Bodhidharma and Jim Morrison on Prayer and Worship

For some period during my childhood and adolescence, I had to share a bedroom with my third-eldest brother, Patrick. This man has had an enormous impact on my life. He was/is quite a maverick in the family — a singularly brilliant mind, sensitive intelligence, a fast humor, and very gentle, pure disposition. I was deep into following some sort of Catholic training from the parochial grade school, and just on the cusp of beginning to challenge it to my teachers and elders. And Pat was a sure catalyst for a spiritual/intellectual revolution bursting for expression in its stifling Catholic school heaviness. We had endless discussions where he introduced me to history, to explaining the whole mess of the Vietnam War that I could not comprehend (as a middle-school student) through grainy reports on our black-and-white TV. When he once sat me down to explain the meaning behind the lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” while playing it over again and again on the turntable until things sunk in, I felt like a dark, secret mystery had been opened up — I remember literally shaking for hours afterwards. He kept a copy of The Passover Plot on a bookshelf in the room in our family’s conservative Catholic household — a book by a British biblical scholar attempting to prove that Jesus consciously engaged himself in the effort to convince people that he was the Messiah. Often, he would bend down into my face and quote the famous Jim Morrison lyric, “You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!” This was such a shock to hear — it was perhaps the first, flesh-and-blood experience of blasphemous thinking I ever encountered in this life. And God bless him for that!

The person regarded as the first patriarch of Zen (Ch’an) in China was the legendary Indian monk, Bodhidharma. He did not bring Buddhism to China: it was already flourishing there for a century or two when he arrived, in approximately the 5th or 6th century CE. Monks and wanderers had already brought the holy scriptures and practices and traditions across the Himalayan plateau, through Tibet and Dunhuang, and there were temples and assemblies of monks (and nuns?) supported even by the emperor himself. Stupas, libraries, and traditions were all already firmly rooted in Chinese soil.

As Osho Rajneesh said, by the time of Bodhidharma’s arrival, China had already been “converted” to Buddhism — and it was a conversion completely unlike anything the world has ever seen, either before or since:

Christianity has converted many people, but that conversion is not worth calling religious. It converts the poor, the hungry, the beggars, the orphans, not by any spiritual impact on them but just by giving them food, clothes, shelter, education. But these have nothing to do with spirituality. Mohammedanism has converted a tremendous amount of people, but on the point of the sword: either you be a Mohammedan, or you cannot live. The choice is yours.

The conversion that happened in China is the only religious conversion in the whole history of mankind. Buddhism simply explained itself, and the beauty of the message was understood by the people. They were thirsty for it, they were waiting for something like it. The whole country, which was the biggest country in the world, turned to Buddhism. When Bodhidharma reached there six hundred years later, there were already thirty thousand Buddhist temples, monasteries, and two million Buddhist monks in China. And two million Buddhist monks is not a small number; it was five percent of the whole population of China.

Osho Rajneesh, Bodhidharma, “To Seek Nothing”

You think this traveller from India would be pleased to see the appeal of this export from his native land, taking root firmly in the Middle Kingdom! But no. An intrepid meditator, Bodhidharma was extremely disappointed at what he saw. He encountered vast temple complexes with a class of monks and a hierarchy which were perhaps using the teachings for some good, and yet the vast mass of its practitioners were employing Buddhism for making spiritual merit and karmic “credit” for themselves. Rather than looking inside, and turning the attention to the matter of seeing into True Nature, most practitioners had just adapted this Indian philosophy and practice into a means for what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-87) would later call “spiritual materialism.”

But they were mainly engaged in the merit-producing works which would generate a store of positive spiritual momentum which might earn them good things in this world and the “next”.

Even Emperor Wu of Liang (r. 502–549) was trapped in this. He had been profoundly affected by the Buddhist teachings from India, so much so that he disallowed capital punishment and forbid the slaughter of animals during the performance of ancestral rites. When he heard that this great monk had arrived from India after a three-year journey, in around 520 CE he had Bodhidharma brought to his palace for an audience. Perhaps the words of this great master would confirm for him the extraordinary spiritual earnings of his tireless efforts to ensure the spread of the Buddhadharma in his lands.

“I have sponsored the ordination of countless Buddhist monks,” Emperor Wu said. “I have built many monasteries, have ordered the copying and spread of innumerable sutras, and commissioned the construction of uncountable pagodas. How much spiritual merit have I earned?”

Bodhidharma replied, “None whatsoever. Good deeds done with worldly intent might bring good karma, but no real merit.”

The emperor was surprised. “So, then, if it is not in these kinds of efforts, what is the highest meaning of the Buddha’s holy teachings?”

Bodhidharma: “There is no holiness: only vast emptiness, clear like space.”

The emperor was astounded — no one had ever dared try speak with him like this! Imagine — it was not even possible for one to look the emperor in the face while talking, and one had to address him from one hundred meters away. How could such speech as this be possible, deeply offensive to his imperial station, and especially coming from such a strange-looking barbarian? The emperor, deeply offended, burst out, “Who do you think you are? Then, who is standing before me?”

“I don’t know, Your Majesty,” Bodhidharma replied. “It’s just only not-knowing.” And then, if that much of a heap of abuse poured on the head of the most powerful man in the world was not sufficient, he turned his back and left. He turned his back on the emperor of China! This was a gesture impossible to conceive of in China! And Bodhidharma probably meant nothing rude about it — it was simply the expression of the untouchable quality of this not-knowing mind above all else, even above the throne of the Chinese emperor. It is only because Bodhidharma was such a truly accomplished practitioner — and the emperor a devout Buddhist — that the barbarian-monk was not slain right on the spot. Bodhidharma left the palace and crossed the Yangtze River for other for other regions.

This is truly the beginning of Zen in China. It has nothing to do with religion, as we have commonly understood the term. In fact, when Bodhidharma left the emperor, and travelled south, he came to Shaolin Temple, which even at that time was wealthy and full of monks and laypeople. But he saw that it was all full of ceremony and empty-religious practice. People were praying to the Buddha and bodhisattvas for help with their lives. Monks were accepting offerings and doing elaborate prayer ceremonies for people. This made Bodhidharma very upset, and he must have protested this a great deal, because tradition hints that he might have been ejected from the temple.

Climbing a nearby mountain, he found a cave which was sutriable for meditation. He sat facing the wall for nine years of unbroken meditation practice. He refused nearly all of the many disciple-aspirants who showed up at his cave, asking for him to receive them. So began our tradition of doing Zen practice while turned and facing a wall: the practice of “wall-gazing”.

This dialogue is one of my favorite passages in all of Zen’s written teachings. It is a simple dialogue between Bodhidharma and a disciple. It contains the most original insight into the nature of spiritual practice that I had ever heard when I first encountered it in the Cambridge Zen Center, back in 1990. A Christian could simply switch the word “God” or “Jesus” for “Buddha” and get the same liberating effect (and an even greater effect, since there is very little to nothing about the concept of “Buddha” which contains the dimensions of domination, extreme “otherness” or “holiness”, as are constitutive of the Abrahamic notion of “God”:

EVERYTHING that appears in the three realms comes from the mind. Hence buddhas of the past and future teach mind to mind without bothering about definitions.

“But if they don’t define it, what do they mean by mind?”

You ask. That’s your mind. I answer. That’s my mind. If I had no mind, how could I answer? If you had no mind, how could you ask? That which asks is your mind. Through endless kalpas without beginning, whatever you do, wherever you are, that’s your real mind, that’s your real buddha. “This mind is the buddha” says the same thing. Beyond this mind you’ll never find another buddha. To search for enlightenment or nirvana beyond this mind is impossible. The reality of your own self-nature, the absence of cause and effect, is what’s meant by mind. Your mind is nirvana. You might think you can find a buddha or enlightenment somewhere beyond the mind, but such a place doesn’t exist. 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. Buddhas 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. Buddhas 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.

If you don’t understand by yourself, you’ll have to find a teacher to get to the bottom of life and death. But unless he sees his nature, such a person isn’t a teacher. Even if he can recite the Twelvefold Canon, he can’t escape the Wheel of Birth and Death. He suffers in the three realms without hope of release. Long ago, the monk Good Star was able to recite the entire Canon. But he didn’t escape the Wheel, because he didn’t see his nature. If this was the case with Good Star, then people nowadays who recite a few sutras or shastras and think it’s the Dharma are fools. Unless you see your mind, reciting so much prose is useless. 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. If you don’t find a teacher soon, you’ll live this life in vain. It’s true, you have the buddha-nature. But without the help of a teacher you’ll never know it. Only one person in a million becomes enlightened without a teacher’s help. If, though, by the conjunction of conditions, someone understands what the Buddha meant, that person doesn’t need a teacher. Such a person has a natural awareness superior to anything taught. But unless you’re so blessed, study hard, and by means of instruction you’ll understand. People who don’t understand and think they can do so without study are no different from those deluded souls who can’t tell white from black. Falsely proclaiming the Buddhadharma, such persons in fact blaspheme the Buddha and subvert the Dharma. They preach as if they were bringing rain. But theirs is the preaching of devils, not of buddhas. Their teacher is the King of Devils and their disciples are the Devil’s minions. Deluded people who follow such instruction unwittingly sink deeper in the Sea of Birth and Death. Unless they see their nature, how can people call themselves buddhas? They’re liars who deceive others into entering the realm of devils. Unless they see their nature, their preaching of the Twelvefold Canon is nothing but the preaching of devils. Their allegiance is to Mara, not to the Buddha. Unable to distinguish white from black, how can they escape birth and death? Whoever sees his nature is a buddha; whoever doesn’t is a mortal. But if you can find your buddha-nature apart from your mortal nature, where is it? Our mortal nature is our buddha-nature. Beyond this nature there’s no buddha. The buddha is our nature. There’s no buddha besides this nature. And there’s no nature besides the buddha.

Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason.

Red Pine, ed. (1989), The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma: A Bilingual Edition, New York: North Point Press
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