Almost all Zen practitioners are familiar with the legend of Bodhidharma: him arriving in a Southern port in China, having a bracing conversation with the emperor, going to Shaolin Monastery where he sat facing a wall for nine years.
In recent times historians have criticised that Legend as being well, a Legend. Many have doubted the existence of Bodhidharma as an actual person, particularly when so many things are attributed to him such as him being the creator of Kung Fu, Chinese Tantra and so on.
But in fact there was an Indian monk called Bodhidharma who did arrive in China from India in the sixth century. We know that because a researcher, Andy Ferguson, looked through the Chinese immigration records of that time and found him. Of course, that person isn’t really related to the legend at all. We know nothing very much about him.
So who’s the real Bodhidharma? Is it that historical person about whom we know very little, or is it the Legend?
I say it’s the Legend.
Buddhism has an unusual view of the future. The future Buddha for instance, Maitreya, is existing now, albeit not in the human realm. In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha confidently predicts the future Buddhahood of many of the characters in that sutra.
The view that the past, present, and future are all existing now is called Eternalism.
It’s not simply the view of Mystics and religious figures. It was Einstein’s view. When one of Einstein’s friends died, Einstein said to his widow, “Oh, he’s just over that hill there.”
Yet there’s something about that metaphor of the whole of space-time being like a landscape that’s too static.
More attractive -to me anyway -j is the view that the whole time-being is like a great ocean—dynamic, flowing in all directions. Time flows from the past to the present to the future, from the future to the past.
It flows in all directions. The dynamic nature of our life flows in all directions and the dynamism of the whole universe is flowing through us.
In this sense, ‘Buddhas and Ancestors’ do not refer to historically located actual people.
They refer to this flow.
In that sense we are the future Buddhas and Ancestors for Bodhidharma. And although we cannot see them, the Buddhas and Ancestors of our future are flowing towards us, the unknown waters meeting the past waters of our karma, creating this miraculous vortex of now.