Bodhidharma, the first Zen ancestor, conveyed the dharma from India to China. His practice was “wall-gazing,” or zazen. According to legend, he sat facing a wall for nine years and cut off his eyelids to stay awake.

Zen lineages all begin with Bodhidharma, the mythic first ancestor of Zen, who came to China from India, and who, by inaugurating Zen, also transmitted the true teaching beyond words that begins with Shakyamuni Buddha. For years I felt irritated by Bodhidharma; he glares out of innumerable portraits with a thick odor of machismo clinging to his robes. Image after image offers up a pair of round, bulging eyes popping out between beetling eyebrows and a bulbous nose, the face framed by immense pendulous ears and an untrimmed beard. He is a solid, bull-necked figure, muscular running to fat—a dharma linebacker. His robe is usually loosely draped, baring his substantial chest enough to give us a glimpse of his hairy torso, and when his legs are revealed by a breeze blowing his skirts, they complete the hirsute look. Although he usually sports at least one earring, he always seemed to me the personification of Mr. Tough Zen. Here was the first ancestor, and to me he was wholly Other.

While no longer written off by scholars as completely fictional, Bodhidharma remains elusive. Very little is known about him, including who his teachers were. He journeyed to China around 470 C.E., one of a few meditation masters at that time who came to a country that had already known a first small flowering of Buddhism; he encountered some resistance to his teaching, had few disciples, and died around 532 C.E. A few teachings in editions from a thousand years later bear his name, but a lot of historicity can leak out over a millennium. Eventually, versions from the seventh and eighth centuries were found among the great scriptural treasures that have emerged from the caves of the Silk Route town of Dunhuang, on China’s western frontiers. And with that, the record begins to be fleshed out, bringing the mythic Bodhidharma to life as well.

Daruma (Bodhidharma) on a Rush Leaf by Fugai Ekun, Japan, seventeenth century, sumi on paper. Dorothy and David Harman Collection.
Daruma (Bodhidharma) on a Rush Leaf by Fugai Ekun, Japan, seventeenth century, sumi on paper. Dorothy and David Harman Collection.

It was only after I read these few essays that I looked again at the paintings and realized these weren’t portraits of supreme masculinity, they were just caricatures of The Westerner, The Foreigner. A South Indian monk wandering in China, he’s an East Asian fantasy of the forever gaijin. Round-eyed, hairy, stocky, perhaps looming over his audience, he is of my tribe.

Bodhidharma eventually became a well-known figure not only in Zen circles but in popular and literary culture as well. In his earliest images, from about the eleventh century, he is a fairly normal looking monk, Chinese in features and dress, with perhaps a little stubble on his chin. A few stock portraits came to dominate his image. In Japanese zenga, the Zen painting that has roots in Chinese styles, his appearance grew more forbidding and distinctive as his popularity grew—mythic figures make better copy that way—exaggerated, alien.

One of my favorite paintings of Bodhidharma depicts him wafting across water on the slimmest of reeds—a detail for which there aren’t any good explanations. He is often glancing back over his shoulder as he glides along with his robes flapping in the wind. He is totally present, at home in the flow of impermanent existence, entrusting himself to the world and its vagaries. Along with such allusions to water as symbolic of our dynamic, flowing universe, and to Shakyamuni’s often-used metaphor of crossing from this shore of suffering life to the farther shore of truth and liberation, these river crossings are also identified with his crossing the Yangtze Rivef after encountering the Chinese emperor Wu.

This exchange is probably the most famous in all Zen lore. Bodhidharma met the emperor of the Liang Dynasty, a devout Buddhist renowned for his piety and charity, who was much given to endowing monasteries and orphanages. Wu said: “I have endowed temples and authorized ordinations—what is my merit?” Bodhidharma’s answer was radical: “No merit at all.” 

Wu had been doing good for the sake of accumulating merit. Bodhidharma cut through Wu’s ideas about merit to the core of his teaching, that your practice isn’t apart from you: when your mind is pure, you live in a pure universe; when you’re caught up in ideas of gaining and losing, you live in a world of delusion.

The emperor tried again: “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?” And Bodhidharma’s answer once again cut to the quick: “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” There is nothing to cling to, holy is just a word. The great dynamic universe of absolute reality flourishes, and it is completely ordinary. The emperor did not understand what he was saying, and Bodhidharma left his kingdom, crossed the Yangtze, and went north to Mount Song, where he settled at a minor temple called Shaolin.

At Shaolin Temple, Bodhidharma sat facing a cave wall for nine years, and taught a small band of disciples—probably just two, Huike and Daoyu. According to a very early biographical text, the disciples served their master sincerely and studiously for some years, cutting away only delusions in the process—with no mention of the legend of Huike’s chopping off his hand to demonstrate his sincerity. The historical record of Bodhidharma almost disappears after this, noting only that he traveled and taught, and was appreciated by some but not by many.

Bodhidharma’s teaching begins and ends with the mind as the gateway to liberation—there is no Buddha beyond the mind that is our marvelously aware true nature—and with beholding the mind as the key to the gate. The central practice he taught was seated meditation, translated as “wall gazing”—sitting like a wall, stable and immovable. He said this is the way to clarify the mind and thus your life and your world. Concentrate, relinquish all false ideas, return to true reality, and with that abandon all dualisms of self and other, settling into the still true nature of things. His language is often symbolic and lyrical as he points over and over to what he calls the fundamental pure inherent mind on which we should ground ourselves. This mind is not just your or my thinking and perception; it is what is also called Buddha, Buddhanature, suchness—no word can contain it, no self can grasp it.

Bodhidharma, the first Zen ancestor, conveyed the dharma from India to China. His practice was “wall-gazing,” or zazen. According to legend, he sat facing a wall for nine years and cut off his eyelids to stay awake.

The following excerpts are from Red Pine’s translations in The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma.

Half Body Daruma (Bodhidharma) by Sanshoken Yuzen Gentatsu, Japan, nineteenth century, sumi on silk. The Gitter Collection.
Half Body Daruma (Bodhidharma) by Sanshoken Yuzen Gentatsu, Japan, nineteenth century, sumi on silk. The Gitter Collection.

Buddha is Sanskrit for what you call aware, miraculously aware. Responding, perceiving, arching your brows, blinking your eyes, moving your hands and feet, it’s all your miraculously aware nature. And this nature is the mind. And the mind is the Buddha. And the Buddha is the path. And the path is Zen. But the wordZen is one that remains a puzzle to both mortals and sages. Seeing your nature is Zen. Unless you see your nature, it’s not Zen. . . .

Trying to find a Buddha or enlightenment is like trying to grab space. Space has a name but no form. It’s not something you can pick up or put down. And you certainly can’t grab it. Beyond this mind you’ll never see a Buddha. The Buddha is a product of your mind. Why look for a Buddha beyond this mind?

Buddhas of the past and future only talk about this mind. The mind is the Buddha, and the Buddha is the mind. Beyond the mind there’s no Buddha and beyond the Buddha there’s no mind. If you think there’s a Buddha beyond the mind, where is he? There’s no Buddha beyond the mind, so why envision one? You can’t know your real mind as long as you deceive yourself. As long as you’re enthralled by a lifeless form, you’re not free. If you don’t believe me, deceiving yourself won’t help. It’s not the Buddha’s fault. People, though, are deluded. They’re unaware that their own mind is the Buddha. Otherwise they wouldn’t look for a Buddha outside the mind.

Buddha’s don’t save Buddhas. If you use your mind to look for a Buddha, you won’t see the Buddha. As long as you look for a Buddha somewhere else, you’ll never see that your own mind is the Buddha. Don’t use a Buddha to worship a Buddha. And don’t use the mind to invoke a Buddha. Buddhas don’t recite sutras. Buddhas don’t keep precepts. And Buddhas don’t break precepts. Buddhas don’t keep or break anything. Buddha’s don’t do good or evil.

To find a Buddha, you have to see your nature. Whoever sees his nature is a Buddha. If you don’t see your nature, invoking Buddhas, reciting sutras, making offerings, and keeping precepts are all useless. Invoking Buddhas results in good karma, reciting sutras results in a good memory; keeping precepts results in a good rebirth, and making offerings results in future blessings—but no Buddha. . . .

To find a Buddha all you have to do is see your nature. Your nature is the Buddha. And the Buddha is the person who’s free: free of plans, free of cares. If you don’t see your nature and run around all day looking somewhere else, you’ll never find a Buddha. The truth is, there’s nothing to find. But to reach such an understanding you need a teacher and you need to struggle to make yourself understand. Life and death are important. Don’t suffer them in vain. There’s no advantage in deceiving yourself. Even if you have mountains of jewels and as many servants as there are grains of sand along the Ganges, you see them when your eyes are open. But what about when your eyes are shut? You should realize then that everything you see is like a dream or illusion. . . .

The sutras say that someone who wholeheartedly invokes the Buddha is sure to be reborn in the Western Paradise. Since this door leads to Buddhahood, why seek liberation in beholding the mind?

If you’re going to invoke the Buddha, you have to do it right. Unless you understand what invoking means, you’ll do it wrong. And if you do it wrong, you’ll never go anywhere.

Buddha means awareness, the awareness of the body and mind that prevents evil from arising in either. And to invoke means to call to mind, to call constantly to mind the rules of discipline and to follow them with all your might. This is what’s meant by invoking. Invoking has to do with thought and not with language. If you use a trap to catch fish, once you succeed you can forget the trap. And if you use language to find meaning, once you find it you can forget the language.

To invoke the Buddha’s name you have to understand the dharma of invoking. If it’s not present in your mind, your mouth chants an empty name. As long as you’re troubled by the three poisons or by thoughts of yourself, your deluded mind will keep you from seeing the Buddha and you’ll only waste your effort. Chanting and invoking are worlds apart. Chanting is done with the mouth. Invoking is done with the mind. And because invoking comes from the mind, it’s called the door to awareness. Chanting is centered in the mouth and appears as sound. If you cling to appearances while searching for meaning, you won’t find a thing. Thus sages of the past cultivated introspection and not speech.

This mind is the source of all virtues. And this mind is the chief of all powers. The eternal bliss of nirvana comes from the mind at rest. Rebirth in the three realms also comes from the mind. The mind is the door to every world and the mind is the ford to the other shore. Those who know where the ford is don’t worry about crossing it.

Wall Gazing Daruma (Bodhidharma) by Daishin Gito, Japan, circa seventeenth century, sumi on paper. New Orleans Museum of Art.
Wall Gazing Daruma (Bodhidharma) by Daishin Gito, Japan, circa seventeenth century, sumi on paper. New Orleans Museum of Art.

The people I meet nowadays are superficial. They think of merit as something that has form. They squander their wealth and butcher creatures of land and sea. They foolishly concern themselves with erecting statues and stupas, telling people to pile up lumber and bricks, to paint this blue and that green. They strain body and mind, injure themselves and mislead others. And they don’t know enough to be shamed. How will they ever become enlightened? They see something tangible and instantly become attached. If you talk to them about formlessness, they sit there dumb and confused. Greedy for the small mercies of this world, they remain blind to the great suffering to come. Such disciples wear themselves out in vain. Turning from the true to the false, they talk about nothing but future blessings.

If you can simply concentrate your mind’s inner light and behold its outer illumination, you’ll dispel the three poisons and drive away the six thieves once and for all. And without effort you’ll gain possession of an infinite number of virtues, perfections, and doors to the truth. Seeing through the mundane and witnessing the sublime is less than an eye-blink way. Realization is now. Why worry about gray hair? But the true door is hidden and can’t be revealed. I have only touched upon beholding the mind.

The excerpts from The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma, translated by Red Pine, are reprinted with permission from Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux. 

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