Bodhidharma’s Outline of Practice



This post is based upon a Dharma Talk I gave on February 4, 2012.  During the Boundless Way Zen Winter Ango, each of the Guiding Teachers, Senior Dharma Teachers, and Dharma Teachers is giving a talk on Bodhidharma‘s Outline of Practice.  Recordings of our talks can be found online.


Bodhidharma’s Outline of Practice


Many roads lead to the Path, but basically there are only two: reason and practice. To enter by reason means to realize the essence through instruction and to believe that all living things share the same true nature, which isn’t apparent because it’s shrouded by sensation and delusion. Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason. Without moving, without effort, they enter, we say, by reason.


To enter by practice refers to four all-inclusive practices: suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and practicing the Dharma.


First, suffering injustice. When those who search for the Path encounter adversity, they should think to themselves, “In countless ages gone by, I’ve turned from the essential to the trivial and wandered through all manner of existence, often angry without cause and guilty of numberless transgressions. Now, though I do no wrong, I’m punished by my past. Neither gods nor men can foresee when an evil deed will bear its fruit. I accept it with an open heart and without complaint of injustice. The sutras say, ” When you meet with adversity don’t be upset, because it makes sense.” With such understanding you’re in harmony with reason. And by suffering injustice you enter the Path.


Second, adapting to conditions. As mortals, we’re ruled by conditions, not by ourselves. All the suffering and joy we experience depend on conditions. If we should be blessed by some great reward, such as fame or fortune, it’s the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past. When conditions change, it ends. Why delight in its existence? But while success and failure depend on conditions, the mind neither waxes nor wanes. Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path.


Third, seeking nothing. People of this world are deluded. They’re always longing for something — always, in a word, seeking. But the wise wake up. They choose reason over custom. They fix their minds on the sublime and let their bodies change with the seasons. All phenomena are empty. They contain nothing worth desiring. Calamity forever alternates with Prosperity. To dwell in the three realms is to dwell in a burning house. To have a body is to suffer. Does anyone with a body know peace? Those who understand this detach themselves from all that exists and stop imagining or seeking anything. The sutras say, “To seek is to suffer. To seek nothing is bliss.” When you seek nothing, you’re on the Path.


Fourth, practicing the Dharma. The Dharma is the truth that all natures are pure. By this truth, all appearances are empty. Defilement and attachment, subject and object don’t exist. The sutras say, “The Dharma includes no being because it’s free from the impurity of being, and the Dharma includes no self because it’s free from the impurity of self.” Those wise enough to believe and understand these truths are bound to practice according to the Dharma. And since that which is real includes nothing worth begrudging, they give their body, life, and property in charity, without regret, without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient, and without bias or attachment. And to eliminate impurity they teach others, but without becoming attached to form. Thus, through their own practice they’re able to help others and glorify the Way of Enlightenment. And as with charity, they also practice the other virtues. But while practicing the six virtues to eliminate delusion, they practice nothing at all. This is what’s meant by practicing the Dharma.  (Translated by Red Pine)


I’ve read Bodhidharma’s little practice manual several times since it was selected as our Ango text a month or so ago.  It’s almost impossibly rich.  There are so many directions in which one could go in a talk on this text.  For a while, I really wasn’t sure where to go myself.


When I first read the piece, however, I had immediate, stream-of-consciousness reactions to each of the five paragraphs describing the two paths Bodhidharma identifies.  I jotted down these reactions – each of them a little phrase – in the margin of the text.  I ultimately decided just run with them.  To use each these little reactions as a launchpad for reflection on the paths Bodhidharma charts for us.


Each paragraph of this text is action packed, so I’ll just tug on a thread here and there.


The Path of Reason


When I read the first paragraph of our text, which is on reason, I thought, “The dog stops chasing its tail.”


Reason as we think of it in the west has this quality of parsing.  Of dividing the world into pieces.


This is endlessly useful in a relative sense.


Yet, this slicing and dicing can make us crazy.  It does make us crazy, individually and collectively, when we lose the perspective that embraces the whole, unifying the parts.


We can become like dogs chasing our tails when we’re stuck in this parsing mode.


The irony is that the dog thinks it’s chasing something other than itself, when in fact it’s chasing a feature of itself it doesn’t recognize as such.  It sees this and that.  The dog sees itself as this, and pursues that.  Jeff pursues cessation of pain.  Pursues happiness.  Pursues wisdom.  Pursues enlightenment.  Pursues his tail.  The answer is out there.


To my thinking, Bodhidharma is telling us, with more than a touch of humor and irony, that the tails is us, and we can’t lose it.


I chased my tail for decades in spiritual and other matters, and sometimes still do.  I turned down an offer of partnership in a good law firm nearly 20 years ago to do graduate work at Harvard Divinity School, in part, as a strategy for getting answers to life’s questions.  I thought I’d get a Ph.D. and become a scholar of comparative religion.


It turned out to be a brilliant move, but not at all for the reasons I expected.  I eventually exhausted my search for tidy, rationally satisfying answers –not ended it the way a mathematician ends her work by logically equating one function to another, but literally by exhausting myself from the search.


And that’s when things really started to happen.


For me, Bodhidharma’s wonderful guidance has this quality.  Reason isn’t always about making one’s way syllogistically toward an answer.


The “right” answer to a koan often has this non-linear quality.  Just like life.


A personal case in point:  My dad is rather conservative.  When my youngest brother – the other center-left member of our family — or I visit, our father often tries to draw us into debates about politics.  Often he succeeds, and this can lead to fireworks – and not the glorious kind we enjoy seeing and hearing on the 4th of July.


I was telling Josh Bartok about this dynamic and, specifically, about an encounter with my dad during a visit this past Thanksgiving.  I knew I’d handled the moment poorly, and I was still unsettled about what had happened.


Shortly after we arrived at my parents’ home in Colorado, my dad said, “We’re not going to talk politics this time, Jeff, but you have to answer one question for me:  Do you still like Obama?”  I smiled, then thought for a minute before venturing a nuanced answer I hoped would create an opening for some genuine, open dialogue:


“It’s a complicated question,” I said.  “He’s acted differently in some respects than I expected.”

“You haven’t answered my question.  Do you still like him?”

“I’m trying.  My answer is nuanced.  As with most human beings, he’s done some things I like, and some things I don’t like.”

“You won’t answer the question.”

Sigh.  “Yes, on balance, I still like him.”

“He’s a jerk,” my dad said.


I walked away muttering similar expletives.


When Josh heard this story, he asked how I could have approached my dad’s question as a koan.  I was stumped – stumped the way I’m often stumped when I’m too close to something, when it’s in my blind spot.


Josh gently slapped me on the back, smiled, and said, “It’s great to see you, Dad.”


Yes.  The answer is orthogonal to the question, yet meets it perfectly.  So simple.


I don’t intend to denigrate this tail chasing, and I don’t think Bodhidharma does either.  It can be very productive; it can lead to something.  For many of us, as in my case, that something is a sort of exhaustion, which can create an opening in which we realize what we’re after is not an object of thought – not something we can conceive of.  It’s in subject position. The subject encompasses us, and yet isn’t limited to us.


The dog discovers itself.


The Path of Practice


Bodihdharma’s little practice manual breaks the second path – the Path of Practice — down into four practices: suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and practicing the Dharma


Suffering Injustice


When I read Bodhidharma’s paragraph on the practice of suffering injustice, I thought, “You’re bound to step on a stone from time to time.  Just don’t curse the gods when you do.”


I imagine the path of practice as having stones here and there.  Some of them are jagged.  Every now and then one jabs us through the sole of our shoes, and it hurts.


I don’t see these stones as the natural, personal conditions of existence – old age, illness and death.  For me, that’s the subject of Bodhidharma’s next practice, adapting to conditions.


I hear Boddhidharma talking more about the social landscape – the conditions we create for ourselves.  This includes our own past transgressions and their karmic effects in the present.


But I also hear Bodhidharma talking about something more diffuse and subtle.  Much of our misguided behavior can be traced back to our various human default modes, chief among them the illusion of separateness at the root of our greed, anger and ignorance.


I think Bodhidharma is holding this up for us to see, in ourselves and in others, and he’s inviting us to use it as grist for our mills.


He says, “When you meet with adversity don’t be upset, because it makes sense.”  Makes sense, how?  With so many of us striving to make life conform to our selfish ideals, we’re bound to spend much of our time scheming and railing against the world and one another.


And, he says, “With such understanding you’re in harmony with reason.  And by suffering injustice you enter the Path.”


When we see through the illusion of separateness, without losing sight of our own and others’ genuine distinctiveness, we’re no longer compelled to try reflexively to make the world conform to our selfish ideals.  We see how that impulse is one source of injustice.


But, what does it mean to suffer it?  I don’t think Bodhidharma necessarily means we suffer it passively.  I suspect he means one now has freedom of choice – choice not to respond tit-for-tat, or else to internalize our feelings of hurt and let them fester and progressively break us down.  One has the choice to respond skillfully, in ways that tend to reduce suffering.  And because everything is connected in this Indra’s net of a universe, all beings are saved in the process.


Adapting to Conditions


Why delight in good fortune, Bodhidharma asks?  “Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path.”


When I finished reading this last line of Bodhidharma’s commentary on the practice of adapting to conditions, I thought, “Yes, but don’t resist the urge to smile as that wind passes through you.”


Zen sometimes is seen as overly stoic and serious.  It probably is in some quarters, but our teachers make it rather hard to maintain that perspective here.


Reading this paragraph, however, one could be forgiven for concluding that Zen is a super intense and dour religion.


I’m inclined to think Bodhidharma is having a little fun here.  He’s just told us to smile at the injustices we suffer.  Now he seems to be telling us not to enjoy our good fortune.


It seems pretty clear to me that he’s simply reminding us that things change, and that getting too attached to anything we like is a recipe for suffering.


I had an awful affliction for a long time – an illness of the heart.  I suffered with it for decades (as did some of those around me).  My life was filled with mostly wonderful stuff, but I couldn’t enjoy it.  I eventually came to understand that I had walled off my sorrow – or at least I thought I was walling it off.  In truth, I was attached to it.


It seems to be a law of emotional physics that we can’t know happiness unless we can grieve, and vice versa.


So, I hear Bodhidharma telling us:  Things change.  Be happy and grieve as they do.  But, don’t get attached to the happiness or grief.  Let them pass.  Know that you are the ground over which they pass; the space through which they pass.  Find your ultimate joy and consolation there.


Seeking nothing


As I read the sentence “When you seek nothing, you’re on the Path,” I thought, “The path is boundless.  Don’t get lost!”


I think “seeking nothing” can manifest in several ways:


When we seek to understand/know this nothing – when Mu is burning in our gullets like a hot iron ball – we’re on the path.


And when, having been seared by that iron ball, we’re truly seeking nothing, not even nothing, we’re on the path.


And, being unaware of the Buddha Dharma and wandering through this life, unaware of this nothing, and therefore not seeking it, we’re on the path.


We can’t be off the path – and, still, it’s easy to feel lost.  And, feeling lost, it’s easy to transgress (see above).


Practicing the Dharma


Bodhidharma gives us his definition of Dharma right up front:  It’s “the truth that all natures are pure.”


Having previously talked about delusion and attachment as if they’re real – and he of course knows they are, relatively speaking — he tells us “Defilement and attachment, subject and object don’t exist.”


And he tells us “Those wise enough to believe and understand” all this “are bound to practice according to the Dharma.”


One could be forgiven for thinking this sounds rather circular, like that dog chasing its tail:


All natures are pure.


That act of kindness that seems so good, it’s pure.  Just like that act of violence.


If we realize this, we’ll practice according to it.


Sounds like it doesn’t much matter what we do.


But, Boddhidharma encourages us to practice charity and the virtues, everywhere, always, precisely because everything is worthy of our attention and loving regard.  “[T]hat which is real includes nothing worth begrudging,” he tells us.


Nothing worth begrudging.  I love that phrase.


That person who committed that violent act – not worth begrudging.


The act of violence itself:  What does it have to teach us about the world we live in, the world we and innumerable past and present conditions – physical and social — have helped create?


I heard a scientist who studies serial killers interviewed on the radio some time ago.  He’s identified a genetic condition he believes all of them share.  He contends this genetic condition predispose them to do what they do.  It prevents them from feeling empathic the way other people do.  They know what they’re doing is wrong, but they can’t regulate their conduct; they can’t relate to the pain they’re causing.


I don’t have the skills to assess the strength of this scientist’s claims.  If they’re true, then, for me, this provides another very compelling argument against the death penalty.  Who knows?  Perhaps his research ultimately will lead to a gene-based therapy eradicating the suffering this type of conduct causes so many people.


I’m holding this up here simply because I’m so impressed by the open-minded, open-hearted way this scholar approached his work.  He certainly didn’t approve of this conduct, but he approached it with great curiosity.  He didn’t just begrudge it, or the killers.  And this disposition may eventually help save many beings, in a very literal sense.


It wasn’t until I’d read the next to last sentence of this final paragraph of Bodhidharma’s text that I had my little stream of consciousness reaction:  “But while practicing the six virtues to eliminate delusion, they practice nothing at all.”


I hear Bodhidharma saying, “Ultimately no merit, but let’s all try to keep up the good work anyway.”  It does make a difference here and now.


I’ll stop here, except to say, maybe this is why Bodhidharma came from the west:  to give us this wonderful little text for our Ango.