centro studi asia

Why did Bodhidharma leave for the East?

In ancient China a famous dialogue occured between the first Patriarch of Chan (Chinese Zen) Bodhidharma and the Emperor who was already a Buddhist: “I have had monasteries built, monks ordained, texts translated, what merits have I accumulated?"

- No merits - was the answer.
- Then on what is the Sacred Doctrine founded?
- On an immense emptiness and no thing sacred in it.
- Who are you to speak in this way?
- I don’t know.

Each age is characterized by its own sensibility and its own questions and this is also true in our age. Nowadays the question is nothingness. Everything is threatened by nothingness. Actually God is dead and we can’t see anything which it could be replaced by. After the prelude of Leibnitz, Schelling and Nietzsche and the specifications of Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Sartre about Being instead of nothing, just to quote only philosophy, we can’t ignore the fundamental question which was imposing itself throughout the twentieth century; the question about the lack of foundation of Being.
All this is well-known by our consciousness and, having grasped all the implications of the question (the overwhelming purport of the question) we are scared to face what seems to have no solution.
Nothingness is the child of our century and in this light we’ll present ourselves to the new millenium.

In relation to this new disquieting appearance, the traditional religions are powerless. The present consciousness can hardly express in an artistic and philosophical language what is irreducible to every reason: the astonishing absurdity of Being, the fact that something is given instead of nothing (the possibility of God included, that is the ancient ground for the world existence, that, for the fact that it exists, would be submitted to the same fundamental question: why is there a God, why not nothing?).

Our century had to surrender to the appalling hits of nothingness. Nothingness is the father of the non-sense and, in its most devastating  effects, of what I name “nientismo” (“nothingism”): this is an inferior and unphilosophical form of nihilism, in which our western way of living is soaked. We no longer live longing for Paradise or according to an ethic code commonly accepted as a foundation of life. Everything and its contrary are equally valuable, since everything is changing too quickly and we no longer have an absolute foundation from which it would be possible to take part in the events.
“Everything is relative” declares a widely accepted belief today.
We don’t share our parents’ and grandparents’ values. Just a vague solidarity might be shared, but certainly no God, no fatherland, no family, hard work or sacrifice.

On what can we rely?
At this point it seems that we seek only what is able to stand and help to forget us being orphans of God.
What is left for us?
Purchase and use of goods, sports, holidays, entertainement and a culture which seems pure acrobatics of words and images.
We are left with ephemeral objectives because nobody knows nor dares to believe in the absolute ones.
We persist in a confused trust in science, which in the future should reveal “who we are  - where we come from - where we are going” and which promises to solve our problems. But what is engraved in the deepest part  of our consciousness can’t be wiped off: that it exists and can’t be explained, and, in the words of Wittgenstein “even if science could answer all its pertaining questions we would know nothing more about ourselves”.
Hence the anguish, the cry, the desperate search for more and more strong distractions and sensations. This is what I often hear from young people:
- What is the meaning of all this? Why am I obliged to be? Who is asked to exist? -
and these questions sound like desperate screams.

There’s no possibility to answer appealing to God’s love. This is the very thing they don’t accept or manage to recognise. On the other hand - as Jean Guitton says - Christianity has gone through the major crisis of its two-thousand-year-old history during the last thirty years. If in the past it rarely occured that a priest would get unfrocked, now I personally know a lot of them who have done so. It seems that the religion that lasts for  a lifetime no longer exists.
That’s why we need a different kind of support.

At the  times  of the great Masters of  the  Chan tradition  (Chinese Zen), the students used to ask them a question that, according to the code of the time, corresponded to “What is the meaning of our existence?” and it was: “Why did Bodhidharma leave for the East?” that is to say: why did he take the trouble to bring us his Buddhism, if an absolute value doesn’t exist as he himself affirms?
A famous answer was: -Ask that pole overthere-.
The monk who asked the question, perplexed answered: - Master, I do not understand -.
- I understand less than you -  ended up the Master.

A  farewell poetry to life of Zen Master Sekishitsu:

For 53 years this clumsy ox found a way out
and now barefoot he proceeds in the emptiness…
what a nonsense!

The superb Hakuin:

A black fire that burns with the dark brilliance of a gem
Dries up the natural colour of the Sky and the Earth.
In the mind’s mirror there are neither mountains nor rivers;
hundreds of Worlds in agony, everything for nothing.

They knew how to live nothingness: where the common person falls into a condition of unease and anguish, the foundation of the Zen practitioner is the impossibility of finding any foundation.
This is not only understandable by reasoning.
One practices meditation to reach enlightenment on this paradox. This is Satori, the great understanding. When you achieve insight about this, you don’t cry any more.

Buddhism, in origin, is not a religion. It doesn’t provide for creating Gods. Buddha was only a man: he asked himself the basic questions, he didn’t pull back not even in front of the fall of  the absolute values of his time, the values of vedic and upanishadic tradition. He forced himself until the extreme conclusions. We also need something like this: a fearless look even in the times and places of God’s death.
In our consciousness we can’t find the answer to the mistery of existence, but in a lightning of astonishment (satori) the solution of the soul’s anguish (dukkha) can reveal itself: the soul knows there is no answer.
This is Buddhism.

by Franco Bertossa

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