Bodhidharma and Shen-kuang

Shen-kuang was a man who was obsessed with knowledge. He read the classics widely, studying deeply the Confucian Classics, the Tao Te Ching, and many other texts. He found that these teachings weren’t quite what he was looking for. Then he learned about Buddhism. As soon as he learned about it he was hooked and he studied day and night. At the age of 33 he went and lived a mountain for 8 years, just practicing on his own. After that he went to Shaolin temple.

He was seeking the Great Master Bodhidharma.

And he found Bodhidharma sitting, facing a wall. The Master was not teaching. Shen-kuang just sat in the room for a while, and the Bodhidharma just ignored him.

Shen-kuang had heard a lot of legendary stories about teachers and students. He had heard stories of great Buddhists who had fed themselves to tigers and who had cut open their skin to copy sutras in blood and other CRAZY things. And he thought that because Bodhidharma was this strict old fashioned teacher, he’d have to do something extreme.

It was a harsh winter and Shen-kuang went and sat outside of Bodhidharma’s cave in the snow. He sat all night and just let the snow fall on him.

In the morning Bodhidharma turned and asked, “What do you want?”

Shen-kuang replied, “I want you to give me the teachings of the Buddha.”

Bodhidharma scolded him. He called Shen-kuang arrogant and lazy.

Shen-kuang wanted to show the master he was truly determined. So he cut off his left forearm and placed it before Bodhidharma like an offering. (That escalated quickly). At this moment Bodhidharma saw that Shen-kuang had great determination and fearlessness. He welcomed him into the lineage and gave him the dharma name Huike, which means something along the lines of “wise lesson”.

When people write about this story they usually call him Huike the whole time. I think this was a significant initiation. Shen-kuang is a guy with two arms.

“Will you give me the teachings of the Enlightened ones?” Huike asked.

“They can’t be given!” Bodhidharma replied.

Huike was disturbed. “My mind is troubled. Can you pacify it?”

Bodhidharma replied, “Bring it to me and I will pacify it.”

Huike thought for a while. Then he said, “I have searched for my mind and I really can’t find it anywhere.

Bodhidharma clapped and said, “I have pacified your mind.”

The great master really sounds like a jerk in this story.

Bodhidharma said, “You must set aside external things and make your mind serene. Still the mind so it stops random movements like a wall.” And he gave Huike a series of teachings from the Lankavatara Sutra, the story of the Buddha’s journey to Sri Lanka.

That’s the story.  One Armed Huike became the successor to Barbarian Bodhidharma.

Seems a little unfair, doesn’t it? The reason Bodhidharma expected so much is that he thought all the Buddhists he had met in China were lazy, so he didn’t believe this guy that showed up would take him seriously. It tells you a lot about someone when they cut off their own arm, though.

About this story Ikkyu said, “Don’t wait for the man outside in the snow to cut off his arm. Help him now.”


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