123. Emperor Wu

When Bodhidharma went to China, according to legend, he met with the Emperor. The meeting is usually recounted in this way:

Emperor Wu said to Bodhidharma ‘I have built hundreds of temples, what is my merit? Bodhidharma answered, ‘no merit’. The Emperor then asked, ‘What is the highest truth?’ Bodhidharma replied ‘Unfathomable emptiness’. The emperor then asked, ‘Who are you?’ Bodhidharma replied, ‘I don’t know’.

So in its usual rendering, the Emperor is portrayed as a self satisfied bumbler, being put right by Bodhidharma, fearlessly speaking truth to power.

But, in classical Chinese it is impossible to say if a sentence is a question or a statement. So we can look at this exchange differently.

The words ‘what’ and ‘who’ are synonymous with suchness, emptiness. So the Emperor is simply living his life as a Buddhist Emperor, acknowledging that his only merit is suchness. And because this merit extends everywhere, it is ‘no merit’.

And the Emperor’s final statement is not ‘who are you?’ but rather You are Who, that is: you are a person of suchness. And Bodhidharma’s response is suchness isn’t our personal possession.

Bodhidharma then left, going to Shaolin temple and sat facing the wall for 9 years.

What wall was he facing?

Whose eyes are seeing that wall?

Who are you?