Breaking the Silence – The Teachings of Bodhidharma
In this second part of the trilogy on Bodhidharma, let us go deeper into his teachings, including the two methods Bodhidharma taught for entering the Way of Awakening. We shall also see how Bodhidharma’s teachings fit within the broader context of various Mahayana methods.
View other parts of this Trilogy at
Part I – Transcending Movement and Stillness – The Life of Bodhidharma
Part III – The Wild Leaps of Awakening – Bodhidharma and Martial Arts
- The View from the Summit
- Finding the Buddha
- Dissolving the Mind
- Breaking the Silence
- The Two Ways to Enter the Way
- Honoring the Words of the Buddha
- The Teachings Go further East
- Placing in a Broader Context
Bodhidharma taught through silence and words, and through resting and movement. Sometimes he just sat silent and dissolved the conceptual proliferations of seekers in that silence. Sometimes, he used abrupt and loud words and expressions to totally shift the mindset of disciples and to bring to dust their frames of reference. In resting like a mountain, gazing at the empty wall of mind’s nature, he showed how the mind of dualities and conceptual proliferations comes to rest in the basic space of the perception and the perceived1. In moving like a wild goose spreading its wings, he showed how the perception and the perceived never harm the silence of the basic space.
The View from the Summit
In the view of awakening, as expressed by the Buddha in the Prajna-paramita-sutras, Lankavatara-sutra, and so on, the perception and the perceived are seen to be unborn, without a beginning. The perception and the perceived have never ever arisen as independent realities separate from the basic space of all phenomenal arising2. Realizing this principle cannot be the result of seeking. It is rather like seeing the entire landscape from the top of a high summit by resting and not seeking. All teachings of the Buddha, and particularly Mahayana Sutras, skillfully take disciples to this summit. Bodhidharma’s teachings are in essence no different from this.
There are broadly two approaches to arrive at the summit. One is that of the Nalanda masters. It involves elaborate study and then using the sword of prajna (understanding) through logical reasoning and contemplations to cut one’s conceptual proliferation branch by branch. As the thoughts that proliferates with dualistic conceptions are gradually eliminated with the sword of prajna, one reaches the summit of non-conceptual view that is beyond seeking. The other approach is that of close master-disciple relationship. In this case, by following the skillful personal instructions of a master, the disciple quickly gains a glimpse into that non-conceptual view by instantaneously cutting through whatever obscured true seeing. Then, the disciple trains to rest at the summit of that non-conceptual view of the basic space, without taking recourse to elaborate reasoning and logic. Bodhidharma emphasized the latter.
Bodhidharma’s teachings, matching with his time, made sure that the skillful means of realizing the vast expanse of one’s own mind does not turn into mere religiosity. Buddha-dharma was already very popular by then and people were turning it into religious systems. So, for Bodhidharma, it was important to dismantle the religiosity to show the true meaning of the Buddha’s teachings.
He always emphasized that the purpose of practicing Dharma should be to tame and transform mind, and all the more to realize Buddhahood that is in one’s nature beyond all seeking and rejecting. He repeatedly made it clear that there is no use doing elaborate practices in a religious way if you miss this real meaning and purpose.
Finding the Buddha
To find a Buddha, you have to see your nature.
Whoever sees one’s own nature is a Buddha.
Invoking Buddhas, reciting Sutras,
Making offerings, and keeping precepts
Are all useless if you don’t see your nature.
Invoking Buddhas results in feeling blessed;
Reciting Sutras results in a good memory;
Keeping precepts results in a good rebirth;
And making offering results in good karma;
Yet, none of those result in finding the Buddha.
To find a Buddha all you have to do is to see your own nature. Your own true nature is no different from that of a fully awakened Buddha. If you don’t see your nature, and instead run around all day looking elsewhere, you’ll never find a Buddha. In fact, there’s nothing to find. There is no Buddha to seek elsewhere. Just recognize your own innate potential and let it naturally flourish. There, you find the true Buddha. Invoking Buddhas, reciting Sutras, making offerings, keeping precepts and various other such activities are only to create conditions to get closer to that recognition and to make it easier for it to flourish. But, if you go on looking outwardly to see results from such actions without turning attention towards your own mind, then you won’t find a Buddha. The best one can gain by performing such acts religiously is some good karma, good memory, good rebirth, and feeling blessed, keeping the hope alive, but never Buddhahood!
Thus Bodhidharma’s style was to turn the attention of the disciple inward to the mind, and into its empty nature. The Master leads the disciple into realizing that one’s mind by its very nature is equal to that of a fully awakened Buddha. Yet, when one recognizes the nature of one’s own mind, nothing is found there to cling to as ‘this is mind’. Discovering one’s own Buddhahood in the empty-mind is the essence and the way of Mahayana Buddhism.
You should realize that the cultivation of the Way does not exist apart from your mind. If your mind is pure, everything is pure as buddha-fields. As sutras states, “If the minds of beings are impure, beings are impure. If the minds of beings are pure, beings are pure,” and “To reach a buddha-field, purify your mind. As your mind becomes pure, everything becomes pure as buddha-fields.” (from the Breakthrough Discourse)
Dissolving the Mind
Though purifying mind is the essence of practicing the Way, it is not done by clinging at the mind as a glorified and absolute entity. It is not that one simply goes inward by rejecting the external world. It is not that the mind is pure and the world is impure. When mind is clear, the world is a pure-field. When mind is deluded, the world is Samsara. Bodhidharma said,
Seeing with insight, form is not simply form, because form depends on mind. And, mind is not simply mind, because mind depends on form. Mind and form create and negate each other. … Mind and the world are opposites, appearances arise where they meet. When your mind does not stir inside, the world does not arise outside. When the world and the mind are both transparent, this is the true insight.” (from the Wakeup Discourse)
Just like the masters of Madhyamaka, Bodhidharma too pointed out that mind and form are interdependently arising. Mind and form create each other. Yet, when you cling to form, you negate mind. And, when you cling to mind, you negate form. Only when such dualistic notions are dissolved, and only when both mind and the world are transparent (not turning to obstructing concepts) the true insight arises.
In this regard, Bodhidharma said,
Using the mind to look for reality is delusion.
Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness.
(from the Wakeup Discourse)
So, to effectively enter the Way, one has to go beyond the dualities (conceptual constructs) of mind and form. As far as one looks for reality as an object of mind, one is still trapped in the net of delusion (of seeing mind and form as independent realities), never breaking free from it. In that way, one holds reality as something other than oneself, and even worse, one holds oneself as a spectator to a separate reality!
When the mind does not stir anymore and settles into its pristine clarity, the world does not stir outside. The reality is revealed beyond the divisions of Self and others, and mind and form. Thus, as you learn not to use the mind to look for reality and simply rests in the natural state of mind as it is, there is the dawn of pristine awareness – knowing reality as it is, non-dually and non-conceptually.
When the mind does not dissolve in this way to its original clarity, whatever one sees is merely the stirring of conceptuality. Even if we try to construct a Buddha’s mind, it only stirs and does not see reality. Because, the Buddha’s mind is simply the uncompounded clarity of Bodhi (awakening), free from stirring and constructions. So, Bodhidharma said,
That which ordinary knowledge understands is also said to be within the boundaries of the norms. When you do not produce the mind of a common man, or the mind of a sravaka or a bodhisattva, and when you do not even produce a Buddha-mind or any mind at all, then for the first time you can be said to have gone outside the boundaries of the norms. If no mind at all arises, and if you do not produce understanding nor give rise to delusion, then, for the first time, you can be said to have gone outside of everything. (From the Record #1, of the Collection of Bodhidharma’s Works3 retrieved from Dunhuang Caves)
Often, this approach of simply not using mind and the instruction to rest naturally, are confused with simply sitting in tranquility or Shamatha. Particularly, those who did not obtain the direct and clear instructions confuse so. Then, though they keep meditating, they do not enter the Way. However, if one understands Bodhidharma’s approach properly, it is not about holding mind in a passive state. His Way is a union of Shamatha (pacification of mind) and Vipashyana (cultivating insight). For example, Bodhidharma gave the following instructions regarding how to work with the mind that arises,
When mind arises, rely on teachings to watch the source where it arises from. If mind discriminates, rely on teachings to watch the source of discrimination. If attachment, anger or deluded thoughts arise, rely on teachings to watch the source they arise from. [When nothing arises,] not seeking for their arisings is cultivating the Way. When there is arising of thought, then investigate, and by relying on teachings, clear it up!(From the Record #1, of the Collection of Bodhidharma’s Works retried from Dunhuang Caves)
As it is evident from the above, Bodhidharma’s approach of dissolving mind is through insight, and not that of holding mind in a passive state. Various states of meditation attained through simply pacifying mind into various states of absorption (dhyana) are merely temporary and do not lead to real insight and liberation. Whereas, when the dualistic mind is dissolved through insight, and then by simply resting in that insight, there is the view of reality, and thus liberation.
Thus, Bodhidharma clarified,
Not creating delusion is enlightenment.
Not engaging in ignorance is wisdom
No affliction is Nirvana.
(from the Wakeup Discourse)
Breaking the Silence
Bodhidharma kept silence for many years and stayed in a Samadhi of clear insight. He said,
Freeing oneself from words is liberation. (from the Wakeup Discourse)
The words, even when not spoken out, are proliferations of a conceptual and dualistic mind. To dissolve mind, it is important to free oneself from such proliferations and be able to rest naturally. Yet, he cautioned that a dumb kind of silence should not be confused as the Way. So, in the same discourse, he mocked those who glorify the silence of stupidity,
Those who understand both speech and silence are in Samadhi. If you speak when you know, your speech is free. If you are silent when you don’t know, your silence is bondage. If your speech is not attached to appearances, it is free. If your silence is attached to appearances, it is bondage. Language by itself is not bondage. Because, language by itself is not attachment. And, attachment has nothing to do with language. (from the Wakeup Discourse)
Clearly, it does not matter whether you speak or keep silence as far as either of it is from a point of wisdom and understanding. And, even the silence can be bondage if there is attachment and the lack of insight. In fact, the depth of inner silence of realization can pervade every spoken word. Then, words transcend silence and stirring.
The Two Ways to Enter the Way
Bodhidharma’s approach to the Way can be classified into two methods. In one of his famed teachings in China, he spoke of these two kinds of entry to the Way. They are,
- Entering the Way through Insight – The instantaneous Entrance to the Way
- Entering the Way through Practice – The Gradual Entrance to the Way
Entering the Way through Insight
Entering the Way through insight happens when a disciple of high caliber listens to the instructions of the master, and then leaving behind all deluded pursuits, directly gains insight into the empty nature of mind. Then without making distinction between self and others, one maintains a stable and clear mind like a wall. This is the instantaneous entrance to the Way that Bodhidharma is most well known for. Relaxing in the stable and clear nature of the empty mind is the meditation that is unmoving like a wall. Unmoving does not mean that the mind is lost in vacuity with no thought and perception at all. It also does not mean that one is just sitting all the time. It is not that kind of unmoving. Even while various perceptions and experiences arise, one remains unmoving from the insight of the empty nature of mind and evenness of knowing that all beings possess Buddha-nature. As Bodhidharma said,
To transcend motion and stillness is the highest meditation. (from the Wakeup Sermon)
In this way, Bodhidharma’s approach is not that of just remaining still in body and mind, but that of meditation transcending motion and stillness. It is about maintaining unmoving realization of the reality throughout all actions of life, or simply, ‘unmoving meditation in action’.
The sitting meditation of Bodhidharma is also known as ‘Wall-gazing Meditation’ (Pi-kuan in Chinese). Though in certain traditions of Chan/Zen, it is practiced by facing a wall, its meaning is not limited to simply gazing at the wall. In this, one trains to abandon all conceptuality and relax in the utter clarity of mind. As a poetic expression, it is like directly ‘gazing’ into the empty wall of the mind’s nature. However, in practice there is nothing to gaze as the nature of mind transcends object-subject dualities. So one simply relaxes in the natural clarity of mind.
Often, Bodhidharma’s approach of entering the Way through insight is confused with purely sitting meditation, devoid of everything else. In fact, his tradition got the name Zen School or Chan School (which literally means Meditation School) because ordinary people confused this to be just always sitting in meditation. As Dogen, a later master of Zen and the founder of Soto School of Zen in Japan pointed out in his Bendowa,
At first, while Master Bodhidharma sat facing the wall for nine years …, both monks and non-monastics … called him the sage who just practiced zazen (sitting meditation) as the essence. After that, his successors for generations practiced zazen. Seeing this, foolish worldly people, who did not understand what goes on in the sitting, in confusion [of seeing only the outer form] called this the ‘Zazen School’ (the school of sitting meditation). … Do not take zazen to be same as the samadhi [of the three trainings of discipline, samadhi and wisdom], or dhyāna (meditation) of the six perfections. [The true zazen practice is what] Tathagata in the assembly at Vulture Peak (Grhakuta Mountain of Rajgir) transmitted to Venerable Mahakashyapa, the unsurpassed great transmission of the wondrous mind of Nirvana, the vision of dharma-eye. … It is a complete Way of Buddhadharma
Entering the Way through Practice
Though the instantaneous approach of entering the Way through insight appears simple, it is difficult to gain instantaneous insight for most people even when a Master guides them to the view. So, Bodhidharma also taught a gradual way of entrance to the Way that is easy for all. This is ‘entering the Way through practice’. This has four practices,
- Accepting Suffering
- Adapting to Conditions
- Seeking nothing
- To unite with the Way
The first step in the gradual way is to learn not to react foolishly to sufferings arising from karmic ripening of past deeds. By reacting negatively, we only add more fuel to the karmic ripenings. In the face of painful situations that life presents, a skillful practitioner spends his or her energy in creating positive conditions and doing positive deeds rather than lamenting or reacting to painful situations negatively. This brings a first level sanity to life.
The second step is a little more advanced. Adapting to conditions is about realizing that all painful and pleasurable incidents of life are conditional and would also go away as conditions change. A skillful practitioner learns to maintain evenness of mind during both happiness and suffering, without giving into excessive elations and depression. This leads to profound clarity and peace of mind.
The third step is even more advanced. Seeking nothing means that one has already realized a mind of contentment and sees the meaninglessness of all selfish pursuits. In this stage, one even abandons seeking enlightenment. It does not mean that one remains inactive or shies away from action. Rather, one enjoys engaging in heroic pursuits for the benefit of others. (same as relative bodhicitta.)
As the final stage of the gradual way, the practitioner unites with the Way by seeing the emptiness of Self and all phenomena and by recognizing the empty expanse of the ground of all phenomena.
Honoring the Words of the Buddha
Though Bodhidharma emphasized the need to go to the essential meaning than merely reading scriptures, he also valued scriptural knowledge. In fact, Bodhidharma held Sutras in high esteem. Particularly he held that Mahayana Lankavatara Sutra contains the essential teachings of the instantaneous realization tradition of Mahayana. When Bodhidharma made Huike his Dharma successor, along with his robe and bowl he passed on a copy of the scripture of Lankavatara Sutra.
The Teachings Go further East
Bodhidharma’s teachings spread mainly in China and further east in Korea and Japan. His teachings later evolved into the instantaneous tradition of the Southern Chan school of China and the gradual tradition of the Northern Chan school of China. These teachings reached Vietnam through an Indian master named Vinītaruci who was a disciple of the Chinese master Sengcan, who in turn was a disciple of Huike, the heart disciple of Bodhidharma. In Vietnam this school came to be known as the Thien school. The Chinese Chan school propagated to Japan when Myoan Eisai learnt it in China and established the Rinzai Zen School, following the Chinese tradition of the Linji Chan school. Further, Dogen learnt from the Chinese tradition of the Caodong Chan school and established the Soto Zen school in Japan. All of these schools practice the meditation of just sitting and resting in the unborn nature of all appearances without seeking or rejecting appearances. The difference among these schools is in the additional supports they use such as Sutra recitation, contemplation on koans (verses, often with seemingly paradoxical meaning, supposed to take the disciple beyond conceptuality), walking meditation, etc.
Placing in a Broader Context
During the 8th century CE, Bodhidharma’s teachings (Chan) reached Tibet from China. And that provides a unique opportunity to review Bodhidharma’s teachings in the context of many other Mahayana Buddhist teachings that arrived in Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism had both the pandita methods (those who made thorough scholarly study to enter the Way of awakening) and the kusulu methods (those who just practiced the essence of non-conceptual realization, without much scholarly study). These pandita and kusulu methods blended into an integral whole in Tibet with the same lineages and masters handling both kinds of methods together. Thus, the Tibetan scholars were able to come up with some of the best works of systematizing, contrasting and co-developing various methods of awakening, without denigrating one style for another. Since Chan tradition did not survive in Tibet for long, Bodhidharma’s teachings do not occupy a place in the analytical works of later Tibetan scholars. However, during the short period of the Chan presence in Tibet, some important scholarly works were composed that covered Bodhidharma’s tradition.
Nub Sangye Yeshe’s Classification of the Four Systems
Amongst those were Nubchen Sangye Yeshe’s composition of a very important work, with the name Samten Migdron (Lamp to the Eye of Meditation). Nubchen was a direct disciple of Guru Padmasambhava who brought Vajrayana Buddhism from India to Tibet. Nubchen’s work analyzed all the traditions of Mahayana Buddhist meditation into four systems with equal respect. This work also helps to distinguish between Chan / Zen and Atiyoga, and to avoid mixing up of the two methods.
Samten Migdron was lost for a long time. A manuscript of this text was recovered in early 20th Century from the Dunhuang caves in China. This became a very helpful source to see how Bodhidharma’s teaching style fits within the broader context of Mahayana Buddhism.
Nubchen classified Mahayana Meditation of the union of Shamatha (calm-abiding meditation) and Vipashyana (insight meditation) broadly into four systems. These are
Two methods of Sutrayana
and the two of Vajrayana
- Mahayoga (generation and completion stage practices of Mantrayana)
- Atiyoga (the Great Perfection or Dzogchen practice).
All of these four have their own respective ways of arriving at the union of shamatha and vipashyana on the unborn and empty nature of the basic space of all phenomena, and attaining liberation in that basic space.
According to Nubchen’s classification, the Gradual Sutrayana refers to the path of gradually abandoning various conceptual clingings and gradually realizing the unborn and empty nature of the space of all phenomena. Here, one cultivates non-conceptuality with respect to various phenomenal appearances, and that gradually leads to the basic space.
The second system, the Instantaneous Sutrayana, is what Nubchen identifies primarily as the teachings of the Great Abbot Bodhidharmottara (or Bodhidharma), particularly ‘Entering the Way through Insight’ (Nubchen also deals with many other masters of Chan / Zen as belonging to this category). According to Nubchen, this method teaches the unborn nature of the space of all phenomena from the very beginning. The practice here is that of wall-gazing as the union of shamatha and vipashyana by training to rest in the unborn ultimate nature. According to Nubchen, this unborn nature is the parinishpanna svabhāva (Perfect Nature) of the unborn space as in Yogacara. Here one cultivates non-conceptuality with respect to the emptiness of all phenomena. In other words, one cultivates non-conceptuality with respect to non-appearances4, without clinging to a conceptual notion of emptiness.
The third, Mahayoga, refers to the generation and completion stage practices of the Vajrayana. Here, one cultivates the non-dual non-conceptuality of the inseparability of the unborn space and wisdom-appearances.
The fourth, Atiyoga, refers to Great Perfection or Dzogchen. Here, a disciple is directly introduced to the play of his or her pristine awareness that is inseparable from the unborn space of all phenomena. In Atiyoga, one directly rests in the spontaneously present non-conceptuality where there is no reference for meditation, such as the object or subject. In this spontaneously present non conceptuality, emptiness and appearances are naturally unified.
Prasangika Madhyamaka and Bodhidharma
In the context of the above analysis, it is also interesting to compare Prasangika Madhyamaka with Bodhidharma’s method. Though these two methods of entering the Way differ drastically, the qualities of their meditation are essentially the same.
Prasangika uses consequential reasoning (the logic of reduction-ad-absurdum) to see the absurdity of every possible conceptual elaboration. Here, conceptual elaborations include the views such as existence, non-existence, both and neither. As one studies scriptures and thoroughly analyzes, one gains certainty in the absurdity of all such conceptual positions. Having gained certainty through such analysis and contemplation, one’s mind comes to rest in the uncontrived nature of mind, giving rise to self-arisen wisdom that is in the nature of mind. (Nubchen Sangey Yeshe did not analyze Prasangika as a separate system in Samten Migdron. However, since the Prasangika approach is to cut all extremes of existence, non-existence and so on simultaneously, its meditation is the same as what Nubchen explains for the Instantaneous Sutrayana, namely, that of non-conceptuality of non-appearance.)
Unlike Prasangika, Chan / Zen does not use elaborate logic and reasoning to analyze every possible position. Instead, a disciple in this case relies on the individualized instructions of a realized Master to move from the position where he or she is stuck to the point of gaining glimpse into the view of the unborn nature. The effectiveness of this approach depends on the ability of both the master and the disciple. Though a detailed Madhyamaka style analysis is not performed, some systems of Chan / Zen use riddles (koan). Riddles are chosen by the Master depending upon where the disciple is stuck currently. The real Chan / Zen according to ‘Entering the Way through Insight’ (Instantaneous Entrance) starts only when gradually the disciple arrives at the gate of having a glimpse of the unborn nature.
View the Complete Trilogy at
Bodhidharma – a Trilogy on His Life and Teachings
Authors – Yogini Abhaya Devi & Yogi Prabodha Jnana
- Like a bird flying through the vast expanse - September 21, 2021
- The Liberation Story of Punnika, a Girl from an Oppressed Caste - March 31, 2021
- Ancient Buddha Statues of Kerala - October 11, 2018
4 thoughts on “Breaking the Silence – The Teachings of Bodhidharma”
I find this site very interesting it helps me in day to day life. Thank you for making this site.
Thanks … john