405. Wall Gazing

Why do we sit facing the wall?

The familiar explanation is that we’re following the practice of Master Bodhidharma.  

In Zen legend, Bodhidharma arrived at a southern Chinese port from India  sometime in the middle of the 6th Century, then had a famous encounter with the Emperor. Following this, he went to Shaolin Temple, where he sat facing a wall for 9 years. Zen Legend also says that prior to Bodhidharma arriving in China, Chinese Buddhism had been purely scholastic. 

The legend is completely false.  Buddhism had been practised in China for over 400 years prior to Bodhidharma arriving. There were meditation manuals,  practice instructions, and communities of monks.

However, the expression which is translated as Bodhidharma “facing a wall” originates with him. According to John McRae, the phrase , ‘pi kuan’ literally means ‘wall gazing’, sometimes rendered as ‘ wall contemplation.’

A tragedy for our culture is that our capacity for symbolic and metaphoric thinking and expression has become terribly impoverished. We expect our learning to be explicit. So when we come across cultures where learning works differently, where it’s encoded within apparently simple practices and rituals, it’s quite hard for us to see. We just picture a man facing a wall.

But thinking about ‘wall gazing’ for a moment, the issue of whether or not Bodhidharma did physically meditate facing a wall hardly exhausts what the phrase has to tell us. 

Plainly, Bodhidharma wasn’t taking the wall as being the object of meditation because that would be a dualistic practice, quite different from zazen.

Classical Chinese is very terse. It doesn’t tell us who is doing the gazing, the practitioner or the wall. As the wall plainly isn’t a person, we think it’s obvious that who’s  doing the gazing is the practitioner. But if we leave it open, we can unpack the learning implicit in the phrase. 

If we say that it’s actually the wall that’s ‘gazing’, that opens everything up. The practitioner, in facing the wall, is facing away from the world. But the wall is facing the world. So it’s like a pair. And the wall is facing the world in a particular way: like a mirror, not like a person. With equanimity, accepting everything, not discriminating, rooted in the ground of all being. 

Just as all the apparently separate images in a mirror are part of the one reflective whole, then likewise, to the wall, everything facing it, including the practitioner, is part of this wholeness.

If we see things in that way we can see why Bodhidharma’s practice may have been new. Not because of his physical orientation (towards a wall, or anything else), but because of his meditative orientation. His practice was not simply the practice of the self, nor the cultivation of Consciousness or Wisdom or particular mental states;  it was – and is –  a wholehearted non dualistic engagement with everything, within everything.