Bodhidharma Statue India
This sect traces its lineage to a form of Indian Buddhism primarily focussed on the insights gained through meditation (Dhyana). The legend has it (a legend created/remembered by the Chan Buddhists themselves) that the master of this form carried his understanding from India to China. His Dharma (Buddhist) name was Bodhidharma and his way, with its “direct” methods, was unlike the Buddhism that had travelled before him. He arrived around 520 AD either by boat, or by walking over the mountains, and was soon in Loyang where he was granted audience with the Buddhist Wu Emperor. However, Bodhidharma thoroughly confused the emperor with quizzical answers to his questions and a distain for the methods of the preceding priests and so he soon moved on from the capital to one of the holy mountains of China called Song, home of the now-famous Shaolin Buddhist Temple. He is said to have lived in a nearby cave and legend has it he stared at the cave wall in deep meditation for 9 years. Over time he attracted some dedicated pupils including a dhuta (extreme) ascetic called Huike. Eventually this tough and direct version of Buddhism found fertile soil in the East Mountain Community (in Huangmei) under Daoxin and then his pupil Hongren (601 – 674).
Chan Belief and the Operation of Karma
The key to understanding Buddhism’s Middle Path is the Buddha’s explanation of Karma. This is a term appropriated from the Hindu Vedas, and which has a subtly different meaning for the Buddhists. Karma is the operation of cause and effect, or to put it more correctly:
Cause, Action and Effect.
In the flux of impermanence, where the whole of reality is co-dependent, and you are but a wave of energy momentarily collated, what happens must be the result of many other things happening. This is simple cause and effect. Karma is the law that what happens to “you” (remembering the above) are the results of your “doings”. In other words, performing actions brings about karma for you. An accumulation of karma results in your part of the “wave” rising again and your rebirth. The operating effect of Karma may be so long term to be across multiple “lives” or it may be something happening directly in front of you.
For example: if I light a candle, it burns. It is my doing, my action that lights the candle. It is my karma that is created in burning it. Cause and effect mean nothing to the candle unless I light it. Performing karma-creating actions pushes around the wheel of life just a little and in the same motion leashes me to it.
According to the seed that’s sown, So is the fruit you reap there from,
Doer of good will gather good, Doer of evil, evil reaps,
Down is the seed and thou shalt taste The fruit thereof.
– The Buddha (Samyutta Nikaya)
If I have “unspent” Karma (even from past “lives”) then I will be reborn again into this world of suffering. What the Buddha suggests is a cure for this in the form of his Middle Path through life that leads to two things:
- Enlightenment to the nature of the Universal reality.
- An eventual end to the creation of Karma through action and thereby an end to rebirth.
What happens to “you” after you have finished all your Karma is unknowable. The thinking is that you sublime reality into something called Nirvana. What that is, no-one knows as to sublime means to “go beyond” and in this case the thoughts we have to describe Nirvana are themselves in this Universe and so cannot “go beyond” to describe it.
Nevertheless, the Buddha’s enlightenment was to realise that Karma is what causes rebirth and it should be dealt with. So what causes Karma? The Buddha placed bad Karma’s roots as “ignorance” and “craving”, which are two negative things, suggesting that “negative” Karma increases suffering in the Universe and is what keeps you on the wheel. The mutual interdependence of everything ultimately means that there is no demarcation between what appears to be an individual and the Universe, and so causing harm is to directly create karma and eventually harm oneself. By following Buddha’s teachings, understanding his 4 Noble Truths and becoming enlightened, one stops producing this destructive “bad” Karma by no longer sowing the seeds for it. Therefore, a virtuous life (or lives, plural) directly leads to the removal of the “splash causing ripples in the pond” and thereby to the possibility of obtaining Nirvana.
How do Zen and Bodhidharma fit into all this?