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The scowl of Bodhidharma Barry Magid January 19th 2008

We have a new scroll hanging in the hallway of Bodhidharma. I thought I would use this occasion of hanging the scroll, to say a few words about Bodhidharma and how he is depicted in the scroll.

There is a story and probably you are all familiar with the story – he is considered the first Chinese patriarch of Zen, he trained in India and got a scholarship from the teacher of his lineage, Hannayakara, long obscured, apparently come to life. When he was already old and asked by his teacher, he made a long journey to China to transmit the Zen dharma. Buddhism had already traveled to China and the Emperor apparently considered himself the great patriot of Buddhism, and when this great sage from India arrived in China, the Emperor immediately summoned him to his court, to meet him and to honor him.

And the story goes that the Emperor in greeting Bodhidharma, wanted to impress him with how much he had done in patronage of Buddhism. He wanted to tell him about all the temples he had endowed and all the monks he had supported. He asked Bodhidharma to comment on all the merit that he, the Emperor, must have accumulated through these good works. In some sense, the traditional Buddhist notion that good work yields good karma and the Emperor was asking the sage to confirm that. Bodhidharma quite rudely said – No merit whatsoever! The Emperor was quite taken aback and asked all those good deeds, holy acts went where? Bodhidharma again replied – there is only vast emptiness, there is nothing holy about it. These words disappointed and demystified the Emperor who did not know what to do with these answers. Bodhidharma left, went by himself to Shaolin temple, sat there for nine years facing the wall, waiting for a true disciple to show up, which brings me to the way that Bodhidharma is pictured in this scroll, the way in which he is typically pictured, which is very fierce and very stoic.

Now a days, teachers, when they take their pictures for magazines or back of their books, they all seem to have a big smile, right? Nobody dares look like Bodhidharma or else they won't sell any book (laughter). It is interesting that Bodhidharma way is considered the prototype of Soto Zen, just sitting. You know the factual difference between Rinzai and Soto comes to the fact that Soto faces the wall and Rinzai faces the center.

One of Dogen's basic thing about sitting is that it in itself is a complete expression of enlightenment. It is not a means to end, it is not a technique to become enlightened, it is an expression of enlightenment. Now we really don't like to think the way Bodhidharma looks in that scroll is the picture of enlightenment. You practice for years and then end up looking like that! I think we have to understand that scowl of Bodhidharma has the function for us as his words to the emperor, it is the killing sword of Zen, it not only cuts off delusion but in particular all game and idea, what so ever. Bodhidharma's penetrating eyes and fierce scowl cuts through anything that we think we are accomplishing or have accomplished in our practice.

All of us are more or less like the Emperor; we have a lot more in common with the Emperor than what we really do with Bodhidharma. We may not think that we have accumulated great karmic benefit by our sitting, it is going to help us get a favorable rebirth, that's not an idea most of us claim to have but we all one way or other think that we accomplish something by this or we are trying to accomplish something by this. It is going to turn us into a certain kind of person that is going to be admirable in some way. Our practice ought to be clear and honest about qualities we share with the Emperor, not try to imitate Bodhidharma but be honest about the ego and gaining ideas that inevitably suffuse our practice.

Always easy in one of these storied to identify with the wise teacher, it is much more productive to identify with the other guy of the story with whom we have most in common, a straight man, right? Teacher gets all the good lines in the story but where is the other guy? So that is the scowl of Bodhidahrma, I think that is one place we can say this practice in itself has a means to an end - sword that cuts off, right? That's the expression of compassion. We like to think of compassion as being the smiling face, helping hand but compassion in zen is also the sword to kill, try to bring about the great death, steals away everything we have and leaves us completely empty. Bodhidharma looks at us with scowl – who do you think you are?

Next Talk

Barry Magid January 26th 2008 Thoughts About Thought

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