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.) 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?
 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.