When Bodhidharma reached China, Emperor Wu had come to the border to receive him because his name and his fragrance had reached far ahead of him. Bodhidharma, in the tradition of Gautam Buddha, is one of the rarest flowers…even Gautam Buddha may sometimes feel jealous of him, although Bodhidharma is his disciple.
Bodhidharma came with one shoe on his foot and another shoe on his head. Emperor Wu could not trust his eyes, and could not trust…he has heard so much about the man, and he seems to be absolutely mad. But he was a man of very great culture, etiquette; he was an emperor. He tried to avoid seeing that shoe on the head. It was not right to inquire about it, but the temptation was becoming greater and greater…what is the matter? He talked about God, and he talked about truth, but all the time inside he was thinking about the shoe.
Finally Bodhidharma said, “Don’t ask unnecessary questions; ask the necessary question. I can see a shoe in your heart. You cannot hide from me. My eyes are almost capable of penetrating into the thickest skull: ‘Why are you keeping that shoe on your head’?”
The emperor was amazed: This is too much. This man seems to be either drunk or mad, but certainly he has a method in his madness. He is carrying the shoe on his head…. But he is not wrong – I am suppressing the shoe in my heart, in my mind; my whole being wants to ask only one question: “Why are you carrying this shoe?” And when he is insisting, “Ask the real question,” it is better to ask it; otherwise, I will not be able to sleep.
He said, “Forgive me, it is very embarrassing.”
Bodhidharma said, “Nothing is embarrassing. You simply ask.”
The emperor said, “I am trying to avoid that question, and just to avoid it I’m asking all other questions – I don’t mean anything. But you seem to be a strange fellow; you have caught me red-handed. I have not asked, but you have heard the question: “Why are you carrying the shoe on your head?”
Bodhidharma said, “Now we can talk. Now you are being simple, innocent – now you are not repressing. I am carrying this shoe on my head so that you can ask a real question. Now there is no need….” He removed the shoe, put it on his foot, and he said, “Now you have to understand: start from the very beginning; don’t start asking questions about God. You seem to be a born shoemaker.”
The emperor was very angry and shocked. Obviously this man was making fun of him, but he still tried to hide his embarrassment. His whole court was present, and they were all trying to hide their laughter. He asked, “Who are you?” – because that is one of the most significant and most ancient, spiritual questions.
Bodhidharma said, “As far as I am concerned, I don’t know. Do you know who you are?”
The emperor said, “This is something I have come to inquire from you because I don’t know.”
Bodhidharma said, “You are ignorant; I also don’t know, but I am innocent. Just now, go back. Sleep will not be possible because you will have to figure out why you are ignorant and I am innocent – and for the same reason.”