Ask Me Anything — The Bodhidharma Edition

Porcelain statuette of Bodhidharma from the late Ming dynasty, 17th century

I am partial to Zen stories and koans. Zen is a Japanese tradition but I delight in the fact that its roots are Indian. That great tradition actually started in India as dhyana — which in English roughly translates into meditation. From India, the practice was taken to China. There is a famous Zen koan which says, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” Meaning, why did Bodhidharma go from India to China.

The all knowing wiki quotes some esoteric source:

The Dharma Master was a South Indian of the Western Region. He was the third son of a great Indian king. His ambition lay in the Mahayana path, and so he put aside his white layman’s robe for the black robe of a monk […] Lamenting the decline of the true teaching in the outlands, he subsequently crossed distant mountains and seas, traveling about propagating the teaching in Han and Wei.

Bodhidharma, the South Indian brahmin, transmitted two things to China: one, dhyana, and the other, martial arts. The word dhyana became chán in Chinese. Legend has it that Bodhidharma started the Shaolin Monastery that taught kungfu. This was about 15 centuries ago. From China, chán moved further east to Japan, where it transmogrified into Zen. So there you have it: from dhyana to chán to Zen.

I do know the answer to that koan. Bodhidharma was bored. Bored people get up and go places. North America was too far away; so he went to China. After getting there, he became the first patriarch of Chinese Buddhism. He was a clever fellow. In his meeting with Emperor Wu of Liang, the conversation went thusly:

Emperor Wu: “How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?”
Bodhidharma: “None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit.”
Emperor Wu: “So what is the highest meaning of noble truth?”
Bodhidharma: “There is no noble truth, there is only emptiness.”
Emperor Wu: “Then, who is standing before me?”
Bodhidharma: “I know not, Your Majesty.”

Zen is strange, perhaps stranger than quantum mechanics. (I recall reading Gary Zukov’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters many years ago.)[1] Anyway, back to Zen. I am particularly fond of the Zen saying,

  • Before enlightenment: carry water, chop wood. After enlightenment: carry water, chop wood. 

The point there — if indeed there is a point — being that nothing changes in your daily life. Just like before, you do what needs to be done. Your attitude changes, not your actions. There’s another of a similar flavor:

  • First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.

Before enlightenment, you perceive the mountain as a mountain. At the moment of enlightenment, you realize the emptiness of all phenomena — shunyata. Then you come to see the mountain as a mountain because you have to work in samsara — the phenomenal reality — to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings.

The unenlightened mind sees a mountain. The enlightened mind sees the mountain (and all things for that matter) as no-mountain (no-thing, devoid of a fixed self), a ripple on the ocean of sunyata that underlies Reality. But to be able to communicate with and help living beings transcend their suffering, that Enlightened Being also chooses to see the mountain as we do, as a mountain.

Another way of looking at it is this: when you see the mountain, you are positing a duality — there’s you and there’s the mountain. That duality is an illusion, in Sanskrit maya. When that duality is destroyed, you and mountain are the same. Hence there is no mountain. And then you can freely, without illusion, see the mountain as it is. The word for that is tathata — the essence of everything.

Zen makes a lot of sense if you look at it in a certain way. One very famous koan goes thus:

  • If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

Kill the Buddha. Really? You can only meet the Buddha if you are not the Buddha. What you have to do is to recognize that you are indeed the Buddha, and therefore you can never meet the Buddha on the road. Therefore you “kill” the avidya — ignorance — that you are not the Buddha.

One of the most important Buddhist sutras is the Prajna Paramita Hridya sutra (in English, “The Perfection of Wisdom Heart Sutra”). It has this wonderful mantra whic goes:

Om gaté gaté paragaté parasamgaté bodhi svaha Om

Translation: “Om gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond. Enlightened mind, so be it.” Gone to the other shore. Gone beyond that too. That is, there is a transcendence beyond the duality of here and there.

The Heart Sutra is quite brief (like the Diamond Sutra.) There is a version sung by the Chinese-Malaysian singer Imee Ooi. Skip to 0:50 time and listen:

So there we are, dear friends and compadres. It’s time for another AMA. What’s on your mind?


[1] The wiki says:

The Dancing Wu Li Masters is a 1979 book by Gary Zukav, a popular science work exploring modern physics, and quantum phenomena in particular. It was awarded a 1980 U.S. National Book Award in category of Science. Although it explores empirical topics in modern physics research, The Dancing Wu Li Masters gained attention for leveraging metaphors taken from eastern spiritual movements,… to explain quantum phenomena and has been regarded by some reviewers as a New Age work, although the book is mostly concerned with the work of pioneers in western physics down through the ages.

13 thoughts on “Ask Me Anything — The Bodhidharma Edition

    • Engr. Ravi:

      Thanks for your question. “Do you think economics needs a reformation away from the dominant neoclassical school as these economists demand?”

      The idea that, like medieval Catholic Church, neoclassical economics requires reform is fairly pathetic. The CC and NCE are different kinds of institutions. The former is a hierarchical organization; there is no Church of NCE, whose pope is Mankiw, although that’s what the Weather Institute claims. (Perhaps they should stick to meteorology, and not kick up a storm about a subject they appear to not know much about.)

      Neoclassical economics is not an organized religion. It’s a school of thought, a research methodology and agenda; it includes institutions that teach, conduct research (positive analysis) and advocate policies (normative analysis.) It is not doctrinaire. The ideas evolve and change over time. There are broad areas of agreement among NCE scholars and practitioners but there are areas of disagreement too.

      Economics is broader than neoclassical economics, which is just one of a variety of schools. For one, the Austrian School is quite distinct from the NC school in methodology and its foundational premises. Just by the way, my formal training was in the NC school but I have concluded that I am more aligned with the AS.

      NC school, like AS, is not a fixed, written in stone deal. These schools evolve, just like any other domain of human interest, be it zoology or medicine.

      Most of the criticism and the proffered “solutions” in the 33-Theses are either off the mark or are invalid criticisms because they are well-recognized among the practitioners. Where they are right, they are superfluous. And where they are not superfluous, they are wrong. Furthermore many of the theses are simply a result of ignorance of what NE is or posits. For example, one thesis reads (in part)–

      People are not perfect, and ‘perfectly rational’ economic decision-making is not possible.

      That’s a straw man. No one claims that people are perfectly rational. The Weather Institute people don’t know what they are critiquing.

      I don’t have the time nor the inclination to go into the details. The problem is that it will take more than 50 pages to even start to address them, let alone address them in a way that will make sense to non-economists such as yourself. In other words, my response will be either be incomplete or incoherent (or both) to the readers of this blog. Simply stated, your question is too broad for me to adequately answer given the constraints I face.

      That being said, I may take the time to address some of the more blatant and outrageous statements they make. Here’s one that I would especially like to take apart:

      Economics must recognise that the availability of non-renewable energy and resources is not infinite, and the use of these stocks to access the energy they contain alters the planet’s aggregate energy balances, creating consequences such as climatic upheaval.

      The Weather people appear to be clueless. There are entire departments of economics that specialize in the study of energy and resources. It’s like a village yokel who thinks that there is only one book in the world because he has only seen one book in his life. And then nailing down a “thesis” proclaiming, “A world in which only one book exists is not a good world. More books should be written on a variety of topics.”

      Enough said for now. I will write a blog post on this later.


      • Thanks for your detailed response Atanu.

        From a cursory reading of one your earlier blog posts, I thought you were part of the economics faculty at UC Berkeley, so I had addressed you as Prof. I didn’t mean to be sarcastic. I’m sorry if it sounded like that.


        • Engr. Ravi:

          I have indeed taught at UC Berkeley but only as an adjunct faculty. That does not amount to being a professor. Becoming any kind of professor in the US is not easy, forget being one in a top tier school like UC Berkeley. The word professor is thrown about too liberally by Indians, though. Also the inappropriate use of the title “Dr.” See my criticism of Mr APJ Abdul Kalam’s misuse of that title here.


  1. Not asking, but just noting. …

    … Let your readers know that if they spot a good site as spelt out in my latest post here [^], (I think I got the HTML a href right) then they are welcome to get in touch with me via any mode.

    … Hopefully, your admin doesn’t censor this one out.




  2. I know little about buddhism except:
    1)He was a reformer who understood human suffering; a great saint,
    2)(but not a responsible husband IMO)There was a Buddha related sex scandal:
    Buddha had 3 young wives and 6 years after enlightened at the age of 18 and went celibate thereafter, one of his wives got pregnant and gave birth to a boy. Either She laid with another man or Buddha took a celibacy holiday; your guess is as good as mine. Buddha’s court officials wanted to burn that woman sati style I read. Buddha called a stop to that and said that boy Rahula was his ‘son’.
    The usual buddhist apologetics:
    –The pregnancy took 6 years OR
    –Buddha impregnated that woman just by gazing at her


  3. Do you believe Bengal as a state is performing particularly bad?
    If yes, what is the root cause? It is tempting to blame CPIM/JyotiBasu or Trinamul/Mamata. However, I think these leaders are as good or as bad as the average Bengali. If there is something wrong it must be in some perverted incentive system prevailing in the state. What is it and how can it be changed?
    Is there a particular genetic defect running through my race? That sounds improbable too.

    What is one small but doable thing which a person, sitting within Bengal, can do for its improvement?
    What is one small but doable thing which a person (who cares for Bengal), sitting out of Bengal, can do for its improvement?


    • I am not qualified to judge how poorly Bengal is doing relative to other states. I just don’t care to put in the time to investigate that empirical question. In general, I am rarely interested in empirical matters. I am more of a theoretical kind of fellow, happy to indulge in analytical reasoning.

      One small doable thing for someone in Bengal to help Bengal? I recommend getting the hell out of Bengal. If all good people leave, that will bring about a collapse, and that collapse will bring in its wake the possibility of renewal. Burn down the whole thing so that it can be rebuilt from the ground up.


  4. In the US, have you ever been discriminated against on the basis of your skin colour? Let us assume you were. Will you protest the same? Or is it unethical to protest on your part? The person discriminating against you has his/her individual liberty to hate people based on whatever-she-chooses-to.


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