January 12, 2009

Vast emptiness

The Zen patriarch Bodhidharma, in a calligraphy by the Japanese Zen master Hakuin (1685-1768). Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Lately this blog has been on a dharma jag, as in a series of posts on various aspects of Buddhist lore, although you will also find links and comments about current events. At the moment, the focus is on the legendary figure of Bodhidharma or Daruma, as he is called by the Japanese. Some traditions indicate that he was of Persian ancestry.

He was said to have brought Zen to China and is also associated in legend with founding the martial arts traditions that survive today as kung fu and karate. The first part may have actually happened; the second...not so much. In Zen lore, he is the focus of some colorful legends and here is one of the best:

After making the perilous journey from India to China (exactly how is not known, although it's cooler to imagine him trekking over the Himalayas), he is said to have paid a visit to Emperor Wu Ti around 527 AD. What followed may have been the first of many bizarre dialogues in Zen history.

The emperor told of the many Buddhist temples he had founded and sutras or scriptures that were translated at his orders and asked Bodhidharma how much merit he had accumulated. Our monk replied, "None whatsoever."

That probably wasn't what Wu was looking for. He asked what was the ultimate principle of Buddhism. Bodhidharma said "Vast emptiness."

Exasperated, Wu demanded to know just who this barbarian thought he was. To this, Bodhidharma cheerfully answered that he had no idea.

Needless to say, he didn't hang around the court a whole lot longer.

SIGN OF THE TIMES. The WV State Journal reports that schools are seeing more students sign up for free and reduced lunches.

GETTING WARMER. A new study further undercuts the claims of climate change skeptics.

STIMULATE WHAT? Here's an op-ed by yours truly about the elements of a strong stimulus package for the economy. And here's Krugman's latest on the same.

HONORING A PIONEER. J.R. Clifford (1848-1933), a native of Williamsport WV (then Virginia), was an African-American Civil War veteran and attorney who won a major battle against discrimination in education. He will be honored this year with a postage stamp in his memory. Many West Virginians in recent years have worked to raise awareness about this civil rights pioneer.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for the story. Bodhidharma was lucky to have escaped the Emperor with his head.

I was recently listening to an old comedy ab-lum—I mean “album”—by the renowned Southern Beat Zen comic Brother Dave Gardner. I wonder if anyone remembers him.

Anyway, Brother Dave said:

A disciple knocked upon the door of the Master. Knock, knock.

“Who there?”


“Go away, Me.”

Many years later the disciple returned and again knocked upon the door of the Master. Knock, knock.

“Who there?”


“Come in, My Self.”

OK, so I expanded the joke a bit. Still, I think it reflects the koans and mumblings of Zen masters such as Bodhidharma.