It was the 5th century. About 1000 years after the Buddha’s death. And Buddhism was in decline in India. The teachings of the Buddha had had a rough time.
In those thousand years many Buddhist teachers had left. Many had spread the teachings far and wide and never returned. This was the world Bodhidharma lived in. And he left India too. He had heard rumors that Buddhism was flourishing in China and he wanted to go see for himself.
When he arrived he was invited to meet with the Emperor. The Emperor was a devout Buddhist and did a lot of work supporting teachers like Bodhidharma.
The Emperor asked, “I have built many temples and supported many monks. How much merit have I earned?”
In those days people thought there was some sort of cosmic scorecard we could pay attention to that would tell us what the future holds. People thought they could do good deeds and generate merit and if they did that, they wouldn’t have to meditate. But this wasn’t the kind of Buddhism Bodhidharma had set out to teach.
He said, “No merit. These are like shadows. They exist, but they aren’t real. Real merit isn’t sought through worldly things.”
And the Emperor asked, “What is the truth?”
Bodhidharma said, “Vast Emptiness, nothing holy.”
The Emperor, very confused by this point, asked, “Who are you?”
And Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know.”
He rejected the scorecard. He challenged the Emperor to re-examine all of his beliefs about the world. And then he left. The Emperor wasn’t hungry for more. He was far too confused.
Bodhidharma decided to go sit and meditate in a cave and wait for good students to come to him, instead of seeking them out.