Guide to a Better Life:

A Commentary On Bodhidharma’s Outline of Practice

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Who Was Bodhidharma?

In the latter fifth century, Bodhidharma purportedly brought Chan (Zen) Buddhism and kung-fu to China. This “blue-eyed barbarian,” consciousness-only monk from the West (Southern India) was a monastic marvel at meditation and mind-only practice.  As the first Chinese patriarch of Zen, a major martial arts practitioner and teacher, he is a bigger-than-life figure.  Legend has it that to keep from falling asleep during his silent nine-year meditation, in which he gazed at the wall of a cave near Shaolin Monastery, he cut off his eyelids, and where they fell to the ground, tea bushes arose (thus he’s credited with bringing tea to China). A nine-year solitary silent sit seems like a minor accomplishment compared to cutting off one’s eyelids to eliminate drowsiness!  Following this legend, drawings of him, which decorate Zen temples throughout the world, almost always depict him as a frightful, bearded character with bulging, lidless eyes. Very few of his dharma teachings have survived, and Outline of Practice is his best-known. Every sentence of it is dense with deep dharma. Here we have tried to gently unpack its main concepts.

We have used Red Pine’s translation for the commentary, and in the addendum we present another translation from Andy Ferguson.

Outline of Practice
Red Pine translation

MANY roads lead to the Path, but basically there are only two: reason and practice. To enter by reason means to realize the essence through instruction and to believe that all living things share the same true nature, which isn’t apparent because it’s shrouded by sensation and delusion. Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason. Without moving, without effort, they enter, we say, by reason.

To enter by practice refers to four all-inclusive practices: Suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and practicing the Dharma. First, suffering injustice. When those who search for the Path encounter adversity, they should think to themselves, “In Countless ages gone by, I’ve turned from the essential to the trivial and wandered through all manner of existence, often angry without cause and guilty of numberless transgressions.”

Now, though I do no wrong, I’m punished by my past. Neither gods nor men can foresee when an evil deed will bear its fruit. I accept it with an open heart and without complaint of injustice. The sutras say “when you meet with adversity don’t be upset because it makes sense.” With such understanding you’re in harmony with reason. And by suffering injustice you enter the Path. Second, adapting to conditions. As mortals, we’re ruled by conditions, not by ourselves. All the suffering and joy we experience depend on conditions. If we should be blessed by some great reward, such as fame or fortune, it’s the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past. When conditions change, it ends. Why delight in its existence? But while success and failure depend on conditions, the mind neither waxes nor wanes. Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path.

Third, seeking nothing. People of this world are deluded. They’re always longing for something-always, in a word, seeking. But the wise wake up. They choose reason over custom. They fix their minds on the sublime and let their bodies change with the seasons. All phenomena are empty. They contain nothing worth desiring. Calamity forever alternates with Prosperity! To dwell in the three realms is to dwell in a burning house. To have a body is to suffer. Does anyone with a body know peace? Those who understand this detach themselves from all that exists and stop Imagining or seeking anything. The sutras say, “To seek is to suffer. To seek nothing is bliss.” When you seek nothing, you’re on the Path.

Fourth, practicing the Dharma. The Dharma is the truth that all natures are pure. By this truth, all appearances are empty. Defilement and attachment, subject and object don’t exist. The sutras say, “The Dharma includes no being because it’s free from the impurity of being, and the Dharma includes no self because it’s free from the impurity of self.” Those wise enough to believe and understand these truths are bound to practice according to the Dharma. And since that which is real includes nothing worth begrudging, they give their body, life, and property in charity, without regret, without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient, and without bias or attachment. And to eliminate impurity they teach others, but without becoming attached to form. Thus, through their own practice they’re able to help others and glorify the Way of Enlightenment. And as with charity, they also practice the other virtues. But while practicing the six virtues to eliminate delusion, they practice nothing at all. This is what’s meant by practicing the Dharma.

Outline of Practice
Red Pine translation, with DeepDharma Commentary

MANY roads lead to the Path, but basically there are only two: reason and practice. To enter by reason [this is sometimes translated as “entering through principle”] means to realize the essence through instruction and to believe that all living things share the same true nature, which isn’t apparent because it’s shrouded by sensation and delusion. Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason. Without moving, without effort, they enter, we say, by reason.

The Path, or the Great Way, can be entered in many different ways, for it is not a simple garden path, entered through a gate and having a clearly defined walkway, but rather a Path that has a gateless gate, i.e., an infinite number of entry points and walkways. And there are many roads that lead to the gate which allows us to enter the Path. Some obvious examples of “different” roads are (1) attaining merit, and (2) realizing the Two Truths.

Unfortunately, the roads to the Path (and the Path itself), are disguised by our delusion (thinking that the subject/object way we perceive things is the way they are) and ignorance (not realizing the ultimate nature of phenomena: emptiness) and so we are unable to see how to approach and where and how to enter. But those of us who turn away from delusion to being with realizing our ultimate nature, enter the Path through reason.

While Bodhidharma is telling us that entry points fall into two general categories: reason and practice, he also wants us to understand that we can experience the unitary suchness of ultimate nature during nondiscriminating moments of pure awareness in meditation.  His shtick was solitary meditation to observe the nature of mind, and it is from that perspective that he teaches—meditation and mind-only.

As Bodhidharma declared, entry is by, in general, reason and practice.  What is “reason”? It is entering into realization of the Path, realization of the unitariness of all phenomena, realization of our infinite “original” nature (our Buddha Nature), realization of emptiness, through being in accord with the non-dual mindstream of the Zen lineage. This is, as Bodhidharma writes, the absence of “Self and Other.” It is a lack of subject/objectness. It is the profound understanding that there is no difference between unenlightened mortals like us and the fully-realized sages in that these categories (mortal and sage) do not exist in nature or independently, but are the product of believing that our deluded perceptions exist and we slot them into arbitrary categories to further our delusions.  This is a full realization that is beyond attainment, beyond even the teachings, beyond any linguistic conceptualization. It leads us through the gateless Gate and onto the Path. It is being aligned with our original nature, Bodhidharma asserts, a nature without discrimination where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess, where nothing is confused or deluded, and where we are certainly beyond words, beyond this and that.

This is entering by reason, and it is freely available to those who meditate on walls, those who abide in a luminous mind beyond all duality, while sitting in stillness. “Wall gazing,” as it is known, is the ability to realize, without words or characterizations, this singular nature of all phenomena, and we all share this ability. This ability is the ability to remain unmoved in our Buddha Nature, unwavering in our presence in reality.

To enter by practice refers to four all-inclusive practices: Suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and practicing the Dharma. First, suffering injustice. When those who search for the Path encounter adversity, they should think to themselves, “In Countless ages gone by, I’ve turned from the essential to the trivial and wandered through all manner of existence, often angry without cause and guilty of numberless transgressions.

Now, though I do no wrong, I’m punished by my past. Neither gods nor men can foresee when an evil deed will bear its fruit. I accept it with an open heart and without complaint of injustice. The sutras say ” when you meet with adversity don’t be upset because it makes sense.” With such understanding you’re in harmony with reason. And by suffering injustice you enter the Path. Second, adapting to conditions. As mortals, we’re ruled by conditions, not by ourselves. All the suffering and joy we experience depend on conditions. If we should be blessed by some great reward, such as fame or fortune, it’s the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past. When conditions change, it ends. Why delight In Its existence? But while success and failure depend on conditions, the mind neither waxes nor wanes. Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path.

And, what is practice? Entry, as has been explained, is generally either by reason or practice. Entering by reason has just been explained, though it might take years to apprehend it so deeply that we can become wall-gazers. Entering by practice, on the other hand, is entering through a deeply penetrated understanding of the “four all-inclusive practices,” meaning the four noble truths. Those are, in Bodhidharma’s words:

  1. Suffering injustice
  2. Adapting to conditions
  3. Seeking nothing, and
  4. Practicing the dharma

Because of the juxtaposition of the list in the same paragraph with the explanation of karma, we assume that Bodhidharma means us to understand the four noble truths, and our practice of them, in the context of karma.

The first noble truth is the truth of suffering. In Bodhidharma’s way of teaching, it is the perceived injustices that arises from our karma.

“Suffering injustice” is telling us that because of the way we process information, which is our karma, from sense contact to consciousness (all five aggregates are our karma!), because of our deluded understandings of the real nature of things, all phenomena appear to be forcing us to suffer an injustice. In other words, our incoming evidence of what is and what is happening is false. Why? Because all sense contacts occur only when there is a dualistic assignment of desirability to the contact, and a dualistic arising of self and other. Every sense contact is perceived as the injustice of not having enough, of always needing more—more of those things to which we have attached an attraction, or in the negative, ridding ourselves of more of those things to which we have an aversion, as well as a false distinction in and strengthening of self and other. We are never free from the suffering we inflict upon ourselves because of our karmic ignorance and delusion, which always leave us feeling adversity, never ease and comfort with the present.

Bodhidharma is squarely placing the blame for our discomfort on us, who he says accusatorily, have in “countless ages gone by” turned from the essential, our original Buddha Nature, to the trivial, our fascination with shiny external stuff we think is desirable. This has led us to wander aimlessly, continuing to commit afflictions, in samsara. And even now, when we do no wrong, when the Gate and the Path are clearly in front of us, the misdeeds of our past embedded as karmic imprints, are leading us to suffer.

The way past this suffering is to accept our perceived injustices without grasping after them or clinging to them or letting them pull us around by the karmic ring we have placed in our noses. The way past our perceived injustices, which recognizes our Zen lineage’s teachings on ultimate nature, is to renounce our false perceptions of self-and-other and to be in accord with the selflessness of all things. Again, this is noting that any uneasiness we have is due to previous imprints in our karmic bank, our alaya consciousness. Learning to see them with pure patience and awareness, without angst or distraction or disquiet, learning how to release them by just sitting with them, is the road to liberation, or nirvana, which Bodhidharma is himself practicing and teaching to us.

 See Karma http://www.deepdharma.org/beliefs-and-practices/karma/

Now, though I do no wrong, I’m punished by my past. Neither gods nor men can foresee when an evil deed will bear its fruit. I accept it with an open heart and without complaint of injustice. The sutras say “when you meet with adversity don’t be upset because it makes sense.” With such understanding you’re in harmony with reason. And by suffering injustice you enter the Path.

It is that simple. But it takes years of study and meditation to be able to meet our karma with such patience and compassion that it becomes harmless—that it no longer blocks the road to liberation but reveals it. When we understand this, we are “in harmony with reason.”  As may be expected, even the reason/practice dichotomy discussed by Bodhidharma is itself false, they are really identical.

Second, adapting to conditions. As mortals, we’re ruled by conditions, not by ourselves. All the suffering and joy we experience depend on conditions. If we should be blessed by some great reward, such as fame or fortune, it’s the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past. When conditions change, it ends. Why delight In its existence? But while success and failure depend on conditions, the mind neither waxes nor wanes. Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path.

Yes, conditions appear and imprints arise, leaving us happy or unhappy with the phenomena of the moment, but beware, Bodhidharma says, don’t let your mind waver with them, keep yourself steady on the Path, still and silent. Learn now to stay, stay, stay with the energy of the moment, as Pema Chodron explains, especially during meditation, especially when wall-gazing.

Adapting to conditions. From Bodhidharma’s perspective, what happens to us in our lives, be it wholesome or unwholesome, is the results of conditions.  “The result of conditions” in the sense that, when we encounter a certain set of conditions, a karmic imprint arises to change it into a narrative from which feelings or actions will arise. Because all of our imprints are founded on past affinities or aversions for things, past dualistic thinking, any time conditions lead an imprint to arise, our karma is leading us to reactivity rather than clarity.

Third, seeking nothing. People of this world are deluded. They’re always longing for something-always, in a word, seeking. But the wise wake up. They choose reason over custom. They fix their minds on the sublime and let their bodies change with the seasons. All phenomena are empty. They contain nothing worth desiring. Calamity forever alternates with Prosperity! To dwell in the three realms is to dwell in a burning house. To have a body is to suffer. Does anyone with a body know peace? Those who understand this detach themselves from all that exists and stop imagining or seeking anything. The sutras say, “To seek is to suffer. To seek nothing is bliss.” When you seek nothing, you’re on the Path.

As we explained above, our karma (past responses), mixed with current conditions, causes compounded phenomena to arise in our minds. These phenomena are always seeking, seeking more of what we like and seeking less of what we dislike. There is no respite. “Seeking nothing,” simply being present with the suchness of things, not following the habit of our minds which is to be covetous and greedy. That is the Path. To realize the Path in this way, we must train our minds to see our ultimate nature as being where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess. “To seek is to suffer!” Non-seeking is utter pacificity.

Fourth, practicing the Dharma. The Dharma is the truth that all natures are pure. By this truth, all appearances are empty. Defilement and attachment, subject and object don’t exist. The sutras say, “The Dharma includes no being because it’s free from the impurity of being, and the Dharma includes no self because it’s free from the impurity of self.” Those wise enough to believe and understand these truths are bound to practice according to the Dharma. And since that which is real includes nothing worth begrudging, they give their body, life, and property in charity, without regret, without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient, and without bias or attachment. And to eliminate impurity they teach others, but without becoming attached to form. Thus, through their own practice they’re able to help others and glorify the Way of Enlightenment. And as with charity, they also practice the other virtues. But while practicing the six virtues to eliminate delusion, they practice nothing at all. This is what’s meant by practicing the Dharma.

When Bodhidharma writes that the dharma is the truth, he means that the ultimate nature of all phenomena, the dharma, is nondual—not a subject/object event, not a self-and-other condition. He wants us to keep this unitariness, this singularity, this “suchness” constantly in mind. We are to be ever-mindful of this dharma.  In practice, anytime we lose track of it, we train ourselves to remember to come back to it—much like we do with our breath in meditation. In the dharma, there is neither being nor nonbeing, neither Self nor Not-Self (No-Self). These are discriminations and distinctions created in our minds by our karma, and suchness is without discrimination and distinction. Those who can see this deeply are said to “practice according to the Dharma.” This is a practice where we see, if we are seeing clearly, that nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess. Understanding this suchness, with a profound and deep realization, is transformative. And transformation is Bodhidharma’s theme throughout Outline of Practice.

Realizing the Dharma, we are aware, as Bodhidharma says, that nothing is worth begrudging and we are willing, wholeheartedly, to give our “body, life, and property in charity, without regret, without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient, and without bias or attachment.” The key phrase here, which is taught in Zen monasteries and center throughout the world is “gift, giver, receiver, no difference.” Indeed, in the Dharma there is no differentiating. Enlightenment is an undifferentiated condition.

The text concludes by saying that we should practice the six paramitas in everything we do and say and think, because through their practice delusion is reduced and eliminated. [http://www.deepdharma.org/paramitas/].  Doing this, as our personal practice, and this is a text about our personal practice, is always other-centered and beneficial to others. To use Andy Ferguson’s translation of the last line of this teaching: “Practicing these Six Perfections in this way is practicing nothing, and is thus practicing the dharma.”

Addendum

Red Pine’s translation is somewhat literal and, as such, can seem a little stiff.  Andy Ferguson’s translation is softer and gentler, if a bit more casual. We’re placing it here, as an addendum, and recommend you peruse it as it will elucidate certain words and ideas expressed by Red Pine in his translation.

Outline of Practice
Andy Ferguson translation

The noble enter the Way by many paths, but essentially there are but two of which I speak. One is by principle and one is by practice. Those who enter by principle avail themselves to the teaching of the enlightened doctrine that all being possess the same true nature, though it is obscured and not apparent due to worldly attachments and delusion. If one forsakes delusion and returns to the true, fixing one’s gaze on a wall and forsaking thoughts of self and other, sacred and teachings, and so on; then by not moving and not chasing after scriptures or teachings, one is in accord with principle. [When one undertakes] silent, nondiscriminating nonaction it is called entering the Way through principle.

Entering by practice entails four essential practices that encompass all others. What four types of practice are these? The first is enduring the results of past actions. The second is the practice of profane according to conditions. The third practice is seeking bother, and the fourth is known as practicing the dharma.

You ask, “How does one endure the results of past actions?” Those who may be said to practice the Way, upon entering difficult times, think to themselves, “For endless kalpas without beginning I’ve forsaken what is essential and have pursued the frivolous, tossed by currents and waves, committing sins and transgressions without end. Now, although I commit no transgressions, it is my accumulated misdeeds, my store of evil karma, which continues to bear fruit. None among the heavens or mankind can see from where it arises. Without rancor or recriminating thoughts, I accept this. In the sutra it says, “Upon meeting hardship don’t grieve, but just recognize whence it comes.” When one’s mind manifests in this manner it is in accord with principle and [even by means of] the body’s suffering one enters the Way.

Second is the practice of just acting according to the conditions one encounters. All beings, not having independent existence, transmigrate through time according to conditions. No matter whether a person experiences bitterness or happiness, both arise from conditions. If we attain great achievements and acclaim, then it is due to our past karma. And though we may have it now, if the conditions that brought it to us are exhausted, then it will be gone. Why should one take joy in it? Gain and loss arises due to conditions. Those who remain unmoved by the winds of pleasure are steadfast in accord with the Way. Therefore this practice is called to “accord with conditions.”

Third is the practice on nonseeking. People in the world are always deluded and everywhere covetous. This is known as seeking. The wise awaken to the truth and go against this trend. Pacifying their minds, they do nothing. The myriad forms of the world storm and swirl, all of them empty. But, without any desires or joys, the virtuous remain where forms arise, abiding within the three worlds though they are like a burning house. To have a body is to suffer. Who can arrive at such a state as to bear this with tranquility? They are the ones who have forsaken all things, stopped discursive thinking, and stopped seeking. The sutra says, “To seek is but bitterness. Nonseeking is joy.” To know this and to end this seeking is truly practicing the Way. Therefore it is called the practice of nonseeking.

Fourth is called practicing the Dharma. Practicing the Dharma is to perceive the truth of pure nature, the truth that the myriad forms are empty. There is neither “defilement” nor “attachment,” neither “this” nor “other.” The sutra says, “The Dharma does not have the myriad beings, and thus remains untainted by the myriad beings. The dharma has no self, and thus remains untainted by self.” The wise, if they grasp this truth, should be in accord with the Dharma and live by this understanding. The dharma-body lacks nothing, so the wise forsake and renounce their bodies, lives, and wealth without regret. They abandon the empty world and, relying on nothing, without attachment, they give up all impurities. They are in accord with evolving life without grasping form. This is their personal practice, which always benefits others. It is, moreover, the majestic way of the bodhisattva—compassionate works. They also practice the other five perfections (generosity, virtue, wisdom, effort, and patience] for the elimination of delusion. Practicing these six perfections in this way is practicing nothing, and is thus practicing the Dharma.