After Bodhidharma left, Duke Zhi asked the Emperor, “Your Majesty, do you know who that was?”
“I don’t know,” said the Emperor.
“That was the great bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, bringing to you the mind seal of the Buddha.”
The Emperor was filled with regret and wanted to send a messenger to ask Bodhidharma to come back.
The Duke said, “There’s no point, Your Majesty. Even if everyone in the country went after him, he wouldn’t return.”
—The Blue Cliff Record, Case 1 (translation Sutherland and Tarrant)
Though I have read this koan hundreds of times over the years, recently I found that it was Emperor Wu’s deep regret, an abiding feeling that he had failed in his encounter with Bodhidharma (and wanted a do-over), that I found most moving.
Emperor Wu’s “not getting it” may not have been a fail at all; perhaps it was his most generous gift to the world.
This first case of the Blue Cliff is one of the greatest koans of the major Song collections, including The Gateless Barrier and The Book of Serenity. The koan addresses merit: Seeking recognition for his good deeds, the Emperor tells Bodhidharma about the many monks he has supported and temples he has built. Bodhidharma responds that Wu has generated “No merit whatsoever.”
It expounds the boundless. Challenging the red-bearded barbarian, the Emperor then asks, “What is the first principal of the holy teaching?” Bodhidharma responds, “Vast emptiness; nothing holy.”
It offers an openness of being. Angered at Bodhidharma’s first two answers, the Emperor demands: “Who is this standing before me?” Bodhidharma replies, “I don’t know,” and leaves.
Later, when the Emperor realizes whom he has just met, he is deeply sorry. When Bodhidharma died, the Emperor wrote the following inscription for his memorial monument: “What a shame! I saw him without seeing him, I met him without meeting him; I still regret this deeply.”
“Regrets, I have had a few,” sings Frank Sinatra. I have felt that countless times. And not just a bit. Not supporting my mother enough in her later years. Not taking the risk to go to that last dokusan. Buying, and then not selling, crappy investments (far too many times).
But “not getting it” is as important as “getting it.” When in college, I lived for a time in a kind of spiritual commune called The Internal School, in Arcata, California. It was a four-story, century-old building constructed of massive old growth redwood beams. Every Asian martial art and new age meditation method seemed to go through there: Kung Fu, Aikido, Transcendental Meditation, The Sufi Choir, Swami Muktananda (his bathtub water was later sold), and Zen.
I had a friend from the Internal School who took a week-long training sponsored by the Arica Institute, a human potential movement group. She came back from the training sobbing, breaking down in tears: “I was the only one by the end of the training who did not ‘get it.’” My heart felt so heavy for her. I wanted her to “get it”—I want all of us to get it. I guess that’s why I teach.
But is there anything missing here? Is there anything to get? In Baizhang’s Fox, an old priest gives an answer to a monk’s question, and because it was wrong, finds himself reborn as a fox for five hundred lives. Huangbo, Baizhang’s student, asks the teacher, “What would happen if every time the priest answered, he made no mistakes?” Baizhang told Huangbo to come closer; Huangbo came up and gave him a slap.
The master clapped his hands, laughing aloud. “I thought the barbarian’s beard was red, but here is the red-bearded barbarian!” We can only do it our way.