For this lecture, please read the introduction and first three sections of the Dhammapada.

Buddha Departure

Suffering & Desire

Gandhara Buddha

We left off last time with the Jains, who practice severe discipline to escape from entanglements with material existence.  Mahavira argued for a physical conception of suffering rather than a psychological one such that any material interaction, intentional or unintentional, has negative consequences.  This is why Jains practice non-violent measures such as wearing masks, as unintentionally killing insects and microorganisms has a negative karmic impact on the individual, even if they are unaware of it and did not intend it.


Let’s say that Susan and Steve are quite addicted to delicious, satisfying waffles.  Sadly, waffles are not the healthiest food in existence, and so Susan and Steve suffer pain and dissatisfaction after eating nothing but waffles for years on end.  Susan gives no thought to her problems, or anyone else’s really, but Steve worries about his health and addiction to waffles a great deal.  For the Jains, what is bad for you is bad for you regardless of whether or not it is intentional, and so a Jain could use this imaginary example to show that Susan and Steve’s health suffers the same even though one intends to change while the other does not.

Buddha Java Indonesia

Gautama Siddhartha (563 – 483 BCE), a shramana (striver) like Mahavira, left his home for the jungle and tried Jain-like practices with the forerunners of Jainism before it became an official school, but he left frustrated and dissatisfied.  Gautama, also known as Siddhartha, also known as The Buddha, also known as Buddha, found that Jain beliefs and practices gave him feelings of self-loathing rather than liberation, and so he meditated until he discovered that the cause of suffering is psychological rather than physical.  Buddha taught that desire and fear fill existence with suffering, what Buddhists and others call samsara, but we can grow through wisdom to find freedom and happiness, what Buddhists and others call nirvana, moksha and samadhi.

Buddha guarded by Nagas

While a Jain might argue that Susan and Steve have the same health problems, a Buddhist would argue that both have the conscious, intentional desire for waffles and then act on that desire again and again, and that this intention is the cause of their problem, not the waffles themselves, who intend nothing.  Thus, Steve intends to change after intending to eat waffles, which is better than Susan intending to eat waffles without intent to change.  Susan might be ignorant, but her actions are not unintentional.  One follower of Mahavira argued that if an uncivilized savage roasts and eats someone, mistaking them for food, then Buddhists would have to admit that the savage did no wrong, and thus made a good breakfast.

The Life of the Buddha

Buddha Hyderabad India

According to the tradition, Gautama Siddharta was the son of a king who ruled the Gautama region of Northern India, what is today in Nepal, the same region and living at the same time as Gautama, founder of the Nyaya school of Logic and Debate.  When Siddhartha was born, the king’s wisest adviser told him that his son would be either the greatest of kings or the greatest of sages, the great ruler of the physical or the mental.  The king did not want his son to be his successor, so he kept his son in a palace and gave him all the luxuries in the world, hiding death, disease and pain from him, surrounding him with servants, peacocks and happiness.  Siddhartha received the finest education and training several academic and military subjects, and received everything he desired, but by 29 he had become bored and snuck out to see the city outside the palace, taking along his most trusted servant.

buddha four sights

Siddhartha Buddha departing

Outside the palace walls, the prince first saw an old man, then a sick man, and then a dead man.  Horrified, he asked his servant about each, and each time the servant said that this is what happens to everyone, even the crown prince himself.  Then he saw a holy man practicing meditation, and his servant told him that this fourth man was working on the problems of the first three.  The Buddha was immediately envious of something more wonderful than he had ever possessed in the palace, and so he left home to become, in the Buddhist tradition, the greatest sage of all ages.

Buddha Po Lin

Many sages and schools had many formulas for finding one’s way to the One itself, the truth and meaning of it all.  The Indian tradition generally prizes liberation from attachments, accompanied by discipline.  The Vedanta wrestle over how much this is anthropomorphic devotional worship and how much this is beyond human and inhuman.  The Vaisheshika and Nyaya seek atomic, universal truth.  The Charvakas say that everything outside of immediate sense is illusion.  The Jains say that everything is perspective and disentanglement of the mind from matter.  Many great strivers had come before Buddha, but he is the last of the great sages of the golden age of ancient Indian thought, and by following and popularity he is unquestionably the greatest, the most revered Indian philosopher of all time and one of the most popular philosophers in history.

Temple and Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya

After leaving home, Siddhartha first tried meditating with masters of the Upanishads, but he was not happy to simply pacify the mind and attain tranquility.  Then he tried asceticism, fasting and severe practices in the jungle for six years, but he found that this brought no great enlightenment and in fact brought him much frustration and self-hatred.  He left the jungle disappointed, and sat underneath a large tree on the bank of Neranjara River, across from a place where priests, ascetics and others made fire sacrifices to different deities.  Siddhartha tried the Upanishadic meditations for pacifying the mind again, but with the strength he had acquired from proto-Jain asceticism, and found himself in a state of freedom from hate, greed and confusion.  He realized that enlightenment is not a conception of reality, a form of truth, but maintaining awareness itself.  He then came out of this state and spent most of his time for the next 45 years reflecting and teaching, explaining with words and concepts why words and concepts are not the truth itself.

The Middle Way

Siddhartha Budda emaciated

One of the most popular metaphors we find across human thought is balance, the idea that we should not do too much, nor too little.  Aristotle in Greece and Confucius in China were both advocates of balance in all things, and the Jains, following Mahavira, argue that we should not be one-sided.  The Buddha tried living in a palace with every luxury, and then he tried doing without everything in the jungle, but neither worked.  In other words, the Buddha tried being a Jain, but he found that Jain practices are not non-one-sided enough.  There are Buddhist images and statues which portray the Buddha obtaining enlightenment while still severely emaciated, but these are not the typical popular portrayal of the Buddha as neither too thin nor too fat, in line with the idea of moderation between extremes.

Small Budais

Hotei Laughing Buddha

Gautama Siddhartha is never depicted as fat, though many Americans and others wrongly believe that the Buddha was fat because of the popular “Laughing Buddha”, the happy fat monk and good luck saint who supposedly lived around 900 CE.  Known as Budai in China and Hotei in Japan, his name means ‘Cloth Sack’, and he is often shown holding a sack, and orange, or a ball of butter up in the air.  He loved playing with children and giving them gifts from his bag, just like the sort of people Nancy Reagan warned us about in the 80s.  In one Zen koan story, a monk approached Budai as he was giving out candy and asked, “What is the meaning of Zen?”, a common koan question, and Budai dropped his bag to the ground.  The monk then asked, “How does one realize this?”, and Budai picks up his bag, slung it over his shoulder and wandered off.

laughing buddha singapore

Budai is extremely popular in Chinese culture, and it is believed that he brings good luck and fortune to lay people and shop owners.  Rubbing his belly is supposed to bring good luck, which is why the gold paint or red die on the belly of Budai statues in restaurants is often word away.  People saw Budai in the Chinatowns of America and Europe, and assumed this Buddhist monk to be the Buddha himself.  Yes, but only in the way that all of us are the original Buddha, Budai and the entire cosmos.  When people think that the Buddha is fat, this is somewhat like confusing Friar Tuck with Jesus.  Jesus is also depicted as skinny, not as a fat Franciscan brewing beer.

Buddha Hong Kong

The Middle Way is what Buddha taught those who first listened to him, including ascetics, after he himself had practiced asceticism.  He realized that a mind without hate, greed and confusion can see and experience so much more of the world, but that we must be both dispassionate and compassionate at the same time.  Unlike Mahavira, Buddha thought we should grow our passions, the seeds in you into fruits, growing causes into effects, without allowing them to become too inflamed and out of control, neither burning them all off nor allowing them to grow out of control.  Rather than try to escape our attachments, individuality and perspective entirely for unmotivated omniscience, we should pragmatically engage with whatever side of the elephant we find ourselves on with the wisdom that there is always more than one side.

Gautama Buddha with cape

One of the great scholars of Buddhism as philosophy is David Kalupahana, who studied with Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke, who studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein, my favorite modern European philosopher.  For many years, Kalupahana was the head of the philosophy department at the University of Hawaii, one of the foremost institutions in the comparison of Eastern and Western thought.  Kalupahana argues that Buddha, like William James and Wittgenstein, was a pragmatist who sought a middle way between dogmatic absolutism and skeptical relativism.  Our desires and conceptions are true and false, believable and doubtable, and so it is not about what we believe in itself but what we do with our beliefs in practice.  Desires and conceptions are not bad in themselves, but tools that are used in ways that result in good and bad.  Thus, we should grow the seeds in us wisely, without burning them off or growing them into too much fruit.

hands of the buddha

Buddha argued that there are many different views and schools, but that all of their theories are based on both reason and experience.  The Nyaya logicians had argued before the Buddha that there are four sources of knowledge: perception, inference, testimony and comparison.  We experience things and experience others telling us about their experiences, and we reason about what is true beyond our and others experiences, making comparisons between different things and their different possibilities.


Some schools, like the Nyaya, believed that reason is central and yogic insight unnecessary, but other schools, like the Jains, believe that yogic insight acquired through practices is necessary.  Thus, both the Nyaya and the Jains believe in both reason and experience, but the Nyaya believe that reason is essential and experience is a helpful, while the Jains believe that experience is essential and reason is helpful.  In the early modern European philosophical tradition, these two positions were known as Rationalism and Empiricism, the first major skism, with Descartes and Kant on the side of reason as universal and Locke and Hume on the side of experience as complex.

Buddha Vietnam

The Buddha argued that siding with the Rationalist Nyaya or the Empiricist Jains are each an overstatement (adhivuttipada in Pali, similar to the Jain anekantavada in Sanskrit), as we should not have too much faith in reason nor too much faith in experience.  We must believe and doubt our perceptions as well as our reflections, maintaining awareness of the situation.  Too much faith in one side of things blinds us because there are different positions we can take and things change.  What if we trust our reasoning, and deny counterexamples in our experiences, including the testimony of others?  What if we trust our experiences, such that we deny our reasoning, including comparisons we can make between how we do things and how we could do things better?  In one early text found in the Majjhima-Nikaya (The Middle Length Discourses), Buddha is recorded as saying:

Even if I know something on the basis of best faith, that may be empty, hollow, and confused, while what I do not know on the best faith may be factual, true and not otherwise.  It is not proper for an intelligent person, safeguarding the truth, to come categorically to the conclusion in this matter that such alone is true and whatever else is false.

reclining buddha sagat stage

Impermanence & The Monkey Mind

avatars of vishnu with buddha

Many of the debates between ancient Indian philosophers were concerned with separating the eternal and universal from the temporary and particular.  Buddha taught that all things are impermanent, including our individual selves and our shared world.  Buddha was critical of the Hindu idea of the atman and the caste system, even though Hinduism recognizes the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, and some Buddhist texts speak of the Buddha going to high heaven realms and teaching the Hindu gods, who rejoice upon being enlightened more than they apparently already were.

Monkey reflection moon painting

Even our conceptions and understandings of the whole and truth itself are evolving and changing depending on circumstances.  This constant transformation is a central cause of fear and clinging to particular things to seek stability.  However, because particular things are not permanent, the mind must jump from one thing to another, seeking ideal stability in each thing and then leaping to the next with the same hope, endlessly without rest unless wisdom is developed.  To illustrate this, Buddha use the metaphor of the monkey mind, of a monkey leaping from branch to branch trying to find the branch that is completely secure, ignorant of the insecurity the monkey finds in every particular branch.

buddhist monk on phone

Buddha says that we all have contact with reality, much as each blind man has direct physical contact with the elephant in the Jain story.  By having contact with reality, we become familiar with things, and by becoming familiar with things, we come to have positive, negative or neutral feelings towards them.  Feeling can lead to perception, perception can lead to reflection, and reflection can lead to obsession.  If we are satisfied or dissatisfied with something in experience, this can lead us to focus on it rather than ignore it, as we do with countless things that are pleasing or displeasing in passing.  If we focus on a thing and how it is satisfying or dissatisfying, this can lead us to reflect on it later, when we are no longer experiencing the thing, and if we reflect on things we are not directly experiencing, this can lead to obsession.  If the Buddha is correct, our lives are unfortunately filled with obsessions that cause ignorance, which itself causes problems.

Buddha Hall Dragons

When we reflect on our perceptions, we can focus on whether or not things are making us happy, but we can also reflect on whether or not our perceptions and reflections themselves make us happy, leading us to bondage and suffering or freedom and happiness.  Thus, in maintaining awareness of our feelings, perceptions, reflections and obsessions, we become increasingly aware as we feel, perceive, reflect and obsess that we can obsess about our reflections but we don’t have to, and we can reflect about our perceptions and feelings but we don’t have to.  Because we cannot say with absolute certainty that our feelings, perceptions and reflections are the complete and total truth, we must try to maintain awareness that the perceptions and reflections that arise from our feelings are only useful some of the time.  As Kalupahana says, “it is easier to be enslaved by a concept that gives the impression of being permanent and incorruptible than by a perception that is obviously temporal and corruptible.”

Codependent Arising

victory of the buddha

By maintaining awareness of feelings and perceptions, we can do without excessive and harmful reflections and obsessions.  In particular, Buddha was concerned with the ways we obsess about ourselves, attempting to fix a permanent, perfect self, and the ways we obsess about our world, attempting to fix the ways of things and our understandings of them.  As we become aware of our obsessions, we become aware of how they blind us to seeing the complexity of the situation, how things are interconnected and complex.  Buddha called this pratityasamutpada, Codependent Arising, which sounds like a terrible movie about therapists aboard a submarine, also known in English translation as dependent origination and conditioned genesis.

Tibetan Sand Painting Mandala

Each thing is what it is because of how it interacts with every other thing, not because of anything that it is completely in itself.  Things that are opposite and opposed to each other, such as self and other, friend and enemy, good and bad, hot and cold, are what they are because of their opposites and in spite of them.  Buddha referred to the self, the world and each part of each thing as a pile (skanda), a bundle of many things intertwined.  This is similar to Wittgenstein’s idea that thinking and meaning are like a thread, a tangle of many things without one single strand running throughout the length of the whole.

Dalai Lama Compassion in EmptinessBecause things are impermanent and dependent on other things to be what they are, Buddha taught that all things are empty (shunya).  While this seems depressing or frightening to many, it should be understood as a kind of openness, not being closed off in themselves as it first appears but being connected to and dependent on everything else.  In an early text, the Buddha says that abiding in emptiness is abiding in fullness.  What first appears to be nihilism, belief in nothing, should rather be understood as belief in everything as an interconnected whole, as a rich abundance that means far too much to mean any one specific thing in particular.

In a set of talks by the Dalai Lama called Compassion in Emptiness,  he speaks about Nagarjuna, who we will soon study, and connects emptiness, openness, and compassion as the goal of Buddhist teaching and practice.  Being empty of self is not just lacking self-determination, but lacking selfishness and possessiveness.  An absence of selfishness or division of things does not mean one has nothing.  Rather one is not attached to the things one finds one has.  Later in this talk the Dalai Lama giggles about Jains showing up to conferences naked.

The Dhammapada

Dharma Wheel Deer

The Dhammapada is a collection of sayings of the Buddha, collected and written in the first century BCE, the time when Buddhism was becoming codified as a tradition and religion in Pali texts of northern India.  Dhamma, dharma in Pali as opposed to Sanskrit, means law, discipline and truth, and pada means path, step, foot and foundation.  Thus, the text is the foundation of the law, as well as the path of truth.  It includes several memorable passages, including:

Buddha India Statue

We are what we think.  All that we are arises with our thoughts.  With our thoughts we make the world.

Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.  Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.

“Look how they abused and beat me, how they threw me down and robbed me.”  Live with such thoughts and you live in hate.  “Look how they abused and beat me, how they threw me down and robbed me.”  Abandon such thoughts, and live in love.  In this world hate has never dispelled hate.  Only love dispels hate.  This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.  You too shall pass away.  Knowing this, how can you quarrel?

tibetan buddhist demon

An untroubled mind, no longer seeking to consider what is right and what is wrong, a mind beyond judgements, watches and understands.  Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded, but once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or mother.

The fool who knows they are a fool is that much wiser.  The fool who thinks they are wise is a fool indeed.  A jug fills drop by drop.  Fools forget their mischief, and light the fires they will burn in one day.

The farmer channels water to his land, the fletcher whittles his arrows, the carpenter turns his wood, and the wise man masters himself.

monkey bamboo painting

There is an old saying: “They blame you for being silent, they blame you when you talk too much and when you talk too little.”  Whatever you do, they blame you.  The world always finds a way to praise and a way to blame.  It always has and it always will.  I shall endure hard words as the elephant endures the arrows of battle, for many people speak wildly.

If you sleep, desire grows in you, like a vine in the forest.  Like a monkey in the forest, you jump from tree to tree, never finding the fruit, from life to life, never finding peace.

You have come out of the hollow, into the clearing.  The clearing is empty.  Why do you rush back into the hollow?  Desire is a hollow.  Quiet your mind.  Reflect.  Watch.  Nothing binds you.  You are free.

buddha face closed eyes

Delight in the mastery of your hands and your feet, of your words and your thoughts.  You have no name and no form.  Why miss what you do not have?  Empty the boat, lighten the load.

Unbolt the doors of sleep, and awake.

The Net of All Viewpoints & Victory Over All Battles

In the first of the Long Discourses of the Buddha (the Digha Nikaya) the Buddha is traveling with 500 monks from town to town, and unwittingly followed by Suppiya, a teacher who criticizes the Buddha, and Brahmadatta, Suppiya’s student who praises the Buddha.  It seems that positive and negative opinions and arguments about the Buddha follow him and his followers wherever they go.  They all stop for a night at a park with shade and water provided by royalty and guarded with  a wall for travelers to rest along their way.  In the morning, followers of the Buddha were talking about how wonderful it is for the Buddha to be aware of the varied opinions that follow him.  The Buddha hears them and says that they should not be angry with anyone who criticizes him, his teachings or his followers, as this will hold them back and prevent them from seeing if the criticism is right or wrong.  Rather, they should explain what is wrong with the criticism.  Similarly, they should not be pleased by those who give praise, as that will also hold them back.  Rather, they should explain what is right with the praise.

The Buddha says that only foolish, worldly people praise him for abandoning violence, sex, lies, entertainment, luxury, property, and servants, for doing the right thing and saying the right thing at the right time and to the right extent.  Only foolish, worldly people criticize his opponents, such as the Hindu Brahmins, for acting in ways that lead to addiction and destruction, speaking about useless things, claiming to know what others do not in debate, running errands for those in power or misleading others with expert advice and fortune telling.  Rather, there are other things that are hard to see and beyond ordinary thought that the wise can know that do deserve praise.  Neither discipline nor reason can reveal these things.  The particular knowledge that these practices reveal leads to further birth and death, but being unattached to this itself is to know true peace and freedom.

Each time the world is reborn, God (Brahma) becomes lonely and creates the other gods and beings.  Later, those who seek wisdom beyond the home discover that things are impermanent, pleasure is addictive and logical reasoning gives stability to the ideas of the mind, and they split into those who believe that the self and world are permanent and those who do not (“Eternalists and Non-Eternalists”, also the “Infinitistsand Finitists”).  Some argue that things are permanent, others that things are impermanent, others that things are both permanent one way but impermanent another, and others that things are neither in any particular way.  (These are the Catuskoti of Nagarjuna.)  Similarly there are those who debate whether we know what is good or bad, those who debate whether or not there is life after death in another world beyond this one, those who debate whether things happen by chance or necessity, and those who debate whether enlightenment and freedom are here now or somewhere else.  These “wriggly eels” on each side evade questions in debate that they can’t answer.

Those who take one side against the other do not see the fear and chaos that makes them and the other cling to one side, nor do they see that clinging to one side will not bring them peace or safety, but merely trap them in a vast, intricate net, like a fish too large to swim between the knots.  When anyone sees what is beyond all these sides, they see what only the wise can see, the supreme net of all possibly viewpoints and the superior victory over all battles.

Meditation Practice


Buddhism is popularly identified with meditation practices, such that thinking of Buddhism will often call up images of a monk sitting in meditation, Indian style.  Gautama Siddhartha did practice extensive meditation, as do many schools of Buddhism, however there have been from the earliest days criticism within the Buddhist tradition about the failure of meditation alone to lead to wisdom and enlightenment.  One of my favorite short Buddhist stories tells of a monk who goes up to an isolated mountain top and becomes greatly enlightened, but then when he goes back down into the marketplace someone bumps into him and he is greatly angered.  Clearly it is good to calm and develop ourselves through meditation, but it is also important to have the courage and compassion to interact with others and participate mindfully in all the basic activities of life.

reclining buddha thailand

Buddha said the yogic method is useful for developing insight, but he was not uncritical of practicing forms of meditation, having left the Upanishadic masters he practiced with first after leaving home.  He did practice calming meditations before he died, at the time that he had the most followers during his lifetime, so it is possible that the emphasis some schools of Buddhism place on calming forms of meditation reflect this. Buddha did not want people to simply meditate and become passive, nor to meditate simply to pacify the mind.  While the Skyclad Jains say Mahavira perfectly did nothing after achieving omniscience, Buddha conversed with many for over four decades.  Kalupahana argues that as Buddha became a revered figure, texts increasingly portrayed him as a perfect being, without personality or fault.

Zen encounter

There are many texts that follow the earliest that present Buddha as obtaining magical psychic powers, such that he can see all of his past and future lives and read minds.  Some consider these popular mythologizing of Buddha’s teachings and practices, much as stories of magic and myth are partly based in fact all over the world.  Extrasensory perception such as telepathy may simply be meditation leading to increased awareness of the emotions of others, including facial expressions and gestures.  In ancient times prophets had visions of the future, much as we still do today, and a wiser mind that is developed in practice may see the future and determine the past better than others.  With an aware mind, we can see what others don’t see, hear what others don’t hear and even feel what others don’t feel, not because they can’t but because they don’t, obsessing about other things.  For Buddha, the highest form of knowledge is wisdom or insight, the knowledge of waning of influxes, that things exist and are important, but not completely or entirely.  In one text (The Grouped Discourses), Buddha says:

Beings, dominated by prediction, established upon prediction, not understanding prediction, come under the yoke of death.  However, having understood prediction, one does not assume oneself to be a foreteller (a psychic, a fortuneteller).

Zen MeditationWhile I am not, in any way, an instructor in meditation, there are a few points to share with the average person who wishes to put a simplified and informal version into practice.  You can practice in the traditional lotus position or ‘sitting Indian style’ as it is sometimes called, but you can also sit straight in a chair, stand straight, stand in yoga postures, walk, or even jog according to post-eighties trendy teachers.  You can close your eyes (I would not while jogging), keep your eyes open, or, as many Zen teachers instruct, keep your eyes half open, half closed.  With the eyes closed, it is easier (while not that easy) to concentrate but harder to integrate with everyday life.  One of my favorite short Buddhist stories tells of a monk who goes up to an isolated mountain top and becomes greatly enlightened, but then when he goes back down into the marketplace someone bumps into him and he is greatly angered.  With the eyes half open, it is easier to concentrate while integrated with experience of the world.  For human beings, visual experience is the most vivid and most processed in the brain.

Zen WaterfallWhile meditation is about clearing and calming the mind, it is very difficult if not impossible to empty the mind.  No matter how hard one tries, particularly if one is trying hard, things continue to pop into the head and take your mind away with them.  The point is not to empty the mind of images or words, but to practice allowing them to arise without being attached to and limited by them.  Jack Kornfield, an American meditation instructor and author, says we should watch as things rise continuously in the mind and let them fall away without following them, what he and his teachers in India call, “gazing at the waterfall”.  Other teachers, including those of early traditions, speak of holding compassion or particular images in mind.

Thai Monk MeditatingRegardless of whether one concentrates on nothing, something in particular or whatever arises naturally, all instruct that one should also concentrate on breathing.  There are complex formulas for breath counts, but the simplest is slowly breathing in with a count of four or five seconds followed by breathing out with the same count at the same speed.  You can count forward for both or count from one to five on inhaling and from five to one on exhaling.  At first it is awkward to switch from inhaling to exhaling and exhaling to inhaling while concentrating, but with practice and patience the sharp transition becomes smooth and rounded.  There have been numerous psychological and neurological studies that suggest regularly meditating in this or a similar way has mental and physical health benefits, particularly due to reduction of stress.


bodhidharma cave wall sitting

Dhyana is the Indian Sanskrit word for meditation, transliterated into Chinese as chan by Chinese Buddhists.  In the Tang and Song dynasties, a school of Chinese Buddhism calling itself Chan became the most popular school among educated elites, later spreading to Japan as Zen, Korea as Seon and Vietnam as Thien.  America and much of the world uses the Japanese term Zen to refer to the school as an international whole, but use Chan to refer to specific figures and texts in China and likewise with the Korean and Vietnamese terms.

Bodhidharma Ralph Steadman

In the Transmission of the Lamp (1004), the first of the great Song dynasty koan records, the twenty-seventh Indian patriarch Prajnatara was given a priceless diamond by a southern Indian king, which he held before the king’s three sons, asking if there is anything that surpasses it in clarity.  The first two sons say that nothing surpasses it and that only Prajnatara is worthy of it.  The youngest son Bodhitara says that the diamond has worldly light but the light of the mind is supreme, that the diamond cannot be a diamond or a priceless treasure without the mind, and that Prajnatara has the way to reveal the true treasure, just as he holds up the diamond (much as Buddha held up a flower).  Prajnatara asks what the highest of things is, and Bodhitara says the self.  Prajnatara asks what the greatest of all things is, and Bodhitara says buddha-nature.  It seems that buddha-nature is as high as we hold ourselves, but far wider.  Prajnatara realizes that Prince Bodhitara is his dharma-heir, the one who will continue the silent teaching, and so he renames him Bodhidharma, makes him a monk and tells him to go to China.

Bodhidharma is a bit intense

Bodhidharma crossed into southern China and went straight to the palace of Emperor Wu, a great patron of Buddhist scholastic and devotional schools such as Tiantai.  The emperor asked Bodhidharma, “I have built many temples, copied many books, and supported many monasteries of monks and nuns.  What merit have I gained?”  Bodhidharma replied, “None whatsoever.  These things are shadows.  Real merit is wisdom.”  The emperor, taken aback, asked, “What is the principle of the sacred Dharma?”  Bodhidharma replied, “Everything is empty.  Nothing is holy.”  The emperor, enraged, asked, “Who is this who stands before me?”  Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know,” and left the palace.

bodhidharma wall sitting cave

Bodhidharma is said to have practiced wall-sitting, sitting in a cave and staring at a wall while meditating.  Long after the legend developed that Bodhidharma lived and taught in the Shaolin monastery where he started kung fu or “Shaolin boxing” as a physical exercise and martial art for the Buddhist monks there.  The Shaolin temple was originally a Daoist temple to a god that became a temple to a Buddhist goddess, and it could be that kung fu is derived from earlier Daoist tai chi exercises, which may have been influenced by earlier Indian yogic postures and martial arts.  Some favor the theory of an Indian origin, others the Daoist origin, and still others, particularly Shaolin themselves, the Bodhidharma origin story.


Linji (~810 – 866), known in Japan as Rinzai, is the central grand master of Zen as his teachings and followers created the texts and practices that have been core to the Zen tradition for the last thousand years.  The House of Linji made “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “If a tree falls in the forest when no one is around, does it make a sound?” the paradoxical objects of contemplation they remain today.  Huairang told Mazu, “If you try to sit like the Buddha, you kill the Buddha,” as if it’s a bad thing.  Linji infamously said, “When you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha,” as if it’s the thing to do.  Linji said in a sermon to monks:

Buddha teaching followers

Followers of the Way, don’t take the Buddha to be some sort of ultimate goal.  In my view, he’s more like the hole in a toilet.  Bodhisattvas and arhats are all so many collars and chains, things for tying people up.

The way I see it, we should cut off the heads of the buddhas.  Those who have completed all stages of bodhisattva practice are no better than hired fieldhands.  Those who have obtained high stages of enlightenment are prisoners, shackled and bound.  Sages and arhats are just so much crap in the toilet.  Enlightenment and freedom are hitching posts for donkeys.

Zhaozhou printWhen a monk asked master Zhaozhou, “Who is the patriarch of this land?”  he replied, “Bodhidharma has come, so here we are all patriarchs.”  The monk asked, “What generation in the Chan lineage are you?”  Zhaozhou said, “I do not fall into any position.”  The monk asked, “Then where are you now?” and Zhaozhou said, “Inside your ears.”  Like Linji, Zhaozhou speaks as if we are all part of the same mind that moves out of our mouths and into our ears, and thus do not keep particular positions entirely to ourselves.

Kanzan jittoku screen japan

There is a third case involving Zhaozhou and animals that finds its way into the Gateless Gate, case eleven of the forty eight.  Zhaozhou found the sages Kanzan and Jittoju while wandering on Mount Tiantai and said, “For a long time I have heard about Kanzan and Jittoju, but having come here I just see two water buffalo.”  The sages put their fingers on their heads like horns.  The master waved his arms at them and said, “Shoo!  Shoo!”  The sages gnashed their teeth and glared at each other, happy to become water buffalos when accused but reluctant to leave when shooed.  When asked about this later, Zhaozhou laughed heartily and said nothing.

Two Water Buffalo

This gong-an is very simple and short, but like the rest it contains meanings that sprout up when you look them over carefully and consider that for thousands of years these particular cases were preserved as teaching devices.  We typically pick humans over water buffalos, so calling two sages water buffalos is insulting, even if it is innocent and playful, like the sages response to effortlessly take up the role of water buffalo, a muddy and supposedly dimwitted beast.  If we are all somewhat water buffalo, why not embrace it?  It is very easy to miss that after Zhaozhou shoos them, they refuse, which is moving from obeying Zhaozhou to disobeying Zhaozhou.  However, once this thought occurs, it then opens up to the next thought that a disobedient water buffalo is a ‘good’ water buffalo in that it is more true to life, so when Kanzan and Jittoju disobey, are they obeying Zhaozhou or not?  Zhaozhou simply laughs.