During sesshin, I usually offer a koan commentary as the dharma talk, and I will do that, but I want to frame it somewhat differently this afternoon and begin with how these stories come to us and how we use them. Most of the famous stories that come down to us as koans come from the Tang Dynasty in China, a period we can say is roughly around 500 to 750, somewhere in there, but the koan collections themselves are compiled much later, around 1000. So there's a big gap between what, if anything, actually happened and the kinds of stories that got written down and how they were used much later.
In the West, you have examples of a teacher like Socrates, who wrote nothing down, but whose life was documented by two different contemporaries, Xenophon and Plato, and their two accounts portray a figure who is very different in the different accounts, Xenophon's being a much more plain-spoken and straight-forward figure, and Plato’s Socrates through all the dialogues engaging in much more philosophical discourse. It seems pretty clear that Plato starts out doing something like recording the sayings of his teacher, but he quickly starts using his teacher as a mouthpiece for his own ideas and creates dialogues with Socrates as a character that are not entirely, but substantially, his own invention.
I think that we see something like that happening in many of the koan stories, probably most famously with the Sixth Patriarch in the Platform Sutra. As in the work of someone like Allen Cole in Fathering Your Father, the Sixth Patriarch was an obscure minor figure that a subsequent generation needed in order to fill in a lineage gap and decided to attribute all these teachings as a way to establish the legitimacy of the ancestors.
The other way I was thinking about some of these stories had to do with the movies. I was thinking of, first, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, because in fact, there was a real Butch Cassidy who may have lived something like a hundred years before the movie was made. The big difference was that he didn't look anything like Paul Newman, and he didn't have William Goldman writing snappy dialogue for him. And the other one I thought about in the Zen context was the Godfather movies, because Godfather was portraying supposed mafia world happenings not that long ago compared to when the movie was made, certainly not a hundred years ago like Butch Cassidy, but the thing was, contemporary mobsters themselves became really big fans of the movie and the real mobsters started imitating the characters in the Godfather. They started adopting Marlin Brando-like gravitas. This is what a mobster becomes: they watch the movie and they learn how to do it. And that in particular made me think there were a number of American Zen teachers who I can imagine watched one-too-many Zen Master movies. You get the whole image of what they're supposed to be and you do the act.
So I think there was a great kind of circular or reflexive kind of feedback loop in a lot of these stories and in a lot of subsequent Zen history. In the literary period of the Song Dynasty when the koan collections were put together, people created really snappy dialogue for these old ancestors, and they created an image of what student-teacher relationships were supposed to sound like, and pretty soon students and teachers started doing it. They became a model for what we were trying to look like.
I want to go back to the very first patriarch and his stories -- Bodhidharma -- and say something about what it looks like the storyteller was trying to teach, and how maybe we could reframe that encounter, thank about what else we could do with it. Seeing as how they made it up, we might as well have our hand in it as well. The most famous story of Bodhidharma starts with his encounter with the Emperor Wu, an historical figure who apparently got ahold of the throne like many other people in those days, by killing every other person who was perhaps entitled to the throne, taking it over, and keeping it the way he got it. But then having schemed and murdered his way to the emperorship, he got religion, and became a great patron of Buddhism, and whether this was to atone for all the killing he had to do to get there or not, he became someone who endowed many temples. This seems to be a matter of independent historical record, not just something we get from the koan stories.
In the koan record, when Bodhidharma comes to see the emperor, the emperor himself starts off by saying how he's been such a patron of Buddhism and asking what merit he’s accumulated, merit being a very commonplace idea in Buddhism that one cleanses one's past karma through good deeds, through the patronage of monks and priests. And Bodhidharma famously pours cold water all over that and says, "No merit whatsoever." Now this does not seem to register very well with the emperor, and if Bodhidharma is famous for something, it's not for skillful means; he doesn't do anything to make it easier or more accessible for his student to grasp what he's talking about. Instead, Bodhidharma is the archetype of the absolute impenetrable nature of the truth that offers you no easy entry point, no handhold. It’s just this kind of absolute presentation of emptiness.
So the emperor doesn't get it, as most of us wouldn't, and so if we were trying to engage the emperor now, we might really want to probe a little bit about why he asks about merit. Is it because he's got a bad conscience about who he had to kill to get to the throne? Is it a matter of dissociation? Does he want to forget about his past and just identify as a good and beneficent ruler, that that's how he wants to be seen and remembered? I think now, whenever we think of our own practice, or when we’re working with a student, we have to ask, What are the core ideas or stories they're telling about what practice is and what it’s for? So the emperor comes with a story about merit, and so if we're going to do him any good, we're going to have to start deconstructing something about the idea of merit and why he would want to accumulate it.
Next the emperor tries to say, "If there's no merit, what then is holy, what is the holy truth that you teach?" and Bodhidharma replies, "Just vast emptiness, and there's nothing holy about it." So he keeps pulling away any notion of holy or merit, or anything like that that the emperor thinks about what religion is. It's not exactly an unusual idea, that religion's going to get in touch with the holy, or the godly, or the transcendent. Bodhidharma instead offers him only emptiness, without any holies, devoid of holies. Again, this seems to do the emperor no good, as he doesn't understand it.
What could we say that might make this more relevant? I think nowadays, people come, I would say, almost with the opposite problem and the opposite question. They're more inclined to have a kind of existential despair about things. The student will come and say, "Everything just seems empty. What's the point? What's of any value?" And now we have to find an answer that’s not this kind of everything's empty and meaningless or devoid of holiness, but something along the lines of "Everything is holy." Everything just as it is, is sparkling special and worth your attention and care. That's sort of the reverse lesson that a modern Bodhidharma has to offer a contemporary emperor. Nowadays, people all too easily treat everything as if nothing is holy, nothing is sacred. How about turning it around: "Everything is sacred. Everything is holy."
Finally, the emperor says, "Who are you telling me all this?" Bodhidharma says, "I don't know." Again, “I don't know” is like emptiness; it’s supposed to penetrate to the absolute depth of essence, of true nature, no self, no one home. Again, it’s a fairly unskillful answer as far as the emperor is concerned; he doesn't get the point at all. I might say instead to him, "You and I were both treated like very special people. You, the emperor, in your robes, and me, the Zen Master, in my robes, but you know, when we take off these robes, we're just human beings." Maybe he could hear that. Instead of saying, "I don't know," what if he had tried to present nobody special: "How about it, emperor, can you relate to the part of you that's not special, or are you just a robe, are you just a suit? Who are you under all that?"
Bodhidharma, at the end of all this, is shown out the door, and the emperor was left pretty much the way he started. One can imagine as perhaps a grain of historical truth, one day a monk named Bodhidharma had an interview with the emperor hoping for some patronage, and it did not go well, but he decided to rewrite the story so that instead of a failed job interview, he turned it around to make it into the emperor was just too dumb to see the truth. This way the guy who writes the story gets to turn things around.
Bodhidharma comes to us as this totally uncompromising figure of the absolute, of wall-gazing, not offering anything for us to get a grip on. And in all the pictures of him, we get images of him scowling, this really fierce character. He became such a caricature that all of those portraits take on an almost comic aspect. People realize that as an archetype he's very exaggerated, and that you probably don't want a teacher that in order to get his attention, you have to cut off your arm. The dilemma is that like it or not, we tend to incorporate these images of that kind of absolute fierceness with what we expect of teachers or what we expect of ourselves. It becomes a kind of historical justification for a kind of authoritarianism, or even a kind of brutality in the treatment of monks, where the harsher the teacher, the more authentic, the more authentic the training, the more difficult it is. And if people nowadays don't cut off their arm to impress their teacher, I'm told that actually it became a ritual in Japan that if somebody's parents would not let them enter the monastery, they would cut off a finger and present it to them as a sign of their sincerity. I remember there was a nun at the San Francisco Zen Center who lead the robe sewing classes who was missing a finger for that reason.
There's a certain way in which figures like Bodhidharma are cartoons or fairy tales that are intended as archetypes, but we take them almost literally, and they become part of our Zen superego of what we think we should be doing if we're the real thing. It's a strange idea; it's sort of like comparing yourself to a character in Marvel Comics as to what a superhero is supposed to be. There's certainly a way in which we have to grasp what he meant by emptiness, what he meant by "I don't know," but we have to do it from the perspective of our own humanness. We can't use practice to escape that and turn this into a cartoon figure, even a spiritual cartoon figure.