According to one tradition, Bodhidharma arrived in south China in 527, and was immediately invited by Emperor Wu of Liang to his capital, Nanking . In his audience with the emperor, a devout Buddhist, the latter is said to have asked, “ Since I came to the throne, I have built countless temples, copied countless sutras, and given supplies to countless monks. Is there any merit in all this?” “There is no merit at all!” was the unexpected reply of the Indian guest. “Why is there no merit?” the emperor asked. “All these,” said Bodhidharma,“ are only the little deeds of men and gods, a leaking source of rewards, which follow them as the shadow follows the body. Although the shadow may appear to exist, it is not real.” “What then is true merit?” “True merit consists in the subtle comprehension of pure wisdom, whose substance is silent and void. But this kind of merit cannot be pursued according to the ways of the world. ”The emperor further asked, “What is the first principle of the sacred doctrine?” “Vast emptiness with nothing sacred in it!” was the answer. Finally the emperor asked, “Who is it that stands before me?” “I don’t know!” said Bodhidharma, and took his leave. Finding that the emperor was not someone who could see eye – to – eye with him, he crossed the Yangtze river and went to Mount Sung in Honan, where he resided in the Shao – ling Temple. It is said that he took to sitting – in – meditation before a wall, keeping silence throughout the day. This mystified all who saw him , and they called him “the wall – gazing Brahman.”


Calligraphy by Thich Nguyen Tinh, source unknown

If there is any connecting link between Bodhidharma and the later ch’an masters, it is to be found in the via negativa which he employed in leading his disciples to enlightenment. For instance, Hui – k’o said to him, “My mind has not found peace, I beg you, master, to pacify it for me. ” He said, “Bring forth your mind to me and I will pacify it for you.” After a long silence, Huik’o told his master that he had searched for the mind but could not find it. Thereupon the master said, “Behold, I have already pacified the mind for you !” This marked the beginning of the transmission of the lamp, and Bodhidharma became the First Patriarch of the Chinese School of Zen. The method he employed is a typical instance of the via negativa, so characteristic of the whole tradition of Zen. Bodhidharma did not deny, any more than the later masters, the existence of the mind. But the “mind” which Hui – k’o was trying so desperately to find and to pacify was not the true mind, but merely a faint reflection of it. The true mind is always peaceful; there can be no restlessness about it. Besides, the true mind is the subject that thinks. As soon as we begin to think about it or try to do something about it, it is no longer the subject, but an object, which cannot be the true mind. By saying that he had already pacified it, the master was pointing at the true mind, which, being always in peace, really has no need of pacification. By asking the disciple to bring forth the mind, he made him discover for himself that the falsely objectified mind was but an illusion. This prepared him for the discovery of the true mind through a direct intuitive perception called into action by the unexpected words of the master.
(from “Golden Age Of Zen: Zen Masters of the T’ang Dynasty by Wu, John C. h.)