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Facing the wall

When the Emperor did not understand him, legend has it that Bodhidharma crossed the river to Shaolin, where he meditated for nine years facing the wall of a cave (thereby inventing "wall gazing"). In one pious version of this story, Bodhidharma's legs fell off. At one time, relates another Zen story, he caught himself dozing and in a fit of rage tore off his eyelids and cast them contemptuously to the ground, whereupon bushes of the tea plant—Zen's sacramental drink—sprang forth.

Bodhidharma advocated meditation, sutras, and the trappings of traditional Buddhism as a way to see into one's own nature. His legends represent Zen in its formative period, before the more unorthodox methods for shaking disciples into a new mode of consciousness had been devised. However, one of the stories attributed to him by later writers sounds suspiciously like a Zen mondo (the traditional consciousness-testing exchange between master and monk).

"Bring me your mind"

While sitting at Shaolin, Bodhidharma vowed to sit facing the wall until a worthy disciple appeared. Finally, the story goes, Huike stood outside the cave for many days in the deep snow seeking to be taught by Bodhidharma. When Bodhidharma would not respond to his imploring to be taught the secrets of dhyana, it is said Huike cut off his arm to demonstrate his commitment.

Whether Huike ever cut his arm off (or had it cut off by bandits) Bodhidharma finally relented and asked Huike what he wanted. Although trained as a Confucian scholar and having read all the classics, Huike still sought peace of mind.

Huike: "I have a restless mind and beg Master to settle it for me."

Bodhidharma: "Bring me your mind and I will settle it for you."

Huike (after searching for his mind): "Well, I can not find it."

Bodhidharma: "There, I have already settled it."

This symbolic story illustrates eloquently the concept of the mind as a perceiver, something that cannot itself be subject to analysis. Logical introspection is impossible. The mind cannot examine itself any more than the eye can see itself. Since the mind cannot become the object of its own perception, its existence can only be understood intuitively, as Huike realized when he tried to plumb its whereabouts objectively.

While "having a mind" denotes having a restless mind, when there is no mind, there is a peaceful mind. When our superficial consciousness stops acting, all our illusory thoughts pause, and our original mind starts to appear—our minds naturally become peaceful and comfortable.