CASE #42:    Hui-ke Offers His Arm

Bodhidharma sat in a cave for nine years gazing at the wall. Hui-ke arrived to inquire about the dharma, but Bodhidharma refused to teach him. Finally, taking a knife, Hui-ke cut off his own arm and presented it as an offering to Bodhidharma, who agreed to become his teacher.


Bodhidharma     The Indian monk who brought the Dhyāna (or “Meditation”) School of Buddhism to China in the 6th century C.E. Considered the founder of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, he is said to have transmitted a teaching “directly from mind to mind, without relying on written scriptures.”

Gazing at the wall     Bodhidharma’s practice of pi-kuan, or “wall gazing,” has been the subject of much debate. Zen devotees generally claim to have transmitted that practice from ancient times. Others, mostly scholars, insist that the original practice, obscure even to its first devotees, has now been lost to antiquity.  A collection of Bodhidharma’s teachings discovered in a cave at the beginning of the last century, and now sometimes referred to as the “Dead Sea Scrolls” of Zen, might be used to support either point of view.

Hui-ke         A Chinese scholar-monk famed for his mastery of Buddhist and Taoist scriptures. According to legend, when Bodhidharma agreed to accept him as a student, Hui-ke cried, “My mind is not at rest!” Whereupon Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind and I will set it at rest for you.” Hui-ke explained that this was just the problem—search as he might for his mind, he could not find it. “There!” proclaimed Bodhidharma, “I have set your mind at rest.” Our green version of the koan omits this episode which, from an ecological point of view, is only a supplement to the main case.

NOTE: A more comprehensive treatment of this koan can be found in the article “Turn Out the Lights” from the Spring 2010 issue of Tricycle.



Hui-ke’s brain is the bigger problem. Why not cut off his head? That way, if Bodhidharma asked, “Where’s your mind?” the answer would be obvious: “It’s right there at your feet!”

But seriously, wouldn’t it be simpler for Hui-ke to say, “I’ve drifted so far from Nature, I no longer know who or what I am”? Why trouble Bodhidharma if he was ready to admit the truth?

Toss a pebble
Into the air, willing it
To remain aloft,
And people will make fun of you—
Though their lives are just like that.


Find all the Green Koans here.

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