OK, Here’s the Deal

Authentic practice is always available to us, but it doesn’t come cheap. Konrad Ryushin Marchaj reminds us what’s really at stake.

Book of Serenity, Case 2: Bodhidharma’s “Emptiness”


A man presented a jewel three times but didn’t escape punishment. When a luminous jewel is thrown to anyone, few do not draw their sword. For an impromptu guest there is no impromptu host; what’s appropriate provisionally is not appropriate for the real. If unusual treasures and rare jewels cannot be put to use, I’ll bring out the head of a dead cat—look!


Emperor Wu of Liang asked Great Teacher Bodhidharma, “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?” Bodhidharma said, “Empty—there’s nothing holy.”

The emperor said, “Who is this facing me?” Bodhidharma said, “Don’t know.”

The emperor didn’t understand. Bodhidharma subsequently crossed the Yangtse River, came to Shaolin, and faced a wall for nine years.


Empty—nothing holy; The approach is far off.
Succeeding, he swings the axe without injuring the nose; Failing, he drops the pitcher without looking back.
Still and silent, coolly he sat at Shaolin;
In silence he completely brought up the true imperative. The clear moon of autumn turns its frosty disc;
The Milky Way thin, the Dipper hangs down its handle in the night. In succession the robe and bowl have been imparted to descendants; From this, humans and divinities have made medicine and disease.

—translation by Thomas Cleary

Imagine you’re walking one day near Times Square. It’s dusk. You’re heading home after a long day of work, minding your own business, when out of a doorway you hear a voice: “Hey buddy, hey lady, I’ve got a deal for you.” Normally, you might quicken your pace at an invitation like that, but something about this voice catches you. You stop and turn, and there’s a man, decently dressed, with red hair and a big red beard, and he looks you straight in the eye and says, “Listen, I’ve got a deal for you—a deal like you’ve never been offered before. You give me everything you’ve got, and I will give you nothing in return. How about it?” The proposition is a bit shocking, but you sense there’s something in it. The metaphysician in you recognizes that this is an unusual situation, and as you stand face-to-face with this redheaded man, you notice a couple of things. First, despite the good clothing, he is only wearing one shoe. And there’s also something about his face—something you can’t quite place until you realize that he has no eyelids. So when he blinks, his eyes retract and then bulge out in a strange way. “What did you say?” you ask. And he repeats, “You give me everything, and I’ll give you absolutely nothing in return.”

You remember that Faust made a deal with Mephistopheles in order to have access to unlimited knowledge and pleasure, but this deal seems to be in a completely different category. You want to clarify, so you ask, “What do you mean by everything?” And the man says, “Everything that you consider your own.” He pauses for a moment, smiles, and says, “That’s everything.” You reflect for a moment. “Absolutely nothing in return?” you ask. He nods. “Nothing.” By now you recognize whom you’re speaking with, so you try again. “Not even a favorable birth?” The answer is no. Absolutely nothing.

Excerpted from the Summer 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.