Monday, February 9, 2009


About one thousand four hundred years ago, Emperor Wu of the Southern Province of China became converted to Buddhism. He began building temples, commissioning the translation of Buddhist scriptures, and sending out missionaries. After several years spent spreading the religion of Buddhism, he learned that Bodhidharma, an enigmatic spiritual master who would eventually become recognized as the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism, was living in his kingdom and arranged a meeting with him. When they met, Emperor Wu said to Bodhidharma,

I have made Buddhism the national religion. I have built countless stupas and temples. I have had the scriptures translated and I am responsible for converting millions of people to Buddhism. What merit have I thereby attained?

Bodhidharma replied, “No merit whatsoever.” The Emperor was shocked because this response was not at all what he had expected and also because Bodhidharma was obviously unafraid of insulting him. He then said, “Perhaps I don’t fully understand the teaching of the Buddha. How do you understand it?” Bodhidharma replied, “In vast emptiness, no holiness!” This confused the Emperor even more, so in desperation and indignation he asked, “Who do you think you are?” Bodhidharma only answered, “Don’t know!” Then he turned around and walked away.

Jesus Christ touched on the issue raised in this conversation when he said,

Be careful not to make a show of your religion before men; if you do, no reward awaits you in your Father’s house in heaven. Thus, when you do some act of charity, do not announce it with a flourish of trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogue and in the streets to win admiration of men. I tell you this: they have their reward already. No; when you do some act of charity, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing; your good deed must be secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. Again, when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers standing in the synagogue and at the street-corners, for everyone to see them. I tell you this: they have their reward already. But when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is there in the secret place; and your Father who sees what is secret will reward you.

Probably the hardest thing to understand from a traditional spiritual perspective is that a reward for correct behavior is not a reward in the usual sense. If we act from a self-centered perspective, we gain nothing but a heightened sense of self-righteousness, but if we act without any ideas and expectations, then natural grace will unfold for us.

Emperor Wu had changed his beliefs but not his state of mind. He may have been sincere, but he was also proud, self-righteous, and attached to his ideas. He had converted to a new belief system, but he had not transcended his selfhood—his sense of being a separate entity. Bodhidharma, of course, perceived his lack of understanding as soon as he began to speak.

True spirituality, whether attained through the vehicle of an organized religion, such as Buddhism or Christianity, or whether attained outside of such vehicles, is about the task of freeing the mind from its attachment to ideas, images and symbols so that it can perceive its unity with the Absolute. Many of Christ’s teachings emphasize this difference of mind operation. The Good Samaritan, for example, was one-with the condition of the injured man he found rather than separated from him by various ideas. By contrast, the Pharisees, priests and lawyers were isolated from both God and man by their thinking habits.

To intuitively grasp the difference between a self-centered state of mind and a unified state of mind, we can ask ourselves which is deeper, the state of mind which tries not to think evil thoughts, or the state of mind in which evil thoughts simply do not occur? Which is more important, the state of mind which sees people in terms of categories, or the state of mind which simply sees? Which is more spiritual, the state of mind which is condemnatory and judgmental, or the state of mind which is merciful and forgiving? Which is more actualized, the state of mind that worries about the literal interpretation of scriptures, or the state of mind which is united with the underlying spirit of the scriptures?

If we do a good deed and feel good about it, then we are still trying to take credit for our actions and we haven’t attained the essence of giving. If we raise money for our Zen Center, give to the poor, donate time to our favorite charity and think, “I’m doing this because I’m a Buddhist,” or “I’m doing this because it makes me feel good,” then we’ll be making the same mistake Emperor Wu made. The real issue of spiritual importance is how to attain a state of mind that acts without any self-reflection.

If we recognize that our mind is dominated by concepts, constructs and thoughts, then we can change it, but we cannot change it by studying scripture, following rules, or having beliefs. We can only change the state of our mind by learning to use it in a different way by practicing internal silence and awareness until the habit of reflective self-centered thought is broken. We can change it by practicing looking and listening without comment or opinion. We can change it by doing what we do with total concentration and one hundred percent effort.

The path about which Buddha taught is not about living according to a particular set of ideas, and it is not about such trivial issues as styles of worship, rituals, or religious rules. It is about changing the operation of our mind so that we can leave selfhood behind, discover the Infinite, and become unified with It. This is the transcendent reality to which Bodhidharma referred when he said, “In vast emptiness, no holiness!”


Barry said...

Thank you for this wonderful post, Paul. For me, this work is moment to moment - it requires constant attention.

ZazenLover said...

Thanks for sharing. Very nice. :)
The verse, "I tell you this: they have their reward already" has been noteworthy for myself in the past as well. We can fall into many traps. Btw, if you haven't already, check out the gospel of thomas, and also judas. They both seem to have a Taoist/zen flavor.

dochong, jdpsn said...

Thanks Barry,

I agree it is the only reality we have and we must be dilligent. This is one of my reasons for feeling a close connection to Samantabhadra.


dochong, jdpsn said...


Thanks for the comments, and nice to meet you. I have read the Nag Hammadi Library which includes both texts to which you refer. I read them many years ago when I was working on my second book, A Path to Christ Consciousness. My favorite quote from the Gospel of Thomas is when Jesus says; "If a blind man follows another blind man, they both end up falling into a big hole."