Mazu's "What is the Meaning of Bodhidharma's Coming from India?"

Dharma Discourse by Abbot John Daido Loori

Master Dogen's 300 Koan Shobogenzo, Case 108


 The Main Case

A monastic asked Mazu, "Aside from the four propositions and hundred negations1, please tell me the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from India."2
Mazu said, "I'm tired today. I cannot answer your question.3 Go and ask Zhichang."4
The monastic asked the same question of Zhichang,5 and Zhichang said, "Why don't you ask the Master?"6
The monastic said, "The Master has sent me to you."7
Zhichang said, "I have a headache today. I cannot answer your question.8 Go and ask Senior Hai."9
The monastic asked the same question of Hai,10 and Hai said, "Having gotten to this point, I don't understand it."11
The monastic went back to Mazu and told him the story.12
Mazu said, "Zhichang's head is white; Hai's head is black."13
[View Footnotes]

The Commentary

This monastic is sad indeed. His questions only succeeded in driving these adepts nostril-deep in muck and water, in an effort to help him, and in the end he still didn't get it. Be that as it may, do you get it? Mazu was tired and sent him to Zhichang. Zhichang tried to send him back to Mazu. When that failed, he said he had a headache and sent him to Baizhang, who in turn said he didn't understand it. These adepts were accomplished Dharma Masters; why would they avoid such a challenge? Is it just that it is inexpressible given the context of the monastic's question, or did they indeed address the matter? If you can see clearly into this you will understand it from the outset. The whole scenario was a redundant disaster up to and including Mazu's "Zhichang's head is white; Hai's head is black." And yet, at the same time, all of it went beyond the four propositions and hundred negations.

The Capping Verse

The sky is clear, the sun is bright
still, he flounders in darkness.
Pines are straight, brambles crooked
all things abide in their own Dharma place

The Footnotes

1. He wants to cut out the old man's tongue before he even asks the question.
2. This is an old question, but still deserves an answer.
3. This kind of straightforwardness is truly admirable.
4. Can it be that he's trying to dodge the question, or did he indeed answer it?
5. His questions are fine; it?s just that his hearing is a little impaired.
6. What's going on here?
7. There doesn't seem to be a glimmer of light in this monastic.
8. It would seem that Mazu's whole lineage suffers from the same disease.
9. Why does he let himself be shuffled about? Wake up! Come out of your cocoon, butterfly.
10. He makes up for his dullness by his persistence.
11. Neither does this poor monastic.
12. This monastic has the tenacity of a hammerhead shark.
13. Nothing in the universe is hidden.

[Return to Main Case]

Before engaging this koan, it is necessary to understand the question, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from India?" It was a very common query during the early days of Chinese Zen, encapsulating all questions regarding the fundamental nature of reality, and today is often encountered in koans and Zen stories. It embodies the kind of question that brings people into practice in the first place. Of course, the early days of Buddhism in China and Japan tended to be very intellectual. When a religion enters a new terrain people try to understand it in terms of the existing religions, philosophies or theologies, and as a result there is a lot of intellectual activity. Buddhism came from India and its original expressions tended to be very metaphysical. When this monastic asked the question he specified that he wanted to understand the essence of "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from India?" He was not concerned with the philosophy or theology of the question; he wanted a direct revelation of the truth, so he put his question in a particular context. He said, "Aside from the four propositions and hundred negations, please tell me the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from India."

The four propositions and hundred negations are an aspect of Indian philosophy and analytical logic. The four propositions are the basic terms of: one, many, being, and nonbeing; or phrasing it another way, existence, nonexistence, both existence and nonexistence, and neither existence nor nonexistence. Each one of these conditions has four particular negations, and that makes a total of sixteen permutations; then, by introducing past, present and future, the number of conditions goes up to forty-eight; then these are doubled as having already arisen, or being about to arise, and that brings us to ninety-six; then we add the simple negation of the original four, and we have a hundred negations. In view of this, what the monastic's question asks is how do you directly transcend words and ideas; how do you express the truth of Buddhism? That puts a very clear restriction on how the question can be answered.

This monastic first went to Master Mazu, who was one of the great masters of the Golden Age of Zen. He had a great reputation and was said to have eighty-six enlightened successors. The elite of Chinese society were among the monastics of his monastery. When this monastic confronted Mazu with the question, Mazu's answer was, "I'm tired today. I cannot answer your question. Go and ask Zhichang." Zhichang was the head monastic in the monastery, and he answered, "Why don't you ask the Master?" The other monastic said, "The Master has sent me to you." Zhichang then said, "I have a headache today. I cannot answer your question. Go and ask Senior Hai." Hai was the great Master Baizhang (Jap., Hyakujo). The monastic asked the same question of Hai, and Hai said, "Having gotten to this point, I don't understand it." The monastic went back to Mazu and told him the story. Mazu said, "Zhichang's head is white; Hai's head is black." What's going on here?

I added some footnotes to clarify this koan. The first line: A monastic asked Mazu, "Aside from the four propositions and hundred negations?" The footnote to that says, He wants to cut out the old man's tongue before he even asks the question. The restrictions the monastic is putting on Mazu are pretty clear. Don't explain it; don't analyze it; don't put it into any philosophical context; I am not interested in theology. What is the truth? "...please tell me the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from India." The footnote to that says, This is an old question, but still deserves an answer. This question, as I said, has been asked a hundred times. If you look at koans addressing it, you will find what appear to be a hundred different answers, but actually they are always the same answer. "I'm tired today. I cannot answer your question" was the next line. The footnote says, This kind of straightforwardness is truly admirable. What makes this a very straightforward answer? Did Mazu address the question, or did he avoid it? "Go and ask Zhichang." The footnote says, Can it be that he's trying to dodge the question, or did he indeed answer it? If he did, what is that answer? How do you understand it? The monastic asked the same question of Zhichang. The footnote says, His questions are fine; it's just that his hearing is a little impaired. It's a great question, but each time there is a response, the monastic doesn't do anything with it. Zhichang said, "Why don't you ask the Master?" The footnote says, What's going on here? The monastic said, "The Master has sent me to you." The footnote to that says, There doesn't seem to be a glimmer of light in this monastic. Zhichang said, "I have a headache today. I can't answer your question." The footnote to that says, It would seem that Mazu's whole lineage suffers from the same disease. What is that disease? If you understand that disease, you will also understand the medicine. "Go and ask Senior Hai." The footnote says, Why does he let himself be shuffled about? Wake up! Come out of your cocoon, butterfly. The monastic then asked the same question to Hai. The footnote says, He makes up for his dullness by his persistence. Then Hai said, "Having gotten to this point, I don't understand it." The footnote says Neither does this poor monastic. The monastic went back to Mazu and told him the story. The footnote says, This monastic has the tenacity of a hammerhead shark. Mazu added, "Zhichang's head is white; Hai's head is black." The footnote says, Nothing in the universe is hidden. If nothing is hidden, how come we haven't all realized it and transformed our lives? This monastic presents a beautiful example of a persistent attitude, the determination that is necessary for this practice.

Lately Buddhism has been very popular with the media: four major motion pictures about Buddhism have been produced, and we now find Buddhism on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Though most Buddhists seem to be delighted with Buddhism's popularity, personally, I feel we are in big trouble, because what is evolving is a kind of pop Buddhism, celebrity Buddhism. The media is defining what Buddhism is. Writers and actors are defining Buddhism for the general population, and I think we are entering the Golden Age of Buji Zen, dilettante, self-styled Zen. Zen Buddhism has fallen into the same category as drinking French spring water, designer jeans, or having a personal trainer. In this way, Zen tends to become very superficial and simplistic.

Professor Robert Thurman said recently that Buddhism hasn't even arrived in America yet. He said that until Buddhist monasticism has taken root and has become widespread, Buddhism is not here yet. I would agree with him, but I would also add that it will not be here until there is also far reaching authentic training and practice; until there is realization and transformation, not just understanding or believing.

We are in danger of producing clones of some idealized version of what a Buddhist practitioner is - some sort of superbeing. Buddha was ordinary; Bodhidharma was ordinary. These great teachers of old were ordinary beings, and it is in their true ordinariness that the extraordinary nature of their being is revealed. Most of us think we are ordinary, but we are far from it. We mask our ordinariness. We hide from who we really are. We don't trust ourselves. It's rare for any of us to give ourselves permission to really be ourselves. We always try to be someone else. This is why a superficial view of Zen in the media is so popular; it does not insist as real Zen does that we really see ourselves.

What does it mean to really be yourself? It means to trust yourself. That's very difficult to do. We easily trust others. We easily give our power away to someone else, a teacher or authority figure. We find it incredibly difficult to trust ourselves. We want to be told what to do. One thing about Buddhism is that it doesn't have any easy answers. What it will do is expose you to a form, a form which if engaged with the whole body and mind, will ultimately liberate you. But you will do the liberation; no one can do it for you. If anybody tells you they can, run away, because you're dealing with a charlatan. It can't be done, any more than for somebody to urinate for you. You have to do it yourself. Transformation is a very personal matter. It has nothing to do with books and ideas, gurus and teachers. It has to do with each one of us taking the backward step and turning inward, going deep within ourselves and examining the notions we have, examining these ideas we have bought into, and seeing what is real and what we have fabricated. Finally, it is about getting to the ground of being, beyond all of the conditioning.

Conditioning is unavoidable. There is no one who is free of it. All our lives we have been involved in a process of conditioning: from our parents, schools, our religions, our teachers, our peers, our political system. Advertising is based on it. By the time we reach adulthood we don't know who we are or what our life is. That is why it is vital that we experience the inherent freedom that is the life of each one of us and get to the ground of being that is beyond all that conditioning. We need to trust our own experience, and to learn to live our lives out of it. It takes a lot of courage, and there are no shortcuts. You can't buy it. You have to work for it; you have to put yourself on the edge and practice it.

The press perpetuates a longstanding misinterpretation of the Buddha Way. It defines Buddhism as shunyata - a big void, a black hole, emptiness, extinction. That is very one-sided. It is only a small part of what Buddhism is about. Buddhism is about neither being nor nonbeing, neither form nor emptiness. In one of the old sutras it says, "Existence is slandered by exaggeration; nonexistence is slandered by underestimation; both existence and nonexistence are slandered by contradiction; and neither existence nor nonexistence is slandered by intellectual fabrications." If you abandon these four propositions of existence, nonexistence, both or neither, the four propositions and hundred negations are spontaneously wiped out.

The commentary to the koan in this case says, If you can see clearly into this you will understand it from the outset. The whole scenario was a redundant disaster... How was it redundant, and what made it a disaster? The redundancy lies in the fact that the same truth was expressed again and again yet the monastic never got it. ...up to and including Mazu's "Zhichang's head is white; Hai's head is black." And yet, at the same time, it went beyond the four propositions and hundred negations. How did it go beyond? How did it avoid falling into one side or the other? Why is it even necessary to abandon the four propositions and hundred negations to see the reality of Bodhidharma's coming from India?

That is the other big misconception we have about Zen. We think we should burn books, because the Dharma is beyond the words and ideas. Master Dogen said, "Painted cakes satisfy hunger." For hundreds of years Zen masters have been saying, "Painted cakes don't satisfy hunger." Are they contradicting each other? What they were saying is that descriptions of reality aren't reality itself. Dogen said painted cakes do satisfy hunger. That is, it is possible to talk about the Dharma; it is possible to come to realization on hearing words about the Dharma. The Sixth Ancestor experienced great enlightenment upon hearing the Diamond Sutra recited. Enlightenment has also happened at the sound of a pebble hitting bamboo, or at the sight of peach blossoms falling, or on hearing a shout - any number of ways can bring us to realization. But before realization can happen, there needs to be some fundamental work, and that is the part that each one of us needs to do for ourselves.

Realization cannot take place if the mind is constantly moving; if it is constantly preoccupied. That is one of the big things we do; we spend our energy talking to ourselves. We love to hear ourselves talk. Day and night we are constantly commenting on everything. We fill our heads with thoughts about things that have long since happened and are finished; or we fill our head with thoughts about things that may or may not happen. While we are so preoccupied, we are missing the moment, the simple perfection of right here, right now; moment to moment reality. While we talk to ourselves and entertain ourselves, life slips by, and we miss it. We look, but we don't see; we listen, but we don't hear; we eat, but we don't taste; we love, but we don't feel. All the equipment is working, the senses are receiving the information, but somehow cognition is not taking place because we are preoccupied. We are busy with something else. If you miss the moment, you miss your life. A lot of the various practices we do are about simply learning how to come home to the moment. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is. To be totally, completely present is the biggest deal you will ever experience. Then the simplest, most insignificant thing reveals a reality beyond our wildest dreams. But so long as we are preoccupied with our dreams, reality has no place to present itself.

The commentary says, This monastic is sad indeed. His questions only succeeded in driving these adepts nostril-deep in muck and water, in an effort to help him, and in the end he didn't get it. The expression "muck and water" has to do with being involved in delusion, discrimination, and mundane affairs. The adepts' answers put them in the world of differentiation, but all to no avail - the monastic never got it. So, were these Dharma masters avoiding the challenge, or was it just that it could not be expressed given the limitations the monastic put on the whole thing? He said they had to go beyond the four propositions and hundred negations. How can you answer without falling into some kind of philosophical explanation? Did Zhichang's headache explain it? Did Baizhang's not understanding it explain it? Did Mazu's "one head is white, the other's head is black" explain it? What are they talking about? What does this say about the truth of your life? That is what this koan is about. It is not some esoteric question that had to do with Buddhism in seventh century China. It has to do with right now - your life. It has to do with the questions of what is truth, what is reality, what is God, what is life, what is death, who am I?

The capping verse says,

The sky is clear, the sun is bright
still, he flounders in darkness.

In a sense, what this verse presents is the situation of all of us. Although this life is perfect and complete, lacking nothing, although nothing in the universe is hidden, nothing is obscured, still we flounder. Although each and every one of us is a fully-equipped Buddha, an enlightened being, we still fumble in the darkness. Somehow we have not accessed that aspect of our own nature. There are so many aspects of human potential that somehow we don't access. It depends on our conditioning. Sometimes we know how to access strength, but not gentleness. Sometimes we know how to access determination, but not the ability to let go, to be flexible. We tend to selectively develop certain aspects of our human potential. The one aspect of it that is truly vital is Buddha-nature, human nature. What does it mean to be truly human? What does it mean to realize and actualize the inherent perfection each one of us is born with? We aren't talking about anything extraordinary here. Buddha realized his ordinariness and actualized it. The darkness the verse talks about is what has us bouncing into walls and encountering barriers and resistances, fears, anxieties, at every turn we make. What does it mean to be free, to manifest one's life without hindrance?

Pines are straight, brambles crooked
all things abide in their own Dharma place.

Each thing is just the way it is. Some straight, some crooked, some tall, some short. The tall one is a tall Buddha, the short one is a short Buddha. Each perfect and complete, each abides in its own Dharma place. The problem is that we are always trying to find another place, fabricate another life, imitate another model. We believe all the stuff fed us through the media, through advertisements. How could anybody look at that stuff and not feel somehow inadequate? Who fits the criteria of advertising people? The whole point of advertising is to make us want to be something that we are not. We will always come away dissatisfied unless, of course, we buy the product.

We have forgotten how to trust ourselves, how to empower ourselves, how to give ourselves permission to be ourselves. That is the truth of the Buddha-dharma: Really be yourself. That is what it means to forget the self. It is as simple, and as difficult, as that. Mazu was tired. Zhichang had a headache. Baizhang didn't understand. One's head was black. The other's head was white. How about you? Where do you find yourself?

[Main Case] [Index of Dharma Discourses]



mountains & rivers order | training in the mro | zen mountain monastery | fire lotus zendo | dharma communications | zen environmental studies institute | society of mountains & rivers | the monastery store | wzen.org | contents | contact us |

2003 Zen Mountain Monastery
All words and images on these pages are protected by copyright