In Zen legend, Bodhidharma arrived in China from India, had his encounter with the Emperor and then went to Shaolin temple where he sat facing a wall for nine years. There’s pictures of this everywhere, showing Bodhidharma with dramatically bulging eyes.
When we sit facing the wall, we’re evoking that.
The Chinese phrase which is rendered as, ‘wall contemplation’, is ‘pi-kuan’. Classical Chinese is notoriously terse. The expression means simply something like, ‘wall gazing’. It doesn’t say who’s doing the gazing – if it’s a person gazing at a wall or if it’s the wall gazing, or something else. The phrase is original to Bodhidharma.
Because of the pictorial representation, we think, without inquiring further, that the phrase simply means that Bodhidharma practised zazen facing the wall. Except, that isn’t really an explanation at all.
Given that the wall is plainly not the object of meditation, the phrase, I think, only makes sense when we interpret it as meaning that when we are sitting, we are like a wall gazing onto the world.
What does that suggest? Firstly, that the wall, like a tree, or a mountain, is rooted in the being of all things. It’s non-dual. Secondly, that the wall doesn’t differentiate. So the wall will see all beings, in all states, with the same ‘gaze’.
In that sense, the wall is like a stone mirror. If we look at it in that way, then we can see a connection between this idea of wall gazing and the Alaya consciousness that we encounter in Yogacara. Bodhidharma was known for bequeathing to his successor the Lankavatara sutra, which is a Yogacara sutra.
The phrase is evocative and open-ended. We should approach it as we should approach all the teachings; not as a ‘puzzle’ to be solved and then never returned to, but like a person. For all the sutras, for all the teachings, it is like we’re encountering a person, who is not exhausted by definition and classification but who, from moment to moment, offers the opportunity of a living exchange about practice, which can change us, and change them.