There is a well-known legend of the meeting between the first Zen Patriarch, Bodhidharma, and the Chinese Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty, part of which forms the first case in the koan collection, the Hekiganroku or Blue Cliff Record. Dogen includes the longer version of it in fascicle 31b, Gyoji Ge, of his Shobogenzo but the legend is many centuries older.
Well known as a benefactor of Buddhist religious foundations, the Emperor begins his conversation with Bodhidharma by enumerating his many achievements in the promotion of Buddhism. He asks, ‘What is the merit of having done all this?’ Bodhidharma says, ‘There is no merit.’ When pressed further by the emperor, he goes on to describe such ‘minor achievements’ of humans as little more than a cause of desire. They’re not real. When asked what, then, is real merit, he says;
When pure wisdom is complete, the essence is empty and serene. Such merit cannot be attained through worldly actions.
The rest of the dialogue goes like this:
Emperor: ‘What is the foremost sacred truth?’
Bodhidharma: ‘Vast emptiness, nothing sacred.’
Emperor: ‘Who is it that faces me?’
Bodhidharma: ‘I don’t know.’
The emperor didn’t understand so Bodhidharma just went on his way.
Human power, at whatever level, desires credit, acclaim, recognition for its successes (‘no merit’, ‘vast emptiness’ is what Bodhidharma offers instead). It desires shrines which might serve as a suitable backdrop for staged political moments (‘nothing sacred’ is what Bodhidharma offers instead). It desires tame gurus to give affirmation and credibility (‘I don’t know’ is what Bodhidharma offers instead). But Bodhidharma’s responses are not mere nihilism – they are a challenge to the usefulness of the questions themselves. The path to an awakened life is not formed by might, and certainly not by casting aside any who might stand in the way with tear gas and rubber bullets. It is not ‘formed’ at all, but opens up in ‘vast emptiness’ of compassion, the boundless openness that is founded on ‘not-knowing’. ‘Not knowing’ is the wisdom that listens to all sounds, to all voices, in the way that the Bodhisattva Kannon does. ‘Not knowing’ is the refusal to assert dominance, the refusal to possess another in any way.
I wonder what would happen if a certain present-day emperor decided to spend an equal length of time in zazen as he spends on his Twitter feed…