The story of Bodhidharma is one of the most familiar of all Zen koans. And the problem with familiar stories is that because we've heard them so many times we think we understand them. And that "understanding" puts them into a box with a convenient label and they go up on some mental shelf where they cease to do us any good. So let's retell this familiar story, but see if we can't shake off some of our understanding and bring it back to life.
Before we get to the main case, we should retell the story of Bodhidharma's coming to China and his meeting with Emperor Wu. Bodhidharma is said to have been over a hundred years old when he made the three year long trip from India to China. Buddhism - but not Zen - had already come to China many generations before, and the Emperor himself was a Buddhist, one who was proud of his understanding and his many acts of charity and the support he gave to the monasteries and temples. So he was happy to receive this famous Indian sage, and to brag a little about all he had done. But he didn't get the response he anticipated:
"The emperor asked, "I have endowed temples and authorized ordinations - what is my merit?'
Bodhidharma replied, "No merit at all."
The emperor asked, "What is the first principle of the holy teaching?"
Bodhidharma said, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy."
The emperor was upset and asked, "Who is this confronting me?"
Bodhidharma said, "I don't know.""
Now, if we're to get anything at all out of that old story we should start, not by identifying with Bodhidharma, but by acknowledging all the ways in which we are like Emperor Wu. What do we think we've accomplished by our years of practice? What are we proud of? What sort of acknowledgement or attention do we think we deserve? Could any of us really answer, "None at all?"
What do we think we understand about the true nature of practice? What concepts or ideas do we hold onto to make sense of what we're doing - to structure and manage and control our experience? What do we think we understand that other - "ordinary people" - have missed? Could any of us honestly say they think they "know" nothing?
And just who do we think we are? Aren't we all convinced we're "somebody?" Somebody pretty special? Or maybe we blame ourselves for not being a somebody or somebody special enough or we go around trying to attach our selves to famous somebodies! Can any of us honestly say that they have no picture or idea of themselves at all - that they don't "know" who they are?
Real practice involves honestly owning up to all our Emperor Wu-like qualities - not trying to imitate Bodhidharma or anyone else. Honestly owning up to all our ideas of specialness, of gain, of self.
Turning to the main case, look how different the Second Ancestor's presentation is from that of the Emperor's. He has isn't trying to impress Bodhidharma with who he is or what he's done or what an excellent disciple he'd make. Instead, he admits that despite his years of practice, his mind isn't at peace, and begs for help. We're told that Bodhidharma let him stand outside in the snow all night long to prove his willingness to practice, and in the morning confronted him saying, "The incomparable truth of the Buddhas can only be attained by constant striving - practicing what cannot be practiced, bearing the unbearable. How can you, with your small virtue and wisdom, your easy-going and conceited mind, dare aspire to the true teaching?"
How would you answer? The Second Ancestor drew a knife and cut off his hand to prove his determination. Is that what true practice demands of us?
The danger in this kind of story is we imagine its characters are superhuman and their effort and determination is far beyond anything we can imagine doing today. Who nowadays would stand in the snow all night long in order to see a teacher? But in a recent issue of the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, there's a picture of monks conducting a vigil outside the gates of San Quentin on the eve of the last execution there. And that night it rained and rained and they simply sat through it all. After five, six, seven, hours of sitting exposed to the downpour I imagine most of us would be muttering, "Aw, fry the bastard already, and let me go home!" (Laughs) Well, that would be an honest and human response at least - one that acknowledges our own all-too human anger and frustration - the violence that is in us as well as in the convicts and their guards.. Certainly better than sanctimoniously thinking we're saints while those responsible for executions are evil.
Bodhidharma accuses the Second Ancestor of having an easy-going conceited mind. Well, what other kind is there? All of our minds are filled with self-centered dreams. To practice what can't be practiced, to bear the unbearable, is simply to totally devote this mind, this body, fully to our task - certainly not to avoid the effort because we're not up to it, not made of the right stuff.
The Second Ancestor says his mind is not at peace. What does that mean? We think we know, but what does it mean when he comes back and says he cannot find his mind and Bodhidharma says he has put his mind to rest? What kind of peace is not being able to find the mind anywhere? A mind not at rest is a mind that is at odds with itself. A mind plagued by judgement and separation. When Bodhidharma sends him away to seek his mind, he goes to fully confront the fact of that restless separation. He enters into The Great Doubt, The Dark Night of the Soul - that place where we stare into the mirror and see all our self-centeredness on display and think that is all there is, that is the limit of who and what we are. No Buddha, no buddha-nature pervading the whole universe. Instead we feel the self contaminating the whole universe. Like Dogen said, when the self goes out and fills the whole universe there is delusion. That is where we're stuck. The Dharma is an impenetrable barrier, an unscale-able wall. It demands we practice what can't be practiced, bear what is unbearable, Then, whether suddenly or gradually, everything shifts. Instead of our mind filling the universe, the universe comes forward and fills our mind. The boundary between self and life dissolves and there is just this moment. And in this moment, where is the world, where is the mind? There is no place outside the world to observe the world, no place outside the mind to observe the mind, no place outside of this moment to be or know anything at all. When there is no separation from mind, there is no finding, no knowing the mind. And then this mind, this body, this life is completely sufficient, nothing is lacking. Practice simply becomes the natural expression of who we are, and the natural expression of who we are is our practice. Nothing to attain, everything to be. The mind that has completely forgotten about its own condition is, as Bodhidharma says, completely at rest. And that "being at rest" is indistinguishable from the activity of being just this moment.
Mumon's comment ends "Hsieh-san-lang does not know four words." Hsieh-san-lang was a legendary Chinese fisherman who happened to be illiterate. No words, no concepts, no knowing impeded the smooth functioning of his art, his life. Bodhidharma's Zen is said to have "No dependence or words or phrases/directly pointing to the human mind." But until we can leave all our concepts behind and like Hsieh-san-lang just go fishing - or like the fish swimming freely in the river, never once thinking the word, "water" - we must face the wall of Bodhidharma's cave, experience the mind that is not at peace as honestly and thoroughly as we can, until we are so thoroughly immersed in being-just-this-moment that the wall dissolves, the mind dissolves, being restless or at rest dissolves. Then we will find that all our problems have disappeared, not from our lives, but into our lives - so thoroughly and completely are they seamlessly part our life that we longer can find them anythere.
What kind of mind does it take to have this realization? Exactly the kind you have. Bodhidharma had "only a single disciple, and a crippled one at that." I have a jikido with bad knees, who has to sit sesshin in a chair. One way or another we're all cripples. But this practice really is for people just like us. Believe it or not, who you are is enough. We all have what it takes to be ourselves!