The emperor had asked, “Who is this standing before me?” and Bodhidharma said, “No knowing.” He does not even use the word I. You simply see the beauty of the man and his utter commitment to truth – that he will not descend even a single step so that he can be understood. Understood or not his commitment is to the truth, not to any emperor.
Whenever I have come to this point I feel we need many Bodhidharmas in the world – such integrated people, so uncompromising, so fearless and so devoted to the truth. His truth is that he does not know who is standing before Emperor Wu. He is saying exactly what Socrates said in his last days: “I don’t know anything.” But still Socrates was using the word I, he was not of the category of Bodhidharma. See the difference: he says, “I only know that I know nothing,” but the I remains and this knowing that “I don’t know anything” remains.
With Bodhidharma, everything has been dropped. He is saying, “In front of you is standing no knowing, just pure innocence.”
The emperor did not grasp his meaning.
Obviously it would have been difficult for anybody to grasp the meaning – unless one has already grasped it, but then he would not have asked.
Seeing that the emperor did not grasp his meaning,
Bodhidharma crossed the river and went to the land of Wei.
That was out of the territory of the emperor.
The emperor later spoke of this to Shiko…
another Zen master
…who said, “Do you in fact know who this person is?”
The emperor said, “No knowing.”
Shiko said, “This is the bodhisattva Kannon, the bearer of the Buddha’s Heart Seal.”
The emperor was full of regret and wanted to send for Bodhidharma, but Shiko said, “It is no good sending a messenger to fetch him back. Even if all the people went, he would not turn back.”
A man like Bodhidharma never turns back: what is past is past; you cannot bring him back into the past. You miss the opportunity, nothing can be done about it.
Another Zen teacher – not a master – has put the anecdote in this way:
The holy teaching? “Emptiness!”
This is the way of teachers. This is not a lion roaring, this is a schoolmaster, a mouse creaking like the trees…