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Bodhi’s Wall: True Zazen

Bodhidharma’s Wall: True Zazen

Bodhidharma, the First Ancestor of Zen in China, who lived during the 5th or 6th century.

Part Five in a Series of Talks on the Soto Zen Practice of Shikantaza

In this session I’d like to begin by further elaborating the misunderstanding that I referred to in Session One: Origins, regarding the misconception of the primary Zen practice of shikantaza (just sitting) as meditation and as the cessation of thinking processes. This very old misunderstanding of zazen goes back to the roots of Zen in China and an erroneous depiction of Bodhidharma’s practice of “wall-gazing.” Let’s first begin with a note about Bodhidharma who was the twenty-eighth ancestor of Zen in the ancestral lineage that began with Shakyamuni Buddha. He is revered as the First Ancestor of Zen in China. There are many stories regarding this legendary figure. It is not easy to separate fact from fiction, especially regarding a person who has become so idealized as representing the epitome of Zen. Despite this difficulty, Andy Ferguson, the author of the highly informative and comprehensive book, Zen’s Chinese Heritage, notes that,

He remains before fact and fiction, a preeminent archetype for the profound liberation science called Zen, the crown jewel of Buddhism.”[1]

As archetype, we’ll develop a metaphorical understanding of his defining Zen “wall-gazing” practice and its links across the centuries to Dōgen’s shikantaza, but first, a few biographical facts. We’ll then examine Bodhidharma’s practice of “wall gazing” as a metaphor for resistances to sitting practice in the next session.


Bodhidharma (Daruma, Dharma), an iconoclastic Buddhist monk from a royal family from Southern India, demonstrated an early and deep understanding of the dharma. He was encouraged by his teacher, the twenty-seventh ancestor, Prajnatara, to journey to China in order to transmit the “True Dharma Eye.” He arrived in China around 520 C.E. He was distinguished from other monks from India because, unlike other religious visitors to China, he did not bring any new Buddhist scriptures. He did not translate sacred texts and he didn’t give talks or teachings on the sutras. He did not proselytize and was not a missionary in the usual sense of the word. His terse conversations with Emperor Wu serve as a pivotal and crowning story in the Zen literature. Ferguson describes their meeting as central to his legend. This dialog serves as the subject of the first case in the Blue Cliff Record, koan collection, “The Highest Meaning of the Holy Truths.” The koan opens with this dialog:

Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?” Bodhidharma said, “Empty, without holiness.” The Emperor said, “Who is facing me?” Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know.” The Emperor did not understand.[2]

Their conversation is further elaborated in the commentary and concludes with a practice question as is typical of koans:

When Bodhidharma first met Emperor Wu, the Emperor asked, “I have built temples and ordained monks; what merit is there in this?” Bodhidharma said, “There is no merit.” He immediately doused the Emperor with dirty water. If you can penetrate this statement, “There is no merit,” you can meet Bodhidharma personally. Now tell me, why is there no merit at all in building temples and ordaining monks? Where does the meaning of this lie? [3]

Legend has it that, as I mentioned, that Bodhidharma simply spent his time all day long, for nine years, simply facing the wall and sitting in zazen at Shaolin temple. As a result, he became known as the “wall gazing monk.” With the exception of his few students, people had a hard time understanding the true meaning of his practice. This difficulty resulted in confusing his zazen practice for shuzen, the Indian dhyāna, a quietist, trance inducing and goal oriented practice. I might add that “shu” translates as “teaching or learning” and “zen” refers to meditation, hence, “learning meditation.” This meaning will help understand Dōgen’s disclaimer in Fukanzazengi that we’ll get to shortly.

This misunderstanding was further perpetuated by the historian Dousen, who listed Bodhidharma in his history of famous Zen monks, The Sequel of Biography of Eminent Monks, in the section on shuzen (dhyāna) practice. Dousen mistakenly thought of Bodhidharma as a shuzen practitioner, one who engaged in dhyāna. This misunderstanding resulted in confusion between zazen and shuzen (dhyāna).

Dōgen equates Bodhidharma’s wall gazing with shikantaza and sharply criticized Dousen, on the basis that from his non-dualistic and all-inclusive perspective, that shikantaza encompasses the whole Buddha Dharma, not just a small part of it. In the Gyoji (1242) chapter of Shobogenzo Dōgen wrote, “This was extremely stupid and regrettable[4]

Dōgen repeatedly and cogently advocates for “authentic practice.” He argues that Bodhidharma practiced the authentic form of sitting. His comment that “The Zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the dharma gate of repose and bliss”[5] expresses Dōgen’s criticism of this misunderstanding regarding misidentifying Bodhidharma as a shuzen practitioner. Further he argues that Bodhidharma’s sitting was clearly different from shuzen. Dōgen further argues that his practice of shikantaza, in contrast to “learning meditation” is the correctly transmitted practice beginning with the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, and transmitted to China through Bodhidharma and then to Japan by Dōgen through is own Chinese teacher Ju-ching. He asserts:

The ancestral teacher (Bodhidharma) alone embodied the treasury of the true dharma eye transmitted from Buddha to Buddha, from heir to heir.

Historical Mix-up

Following Dogen’s Bendowa, the contemporary teacher, Sugawata defines shuzen as “learning Zen meditation,” a practice described as the trance inducing Indian dhyāna.  In Fukanzazengi, when Dogen offers a disclaimer, as noted above, that his “zazen is not learning meditation,” in essence he is saying that following Bodhidharma, we are not practicing shuzen, we are simply sitting. His zazen was in effect the practice of a person who had attained the Way of Buddha. It was “undefiled practice/realization.”

Contrary to this misunderstanding between Bodhidharma’s zazen and shuzen, based n Indian dhyāna, shikantaza functions as a natural and free expression of exactly who we are. The point here is that overdone techniques, manipulations and detailed goal-oriented methods interfere with this natural expression.

[1] A. Ferguson, Zen’s Chinese Heritage (2000, Boston: Wisdom Pub., p. 15).

                                                                                                                                           [2] T. Cleary & J.C. Cleary, Trans. The Blue Cliff Record (2000, Boulder: Shambhala, p. 1).

[3]  T. Cleary & J.C. Cleary (p. 3).

[4] (In: Nishijima & Cross, Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo Book 2, London: Windbell (1996, p. 157).

[5] Fukanzazengi (1227). In: N. Waddell & M. Abe, The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Albany: S.U.N.Y., 2002, p. 4)

Next Session: Sitting Still, Still Running

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