heart and without complaint of injustice. The sutras say, “When you meet with adversity don’t be upset, because it makes sense.” With such understanding you’re in harmony with reason. And by suffering injustice you enter the Path." [1]

So now Bodhidharma spells out for us the four practices to enter upon the Way.

This first one, suffering injustice, may be already enough to give rise to serious doubt as to whether ‘I’ wish to continue along this path!

Having read something of the teachings and perhaps come across the more profound teachings such as ‘No-I’ or its development – ‘radical emptiness’ we can get quite carried away with abstract thoughts about meaning and realisation without ever realising just what this might mean in practice.

Yet in the absence of ‘I’ and ‘other’, which the Buddha did teach, there is no possibility of claiming that this or that is somehow “not my fault”. If all things are truly inter-connected then somehow our actions and their effects are also interconnected.

This is the thrust of the Buddhist teaching of karma.

Buddhism is a child of Hinduism and took many of its ideas from the parent but made them uniquely Buddhist. One such teaching was this teaching of karma.

Originally, karma meant ‘ritual actions’ performed by priests to ensure that people would be sent onto a good future incarnation. The Buddha took this teaching and said that karma was not just ritual action performed by priests but was our own intentional actions which determined our future incarnations. This view means that our actions themselves have an ethical outcome and makes us responsible for those outcomes.

Whether or not we believe in a literal interpretation of karma, such as that put forward by Bodhidharma, it does suggest a particular way of seeing that moves away from ‘I – only’ into a more interconnected way of seeing what we do and how we act. In addition it prevents me from separating myself out from my fellow humans.

When Mother Theresa was on her way to Stockholm to receive her Nobel Prize she stopped off in London. During her visit she went to Blackfriars bridge where many of London’s homeless stay. Of course there were camera crews and reporters all around her and one asked her “So, who is responsible for the homeless here?” She turned and looked to the reporter and said “You are, and so am I because we let it happen.”

It was clear from her answer that she too felt that interconnectedness of things. That it is impossible to extricate oneself from that responsibility.

Perhaps I do not feel that I am responsible for the actions of others who died a long time ago but the teaching of karma makes us responsible. If we have a literal belief in karma then we feel it. I look at someone who is suffering now and have to consider that “Here is someone who is suffering now. I too, have suffered in the same way in past lives and will also suffer in future ones. How would I wish to be treated in this situation?” Here begins the stirrings of compassion, the ability to empathise, to place myself in the shoes of another. Can we begin to see why Bodhidharma asks us to accept the injustices that come my way?

It is not that we must be doormats for injustice or even that we do nothing for justice. Rather it is to see that I have myself made injustice possible and cannot separate myself out from the one who meets out injustice. So the homeless man, Mother Theresa, the reporter, me and you we are all responsible together. Can we feel how this view, a view much in accord with the teaching of ‘No-I’ changes how we see the suffering of this world?

Bodhisharma goes on:

"Second, adapting to conditions. As mortals, we’re ruled by conditions, not by ourselves. All the suffering and joy we experience depend upon conditions. If we should be blessed by some great reward such as fame or fortune, it’s the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past. When conditions change, it ends. Why delight in its existence? But while success and failure depend on conditions, the mind neither waxes nor wanes. Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path." [1]

There is a fundamental understanding that in the Buddhist view all things come about through causes and conditions. There is no actor in acting, no do-er in doing, no thinker of thoughts, no seer in seeing, no hearer in hearing and so on.

All these things come about because of causes and conditions that lie outside of these things. Again it points to the interconnectedness of all things. The notion of self-and-other flies in the face of this proposition.

Therefore it follows that ‘I’ cannot take ownership for things including successes and failures.

At first glance it might seem to contradict the first practice which asks us to take responsibility for what comes our way. Surely ownership goes with responsibility and vice versa?

Again this comes down to two very different ways of seeing. If that seeing is ‘I’ related then of course they go together. However if the seeing is even a little bit emptied of ‘I’ and there is already space for others then despite the fact that there is no ownership by ‘I’ there is responsibility because of the impact upon all beings of actions of body, speech and mind. If that sense of interconnectedness is there, empathy for all beings is also there and this provides the motivational basis for actions. Acting in this way also strengthens this latter way of seeing. So we can see how this practice also provides an entry point for the Path.

"Third, seeking nothing. People of this world are deluded. They’re always longing for something – always, in a word, seeking. But the wise wake up… They fix their minds on the sublime and let their bodies change with the seasons. All phenomena are empty. To dwell in the three realms is to dwell in a burning house. To have a body is to suffer. Those who understand this… stop imagining or seeking anything… When you seek nothing, you’re on the Path. " [1]

This goes to the heart of those first teachings of the Buddha. The Four Noble Truths which lay out just how the grasping heart is the cause and source of our suffering and that the relinquishing of this grasping is the way out of suffering.

It also points out how the grasping is a passion, either wanting or not-wanting, all based on the delusion of a separate I. The fires, as the passions are also known, burn us and this is the burning house that was the subject of the Buddha’s Fire Sermon where he states that this body is a house and is on fire with greed, hatred and delusion – another formulation of those same three fires.

The three realms are the realms of desire, form and no form and are another way of talking about Samsara, our realm of delusion. So because we are deluded by the notion of selfhood we suffer the existence of the fires.

To any ‘I’ the suggestion to ‘seek nothing’ is preposterous! Surely, if there is nothing to seek, no ambition, then life would come to a halt?

We need to understand that this ‘seeking’ refers specifically to an ‘I’ based activity, an intentional act based on those fires. I want something – I go out and seek it – I can get it (success) or not get it (sorrow).

Seen this way life quickly begins to revolve around my wanting/not-wanting. The more strongly I feel this wanting the more life becomes centred on it.

What is the alternative?

There is a lovely poem that goes:

In the landscape of spring,

There is neither better nor worse.

The flowering branches grow both long or short.

For the trees on which these branches grow there is no judgement about whether it favours long branches over short ones. In fact a tree that decided not to grow any more short branches would become unsteady and would fall down!

My seeking when based just on my own likes and dislikes with no appreciation for the impact it may have on others or on the environment is the problem. It is precisely this type of short-sightedness that creates the excesses we see all around us.

Nature works in the round. Here are the flowering branches which on trees are seen in great abundance in spring. The tree does not seek anything it just puts out its flowers at the appropriate time. Now the bees and other pollinating insects are awakening from their winter slumber and need to replenish the hive with supplies for the new season ahead. As a result of this situation the bees get the nectar and the pollen for food and the trees are pollinated and thus can form the autumn fruit and generate the seeds of the next generation.

Isn’t it remarkable just how all this happens and yet there is no hot headed ‘seeking’ in those foraging insects; no trees that are hell-bent on being pollinated. This is what Bodhidharma points to with this ‘seek nothing’.

“Fourth, practicing the Dharma. The Dharma is the truth that all natures are pure. By this truth all appearances are empty. Defilement and attachment, subject and object don’t exist. Those wise enough to believe and understand this truth are bound to practice according to the Dharma…" [1]

When we come across the word ‘pure’ or ‘purity’ in Buddhism it always refers to ‘emptiness of self’ or the Buddha’s teaching of ‘No-I’.

The notion of self which riddles consciousness is the primary defilement and impediment from the point of view of the teachings.

So to see all natures as pure is to see correctly that they are without self. So the nature of defilement and the nature of attachment as well as the natures of subject and object are essentially pure.

This is really the same as those other well-known phrases in Mahayana Buddhism that ‘Samsara is Nirvana’ or ‘Passions are the Buddha nature’.

Now this is not to say that the experience of Samsara is the same as Nirvana nor is it saying that there is no difference between the passions and the Buddha nature – there are differences. However they are all of the same nature and that is they are empty of any self-nature.

In our daily life practice when a passion such as greed arises it is momentarily restrained. In that act of restraint awareness sees that greed has arisen. It is simultaneously seen that this impulse does not reflect the whole situation but is only based on what ‘I’ want to the disregard of all else.

This seeing of the impulse in this way is to see it as pure or empty of self-nature. It no longer drives being. However the passion is still very much there and whilst it is restrained by consciousness it is painful to bear. However there is knowledge that it will not last so with some grit we weather out the storm. Once it is over, no further karmic seeds have been planted and a bit of ‘I’ has also fallen off.

"And since that which is real includes nothing worth begrudging, they give their body, life and property in charity, without regret, without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient and without bias or attachment." [1]

When that feeling of ‘I’ has truly fallen off who is there to begrudge what?

Master Dogen once said:

The weeds grow though we don’t want them to; the flowers fall although we want them to stay. That is just how it is!

So it is with body, life, property it too comes and goes. Sooner or later everything that we have will go. We can take nothing with us! The wise, whilst being prudent with everything, live with this realisation of how things really are and so do not give rise to resentment.

"And as with charity, they also practice the other virtues. But while practicing the six virtues to eliminate delusion, they practice nothing at all. This is what is meant by practicing the Dharma." [1]

Charity here is the Sanskrit dana or ‘giving’ known as the first of the six paramitas, the others are discipline, patient endurance, devoted energy, meditation and wisdom. These six are the practice of the Bodhisattva path which leads to Buddhahood.

However we cannot get away from the fact that any practice always has the taint of the notion that there is one who practices – and we quickly fall back into the notion of ‘I doing’ rather than ‘I’ giving myself away into the doing – there is just the doing and going with things as they really are.

So the wise, having eliminated this notion know there is no such practice going on at all. Rather in the same way that the bee does not practice foraging for food neither does the tree practice putting out flowers in spring. They simply follow their inherent Buddha nature and have been all along. So this non-practice is in fact the practice of the Dharma and with this Bodhidharma points back to that first entrance the Way of Principle. These two principles being one and originally none.


[1] The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, trans. Red Pine, pub. North Point Press 1989


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