Bodhidharma’s “Outline of Practice”

Bodhidharma was an Indian Buddhist monk who lived during the late 5th and early 6th centuries.  He is credited with “bringing Buddhism from the West,” meaning Chan Buddhism, which he founded,  from India to China.  Many Zen Buddhists and students of kung fu consider him their spiritual father.  This is perhaps his most famous sermon, and it seems as clear and applicable today as when he is believed to have delivered it 1600 years ago.

Outline of Practice

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 emptiness, the absence of self and other, and who remain unmoved by the words and deeds of others, even 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 perceived injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and practicing the Dharma.

First, suffering perceived injustice.  When those who search for the Path encounter adversity, they should think to themselves, “I’ve turned from the essential to the trivial, becoming angry without cause.” If you accept  with an open heart and without complaint of perceived injustice, you will not be unset and you will be in harmony with reason.

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 such an existence?  But while success and failure depend on conditions, the mind neither waxes nor wanes.  Those who remain unmoved silently follow the Path to joy and peacefulness.

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.  “To seek is to suffer. To seek nothing is bliss.”

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 is meant by practicing the Dharma.