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Tracking Bodhidharma: a journey into the heart of chinese culture

Andy Ferguson; Counterpoint, 2012; 359 pp
reviewed by Vladimir K

Somewhere between truth and fiction lies legend and myth. It is within this domain that the legendary founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, resides.

Almost all Zen students know the basics of his story. His meeting with Emperor Wu is the first koan in the Hekiganroku (Pi-yen-lu) and Case 2 of the Shoyo Roku (Ts'ung-jung lu)and his pacifying the mind of the distraught  one-armed Huike is Case 41 of the Mumonkan (Wúménguān). And the perennial question, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?’ has been asked by students for some 1500 years. The legends of Bodhidharma are central to the image of Zen, of how Zen sees itself and presents itself to the world. For those who are not familiar with the story, it goes something like this:

Bodhidharma was an Indian Brahmin Buddhist who sailed from India to the port of modern Guangzhou. He meets the great Buddhist emperor Wu, who asks him, “I have built many temples and ordained many monks. What merit is there in this?” Bodhidharma replies, “None whatsoever.” The emperor then asks, “What is the highest meaning of the ultimate truth?” Bodhidharma answers, “Empty, without holiness.” Astonished, the emperor then asks, “Who is it that faces me?” and Bodhidharma, thrusting home the final arrow, replies, “I don’t know.” Finding no joy or understanding at the emperor’s court, Bodhidharma crosses the Yangtze River “on a single blade of grass” and ends up at the Shaolin Monastery on Mt. Song, where he finds a cave and spends nine years “facing the wall.”
Huike, who became Bodhidharma’s dharma heir, was anxious to learn the way of Zen (Chan in China) and stood in the snow outside the cave begging to be taught. When Bodhidharma refused him, Huike cut off his left arm and was finally book coveraccepted by the master. Huike pleaded with Bodhidharma to pacify his troubled mind. “Bring me your mind,” said Bodhidharma, “and I will pacify it for you.” “I have searched for it and cannot find it,” replied Hiuke, upon which Bodhidharma retorted, “There, I have pacified your mind.”
When Bodhidharma decided it was time to return to India (or, perhaps, die), he called his disciples together and asked each to demonstrate their understanding of the teachers. As the first three uttered  their words of understanding, Bodhidharma said to each in turn, “You have attained my skin. You have attained my flesh. You have attained my bones.” When Huike wordless bowed, Bodhidharma said, “You have attained my marrow” and passed on the mind-to-mind transmission to Huike, who thus became the Second Patriarch of Zen.
All in all, terrific stories, but whether any of it is “true” is dubious. Indeed, some modern scholars doubt the entire Bodhidharma legend. For example, John McRae asserts, “None of the various details of Bodhidharma’s life is “true”, in the sense of being journalistically accurate.” (McRae, 2003:26) However, it is important to note that while the “journalistic” veracity of the story may be in doubt, the importance of the story to the development of Zen is beyond dispute. All agree that the Bodhidharma legend is central to understanding the evolution of Chinese Chan and subsequently, Japanese Zen. To turn to McRae again,
To accept any one of the various hagiographical images of Bodhidharma as accurate would be… to present a Sunday-school image of Chan. …to present such simplistic stories as historically accurate in works of historical narration is an indefensible commission of the “string of pearls” fallacy. On the other hand, it would be even more egregious to deny the religious and cultural significance of the hagiographical process as whole. (op cit, p 27)
In other words, it is not the historical fact that is important, but the historical role played out through the stories that need to be understood.

So, given the conflicting accounts of the Bodhidharma story (some even deny that there was such a character), why would anyone think they could track Bodhidharma’s path through China? If anyone could find the places where Bodhidharma lived and taught, it would be Andy Ferguson, author of Zen’s Chinese Heritage: the masters and their teachings (Wisdom, 2000). Ferguson has travelled extensively throughout China and leads tour groups to places of historical cultural significance. Fluent in Mandarin, he is able to tap into resources which are not yet translated into English. Along with his friend, Red Pine (Bill Porter), Ferguson is opening up areas of China virtually unattainable to date for Westerners interested in China’s religious and cultural heritage. Along with physically visiting these sites, Ferguson also brings new understanding to a long-forgotten history (and some surprises) to the story of Bodhidharma.

Ferguson offers a Bodhidharma that is a counter-point to what he labels as ‘Imperial-Way Buddhism’, the Buddhism promoted (and controlled) by the emperors of China. Chinese Buddhist monks were unable to live outdoors, as they did in India, due to the harsh climate, so monasteries became essential. To finance these buildings and the monks, Buddhism needed the support of the emperors and the Chinese elites. Hence, control over who was appointed abbot, where monasteries were built and who was permitted to leave home and become a monk, as well as what was taught, reverted to the government. Bodhidharma, on the other hand, taught an iconoclastic Buddhism that depended not on monasteries or metaphysics but on self-awareness. Therefore, Bodhidharma taught that his followers should stay away from the capital city, away from the government-run institutions and not get involved in politics, making his meeting with Emperor Wu unlikely.

The basics of the Bodhidharma story as related above, is generally as much as most Zen students know about this important character. Ferguson offers a much more complex and interesting person (and history) than is generally thought. For example, one gains the impression from the Huike story that Bodhidharma had few followers. Ferguson quotes from Daoxuan’s Continued Biographies, that “Those who came to study with and honor Bodhidharma were like a city”. (p 235) Ferguson’s Bodhidharma was a well-known and respected teacher of a new form of Buddhism, one that eschewed metaphysics and reliance on scriptures. Bodhidharma is honored as the First Patriarch of Zen in China but Ferguson notes that “The earliest major Zen advocate in China was a monk named Anshigao who lived three centuries before Bodhidharma.” (p 266) Bodhidharma’s claim to be the first Zen ancestor has more to do with the politics of China and the politics of Zen than it does to history.

Ferguson’s book is a great read, full of interesting anecdotes and history. The subtitle, “a journey to the heart of chinese culture”, says much about how Ferguson weaves the Bodhidharma story through an exploration of Chinese culture and the history of Zen Buddhism in China and beyond. It is full of surprising ‘facts’, such as there is no record at the Shaolin Temple of Bodhidharma. Furthermore, Bodhidharma is often credited with not only starting Zen at the Shaolin Temple, but also kong fu. There is no evidence of a connection between Bodhidharma and kong fu. There is, however, some evidence to support the monk Seng Chou, a disciple of the temple’s founder, Fotuo, as the originator of kong fu.(p 267) The legendary encounter between Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu paints the emperor as a somewhat foolish man who cannot see the truth of Bodhidharma’s teaching. Ferguson, however, describes the emperor as one of the most significant persons in the history of Buddhism whose influence on the development of Buddhism and Zen reverberates even today. Emperor Wu was a devout Buddhist who did indeed build many monasteries and temples, even building a temple on the grounds of his palace. Every now and then he would renounce the worldly way and retreat to the temple as a Buddhist monk, throwing the empire into confusion until his courtiers could convince him to return to his duties as emperor. It was Emperor Wu who understood the political power that lay in Buddhism and he wedded the Buddhist religion with state power and authority, the result of which, surmises Ferguson, led to the abuse of Japanese Zen Buddhism in World War Two (as exemplified by the writings of Brian Daizen Victoria).  

Tracking Bodhidharma is a wonderful, entertaining and, dare I say it, enlightening book that not only will Zen students enjoy, but anyone interested in Chinese culture and travel in modern (as well as ancient) China, an enjoyable aspect of the book I haven’t touched on in this review. This is a handsome volume, sprinkled with black and white photographs and written in a lucid, easy-going style that made this reader feel that he was travelling alongside Ferguson and sharing in his adventures. It is unfortunate that it lacks an index as this would be most helpful for researchers. However, this book adds much to our ever-evolving understanding of Zen’s history and Chinese culture.

References and Further Reading
Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, John McRae, University of California Press (2003)
The Blue Cliff Record, Thomas Cleary and J. C. Cleary, Shambhala (1977)
Book of Serenity, Thomas Cleary, Lindisfarne Press (1990)
The Gateless Barrier: the Wu-men Kuan (Mumonkan), Robert Aitken, North Point Press (1990)
The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, Red Pine (Bill Porter), North Point Press (1989)
The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen, Jeffery Broughton, University of California Press (1999)



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