That Crazy Red-bearded Barbarian

Over the course of the month of September 2015, we’ve been studying and discussing Bodhidharma. The “Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma” is a collection of sermons attributed to him. We’ve used both Red Pine and Ven. Wonji Dharma’s translations of these four texts: “Outline of Practice,” “Bloodstream Sermon,” “Wake-up Sermon,” and “Breakthrough Sermon.”

In Week One, I give some background biographical information on Bodhidharma—the first Chan (Zen) Patriarch. “Biography” implies the story of one’s life, so that may not be an entirely accurate description—since there are those who doubt Bodhidharma’s existence, where he came from (the Kong-an asks “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” not why did he come from southeastern India), and years of birth, death, and stories about what came in between.

He’s often referred to as the “Red-bearded Barbarian,” sometimes even with “Blue-eyed” thrown in. I don’t know what the ethnic traits of the population of southern India were 1,500+ years ago, so I can’t really comment on whether blue-eyes and a red beard automatically disqualify his coming from India. And I can’t say that it disqualifies him coming from modern-day Persia or Afghanistan either. And of course, how well translated “Red-bearded, blue-eyed barbarian” is from the Chinese of that long ago is questionable to me as well. All that notwithstanding, Bodhidharma is a legendary figure, whether it’s all based on legend or not.

If you want biographical information, there are plenty of sources, both from Zen and Kung-Fu standpoints. (He is also credited with being the teacher to the monks at Shaolin Temple in the martial art). There’s even a movie called “Bodhidharma, Master of Zen,” that goes into both those aspects. In its 1970-ish Kung-Fu movie way, it’s very entertaining if you like that sort of thing. I wouldn’t necessarily base any scholarly research on it, however. Then again, it could be 100% accurate.

Regardless of any arguments about Bodhidharma having lived, where he came from, and what he did once he got to China, there are some great, if apocryphal stories associated with him. Right off the bat, he is summoned to meet Emperor Wu, who thinks of himself as a great supporter of Buddhism in China (which had come somewhere around 400 years prior to Bodhidharma’s arrival). Wu tells Bodhidharma about his support for the monks, all the temples he’s been building, the general, “Here pat me on the back, eminent Indian monk, because you should really be impressed by me.” Wu asks how much merit there is in his deeds, Bodhidharma responds with, “No merit whatsoever.” Wu asks Bodhidharma to explain the teachings of the Buddha to him, Bodhidharma replies with, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” Perplexed, probably angry with this insolence, Wu asks something along the lines of, “Who do you think you are?!?” Bodhidharma’s reply is, “Don’t know.”

As with many Buddhist teachings, Bodhidharma is inclined to answer questions such as “What is this?” with answers that mark what “this” isn’t. Think there’s a payoff for your good deeds? Don’t count on it. If you do these deeds with the expectation of acquiring something as a result of having done them, the expectation itself cancels out the “merit” the deed might have accrued. You’re still back in the hell realms. The Buddha’s teaching? Nope, not gonna fall into your net, you created it, you wriggle out of it. Who is this? “Indeed, great Emperor, who is this?”

Realizing our True Nature? As easy as surfing across the Yangtze River on a hollow reed. Pacify one’s racing thoughts? Bring them to Bodhidharma, if you can find them. And how badly do you want to study the Great Way with a sage? Would you give your right arm for it? Ask Huike. He has first-hand experience. There is no second-hand.

Click on the title to listen to the Dharma talk, or navigate to: