Bodhidharma and the Emperor

THE HEKIGANROKU and the Shoyoroku are two Chinese koan anthologies, the first favoured by the Rinzai sect and the second by the Soto. The Hekiganroku was compiled by Setcho (979-1032) of the Ummon Zen sect, who put his own comments and poems to the hundred (tcases}) which he selected, and later Engo (1063-1133) of the Rinzai sect added commentaries and short ejaculatory interpolations, giving the book its present form. Similarly Wanshi (1090-1137) of the Soto sect selected and presented a hundred cases, and Bansho (1163-1246), also of the Soto, added his own comments to make the Shoyoroku. The Rinzai sect makes koan discipline the centre of its training, whereas in Soto Zen it is only one element, and that not indispensable.

The case of Bodhidharma and the emperor occurs in both anthologies, and here the two presentations are put side by side so that their different flavour can be appreciated.

Emperor Bu of the Ryo dynasty was one of the great spiritual lights of Chinese Buddhism. During his long reign he built monasteries, supported their monks, and performed many other acts of Buddhist piety. When Bodhidharma came to his capital in 327, the emperor asked what merit he had gained from these actions. None, replied the patriarch. Then what, asked the bewildered emperor, is the first principle of holiness? Bodhidharma made the famous reply: “ Vastness, no holiness/” When the emperor still did not understand, the teacher crossed the Yangtze River and went to Shorinji temple in the kingdom of Gi. There he sat in meditation facing a wall for nine years. After this the man appeared who became his disciple, and to whom he finally passed on the Buddha’s robe and bowl, the insignia of the patriarchal succession.

The original classical Chinese prose and verse of Setcho and Wanshi is laconic and sometimes cryptic. (The remarks of the two later commentators, Engo and Bansho, tend to be too fragmentary and allusive for readable translation, but their introductions have been included.) Japanese Zen masters read these texts in the light of oral tradition and practical Zen experience. The translations which follow are based on those of an authoritative Japanese master; the rendering is not always an obvious or even likely reading of the bare Chinese original.

BODHIDHARMA’S “VASTNESS!” – From the Hekiganroku

The introduction: To see smoke beyond the mountain is to know there is fire; to see a horn over the wall is to know there is an ox. From one comer displayed to know clearly the other three is only skill in inference, and to a monk an everyday affair. But when he can cut off all the streams of thought, he is free to spring up in the east or sink down in the west, to go against or with, along or across, to give or take. At that time say, of whom is this the action? Let us look at Setqho’s riddle.

the case: The Ryo Emperor Bu asked the teacher Bod- hidharma:

“What is the first principle of the holy truth?’* Bodhidharma said: “Vastness, no holiness!”

Quoth the emperor: “Who is it that confronts Us?” Bodhidharma said: “Know not.”

The emperor did not understand, and Bodhidharma crossed the river and went to Gi. Later the emperor asked Abbot Shiko, who said

“Nine years facing the wall. Vastness, no holiness!”

“Does Your Majesty yet know who is this man, or not?” The emperor said: “(I) know not.”

Shiko said: “It is the Bodhisattva Kannon, who is transmitting the seal of the Buddha heart.”

The emperor in regret would have sent an envoy to ask him to return, but Shiko said:

“Though an emperor send an envoy for him, nay, though the whole people go after him, never never will he turn back”

THE hymn:

The holy truth is vastness—

How to speak and hit the mark?

“Who is it that confronts Us?”

And he replied: “Know not.”

So in the night he crossed the river.

How could he prevent the thorn-hushes growing after him? Though all the people pursue, he will not come again;

For a thousand, ten thousand ages we are thinking after him. Cease from thinking. The pure breeze,

Circling the earth, has no bounds.

Setcho looks to the left and right, and says: “Is the Patriarch here?” He replies: “He is.”

“Then call him, that he may wash my feet.”

VASTNESS, NO HOLINESS! – From the Shoyoroku

The introduction: In olden days Benka offered an unpolished jewel to kings, but they thought it a pebble and punished him cruelly. At night a rare gem is thrown to a man, but in alarm he clutches for his sword. An unexpected guest, but none to play the host; the borrowed virtue is not the real virtue. A priceless treasure, but he knows not what to do with it; the head of a dead cat—try him with that!

THE CASE: The Kyo emperor asked the great teacher:

“What is the first principle of the holy truth?” Bodhidharma said: “Vastness, no holiness!”

Quoth the emperor: “Who is it that confronts Us?” Bodhidharma said: “Know not.”

When the emperor did not understand, the teacher crossed the river and went to Shorinji temple: nine years facing the wall.


Vastness, no holiness!

The moment came, hut there was a gap between.

Like a master axeman, he would have cut the mud from the face but never harmed the flesh—Oh, profit!

Instead—Oh, loss! The pot smashed to the ground, but he never turned his head.

Alone, alone, he sits at Shorinji in the cold;

Silent, silent, he upholds the great tradition.

In the clear autumn sky the moon’s frosty disc is wheeling;

The Milky Way pales, the stars of the Dipper hang low.

When the heir comes, he in turn will receive Robe and Bowl;

From this arises medicine but also illness for men and gods.


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