tracking godot

Book Review of Tracking Bodhidharma: A journey to the heart of Chinese culture by Andy Ferguson.

Of Bodhidharma and the roots of Zen, Heinrich Dumoulin writes, “Faithful and scholars alike have a heart for exploring origins. (p.85)”  It is inescapable that the conundrum of the shady past of Zen and its growth as a powerful religious entity would lead to many searches of the provenance of its founder.  Historians and scholars have long sought the legitimacy of Zen in its characters and temples and their labours still have Zen teachers casting a leftward glance down when confronted with the gaps in its lineage.

At my most irreverent, I think we need a Zen version of “The Book of Mormon.”  It would play off-off-Broadway with catchy tunes like “Have a cuppa eyelid tea!”  and “Tap dancing without my left shoe.”  Of course, the central character would be a grizzled old sage (about 1000 years old) who came from India, landed in South China, and meandered his way to the North.  He would be an equal-opportunity iconoclast, taking on sycophants and political officials alike.  And, in the closing scene, he would thumb his nose at the audience and make a Cinderella exit, leaving a threadbare slipper center stage.

Dumoulin and Red Pine, my two primary biographic sources of Bodhidharma’s life, are unequivocal that the legend is hard to separate from fact.  While there is a trail of evidence that suggests Bodhidharma came to China, the documentation (basically three texts composed of  what are likely second-hand accounts and post-hoc additions) is wobbly in its reliability.  However, we do love our legends and even the inimitable Dumoulin caves to accredit them by saying he knows of “no Japanese historian of Zen (who) has denied the historicity of Bodhidharma.” (p.89)  

So, with that being the best I have for establishing the provenance of Zen’s most mysterious character, I found Tracking Bodhidharma by Andy Ferguson an intriguing – if sometimes frustrating – read.  Ferguson brings to the book a solid background of Chinese language and literature; even better, he leads trips to Chinese Zen historical sites.  In his writing, he projects an interesting image of someone dedicated to learning from an ancient culture yet hesitant to connect through the unavoidable Western style of questioning everything.  It forms a fascinating mix for the barely-informed reader and rather ignorant Zen student (myself; your lineage in Zen may be longer) who is nevertheless a True Believer in the existence of Bodhidharma.  While that part of me was intrigued by the quest to find Bodhidharma, my own shady past as an art conservator chafed at the thready inferences of the existence of Zen’s founder.

Ferguson stakes his intention in the footpath of his journey immediately.  Tracking Bodhidharma is important to understand the trajectory and influence of the man on the vast culture of East Asia.  Tracking Bodhidharma is also a “personal journey” to explore the “origins and significance” of the Buddhist tradition in which Ferguson himself has practiced for decades.  Powerful intentions.  If they are not fully realized, given the scope of the topic and convolutions of negotiating travel through a very different culture, one can be very forgiving.

The journey is not an easy one.  Ferguson takes us through details of trying to get around in China; an image of a land of contradictions and stochastic interactions suffuses the pages.  Thankfully he speaks the language and understands the culture because the quest jumps from temple to temple, region to region.  As if tracking the author in real space/time, the narrative does a lot jumping: from historical detail to personal reverie, from politics to religious philosophy.  It’s not necessarily a bad technique to cover centuries and mileage; I certainly enjoyed learning about the layout of temples and the significance of the different halls of worship.  It was also interesting to read of the ramifications of the political upheaval of the Communist era.  The later links Ferguson draws of the risks in alliances between faith leaders and political agendas are also interesting.  The chapters on Emperor Wu and other figures of his court and the descriptions of Shaolin Temple and Bodhidharma’s cave are fascinating.  Yet, like Samuel Beckett’s wayfarers in Waiting for Godot, I wait for Bodhidharma to show up, all the while listening to the play between Ferguson’s text and my own convictions about this figure we’re both sure exists.

Dealing with a figure made of our desires to have a hook in the past makes Ferguson’s job difficult.  Just as it was for all who went before him, the evidence is meager and it is hard not to get caught in a circularity of inferences.  Ferguson explains that Bodhidharma refused to align with any political figure; his predecessor got in trouble for doing so and vowed never to do that again.  So, Bodhidharma must have received that wisdom from his predecessor (hence proving his existence?).  Of course, we had yet to establish through his evidence that Bodhidharma existed in the first place for the sequence to unfold.  In another chapter, Ferguson appeals to a scholar’s logic that persecutions in one area would have been a good rationale for monastics to move to Nanjing …and that gives weight to the hypothesis that Bodhidharma taught in Nanjing (he would have moved there during the persecutions).  Compelling but not quite the line of argumentation that is typical of establishing the existence of a historical character.  (I know I’m being pedantic and picky to boot but it does stall the story.)

Nevertheless, the book is rich with detail and works wonderfully as a personal travelogue.  Intricacies of getting to temples, staying there, and practicing there are richly described.  As for the “journey,” I would have liked more of Ferguson’s own inner landscape woven into the external ones he painted for us sitting in historically rich mountains and sites some of us may never visit.  And perhaps that was my personal difficulty: I kept wanting a dharma talk when he arrived at many of these sites.  We are, after all, on the trail of the Patriarch, the fellow who set the standard for practice, who gave no quarter on issues of integrity and devotion to the realization of bodhicitta.  Ferguson’s passion, as evidenced by his histo-politico statements, suggests he has the chops to pull off a paragraph or two linking his quest to the Bloodstream Sermon.

In end, “Buddhas don’t save buddhas.”  The true search for Bodhidharma may be a deeply personal one that we complete only when we find our own true nature.  So however you realize your quest, Tracking Bodhidharma will certainly give you many layers in which to seek it out.  Like all quests, it takes a tremendous effort to dig in the mythological while trying to do justice to the historical.  Ferguson is certainly commended for the attempt.

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