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.

Konrad Ryushin Marchaj
13 May 2014

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.

By conventional standards, it doesn’t seem like a good deal. It’s not something that you would bring to your board of directors, and it would be difficult to explain to your parents, partner, or children. It’s not such a good deal except for one small thing: everything that you’re about to give up is deeply mired in suffering. Suddenly you realize, standing there, that you’re being offered the deal of a lifetime.

As far-fetched as this encounter might be, when we reflect on it, we recognize that our entrance into spiritual practice is predicated on exactly the same premise. Knowingly or unknowingly, by turning our minds to practice, we’re saying that we’re willing to give up everything and get absolutely nothing in return. Our search—for our true nature, for perfect freedom, for the end of suffering for all beings—is based on this simple deal.

So give up everything that you consider to be yours. Give up all of the energy and ploys sustaining the belief that things belong to you. In return, get nothing. No better you. No better place to live. No guarantees. No sense of personal satisfaction. No recognition. No measurable gain of any sort. And maybe even more important, none of the meaningful connections you believe you have—not with anyone, including those who guide you, including that man in the doorway.

In Bodhidharma’s encounter with Emperor Wu, the redheaded barbarian, just to drive the point home, turns on his heel and goes off to sit in zazen for nine years facing a wall. Facing himself. Facing that staggering loneliness that is so absolutely essential for us if we are to see our true connection with this whole world. Why does he do this? Because he wanted to take full responsibility for his insanity and not dish it out to others. Because he wanted to see it, become intimate with it, and recognize its true nature.

It’s nice for Bodhidharma to appear occasionally in our training. He’s such a mythical figure that it gives us the freedom to imbue him with the characteristics we need. There’s something so stark and uncompromising about his expression of practice. He also communicates precisely what Hongzhi says in his capping verse: “In silence he completely brings up the true imperative.” In those nine years of silent sitting, Bodhidharma communicated the true imperative.

The beginning of the mind-to-mind transmission is already present in Bodhidharma, in that uncompromising spirit and practice and in the teachings that he exemplified, encapsulated in his own words: “Zen is a special transmission outside the scriptures, with no reliance on words and letters, a direct pointing to the human mind and the realization of buddhahood.” His nine years of wall gazing is that direct pointing.

Bodhidharma’s reliance on zazen continuously surfaces in Zen literature. One story tells of his encounter with Prajnatara. After recognizing each other as teacher and student, they sit together for a couple of weeks, then Prajnatara tests Bodhidharma with a series of questions: “What among all things is formless?” Bodhidharma answers, “Non-arising is formless.” Nagarjuna said something similar: “Since I do not posit any assertions, nothing can be contradicted.” Since there is nonarising, nothing can be contradicted. If I want to understand the nature of my suffering, and if I want to understand how to end that suffering, this is all I need. Anybody with a sharp mind will recognize that Nagarjuna just posited an assertion; that’s why words fail us. But to the degree to which we can recognize the nature of reality as being inherently without conflict, we fulfill the silent imperative of Bodhidharma.

Prajnatara’s next question is an unusual one: “What among all things is most exalted?” Bodhidharma replies, “The human self is most exalted.” That’s you. You are the most exalted. That’s not an anthropomorphic statement placing you or me at the center of the universe. He is saying something about what we’re capable of doing and realizing. The Buddha was the most exalted one. You are the most exalted one.

Bodhidharma served Prajnatara for forty years. He was like his teacher’s shadow, always there, always available, refining the expression of his being with patience, generosity, and mindfulness. Then, after forty years, Prajnatara released Bodhidharma so he could go to China to teach, and his final advice was, “Don’t go too fast. Be careful and don’t wither under the sun.”

Later in China, when Huike—after standing in the snow for days, cutting off his own arm, and finally being received as a student—asked how to put an end to the turmoil of his mind, Bodhidharma’s advice was, “Find that mind.” Find the obstruction. Find how it is that you’re bringing it forth—how you’re positing, possessing, tending to, protecting that sense of what is yours, what is you. Find this, and I will put your mind at peace. He had complete trust in Huike’s capacity. He has complete trust in our capacity. That’s why he’s willing to step out of the conversation, to offer us just enough room to spin toward ourselves.

If we are to relieve suffering, it is necessary to enter into the realm of suffering and understand in depth how it is that we actually create it. Buddha states clearly that there are three layers to that process of creation. The most obvious one is the simple sense of “I want this and I can’t have it” and “I don’t want this and that’s what I have.” But that’s just the beginning, because below that lies the suffering that is simply a result of the nature of this universe being impermanent. Things are continuously changing; any attempt at stability is going to be defeated. We will be continuously humiliated by impermanence. Just in case that isn’t enough, the Buddha goes deeper. He says, when you look at the ingredients of impermanence, at the degree to which any of the skhandas, the building blocks of our experience of reality, become existent for you, that already is suffering. When you go into zazen that deeply, it’s like a shimmering of constant suffering. So there is no gap between this truth and what the Buddha meant when he said, “Life is suffering.”

The nine years of wall gazing moves us toward this kind of clarity. We must appreciate that life is suffering before we can recognize for ourselves that which, among all things, is formless: nonarising. Where does that fit into this picture? Is nonarising something beyond suffering? We can’t completely resolve this question until we see the full spectrum of self-making with all its layers. We—all of us—are masters at self-making.

Then there is the transmission of the silent imperative—of sitting, wall gazing. I am reminded of Plato’s cave, in which a person faces a wall and is able to see only shadows. But in Bodhidharma’s nine years of wall gazing, he saw right through that illusion and into the place where no forms arise. This is directly pointing to the human mind in the most effective way. We would do well to ask ourselves: why would someone like Bodhidharma continue sitting for sixty or seventy years after his enlightenment? Why is it that the Buddha sat every day for forty-two years after his enlightenment? This is zazen as the embodiment of “Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” of “I don’t know”; it is the realization of “Nonarising is formless,” of “The human self is most exalted.” In the act of sitting down and facing that wall, Bodhidharma communicates all of this. Prajnatara on his deathbed says to Bodhidharma, “You have now acquired everything there is to know about all things”—and Bodhidharma keeps sitting.

Dogen, in his “Universal Recommendations for Zazen,” says in the first paragraph: “Consider the nine years of Bodhidharma facing the wall. Consider Shakyamuni sitting for seven years.” Go there to appreciate what zazen is offering you, offering us. In a sense, Bodhidharma is willing to dramatize, to push us to places that are not comfortable, when he asks, “What is more important to you, your life or your clarity?” And he doesn’t let us hedge.

Have you ever met someone who was willing to risk his or her life for freedom? I watched as my parents were trying to leave Poland, asking exactly that question: Do I live imprisoned, or am I willing to risk my life for freedom? We all live imprisoned, deeply imprisoned, and at times it will feel as if we need to risk everything and give up this life in order to be free. Bodhidharma takes no prisoners. The Buddha wants no prisoners. What they want is for us to be completely free—even free of them. That’s why in the exchange with Emperor Wu, Bodhidharma leaves after “I don’t know.” He’s saying, don’t hold on to this. That’s the importance of the bell in dokusan. It’s a good-bye. It’s saying, it’s time to go away now, return back to yourself.

Recently, someone describing her first sesshin told me she was experiencing it like a web of fibers extending into the rest of the world; as sesshin was progressing, the fibers were snapping and there was a kind of retraction into herself. As she watched this happen, she realized how completely self-serving most of those connections were—even when they looked like they were about someone else. Magnificent.

Probably the most insidious way that we sustain our idea of the self is in relationships, in how we situate ourselves in the world. We have an unspoken agreement with each other: “I’ll sustain your sense of self if you sustain mine.” If we do that with enough people, we forget to what degree we are continuously elevating ourselves. And if we’re moving fast enough, the whole mechanism can forever remain invisible to us—until we seclude ourselves, like the Buddha did. Like Bodhidharma did. Only when we stop looking outside can we recognize how much seeking we’ve been engaged in. That’s when we can begin to take responsibility.

In a sense, that’s what Bodhidharma was trying to do with Emperor Wu. He wanted to guide him right through to the bottom, right through to those nine years of wall gazing. Earlier in their dialogue, the emperor was trying to establish himself as someone who was doing good, who was supporting Buddhism—essentially, laying out his network of self-making for Bodhidharma to see. When he asks what merit he’s attained, Bodhidharma tells him to drop it, to drop all sense of self-definition. Then the emperor asks, “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?” What is the fundamental meaning of your existence? Of practice? Of the four bodhisattva vows? No meaning whatsoever. Then what do you hold on to? Wu tries to hold on to Bodhidharma. “Who are you?” Sorry, I don’t know. And just in case the emperor wants to hover there, Bodhidharma turns around and walks away. Wu could have followed him, but I suspect he sensed where that would lead: nine years of wall gazing. Maybe he recognized that he wasn’t ready to take responsibility at that level.

Nine lonely years. Nine years of seeing the texture of suffering. Nine years of seeing how by perpetuating the reality of existent desires and definitions and dharmas, we create that suffering—until there was nonarising. Until there was “Empty—nothing holy.” Until “I don’t know.”

Our challenge is to move toward our loneliness, to cut through all those layers of clinging. But we do have help along the way. I need your company to be able to sit, first for an hour, so I can then sit by myself for an hour or for a day. So I can face myself with that level of unmitigated honesty and openness. Can we enter zazen by finding our kindheartedness and offering it to others? Is that what will allow us to enter and practice solitude? Everything is supporting us. All of the teachings are saying, “You can do this. You can see into this pain, and you can release it. You can give everything away for nothing.”

Nine years later, you again find yourself walking near Times Square. And lo and behold, from a dark doorway, you hear a voice: “Hey buddy, hey lady, I’ve got a deal for you. Oh, hey—it’s you!” He steps forward. “So the deal’s different now, okay? Are you willing to let go of nothing in order to have everything?”

You smile. “Sure,” you say, “let’s talk.”

Konrad Ryushin Marchaj

Konrad Ryushin Marchaj

Konrad Ryushin Marchaj is the abbot and resident teacher of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. He received dharma transmission from John Daido Loori Roshi in 2009.