September 1962

Originally offered: September 1st, 1962 | Modified October 27th, 2009 by korin


(published September 1962, Wind Bell #10)

The Emperor Wu built many temples, translated many scriptures, and encouraged many men and women to believe in the monastic life.  The Emperor thought he would attain Nirvana as a result of these works he considered meritorious.

When Bodhidharma came to the Emperor’s land, the Emperor asked, “What is the Holy reality?”

Bodhidharma answered, “Emptiness, no Holiness.”

The Emperor asked again, “Who are you then?”

Bodhidharma said, “Something intangible (Holy reality).”


True merit is the result of pure and whole practice of Zen.  Holy reality is not the result of works of merit.  Because the Emperor’s attitude toward reality and merit was the opposite of Bodhidharma’s, he could not respond to Bodhidharma’s statement.

After the interview with the Emperor, Bodhidharma crossed the river to the state of Wei, but in reality he did not leave the Emperor.  The Emperor is not always with us, but Bodhidharma is always in this place.  Thus all the schools of Zen originate from Bodhidharma’s Zen.

If the Emperor’s view of merit were correct, for whom would there be Holy reality?

What is pure and whole practice?



Checked by Gordon Geist 1999

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One Response to “September 1962”

  1. korin Says:

    The story quoted is the first koan in the Blue Cliff Record and the second in the Book of Serenity. Here is the full account from the Cleary and Cleary translation of the Blue Cliff Record:

    Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma,
    “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?”
    Bodhidharma said, “Empty, without holiness.”
    The Emperor said, “Who is facing me?”
    Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know.”
    The Emperor did not understand.
    After this Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtse River and came to the kingdom of Wei.
    Later the Emperor brought this up to Master Chih and asked him about it. Master Chih asked, “Does your majesty know who this man is?”
    The Emperor said, “I don’t know.”
    Master Chih said, “He is the Mahasattva Avalokitesvara, transmitting the Buddha Mind Seal.”
    The Emperor felt regretful, so he wanted to send an emissary to go invite Bodhidharma to return.
    Master Chih told him, “Your majesty, don’t say that you will send someone to fetch him back. Even if everyone in the whole country were to go after him, he still wouldn’t return.”

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