Lately I have been thinking about the koan, well known by my Zen friends, called “The barbarian has no beard.” The koan itself is not much longer than its title: “Wakuan asked, ‘Why has the western barbarian no beard?’” Given that I am not a Zen student myself, I am hardly qualified to address the meaning of the koan in the context of Zen training. Nonetheless, as simply an example of Buddhist literature, I find it provocative.

The “western barbarian” is Bodhidharma, the legendary First Great Ancestor of Zen (Chan) in China. He is commonly spoken of as a barbarian because he came to China from India, in the west. The Chinese, like the Greeks or Romans, viewed those who were not of their culture as barbarians. For the Chinese, the Greeks, the Romans, and virtually all peoples throughout history until relatively recently, racial difference referred primarily to cultural difference. That is, culture determined who belonged to “us” and who was “other,” those inherently different from us, therefore inferior, not fully human. Barbarians. It was not until the conquest of the Americas and the rise of the slave trade that race was framed within physical attributes and biology.

Bodhidharma is throughout East Asia not only a revered figure but also an iconic one, instantly recognizable in both religious and popular representations. And perhaps the most recognizable thing about him is his beard. So to say that Bodhidharma, the western barbarian, has no beard goes against all common sense. Which seems to be the crux of the matter.

In general Mahayana Buddhist terms, what is going on here is an interplay of what are often referred to as the two truths, the absolute and the conventional. From the conventional perspective, Bodhidharma of course has a beard, as anyone can see. But from the perspective of absolute truth, the conventions by which we define, divide up, and parse the world are without ultimacy; they are “empty.” And with insight, all these apparent distinctions vanish into emptiness. As we read in the Heart Sutra, in emptiness there are “no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.” And no beard.

Whether or not one’s tradition is Zen, a key aspect of Buddhist practice is clarifying and living out the interplay of these two perspectives on a single reality. For as the Heart Sutra says, “form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form.”

And neither is there a “barbarian.” As Zen priest and scholar Kurt Spellmeyer writes, “All sentient beings everywhere possess buddhanature” and have access to the Buddha’s wisdom (“Liberating Impermanence”). This cosmopolitan attitude, in which all humans possess the same nature as the Buddha, as Bodhidharma, and as each other, was key to Buddhism’s success in spreading north into Central and East Asia. And then to the cultural West.

But for a modern person living in a pluralistic world, there is something that kind of sticks in the craw about saying the barbarian has no beard, that maybe it is not, for us today, quite cosmopolitan enough. Or that the cosmopolitan impulse needs to be drawn out a bit more. Tricycle’s features editor, Andrew Cooper, writing in 1993 in Turning Wheel, spoke of race in terms of what he calls “ideological categories”:

The understanding that conceptual designations shape perception is, of course, a familiar one to students of Buddhism. But Buddhist analysis tends to focus on the ultimate emptiness of all concepts, and remains naive about the historical forces that lead to the production of particular ones. But to forget this historical dimension is to be shaped by it.

The key here is recognizing how we are shaped by it. Race is a convention, but it is, we now know as those in the past seldom did, historically produced and anything but innocent. And our complicity in its malice and forgetfulness of its history can’t help but bind us to its harmfulness.

So returning to Wakuan’s question, maybe today we need also to contemplate yet another truth that the koan holds: The ancestor with the beard is no barbarian.

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