Bodhidharma was last seen heading back to India, wearing one sandal. Why did he return to India?

~ Pacific Zen Miscellaneous Koans

This is one of the simplest of koans in our Pacific Zen Miscellaneous collection. It is coupled with the test, “Someone comes to you in a dream and asks you why Bodhidharma came from the West. If you don’t answer, you fail your responsibility,” which, of course, is similar to “Xiangyan’s Up a Tree.” The story that gives rise to the above koan is an old one: the founder of Chan in China returns home to India after preaching the Dharma for many years at Shaolin Temple.

When I speak with friends during the week, I get the chance to experience anew the koan they are working on, both through their response, and through my own embodied reaction. Because of that, each time a particular koan, which I may have visited with many times, is fresh for me; I never tire of any of them. That said, some koans are more evocative, or just generally more popular than others. “Why did Bodhidharma return to India?” probably is not one of those. And yet, when I heard my friend repeat it, and speak to it, it stirred something deep inside me. My friend asked herself: What is returning, in my life? “At this stage in my life, should I return to Israel (her birthplace)?” She is a clinical psychologist and one of her clients recently chose an end-of-life option after the cancer she had spread throughout her body. My friend asked, “What of my return (death)?”

What touched me in our conversation was the impermanence of life. Granted, as a Zen teacher, it is a subject that comes up often. But recently I have had a number of deep dreams of mortality, and somehow, this time, the koan was simpler and more meaningful to me.

In one dream last week, I was running around the hometown of my childhood, in the dark of night, trying to find and warn a friend that there was a serial killer stalking her neighborhood.

A few nights ago, also in a dream, I was standing to the right of a young woman, who had straight black hair pulled back in a ponytail. She looked like a Native American, and I knew her to be a shaman, though she was not wearing any ceremonial dress. We were standing, looking at four young samplings of deciduous trees, planted in a row extending out from us. She had a box and a scoop, and in the box were human ashes. She indicated where I should place a scoop of the ashes, at three points of the compass to the left, behind, and the right of the samplings. The identity of the ashes were both unknown to me and yet familiar. Were they mine? A loved one’s? While leaving the dream, the ashes made me think of the first of Dongshan’s Five Ranks:

It’s past midnight, the moon hasn’t risen,
and in the deep, thick, dark, you meet a face from long ago,
but you can’t recognize them.
There’s no need to be surprised at this.

The ashes were like a face, one I had met long ago, but could not identify. I knew there was no need to be surprised at this. In the end, Why did Bodhidharma return to India? We don’t know, and we don’t have to know. But it was quite kind of him to leave a sandal behind.