Bodhidharma and the Emperor Wu

Emperor Wu of China was a very benevolent Buddhist. He built many temples and monasteries, educated many monks, and performed countless philanthropic deeds in the name of Buddhism. He asked the great teacher Bodhidharma: "What merit is there in my good works?" Bodhidharma replied, "None whatsoever." The Emperor then asked, "What is the Primal meaning of Holy Reality?" Bodhidharma, "Emptiness, not holiness." The Emperor then queried, "Who, then is this confronting me?" "I do not know," was Bodhidharma's reply. Since the Emperor did not understand, Bodhidharma left his kingdom.

Later, the Emperor related this conversation to an adviser, Prince Shiko. Shiko reprimanded him, saying that Bodhidharma was a great teacher possessed of the highest truth. The Emperor, filled with regret, dispatched a messenger to entreat Bodhidharma to return. But Shiko warned, "Even if all the people in the land went, that one will never return."

When Bodhidharma, an Indian, went to China about the year A.D. 520, Buddhism was well established. Emperor Wu invited Bodhidharma to his court. Bodhidharma's answer to his questions came as something of a shock. But the Emperor's attitude was dualistic and totally off the track. The Buddhist way of life is to enlighten one's self and find one's own true life. The Emperor's questions (what do I get since I did so much? what is reality? what are you?) were all about something not himself. So Bodhidharma left the Emperor and went to a mountain temple where he meditated, without speaking, for nine years. He became the father of Zen.


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