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“Who is this facing me?” asked Emperor Wu. “I don’t know,” responded Bodhidharma.

The Emperor did not understand. Bodhidharma then departed and crossed the Yangtse River into the Kingdom of Wei.

Later, the Emperor brought this up with Master Chih, who asked, ”Does your majesty know who that man was?” The Emperor said, ”I don’t know.” Chih said, “He is the Mahasattva Avalokitesvara, transmitting the Buddha Mind Seal.

The Emperor was deeply regretful, and wanted to send an emissary to invite Bodhidharma back. Chih said, “Your majesty, don’t send someone to fetch him back. Even if everyone in the whole country were to go after him, he still would not return.”

~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 1

I broke my favorite coffee mug yesterday. My daughter, in her second-grade ceramics class, had splashed on a mottled glaze of white, gray-blues and green, and I had used it hundreds, perhaps a thousand times. Each time was a pleasure, seeing its form and knowing its provenance. I had set the empty cup on a cabinet in my office, it fell on the carpet, and when I moved my chair to pick it up, the chair crushed it. I felt like the dopey Emperor Wu, who his whole life regretted not having known that Bodhidharma was a great sage.

Breaking the mug opened a stream of remembered regrets for me. I probably should not have invited my girlfriend to live with me in Japan. I should have taken the subway rather than the taxi, which made me 30 minutes late for a meeting with my boss’s boss. Why did I buy that stupid technology stock (asked many times)? The clueless Emperor Wu says, “I don’t know.”

Yuanwu, the commentator of The Blue Cliff Record, asks a wonderful checking question for this koan:

“Tell me, is the Emperor’s ‘I don’t know’ the same as Bodhidharma’s, or is it different?

The Emperor’s not-knowing is a world of conditions that are ever-changing. We all make assumptions about the red-bearded barbarian: he is just one more hitchhiker bearing worthless tchotchkes from India. When we discover we made a mistake, this Emperor has regrets.

And then we hear of Bodhidharma’s brilliant “I don’t know,” a response that is unconditional and awakened. We slip into a kind of reasoning that Bodhidharma is living in the Tao, and how great it would be if I could just live his life. A shattered coffee mug? Bodhidharma is ok with it; there is other favorites in the cupboard. The girlfriend quits Japan? Well, the great sage points out, she later married, had a child, and now lives with two darling grandchildren. So what if I left my job through a “mutual understanding”? A couple of years later, the company went utterly bankrupt before being saved by a huge government bailout.

But this reasoning veers dangerously toward finding a silver lining in our life story, as one of our teachers put it. Bodhidharma is unsure that the answer is all is well that ends well.

In the koan Ordinary Mind is the Way, Nanchuan says:

“The Tao is not subject to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is blankness. If you truly reach the genuine Tao, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How can this be discussed at the level of affirmation and negation?”

Maybe it is not about the answer; perhaps merely asking the question is sufficient.

Sometimes “not-knowing” can just be just another Imperial road block. I have friend whose elderly mother, for years, has asked him questions like “Why are there young men sitting around the square all day? Why did the nurses cancel my appointment? Why did they tear down all the beautiful buildings in town?” In the past, he has simply replied, “I don’t know, Mom.” But recently, a koan came to him, nuzzling against him like his large black dog, and he realized his “I don’t know” was just a habitual way of closing his mother off. “The koan showed me I had been missing something,” he said.

That night, when his mother asked again why they had torn down all the beautiful buildings, he looked inside before answering, and he could physically feel her perplexity about her life. “She finds a lot of changes in the world difficult to handle,” he said. “She didn’t want an answer, she just wanted to express her puzzlement.” The Indian prince learns to listen.

Bodhidharma did not know, nor did Emperor Wu. Were their answers the same, or were they different? Hmm, excellent question.