Bodhidharma And The Emperor Wu
: HISTORY OF ZEN IN CHINA
No sooner had Bodhidharma landed at Kwang Cheu in Southern China than
he was invited by the Emperor[FN#24] Wu, who was an enthusiastic
Buddhist and good scholar, to proceed to his capital of Chin Liang.
When he was received in audience, His Majesty asked him: We have
built temples, copied holy scriptures, ordered monks and nuns to be
converted. Is there any merit, Reverend Sir, in our conduct? The
royal host, in all
robability, expected a smooth, flattering answer
from the lips of his new guest, extolling his virtues, and promising
him heavenly rewards, but the Blue-eyed Brahmin bluntly answered: No
merit at all.
This unexpected reply must have put the Emperor to shame and doubt in
no small degree, who was informed simply of the doctrines of the
orthodox Buddhist sects. 'Why not,' he might have thought within
himself, 'why all this is futile? By what authority does he declare
all this meritless? What holy text can be quoted to justify his
assertion? What is his view in reference to the different doctrines
taught by Shakya Muni? What does he hold as the first principle of
Buddhism?' Thus thinking, he inquired: What is the holy truth, or
the first principle? The answer was no less astonishing: That
principle transcends all. There is nothing holy.
[FN#24] The Emperor Wu (Bu-Tei) of the Liang dynasty, whose reign
was A.D. 502-549.]
The crowned creature was completely at a loss to see what the teacher
meant. Perhaps he might have thought: 'Why is nothing holy? Are
there not holy men, Holy Truths, Holy Paths stated in the scriptures?
Is he himself not one of the holy men?' Then who is that confronts
us? asked the monarch again. I know not, your majesty, was the
laconic reply of Bodhidharma, who now saw that his new faith was
beyond the understanding of the Emperor.
The elephant can hardly keep company with rabbits. The petty
orthodoxy can by no means keep pace with the elephantine stride of
Zen. No wonder that Bodhidharma left not only the palace of the
Emperor Wu, but also the State of Liang, and went to the State of
Northern Wei.[FN#25] There he spent nine years in the Shao
Lin[FN#26] Monastery, mostly sitting silent in meditation with his
face to the wall, and earned for himself the appellation of 'the
wall-gazing Brahmin.' This name itself suggests that the
significance of his mission was not appreciated by his
contemporaries. But neither he was nor they were to blame, because
the lion's importance is appreciated only by the lion. A great
personage is no less great because of his unpopularity among his
fellow men, just as the great Pang[FN#27] is no less great because of
his unpopularity among the winged creatures. Bodhidharma was not
popular to the degree that he was envied by his contemporary
Buddhists, who, as we are told by his biographers, attempted to
poison him three times,[FN#28] but without success.
[FN#25] Northern Gi dynasty (A.D. 386-534).
[FN#26] Sho-rin-ji, erected by the Emperor Hiao Ming of Northern Wei
[FN#27] Chwang-tsz in his famous parable compares a great sage with
the Pang, an imaginary bird of enormous size, with its wings of
ninety thousand miles. The bird is laughed at by wrens and sparrows
because of its excessive size.
[FN#28] This reminds us of Nan Yoh Hwui Sz (Nan-gaku-e-shi, died
A.D. 577), who is said to have learned Zen under Bodhidharma. He says
in his statement of a vow that he was poisoned three times by those
who envied him.