no merit

Bodhidharma was invited to visit the Emperor Wu of Liang, who was a great patron of Buddhism. The emperor asked, “I have endowed temples and authorized ordinations – what is my merit?’ Bodhidharma replied, “No merit at all.” The emperor asked, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?” Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” The emperor was upset and asked, “Who is this confronting me?” Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.” Bodhidharma was obviously trying to teach the Emperor about the inherent emptiness of all phenomena. The Emperor was proud of his accomplishments and wanted some kind of validation from this wild-looking sage from India. But Bodhidharma was too smart to give the pat answers that the Emperor wanted, hopefully shaking him from his complacent vision of what being a Buddhist is. Although I’ve read that we should try and identify with the Emperor and with all the ways we might be like him, I can’t help feeling giddy at Bodhidharma’s telling-off of the Emperor. In our own lives and workplaces, aren’t we constantly confronted with people who want to tell us how great they are, and who brag about all the good works they have done. In my own work, I see the incessant desire in people to be recognized for their accomplishments. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting recognition. But it’s the attachment to the accomplishments that causes suffering. And so to all the rich braggarts of the world, when they hold forth on their many successes, I just want to be like Bodhidharma and say, “No merit.”

Not very Buddhist of me, I suppose.



  1. dougrogers

    For the first time I saw this koan in a different way. Bodhidharma isn’t saying to the Emperor that he doesn’t know who he himself is – or that Bodhidharma is Empty, but he’s saying that he doesn’t know -or can’t speak as to who confronts the Emperor. The Emperor’s ego confronts the Emperor, not Bodhidharma.

  2. henry

    I love this encounter. Bodhidharma’s words are bracing, like cold water in the face. I have read this koan many, many times and never tire of it.

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