Lesson
5

Avalokiteshvara

8 of 12

Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of Chan (Zen) in China, is considered to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara. The story linking Bodhidharma with Avalokiteshvara stresses his sternness, revealing the "tough love" side of compassion.

Bodhidharma, a great Buddhist master from India, arrived at the court of Emperor Wu of Liang in southern China in the sixth century C.E. Emperor Wu, a great patron of Buddhism and a sincere devotee, had sponsored many new monasteries and sutra translations and the ordination of many monks. The emperor asked the newly arrived Bodhidharma what merit he had accrued by all these good works, a not unreasonable, if immodest, question, considering the blessings promised by Mahayana sutras for such activities. Bodhidharma unhesitatingly replied, "No merit." Startled, the emperor asked, "What is the highest meaning of the sacred truth?" Bodhidharma said, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy." The emperor asked, "Who is this facing me?" Bodhidharma said, "I don't know." The emperor did not understand. Bodhidharma then departed, and crossed the Yangtze River to the kingdom of Wei in northern China.

Emperor Wu asked his spiritual adviser, Master Zhi, about Bodhidharma. Master Zhi said that this Indian monk was the Great Being Avalokiteshvara transmitting the Buddha Mind Seal. The emperor felt regretful and wanted to send attendants to bring Bodhidharma back. But Master Zhi said, "Don't say you will send someone to fetch him back. Even if everyone in the whole country were to go after him, he still wouldn't return."

One conventional view of compassion is of unconditional helpfulness. But Bodhidharma's strictness stands as a warning against sentimental compassion. Bodhidharma may have seen that Emperor Wu was grasping after spiritual gain and was not ready to receive the teachings Bodhidharma had to offer. Perhaps his nonreturning was the most compassionate way to awaken the emperor to a deeper reality.

After leaving Emperor Wu, Bodhidharma sat wall-gazing in a cave in northern China for nine years. A Chinese monk came to study with him, but Bodhidharma ignored him and just kept sitting in meditation. The monk stood outside the cave all night in the snow. The next morning Bodhidharma still said that the monk was not serious enough for training and continued to sit and ignore him. Finally the monk cut off his own arm and handed it to Bodhidharma to prove his sincerity. Bodhidharma thereupon accepted the monk, who eventually became the Second Ancestor in the Chinese Chan/Zen lineage.

The ultimate compassion for bodhisattvas is helping beings to thorough awakening and self-realization. In this way Bodhidharma may be seen as embodying the aspect of Avalokiteshvara as the observer of self-existence and its emptiness, who bestows compassion more by liberated example than by responding directly to individual needs and suffering. Indeed, the example of Bodhidharma has inspired the strenuous efforts of sincere dharma practitioners for nearly fifteen hundred years.