Speaking Truth to Power – Zen Style

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…

2 thoughts on “Speaking Truth to Power – Zen Style

  1. The phrase “speaking truth to power” has become a cliché, and there is sometimes even something a bit smug and self-congratulatory in its use: a way to say you are clever and enlightened enough to know the truth, and courageous enough to speak it to power (or at least to praise an ally for doing so), even if the ‘truth’ isn’t actually true or is so widely supported and believed that there’s little risk in stating it.

    Seeing it in the unusual context of juxtaposition to Bodhidharma’s conversation with the Emperor has prompted me to take a take a fresh look.

    One thing that strikes me right away is that Bodhidharma’s conversation is very different from the usual image of what “speaking truth to power” entails. Rather than a declamation of truth, it’s a conversation; and Bodhidharma speaks largely in negations (no merit, not real, the essence is empty, vast emptiness, nothing sacred, I don’t know). While there may always be some danger when giving an Emperor unexpected, and presumably unwelcome, answers, Bodhidharma is able to just go on his way.

    I don’t think the story maps onto our present circumstances in a straightforward way. It’s easy for us to see an emperor as a bad guy and as standing for power; it’s not clear how well that matches the Chinese or Buddhist understanding of Emperor Wu of Liang.

    I’m inclined to see the Emperor’s question on merit as akin to a question on salvation by works. The Emperor had done good deeds (“in the promotion of Buddhism”) and wanted to know if he’d accumulated karmic plus-points. I don’t think Bodhidharma’s answers — no merit, little more than a cause of desire, etc — suggest the question was useless. It elicited answers that told the Emperor things it would be good for him to take on board. While I hesitate in a Buddhist context to say that made the question “useful”, the value of a question can lie largely in the answer it receives, and the story being remembered and repeated for so many years suggests that it, and the questions and answers it contains, have some value.

    I don’t think not-knowing necessarily entails boundless openness. In any case, Bodhidharma did not give a general “don’t know” (consider his answers on merit). It was a reply specifically to “Who is it that faces me?” — a question that can be understood as being about identity and the self (if there is one), subjects on which Buddhism has interesting things to say.

    In this view, the Emperor Wu does not primarily represent Power seeing worldly acclaim but is instead someone who seeks enlightenment but has done so in a way so bound up in self and desire that it cannot succeed. He is not able to see this, but perhaps his encounter with Bodhidharma will plant a seed that will later grow.

    However, whatever happened historically (if there even was a real even), it’s now a story for us: it’s speaking to us. And that — after a rather long excursion — brings me to something Labour MP Jess Phillips said in her book, Truth to Power:

    “Whether on a big global platform or just in your office, speaking truth to power is not necessarily done so that the powerful change; it is rarely that simple. Speaking truth to power is, in fact, mostly done for the ears of the oppressed. It speaks to everyday people, offers them the comfort that they are not alone, and gives them hope that things can change. A small act of personal resistance viewed by someone else changes the way they feel about speaking up themselves.”

    Noam Chomsky, who has criticised the “speak truth to power” slogan, did not see it quite that way, but he still thought the aim should be to “engage with the powerless and help them”; and the thought it should be a conversation:

    “That’s actually a Quaker slogan, and I like the Quakers and I do a lot of things with them, but I don’t agree with the slogan. First of all, you don’t have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. And secondly, you don’t speak truth to anybody, that’s too arrogant. What you do is join with people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you think and so on, and you try to encourage people to think for themselves.

    “The ones you are concerned with are the victims, not the powerful, so the slogan ought to be to engage with the powerless and help them and help yourself to find the truth. It’s not an easy slogan to formulate in five words, but I think it’s the right one.”

    (Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Tresilian)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s