Monday, 18 July 2016

My first dharma talk

In the last few weeks I've been describing the ceremonies I have to pass through in the Zenways school in order to become a junior-level Zen teacher. There are three in total: the private "kechimyaku" ceremony, the public "hodo" ceremony, and the last is called Hossen, literally meaning Dharma combat.

On Sunday 17th July, we had the last of the three ceremonies, the Hossen-shiki, at the dojo in Camberwell. The format of the ceremony was that I would come in with my assistant (the solid Pete Jion Cherry), read out the koan I was going to talk about, then give a talk about it. Then every member of the sangha present in the room would have an opportunity to ask me a question about what I'd said (or about anything else), then I would finish by reciting a 4-line verse I'd composed summarising my understanding of the koan.

In my next post I'll talk about how it went and my experience of it. For now, here's the contents of the talk and my 4-line verse.


Emperor Wu of Liang said to Bodhidharma “I’ve built many temples, copied innumerable sutras and ordained many monks since becoming emperor. I ask you, what is my merit?” Bodhidharma replied “No merit.” The emperor asked “What is the first principle of the holy teachings?” Bodhidharma said, “Emptiness, no holiness.” The emperor asked “Who is this standing before me?”, Bodhidharma answered, “No knowing.” The emperor did not grasp his meaning. Thereupon Bodhidharma crossed the river and went to the land of Wei.

The emperor later spoke of this to Shiko (his most trusted priest), who said, "Do you know in fact who this person is?” The emperor said, “No.” Shiko said, “This is the Bodhisattva Kannon, the Bearer of the Buddha’s Heart Seal.” The Emperor was full of regret and wanted to send for Bodhidharma, but Shiko said, “It is no good sending a messenger to fetch him back. Even if all the people went, he would not turn back.”


Let's start with a bit of background. The emperor was a serious and committed student of Buddhism. It seems Bodhidharma's reputation as a Buddhist teacher had preceded him since the emperor had asked him to visit the Imperial Palace as soon as he arrived from India.

No merit

The exchange starts with this whole idea of merit. The emperor proudly lists all the good deeds he's done and asks how much merit he had accrued. Bodhidharma said flatly “no merit”. So it might be a good idea to start by looking at this idea of merit. As far as I understand, merit is a kind of Buddhist technical term meaning “the effect or consequence of doing good things”. Traditionally one can gain merit through giving or generosity, and the cultivation of virtue (patience, tolerance, etc.) and insight or wisdom.

The Chinese at this time had become quite captivated by the idea of merit and of the idea of karma (the law of volitional action and consequence). So the emperor had been building stupas, supporting monasteries and ordaining monks, assuming that these would all count as “good things” and that he would accrue merit as a result. Of course they were all good things – but why was he doing them? What was his underlying intention? Bodhidharma saw it straight away.

Have you ever come across the idea that when you die you’ll arrive at the gates of heaven and St. Peter will open up his great big book and read out a list of all the good and bad things you've done in your life? Depending on how it adds up he’ll either unchain the gates of heaven and let you in or send you off down to hell and eternal damnation. I was looking this up the other day an apparently it's entirely baseless in Christian scripture – the bible doesn't actually say that. It's a horribly misconstrued version of “judgement”. But it's out there in common culture and probably most of us have heard of it in one way or another! In the same way as this idea is a misunderstanding of the Christian teachings, Emperor Wu had similarly misunderstood the Buddhist teachings.

This mentality also persists in the Father Christmas myth – and kids get this drummed into them at a very young age. In the run up to Christmas, Santa tots up all the good and naughty things children have done over the year and only comes down the chimney to drop off a present if they’ve been good enough. So the child grows up thinking someone is always keeping a tally.

Then as adults we end up having thoughts like “when will I get what I'm owed?” or “I’ve worked so hard, surely I deserve that promotion…” All this comes from this same misperception – that we've accumulated enough merit on our balance sheet to get what we want.

Conditional love falls into this category too. I was in Greece recently and someone said “the love of a Greek mother is complete and "unconditional"... except that you're not allowed to escape it!” Loving someone conditionally, i.e. with strings attached, is about wanting something back in return.

Keeping a balance sheet and wanting something in return can only happen if we perceive there is a “self” to win and an “other” to lose. It's rooted in the world of separation. “I” want this, because “I” want to feel better. This was exactly where the emperor was coming from.

So the emperor was hoping for praise and recognition when he asked how much merit he’d accrued – but he got a sharp "no merit".

Ok then, fancy teacher from India, if doing "good" things isn't enough by your standards, "what is the 1st principle of the holy teachings?" Bodhidharma answered again with a very pithy retort "Emptiness, no holiness".

Who do you think you are?

The emperor was perhaps now completely confused and frustrated. Whatever he thought Buddhism was about, he was being told it's not. He'd understood Bodhidharma was a great teacher, but none of what he was saying was making any sense. Bodhidharma was refuting everything and I’m guess the emperor's ego was feeling pretty hurt. So he asks "who are you then?" or perhaps "who do you think you are?"

Again he gets a seemingly ridiculous answer – "no knowing." And that's the end of the conversation! Who knows, maybe the emperor chucked him out at this point, or maybe he just let him go thinking he's worthless.

Later the emperor goes to see his most trusted priest, who says “do you know who that was? It was the Bodhisattva Kannon – the embodiment of compassion – and bearer of the Buddha’s Heart Seal”. At that the emperor was full of regret – "I didn't understand... If you, my most trusted priest hold him in such high regard then I should talk to him more – Can you get him back?" But the priest says nope, he's gone and won't come back now. It was a one-time opportunity.

Nari kiru Bodhidharma

The character of the emperor is equivalent to our small, suffering selves – the one that's caught up in concepts and ideas, especially the one thinking we have a separate self. We look for something outside of ourselves to ease our suffering – if I do this, or get that, I'll be better or happier, or get enlightened…

Now let's try and stand in the shoes of Bodhidharma – nari kiru Bodhidharma, literally become Bodhidharma. If the emperor represents our small, limited self, then Bodhidharma represents our true Self – unlimited and one with the whole Universe.

The emperor asked, "how much merit have I accumulated?" Bodhidharma saw that his “good deeds” had been motivated by self-interest – by a belief in a separate "I" that can win merit. Basically he was asking, "have I done enough to go to heaven (Pure Land)?" Bodhidharma cut straight through that. “No merit” – “I” doesn't accumulate merit, because “I” doesn’t exist in the way you think it does.

But we all fall into this trap, all the time – expecting to be recognised for what we do. Giving and wanting something in return.

True merit comes from the pursuit of knowing who we really are – finding out our true nature – and from the spontaneous actions that arise from that place. Ultimately there is no giver and no receiver of merit. Which is exactly the next point.

Emptiness, no holiness

Confused that accumulating merit isn’t the main point of Buddhist practice, the emperor asks, ok then "what's the main point of the holy teachings?"

"Emptiness". Again, it’s another technical term if you like. But it’s the absolute crux of Zen – everything is changing, there are no things and no fixed ideas, nothing arises independently. And because everything is changing, things are empty of a fixed “essence” or permanence.

Then Bodhidharma, man of few words, elaborates on this. He says “No holiness". Seeing the emperor is the kind of guy, like all of us, that grasps onto ideas, he cuts straight through any inklings he might have that this teaching was 'holy'.

It's all too easy to get caught up thinking that the Dharma is something holy – that it's to be held up on a pedestal or revered, even worshipped. Again, we all do this. What do you hold up as "holy"? Something that's special, to be revered or held in especially high regard in your life? Your iPhone? Your partner? Your Zen teacher (Daizan)? Enlightenment itself? The Buddha? Is the Buddha holy? There’s that great phrase in Zen “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

No knowing

Exasperated and frustrated, the emperor asks "Who is this that stands before me?"

“No knowing.” Bodhidharma again speaks the absolute truth. He doesn't let up in his attempts to teach the emperor. It's not a no-knowing like "I haven't a clue" – he didn’t have amnesia! He wanted again to make the point that on the absolute level, all thoughts, ideas and concepts are fundamentally empty – there's nothing to know. Bodhidharma isn’t a fixed thing, he’s a process, a flow.

So "not knowing" is exactly the same as "emptiness" – it's the first principle of Buddhism.


In this whole exchange, Bodhidharma embodies the classically Zen approach of ‘tough love’ – the old priest knew that when he described Bodhidharma as Kannon, the embodiment of compassion. The kindest thing to do is tell it straight. No beating around the bush and prolonging his agony!

It’s like Bodhidharma is doing everything he can in this to point at the truth. "It's not this, not that, not that either. Here's the truth, here..." His fingers are pointing from every direction at the truth! But the emperor is still saying "Where? Where? I don't see it". After doing all he can, being as direct as he can, Bodhidharma just leaves!

So as we come to do our meditation practice, I invite you ask yourself “who is this that stands here?" – or who am I that sits here?

When you truly have no idea of who that is, you will be Bodhidharma. You will be all the ancestors. You will be the whole Universe. And in that, can you find an "I" to accumulate merit?


Merit made into a jewel,
Smashed with words as the tool.
No merit, knowing or idea
Gives freedom and life without fear.

Having tea in the dojo after the ceremony

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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