When Bodhidharma met Emperor Wu

Bodhidharma took the inspiration of Gautama Buddha from India to China approximately 1500 years ago. He was the first living Buddha to make the journey. When there he met the Chinese Emperor and religious figures, with whom he was deeply disappointed. His encounter with Emperor Wu is a classic story of a spiritual master meeting a powerful ruler.

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Emperor Wu of Liang asked Bodhidharma, “What is the First Principle of the Holy Teachings?”
Bodhidharma replied, “Emptiness, not holiness.”
“Then who is this standing before me?”
“I don’t know!”†

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 who said, “Do you in fact know 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.”

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Setcho put it like this:

The holy teaching?
“Emptiness!”
What is the secret here?
Again, “Who stands before me?”
“I don’t know!”
Inevitable, the thorns and briars springing up;
secretly, by night, he crossed the river.
All the people could not bring him back.
Now, so many years have gone by.
Still Bodhidharma fills your mind, in vain.
Stop thinking of him!
A gentle breeze pervades the universe.
The master looks around:
“Is the Patriarch there?”
“Yes!”
“Bring him to me, and he can wash my feet.”

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† Another version of Bodhidharma’s conversation with Emperor Wu goes like this:

Emperor Wu: “How much merit have I gained for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?”

Bodhidharma: “None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit.”

Emperor Wu: “So what is the highest meaning of noble truth?”

Bodhidharma: “There is no noble truth, there is only void.”

Emperor Wu: “And who are you to tell me this?”

Bodhidharma: “I don’t know.”

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