Transactions with the World

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Each of us develops into a unique individual who enters into unique transactions with the world as it exists for him.

Bodhidharma is traditionally regarded as the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism.


How many founders of religions or religious sects are pictured by their followers looking like this? Don't you expect either an otherworldly serenity (Gautama Buddha) or an otherworldly patience under persecution and suffering ( Jesus Christ)?

Do you see here a thoroughly human, rather crusty, curmudgeonly old fellow? A severe hippie type, looking askance at us as if we'd just said something that simply convinced him that it would be a long time before we'd be firmly on the right track? Bald, bearded, an earring in a pierced ear, does he not look more like a pirate than a saint?

Perhaps he does have something of the pirate in him, in the sense that he has carried freedom of enterprise to its limit. He put a millennium-old religion on an unexplored track, leaving behind the old maps of Buddhist territory. He set out on an inner voyage, seized his prize, and then realized that by its very nature he couldn't give it to anyone else. His was a unique kind of prize; each follower must find his own. For Bodhidharma believed that each person develops into a unique individual whose transactions with the world of his own perceptions and explorations exist uniquely for that individual. The kingdom of heaven is within, and since each within differs from every other, each heaven is different. No one can be saved by anyone else; no one's revelation is valid for anyone else.

The story of Bodhidharma's meeting with Emperor Wu of Liang exemplifies the personality we may deduce from this portrait.

The Chinese emperor described to his missionary visitor all the Buddhist monasteries and temples he had built and endowed and then asked what merit he had accumulated to his karmic account.

"No merit at all!" replied Bodhidharma abruptly and impoliticly.

Emperor Wu, taken aback, asked, "Then what is the sacred doctrine's first principle?"

"It's just empty; there is nothing sacred," Bodhidharma replied.

Logically and a little bitterly Emperor Wu asked, "In that case, who are you to stand before us?"

Bodhidharma, pulling the rest of the rug out, replied, "I don't know.