June 27 1982: The Painting of Bodhidharma Gazing at the Wall


Huang Yao had a weekly column called Moyuan Suibi in the Nanyang Siang Pao, a newspaper in Malaysia. 



Speaking of Bodhidharma, three stories immediately come to mind (these stories are often used as themes in paintings). The first, “Nine years of facing the wall”; the second, “Crossing the great river with just a reed”, and lastly, “The return to the West with a single shoe”.

According to old documents, "Bodhidharma first arrived in South China and traveled north till Wei, where it all ended and he left behind his teaching of Chan." This happened roughly in between 420 and 478. Many said that he was a “South Indian”. According to the Monasteries of Luoyang, “monk of the Western Region named Bodhidharma, a Persian Central Asian”. Also, in “Tan Lin” it was recorded, “[A] South Indian of the Western Region. He was the third son of a great Indian king.”

Bodhidharma had a long relationship with “Chinese Chan”. It was said that when he came to China, while crossing the river to the North, he sailed across the river by standing on a single reed. This is a testimony to his incredible skills in Qinggong. He went to Gao Mountain’s Shaolin Temple to face the wall  (that is to meditate), and sat there facing the wall for nine years. Recently there is a widely-known movie titled “Shaolin Temple”. This story was also mentioned in the movie, so it seems like the incident really happened.

During that time, a knowledgeable and articulate middle-aged man named Shen Guang came purposely to Shaolin Temple to visit Bodhidharma while he was meditating. Bodhidharma just sat there facing the wall, without a word. The middle-aged man was eager to learn from him. He recalled old stories about monks who would show their sincerity with sacrificial acts like “jumping off cliffs and feeding themselves to tigers”. So he stood next to Bodhidharma one night when it was snowing heavily. Later, the snow piled up past his knees. It was only then that Bodhidharma asked him, “Standing in the snow, what do you seek?” Shen Guang could not hold back his tears and said, “I only beg for your compassion, to open up the gate of ambrosia, and save all creatures.” Bodhidharma said, “The wondrous path of all the Buddhas requires zealous work over vast aeons, practicing that which is difficult to practice, enduring the unendurable; with little virtue and petty knowledge, a shallow heart and arrogant mind, how can you hope to seek the true vehicle?” Sheng Guang, hearing this, took a sharp knife and cut off his own left forearm, and placed it before Bodhidharma. Afterwards Bodhidharma changed Shen Guang’s name to “Huike”. Huike asked, “The universal truth of all Buddhas, can I learn it from you?” Bodhidharma replied, “You can never learn the universal truth of all Buddhas from man.” Huike said, “My mind is not yet at ease. Please, Master, ease my mind.” Bodhidharma said, “Bring forth your mind, and I will ease it for you.” Huike looked for his mind, but could not find it. Huike said, “Although I have sought it, I cannot not find it.” Bodhidharma said, “There, I have put your mind at ease for you.”

Later on, before Bodhidharma’s passing, he gathered all his disciples, and asked, “Can each of you say something to demonstrate your understanding?” A disciple named Dao Fu said, “As I see it, it is not bound by words and phrases, nor is it separate from words and phrases. This is the function of Dharma.” Bodhidharma said, “You have attained my skin.” A nun named Zong Chi said, “According to my understanding, it is like Ananda’s glimpse of the realm of Akshobhya Buddha. Seen once, it need not be seen again.” Bodhidharma said, “You have attained my flesh.” A disciple named Dao Yu said, “The four elements are without actual existence. The five skandhas are without actual existence. As I see it, there is not a single dharma to be grasped.” Bodhidharma said, “You've attained my bones.” Lastly, Huike bowed deeply in silence and stood up straight. Bodhidharma said, “You have attained my marrow.” He then passed on to him his symbolic robe and Lankāvatāra-sūtra, making him the Second Patriarch of Chinese Chan. He then recited, “Originally I came to this land / Transmitting Dharma, saving living beings. / One flower opens; five petals and / The fruit comes to bear of itself.” He also said, “Internally, transmit the dharma-seal to testify and confirm the mind; externally, hand over the robe to set the objective… 200 years later, then can you stop the passing of the robe.”

After Bodhidharma passed away, he was buried at Xiong’Er Mountain. According to the Record of the Transmission of the Dharma Treasure, “Song Yun returned from the West region, met Bodhidharma at Pamir, with a shoe slung over his shoulder. Song Yun reported that to the emperor, who ordered to have his grave exhumed and only a single shoe was found in it.” That is the incident that later inspired the story “The return to the West with a single shoe.”

Bodhidharma traveled from India to China between the years of 520 to 526, during the reign of Emperor Wu of Liang. He first went to Guang Zhou, where his arrival was reported to the Emperor by an administrator. The Emperor went to welcome him at Jin Ling and had an interesting and famous conversation with him. Emperor Wu asked, "How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?" Bodhidharma answered, "None.” Emperor asked, “Why?” Bodhidharma said, “These are just the lesser fruits of gods and men, causes of defilement; like shadows following shapes, though they’re there, they’re not real.” The Emperor said, “What is true merit?” Bodhidharma answered, “The subtle perfection of pure wisdom, its essence naturally empty and still. Such merit is not to be sought with worldly means.” Emperor Wu asked again, "So what is the highest meaning of holy truth?" Bodhidharma replied, "Only vast emptiness, and not a trace of holiness." Emperor Wu: "Then who is standing before me?" Bodhidharma answered, "I know not, Your Majesty." Because of this conversation, Bodhidharma traveled to the North. The essence of Chan is very clear in this conversation. If you read it carefully, you will be able to grasp it.

The Official said to the Emperor, "This was the Great-being Guanyin (i.e., the Mahasattva Avalokiteśvara) transmitting the imprint of the Buddha's Heart-Mind." The Emperor wanted to dispatch a messenger to go and beg Bodhidharma to return. The Official then said, "Your Highness, do not send out a messenger to go fetch him. The people of the entire nation could go, and he still would not return.” The question of whether Bodhidharma is a reincarnation of Guanyin probably does not have a short answer, but Emperor Wu was very respectful of Guanyin. Guanyin was respected and worshipped by common people everywhere, and the core of the teaching is to reach out a helping hand to those in trouble. So, as “a savior among those in trouble”, Guanyin is also known as the “Goddess of Mercy who saves people from pain and suffering”. That is why Bodhidharma regards the ordaining of Buddhist monks, the building of monasteries, having sutras copied, and the commissioning of Buddha images as superficialities that do not really help anyone.

Bodhidharma’s nine years of facing the wall is instructive in that it reminds us to constantly train, improve and enrich ourselves, in order to find wisdom in Chan, especially if we want to understand “only vast emptiness, and not a trace of holiness” as the “holy truth”! Meditating upon “only vast emptiness”, we eventually reach the state of “tracelessness”. Only then will we lose our emotional attachments – hence “and not a trace of holiness”. So, in Buddhism’s training, one needs to practice “nothingness in appearance”,  and not asaṁskṛta (do nothing).  Asaṁskṛta refers to how “nothing is undoable”, which also means to be “fearless”. That is why in Buddhism speeches, we often call this “the lion’s roar”.

I have made a painting of the “facing the wall”, in order to prepare for “Lion's Roar”. It is a prelude to the promotion of Buddhism, so right here in the painting, “There’s a waterfall from within the cave, streaming fast at you, without end! If you feel anything, it should be like hearing the sound itself. Sadhu! Sadhu!”


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