A Festival for Bodhidharma and the Oldest of Zen Texts

A Festival for Bodhidharma and the Oldest of Zen Texts October 5, 2022






In Japanese Zen today, the 5th of October is reserved as a holiday in remembrance of Bodhidharma, the mostly mythical founder of Chinese Zen.

As Issho Fujita writes, “The accounts of his life are largely legendary (see Comics “Bodhidharma” 1-12 at Sotozen-net International website) but according to Denkoroku (The Record of Transmitting the Light) written by Keizan Zenji, he was born as the third son of the king of Koshi in southern India. He became a monk and practiced under the guidance of Venerable Hannyatara(Prajnatara). He is considered to be the 28th Indian Buddhist teacher in a direct line from Gautama Buddha…”

According to the stories he then carried the Zen dharma to China. There he found a Chinese disciple Huike, and with that the lineage of the Zen way began in East Asia.

Along with other things Bodhidharma is the putative author of  the oldest text attributed specifically to the Zen schools. The Long Scroll of the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices. Sometimes it is shortened to the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices. And, sometimes simply to The Two Entrances.

Some argue Bodhidharma’s disciple Huike compiled his teacher’s message as an early version the treatise. And then it was edited more or less into the document we have by the monk Tanlin. The earliest strata seems to date from about the sixth century. Possibly there are even earlier elements.

The consensus view seems to be that all other texts attributed to Bodhidharma date long after the old barbarian. But in this text there is at least some possible connection to him. Among other things we get critical Zen themes as “wall gazing,” “skillful means,” and “putting the mind at rest.” These are central to the ongoing themes of the Zen way.

The Dharma as we receive it in the Pali Sutras is highly didactic. The teachings are laid out in order, and each stage is spelled out. Within that received tradition the anecdotes of awakening turn on the Buddha explaining things clearly and people realizing the truth of his teaching.

Zen mostly plays out differently. Instead of lists and stages, we hear stories. We are invited to take a journey. As we trek all along the way surprises, shocks, offense and joy erupt, pretty much unbidden, often at the strangest moments. And from those moments where we’re thrown into the mystery, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and find strangely, wondrously, that our lives take new courses.

Two Entrances is a hybrid document, representing the old and the new pretty jumbled up. In the treatise we start with an invitation to the leap from the hundred-foot pole. But, most of it is presented within that older more formal didactic expression of our way.

If you don’t push it too hard, the treatise is sort of a platypus, part mammal, part reptile, part classical Buddhist explanation, part Zen presentation. You get to choose which is mammal, which is reptile.

All of it, however, I suggest, is alive.

There are a number of translations available. Here are three. May you enjoy them on this festival of the old sage…


Bodhidharma on the Twofold Entrance to the Tao

Translated by D T Suzuki

From the Manual of Zen Buddhism

There are many ways to enter the Path, but briefly speaking they are of two sorts only. The one is “Entrance by Reason” and the other “Entrance by Conduct”.

By “Entrance by Reason” we mean the realization of the spirit of Buddhism by the aid of the scriptural teaching. We then come to have a deep faith in the True Nature which is the same in all sentient beings . The reason why it does not manifest itself is due to the overwrapping of external objects and false thoughts. When a man,abandoning the false and embracing the true, in singleness of thought practises the Pi-kuan [“Wall-gazing”] he finds that there is neither self nor other,that the masses and the worthies are of one essence, and he firmly holds on to this belief and never moves away therefrom. He will not then be a slave to words, for he is in silent communion with the Reason itself, free from conceptual discrimination; he is serene and not-acting. This is called “Entrance by Reason”. 

By “Entrance by Conduct” is meant the four acts in which all other acts are included. What are the four?

1. To know how to requite hatred;
2. To be obedient to karma; 
3. Not to crave anything; and 
4. To be in accord with the Dharma.

1. What is meant by “How to requite hatred”? He who disciplines himself in the Path should think thus when he has to struggle with adverse conditions: “During the innumerable past ages I have wandered through a multiplicity of existences, all the while giving myself to unimportant details of life at the expense of essentials, and thus creating infinite occasions for hate, ill-will, and wrongdoing. While no violations have been committed in this life, the fruits of evil deeds in the past are to be gathered now. Neither gods nor men can foretell what is coming upon me. I will submit myself willingly and patiently to all the ills that befall me, and I will never bemoan or complain. The Sutra teaches me not to worry over ills that may happen tome. Why? Because when things are surveyed by a higher intelligence, the foundation of causation is reached.” When this thought is awakened in a man, he will be in accord with the Reason because he makes the best use of hatred and turns it into the service in his advance towards the Path. This is called the “way to requite hatred”.

2. By “being obedient to karma” is meant this: There is no self (atman) in whatever beings are produced by the interplay of karmic conditions; the pleasure and pain I suffer are also the results of my previous action. If I am rewarded with fortune, honour, etc., this is the outcome of my past deeds which by reason of causation affect my present life. When the force of karma is exhausted, the result I am enjoying now will disappear; what is then the use of being joyful over it? Gain or loss, let me accept the karma as it brings to me the one or the other; the Mind itself knows neither increase nor decrease. The wind of pleasure [and pain] will not stir me, for I am silently in harmony with the Path. Therefore this is called “being obedient to karma”.

3. By “not craving (ch’iu) anything” is meant this: Men of the world, in eternal confusion, are attached everywhere to one thing or another, which is called craving. The wise however understand the truth and are not like the ignorant. Their minds abide serenely in the uncreated while the body moves about in accordance with the laws of causation. All things are empty and there is nothing desirable to seek after. Where there is the merit of brightness there surely lurks the demerit of darkness. This triple world where we stay altogether too long is like a house on fire; all that has a body suffers, and nobody really knows what peace is. Because the wise are thoroughly acquainted with this truth, they are never attached to things that change; their thoughts are quieted, they never crave anything. Says the Sutra:”Wherever there is a craving, there is pain; cease from craving and you are blessed.” Thus we know that not to crave anything is indeed the way to the Truth. Therefore, it is taught not “to crave anything”.

4. By “being in accord with the Dharma” is meant that the Reason which we call the Dharma in its essence is pure, and that this Reason is the principle of emptiness (sunyata) in all that is manifested; it is above defilements and attachments, and there is no “self”, no “other” in it. Says the Sutra: “In the Dharma there are no sentient beings, because it is free from the stain of being; in the Dharma there is no ‘self because it is free from the stain of selfhood.” When the wise understand this truth and believe in it, their lives will be “in accordance with the Dharma”. 

As there is in the essence of the Dharma no desire to possess, the wise are ever ready to practice charity with their body, life, and property, and they never begrudge, they never know what an ill grace means. As they have a perfect understanding of the threefold nature of emptiness, they are above partiality and attachment. Only because of their will to cleanse all beings of their stains, they come among them as of them, but they are not attached to form. This is the self-benefiting phase of their lives. They,however, know also how to benefit others, and again how to glorify the truth of enlightenment. As with the virtue of charity, so with the other five virtues [of the Prajnaparamita], The wise practice the six virtues of perfection to get rid of confused thoughts, and yet there is no specific consciousness on their part that they are engaged in any meritorious deeds. This is called “being in accord with the Dharma”.



Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices

attributed to Bodhidharma

translated by John R. McRae

from The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism

There are many ways of entering into enlightenment, but all of them may effectively be subsumed under two categories: the “entrance of principle” and the “entrance of practice”.

The entrance of principle is to become enlightened to the Truth on the basis of the teaching. One must have a profound faith in the fact that one and the same True Nature is possessed of all sentient beings, both ordinary and enlightened, and that this True Nature is only covered up and made imperceptible by false sense impressions.

If one discards the false and takes refuge in the True, one resides frozen in “wall contemplation”, in which self and other, ordinary person and sage, are one and the same; one resides fixedly without wavering, never again to be swayed by written teachings. To be thus mysteriously identified with the True Principle, to be without discrimination, serene and inactive: This is called the entrance of principle.

The entrance of practice refers to the “four practices” which encompass all other practices. They are the “practice of retribution of enmity,” the “practice of acceptance of circumstances,” the “practice of the absence of craving,” and the “practice of accordance with the Dharma.”

What is the practice of the retribution of enmity? When the practitioner of Buddhist spiritual training experiences suffering, he should think to himself:
“For innumerable eons I have wandered through the various states of existence, forsaking the fundamental for the derivative, generating a great deal of enmity and distaste and bringing an unlimited amount of injury and discord upon others.

My present suffering constitutes the fruition of my past crimes and karma, rather than anything bequeathed to me from any heavenly or human being. I shall accept it patiently and contentedly, without complaint.”

When you react to events in this fashion, you can be in accord with Principle, therefore this is called practice of the retribution of enmity.

The second is the practice of the acceptance of circumstances. Sentient beings have no unchanging self and are entirely subject to the impact of their circumstances. Whether one experiences suffering or pleasure, both are generated from one’s circumstances. If one experiences fame, fortune, and other forms of superior karmic retribution, this is the result of past causes.

Although one may experience good fortune now, when the circumstances responsible for its present manifestation are exhausted, it will disappear. How could one take joy in good fortune? Since success and failure depend on circumstances, the mind should remain unchanged. It should be unmoved even by the winds of good fortune, but mysteriously in accordance with the Tao. Therefore, this is called the practice of acceptance of circumstances.

The third is the practice of the absence of craving. The various kinds of covetousness and attachment that people experience in their never-ending ignorance are referred to as craving. The wise person is enlightened to the Truth, the essential principle which is contrary to human convention. He pacifies his mind in inactivity and accepts whatever happens to him. Understanding that all existence is nonsubstantial, he is without desire. The sutra says: “To have craving entails suffering; to be without craving means joy.” Understand clearly that to be without craving is equivalent to the true practice of the Path.

The fourth is the practice of accordance with the Dharma. The absolute principle of essential purity is called Dharma. According to this principle, all characteristics are nonsubstantial and there is no defilement and no attachment, no “this” and “that.” Since this Dharma is without parsimony, one should practice the perfection of dana (selfless giving), giving of one’s body, life, and possessions without any regret. In this way one benefits self as well as others ornamenting the path of enlightenment.



Outline of Practice

Translated by Red Pine

From The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma

MANY roads lead to the Path, but basically there are only two: reason and practice. To enter by reason means to realize the essence through instruction and to believe that all living things share the same true nature, which isn’t apparent because it’s shrouded by sensation and delusion. Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on walls,’ the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason. Without moving, without effort, they enter, we say, by reason. 

To enter by practice refers to four all-inclusive practices: Suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and practicing the Dharma. 

First, suffering injustice. When those who search for the Path encounter adversity, they should think to themselves, “In Countless ages gone by, I’ve turned from the essential to the trivial and wandered through all manner of existence, often angry without cause and guilty of numberless transgressions. Now, though I do no wrong, I’m punished by my past. Neither gods nor men can foresee when an evil deed will bear its fruit. I accept it with an open heart and without complaint of injustice. The sutras say “when you meet with adversity don’t be upset because it makes sense.” With such understanding you’re in harmony with reason. And by suffering injustice you enter the Path. 

Second, adapting to conditions. As mortals, we’re ruled by conditions, not by ourselves. All the suffering and joy we experience depend on conditions. If we should be blessed by some great reward, such as fame or fortune, it’s the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past. When conditions change, it ends. Why delight In Its existence? But while success and failure depend on conditions, the mind neither waxes nor wanes. Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path. 

Third, seeking nothing. People of this world are deluded. They’re always longing for something-always, in a word, seeking. But the wise wake up. They choose reason over custom. They fix their minds on the sublime and let their bodies change with the seasons. All phenomena are empty. They contain nothing worth desiring. Calamity forever alternates with Prosperity. To dwell in the three realms is to dwell in a burning house. To have a body is to suffer. Does anyone with a body know peace? Those who understand this detach themselves from all that exists and stop imagining or seeking anything. The sutras say, “To seek is to suffer. To seek nothing is bliss.” When you seek nothing, you’re on the Path. 

Fourth, practicing the Dharma. The Dharma is the truth that all natures are pure. By this truth, all appearances are empty. Defilement and attachment, subject and object don’t exist. The sutras say, “The Dharma includes no being because it’s free from the impurity of being, and the Dharma includes no self because it’s free from the impurity of self.” Those wise enough to believe and understand these truths are bound to practice according to the Dharma. And since that which is real includes nothing worth begrudging, they give their body, life, and property in charity, without regret, without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient, and without bias or attachment. And to eliminate impurity they teach others, but without becoming attached to form. Thus, through their own practice they’re able to help others and glorify the Way of Enlightenment. And as with charity, they also practice the other virtues. But while practicing the six virtues to eliminate delusion, they practice nothing at all. This is what’s meant by practicing the Dharma.

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