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“Empty, without holiness.”
In the first case of The Blue Cliff Record, Emperor Wu asks Bodhidharma: “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?”
Bodhidharma says: “Empty, without holiness.”
In the commentary it is explained that the question was not as weird as it sounds. In fact it referred to a specific and abstruse point of Buddhist philosophy that the Emperor had discussed before with various Buddhist scholars. Basically it is about the identity of relative and absolute.
So maybe he was testing Bodhidharma; or maybe he wanted to show that he knew a thing or two about Buddhism; or he wanted to have another profound intellectual discussion on the subject. We don’t know that.
We just know that in the story Bodhidharma didn’t go along with it. He bluntly pointed out that this sophisticated idea is empty and that there’s nothing holy in it.
His remark is like a bomb blowing up the mental construction that underlies the question. It’s not an attempt to put the final card on the roof of the house of cards; it is intended to make the house of cards collapse. As such it can be applied in different situations. What about this magnificent new piece of music? Empty, without magnificence. What about this huge trauma in my life? Empty, without a trace.
Empty, without joy. Empty, without importance. Empty, without good or bad. Empty, without whatever anyone was putting in there. Empty, without marks.
In his encounter with Emperor Wu, Bodhidharma does that same thing a couple of times. The Emperor asks about the merit of his many efforts to promote the Dharma. Bodhidharma says “There is no merit.” Here too he knocks down the house of cards.
“Who is facing me?” Answer “I don’t know.” Bodhidharma knocks down the mental construction (in this case the mental construction of identifications) that underlies the question.
The emperor is puzzled and asks another teacher about the meaning of this encounter with Bodhidharma. That shows he didn’t see what Bodhidharma was doing and so probably he didn’t see the mental fabrications in his own mind either.
There’s a lesson in this Koan. When we (the Emperor) meet the Truth (Bodhidharma) our mental fabrications don’t get crowned; they get knocked over. That’s all there is to it. Bodhidharma doesn’t return; his work is finished. He isn’t coming back; neither for reconstructing the delusional notions he destroyed nor for laying the foundations for new ones.