waiting for a bus

Deiryu Kutsu (1895-1954; Seo & Addiss, The Art of 20th Century Zen) was a follower of Nantenbo and, while much of his art resembles his teacher’s work in its iconoclastic flourish, Deiryu’s Bodhidharma takes on a different tone.  Stripped of Nantenbo’s comic, google-eyed tea bowl Daruma, our Patriarch looks world-worn.  Somber and seeming to look over his shoulder (below), Bodhidharma appears to be questioning our practice – or projecting his compassion for our struggles.

The inscription above Daruma says:

The Patriarch’s mind
smashes to pieces.

I was assisting at a retreat and asked for an interview with one of the monastics.  She was a fierce Daruma and on the day of our interview several organizational aspects of the retreat had not been going well.  Understandably, I was a bit shaken when she decided we would hold the interview deep the woods surrounding the retreat center.  We marched through the forest at double time and eventually came to rest in a copse of birches.

“How is your practice?” she asked.

I explained that I had hit a difficult spell, that when I sat it seemed like nothing at all, ordinary, as if I was only sitting, waiting for a bus in an empty station.

She looked at me blankly.  Now really terrified, I launched into a plaintive tale of what my practice had become, all the while watching my poor little mind solidify into an impenetrable rock.  Her blank look changed to that intense stare we in the community recognized as an impending verbal kyosaku.

“You’re waiting for a bus and you think the station is empty.”

She got up, dusted off her robe, and marched back to the hall, leaving me bewildered.

Of all the legends about Bodhidharma, the one most likely to stir up the emotions is about the way his disciple Huik’o became Bodhidharma’s student.  Huik’o, well-educated in the Tao and Buddhist literature, came to the Patriarch and pleaded to be taken on as his student.  Bodhidharma, ever the relentless practitioner himself, refused time and time again.  As the story goes, Huik’o stood outside the temple gates in a snowstorm and finally, Bodhidharma came out to ask him what he truly wanted.  According to Dumoulin’s interpretation in Zen Buddhism: A history – India and China, this was Bodhidharma’s call for Huik’o to make a  decisive, clear commitment to practice.  It is a gripping moment in the life of a teacher and student.

In that moment, Huik’o is called upon to cut away his ties to whom he believes himself to be: Bodhidharma’s student, a learned man, a supplicant.  He has to see the only one who is ever in the station.  He cannot wait any longer.  In the story, Huik’o cuts off his arm and offers it to Bodhidharma who then accepts him not only as his student but as dharma heir.  (Dumoulin suggests that Huik’o actually lost his arm to robbers in the persecution of Buddhists in the North, well after Bodhidharma’s death.  But that’s hardly the stuff of legends!)

If we take the legend as fact, it seems blood and limb is often asked of the student and, if so, Zen may well have died out or at best been populated with one-armed practitioners.  As an allegory of seeing into the true nature of practice, Huik’o’s action is a clear statement that he was willing to give up what seemed to be an indispensable part of himself for the opportunity to give up something even more fused to the self.   He was willing to sacrifice his arm – representing all his previous learning – for a true education: the liberation that comes when his mind is shattered.

We can do no less.

Thank you for practising,


2 thoughts on “waiting for a bus

  1. Nine years without sleep – no wonder the old man looks tired!

    As I reread your telling of the Huik’o story, it occurs to me that the story represents the tenacity with which we hold onto . . . something.

    It’s not the something that’s the problem (Huik’o’s arm wasn’t the problem), it’s the holding that gets us into trouble. And, yet, we just won’t let go.

    No wonder the old man looks tired!

  2. “Many paths lead from
    The foot of the mountain
    But at the peak
    We all gaze at the
    Single bright moon.”

    – Ikkyu, 15th Century Japanese PoetSee More

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