The world beyond birth-and-death4 min read

When Bodhidharma first saw the Emperor Bu of the Ryo dynasty, the latter was such a devout Buddhist that he was called the Buddha-heart Emperor, who would surely be the one to hear the true tradition. The Emperor asked: ‘Since ascending the throne I have built and endowed temples, distributed the sutras and supported monks and nuns; what has been the merit?’ He inquires what merit there is in these things. Bodhidharrna answered: ‘No merit.’ There is no merit in them—what a bleak reply!

Buddhist priests nowadays don’t say such things. When the people contribute their tiny coins and ask: ‘Your Reverence, is it meritorious?’ we only say: ‘Merit without end!’ But Bodhidharma did not say that. No merit, was his reply, and the Emperor now asked: ‘How so, no merit!’ The great teacher, feeling the pathos of the question, told him that there was a little something—‘There are small fruits on earth and in heaven resulting from impure seeds, but it is like the pursuit of shadows and in reality nothing.’ ‘What you have done has some merit, but it is no more than chasing a shadow. It is not the real merit of true Suchness. For building temples and supporting their monks and distributing the scriptures are all only the world of good which is upraised on the I as the centre. By accumulating merit of this kind you will be born in heaven, because the good deeds were done in the expectation of a result. Small fruits on earth and in heaven, on the self as basis. The seeds of good actions aiming at such fruits are always polluted. It is planting impure seeds, contaminated with passions.

Impurity is passion. It is the impure feeling which comes of sowing seeds of good actions in the deluded passionate heart, in the expectation of securing results. Good which is based on illusory attachment will one day inevitably fall, as the associations come up, to the evil worlds. It is not the real good, that is what the great teacher meant.

‘Then what is real merit?’ pursued the Emperor. Bodhi-dharma said: ‘As pure wisdom, holy and perfect—something empty and pure; as such it is not to be sought through the wisdom of the world.’ The real merit is the wisdom of absolute ultimate Emptiness. It is complete and without defect and absolutely empty and pure. So it is not a thing at all. You cannot find it by seeking with the wisdom of the world as you are trying to do. It is the Emptiness which the Heart Sutra indicates to us: ‘O Shariputra, all these things have the character of Emptiness.’

With the taste of the wisdom of ultimate Emptiness, the bottom of the heart becomes empty, and the characteristic of Emptiness is to find that sublime flavour, that direct experience, at each step in our path of illusory good and evil. It is this step after step, this being helplessly pulled along. I step after step, as we are impelled by our karma of good and evil, we experience the world of the true Emptiness and purity.

If we gaze at that feeble good of ours, we shall find even there the world of liberation. If we look at that feeble evil, even there the form of Emptiness appears. This present I, which builds but under whose building there is destruction and destruction, which is helplessly pulled along, must awaken to Emptiness, and when the bottom of the heart becomes empty the actions are based on Emptiness. Now it is not a world of birth-and-death called good or evil; the feeling of doing and building does not arise, and so there is no birth-and-death.

The patriarch Dogen says in his Shobogenzo: ‘If you think of following the way of the Buddhas and patriarchs, have no expectation, no seeking, no clutching; without purpose pursue the way of the ancient sages and tread the footsteps of the masters.’ It is without purpose and therefore without thought of result. Throw right away the idea of acquiring merit and follow the words and footsteps of the ancient sages. Such is the way the Buddha-children are to follow.

In the state when there is Emptiness in the depths of the heart, there is no building up at all, but in compensation there is no knocking down. It is just because we feel something has been built that there is a corresponding destruction. ‘O Shariputra, all these things have the character of Emptiness, neither born nor dying’; and this is the experience of reality without birth-and-death.

There is one little thing to add. When there is building up through impure goodness, in that very impure goodness let us try to establish the world of Emptiness. And when there is breaking down through ignoble evil, in each moment of that breaking down let us try to establish the great world of Emptiness.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect