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An interview with Bodhidharma

August 02, 2010


“After travelling and teaching around the country Bodhidharma settled at Shaolin-ssu (Shorinji), a monastery on Hao-shan Mountain near Loyang, in what is now Honan province. The legend says that Bodhidharma remained seated in meditation before the wall of the Shaolin Monastery for nine years.While Bodhidharma was meditating, according to the legend, he became sleepy, and his eyelids grew heavy. In frustration, he tore off his eyelids and threw them on the floor, where they became the first tea plants—used from that time as a mild stimulant.”

“Later, tea-drinking became a habit among the Zen practitioners, to keep awake. It also grew into aesthetic tea-ceremony.”*

GongfuGirl: Before we begin the interview, let me just say on behalf of myself and all of the people I know throughout the world who are deeply immersed in tea and tea culture, thank you for the enormous sacrifice you made in order to bring about the existence of the tea plant. We are all indebted to you for bringing something into the world that brings us so much joy.

Bodhidharma: I must confess that I was compelled by rage and expediency at the time. So despite the great benefit it brought to the world, I can’t really say that this is what I was thinking about as I tore the flesh and tossed it to the ground. But, you’re welcome in any case!

G: I became quite exhausted reading through all of the various documented histories of your life, trying to reconcile the inconsistencies and the truth from the myth and conjecture. In the end I decided that it was probably best to let you speak for yourself, clearing up any matters that you felt were misunderstood, or had been transmitted incorrectly through the last several centuries.

B: I have had plenty of exposure to other people displaying similar weakness as evidenced by frustration, but I don’t have respect for the pursuit of knowledge through the written word in the first place. As you should know, in my teachings I stressed the importance of the direct experience of meditation and confrontation of what is real as the only viable paths to understanding.

G: I understand, at least to the limited extent I am capable of understanding, but your own history is a pretty concrete matter.

B: Not really. As you will have gleaned through the reading you’ve done, my role in history is something more and less than literal history. I have been placed into convenient roles in history, connecting some of the ideas and threads of understanding and practice to each other, as those connections became necessary, which is not the same thing as actual things I said and did as a living breathing person.

G: So what you’re saying is that it is not the details and minutiae of your life that are most important, that over the past several centuries you’ve been stuck into several important metaphorical slots that needed filling?

B: Yes, pretty much. You show evidence of being much too tightly attached to the use of words to convey meaning.

G: I am sure that you are right, but what do I have for better tools than words themselves?

B: You have the indirect transmission of the pure experience of drinking tea. This, brought to other people and put forth as pure experience is the most important thing. You can talk and write about it, but obviously the best benefit that someone is going to gain from all of this rain of words is in bringing the seeker to the tea cup. You should be exhorting people to drink tea with as much attention and mindfulness to their own experience as is possible.

G: I’ll attempt to pay more attention to that in the future. So you do believe that tea is, in itself, one of the paths that is direct and beneficial to the pursuit of enlightenment?

B: Sure, but given the choice I’d probably rather tell people to try staring at a wall for a few years. That sure sorts out the seekers who aren’t serious about practice. [laughs]

G: Does it bother you that so many accounts of you and your encounters with other people portray you as a rather surly, wild-eyed barbarian who tended to elicit physical violence and confrontations?

B: Not really, although I did feel a little bad about Dazu Huike cutting off his own arm, but I don’t know how else he could have proven that his intention was as it needed to be. And there was all of that chaos in the Shaolin Temple. That was bound to lead to some legends involving fighting. And really, sixth century China wasn’t a very calm, peaceable time or place in history. That emperor is just lucky that I didn’t knock any of his teeth out in retaliation.

G: You mean, those weren’t peaceful, calm, spiritually exalted times like we have now?

B: Right. [laughs]

G: It’s interesting contrasting historical accounts of your life, specifically in relation to tea history and culture, with those of Lu Yu, the Tang Dynasty tea scholar who lived and wrote a mere 200 years closer to now than you did. How can you account for the discrepancies in stories and speculations for you, while his life and writings are mostly calm and consistent?

B: Well, the most obvious answer is that I’m a more malleable figure within Chinese history because I came into China from the outside. My origins and language and everything else were a bit of an obstacle and that leaves me a more flexible figure, open to fabrication of tales. But the other thing is that I’m more well known to others in many different countries and areas of thought and study, and as the first Patriarch of the Chan school of Buddhism in China (and Zen Buddhism in Japan) there are more people who “know” about me, so there are more people making things up. And not to disparage what your whole topic of interest is built around, but someone whose entire fame rests on writing a book about tea just can’t compete with someone credited with bringing an elemental branch of a major religion into an important part of the world. Even a person known for training the Shaolin Monks in a more refined way of their art form is bound to be granted more fame than someone who studied and wrote about tea. After all, I’m the 28th Patriarch in the lineage directly descended from Shakyamuni Buddha – the original Buddha – so people are going to consider me more important.

G: But you would think that because of that, and because your actual time on earth was not that long ago compared to some other figures in history, the records would be better.

B: It’s possible that the areas of inquiry that you are looking at are simply more fluid than you expect. I don’t really think that this is what is important. The knowledge and understanding and concepts that are attributed to me are valid and valuable, whether I actually said and did what I am said to or not. You know as well as I do that tea was in the world and known in China as an important beverage and medicine long before my eyelids were ripped from my face in a fit of impatience at my own lack of perfect meditation in front of a wall in a cave.

G: So, changing the subject a bit, how do you feel about the Daruma dolls that they sell in Japan that are modeled after you?

B: Well, as you can see, I look nothing like that in person, and that thing they say about my legs and arms atrophying during that same nine-year mediation that was briefly interrupted by ripping off my eyelids was entirely made up. I still have arms and legs, just no eyelids. I’m not pleased that they’re using my name and image for something as silly and superstitious as a good luck charm, but I guess that’s the kind of thing that happens all the time among the masses, not just in Japan, but all over the world. But I was surely not involved with such artifice and absurdity when I was alive – I was too busy getting into disagreements with the Chinese Buddhists who thought they already understood everything. But I have to admit that I am slightly charmed by the way those figures look…but only after the eyes get painted in.

G: As the progenitor of both tea and Chan (Zen), how do you feel about the ways that the ceremonial expression of tea has become integral to the practice of Zen in Japan?

B: It seems to me that this was quite a natural development. According to those who credit me as the wellspring of tea itself, the divine liquor was provided to the world initially as an aid to meditation, providing a greater level of attentiveness and focus. It’s a good tool for religious practitioners of all stripes to make use of.

G: But do you feel that the Japanese way of tea is the ultimate and only valid way of studying and practicing the art of tea in terms of a direct relationship with religious practice?

B: Certainly not. I spent my best years in China, and brought Chan practice with me. Tea developed in different directions there, but is certainly no less important, just experienced in a less formalized manner. Quite frankly I’m a lot more comfortable with the Chinese way, but that’s because I never spent any time in Japan, and Sado developed long after I was dead. I think that ultimately the connection between tea and religious practice – or even personal, secular experience – doesn’t need to be so closely analyzed. It’s a logical connection and a natural relationship. The tea plant is significant enough to take on the important role of yielding an essential, ceremonial beverage. No other plant has the richness and variety and noble qualities to be able to attain a position of such significance.

G: That sounds like a good place to end our discussion. Thank you so much for granting us your time and insight.

*Excerpted from Bodhidharma: Stories and Legends

This post is a contribution to the third Tea Blog Carnival, sponsored by the Association of Tea Bloggers. The main post for the carnival can be read on Walker Tea Review. Jason Walker’s summary of the theme of this Blog Carnival:

Some are heroes, some are masters, and some are just great folks to sit down and enjoy a cup with. You decide which category to place these tea people.

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