Feb 19, 2024

Introduction To Zen: Commentary On Boddhidharma’s The Transmission of The Lamp

The following is a translation of the entire Sermon of Bodhidharma on which Far Eastern Zen is founded called “Transmission Of The Lamp”. This particular translation is by Zen scholar D.T.Suzuki found in his work, ‘A Manual of Zen Buddhism”. I thought I was extremely fortunate to find this very lucid translation in the public domain here in America, and I have added a commentary to it to make it more understandable.

Note: The Tao = The Path (of mental liberation that is Zen)

The translation is in italicized bold text and my commentary is in normal text.

Bodhidharma On The Twofold Entrance To The Tao

i.e. Bodhidharma on how to attain the zen state

There are many ways to enter the Path, but briefly Speaking they are of two sorts only. The one is "Entrance by Reason" and the other "Entrance by Conduct".

This opening sentence makes it clear that this is a method that requires intellectual understanding (not faith as in the religious systems most people are familiar with), and this intellectual understanding needs to be coupled with behavior (probably to stabilize the mind from desire like one trains the body before an athletic competition).

We know in our age that mind and body are so connected we might as well call them mind-body. In ancient China this was the normal understanding of the human being. The separation of mind from body is an intellectual concept that exists in Ancient Indian, Middle Eastern, Pagan and Ancient Greek philosophy which has been passed down to the present. 

By "Entrance by Reason" we mean the realization of the spirit of Buddhism by the aid of the scriptural teaching. 

What this sentence is saying is that to enter the path of the Tao/Zen, one has to understand - with their mind - what exactly the Buddha was saying and how it applies to them in everyday life. 


Scripture in Ancient China (& to a degree in Ancient India, i.e. only the philosophical texts) was written to help the people achieve the results the writers had achieved or to pass on the knowledge that the writers had understood or figured out. 

The “spiritual” approach was more like a doctor's prescription, i.e., it had an outline of the problem, the source of the problem, the best cure for the problem, and how to implement it. In Western religions, it’s “God’s grace” that brings a person “close to God” and creates a “Holy Man”. In the east it was the individual who attained their goals themselves with their own efforts. So while religious figures or holy men/women in the West were otherworldly, the holy ones of the East were accomplished practitioners of their art (yoga or zen) and are more comparable to professional sportsmen than to Western holy men spouting rhetoric according to their belief & blind faith.

We then come to have a deep faith in the True Nature which is the same in all sentient beings. 

This is the perfect example of the difference between zen and normal religions.

In the religion one sees the world as sinful or a fall from grace i.e. something which has to be overcome. 

IN zen the pure state of mind is something one shares with all living beings because it’s the natural state of mind.

In other words, spirituality in zen is about finding your most natural way of being while in western religions or even in yoga, it involves transcending yourself completely so nothing recognizable as “normal” remains.

The reason why it does not manifest itself is due to the overwrapping of external objects and false thoughts. 

This concept is explained in the introduction under ….  . In short, your idea of reality isn’t necessarily reality itself.

In other words, the world has already been labeled and explained to whatever degree in the culture you were born in. These labels were created to get around in the context of that culture. 

For example, we only have a few names for snow, and it’s enough for us to get around in our culture. We got “snow” & “sleet” and maybe “hail”. That it. Eskimos have over 70 different words for snow. Why do the Eskimos have so many words for snow? Because snow can come down as flakes that you can see as little shapes (pic), in can come down with many flakes stuck together, as tiny little balls of snow as sleet etc. To an Eskimo, whose entire life is lived in snow and ice, these little differences are noticed and named as they affect their lives. We don’t care. We don’t hunt in the Arctic, so we don’t need to know what kind of snow is falling to plan out hunting trips and so on. 

Basically, the words we create and use helps us navigate our lives within our culture and way of life. Yet these words are made by categorizing the world in an arbitrary way. 

Bodhidharma is saying that these definitions and labels that we use for navigation are false and in a way they are because they are arbitrary and do not reflect the true essence or context of the object in the universe but only in the particular culture that the word was created in.

What Bodhidharma is saying is that when you have all these labels and ways of categorizing the world you fail to see the world as it is (as Emerson pointed out in his essay on Nature) and thus a person has overlapped “external objects” with “false thoughts” or concepts.

When a man, abandoning the false and embracing the true, in singleness of thought practises the Pi-kuan he finds that there is neither self nor other, that the masses and the worthies are of one essence, and he firmly holds on to this belief and never moves away therefrom. 

If conceptions (words) can ‘wrap’ themselves around external objects becoming ‘false thoughts’, then how do you extricate yourself from these false thoughts? Here is where we discover Bodhidharma’s meditation technique called wall gazing, which must be pursued with a single-minded purpose to achieve results.

The technique is to literally sit in front of a wall and practice meditation. The meditation normally practiced in zen circles involves sitting comfortably and focusing only on your breathing, eyes half closed. Some meditate with eyes closed. The wall gazing technique is probably what he did, ie.e. sit in front of a wall and meditate to reduce the possibility of distraction and when he taught, he taught what he knew to work for him.

When practicing this technique, Bodhidharma asks you to see everyone as the same/equal/conscious beings only.

He will not then be a slave to words, for he is in silent communion with the Reason itself, free from conceptual discrimination; he is serene and not-acting. This is called "Entrance by Reason".

After unpacking the earlier statements you can notice how clear and direct Bodhidharma is being in his explanation.

Instead of being caught by in words and conceptions you will be set free from ‘conceptual discrimination’ of one thing being better or worse than another.

With all the labels categorizing your experience gone, all just is as it is.

Now, Bodhidharma begins to describe the approach of ‘practical living’ that helps one attain zen. This explanation is written for the Sage, although this was adopted by the Samurai as well as the pure dhayana or zen state would make the following an easy task

By "Entrance by Conduct" is meant the four acts in which all other acts are included. What are the four? 

1. To know how to requite hatred; 

2. To be obedient to karma; 

3. Not to crave anything; and 

4. To be in accord with the Dharma.

Taking each number separately;

1. What is meant by "How to requite hatred"? He who disciplines himself in the Path should think thus when he has to struggle with adverse conditions: "During the innumerable past ages I have wandered through a multiplicity of existences, all the while giving myself to unimportant details of life at the expense of essentials, and thus creating infinite occasions for hate, ill-will, and wrongdoing. While no violations have been committed in this life, the fruits of evil deeds in the past are to be gathered now. Neither gods nor men can foretell what is coming upon me. I will submit myself willingly and patiently to all the ills that befall me, and I will never bemoan or complain. The Sutra teaches me not to worry over ills that may happen to me. Why? Because when things are surveyed by a higher intelligence, the foundation of causation is reached." When this thought is awakened in a man, he will be in accord with the Reason because he makes the best use of hatred and turns it into the service in his advance towards the Path. This is called the "way to requite hatred".

This paragraph explains how one needs to think on the path of zen. It begins with ‘during innumerable past ages I have wandered through multiplicity of existences’ which I think needs to be unpacked. 

In zen there is a concept of the Self that is something you have to create and maintain by continuously recreating the Self (I’ve gone into this in more detail in the introduction).

So looking at this paragraph as a psychological technique, Bodhidharma is saying ‘in the many stories I have created of myself, which are like many lives, there have been many instances for me to get angry and do things motivated by anger. I understand that everything has a cause, either in myself through my own bad actions at some time in the past or through a cause and effect at work in society and in the culture which creates the effect I am observing now’.

In other words, this technique involves coming through conclusions through reason and observation that help you explain the cause of whatever situation you are dealing with. When you understand it, it loses some of its power over you and allows you to release your anger as you have gained distance on it.


In zen, death & rebirth (reincarnation) is seen as a psychological phenomenon following from the illusion of the self.

An ancient Zen Scholar, Hui-Neng’s Tan Ching, Writes;

What is Paramita? This is a Sanskrit term of the Western country. In Yang it means "the other shore reached". When the meaning (artha in Sanskrit) is understood, one is detached from birth and death. When the objective world (visaya) is clung to, there is the rise of birth and death; it is like the waves rising from the water; this is called "this shore". When you are detached from the objective world, there is no birth and death for you; it is like the water constantly running its course: this is "reaching the other shore". Hence Paramita.

The idea being expressed here: When you cling to the world you have to create to create a self to deal with each new situation, thus you experience ‘death and rebirth’ (of the ego). When you let go and dwell in the zen state your consciousness stays steady and thus you don’t experience birth and death (of the ego).

For example: When you try and do good deeds you are trying to create a new self. By working on being better and better, you are destroying an old way of being (the old ‘self’) and you are creating a new one. Your ‘self’, i.e. how you define or imagine yourself to be, is going through death and rebirth.

2. By "being obedient to karma" is meant this: There is no self (atman) in whatever beings are produced by the interplay of karmic conditions; the pleasure and pain I suffer are also the results of my previous action. If I am rewarded with fortune, honour, etc., this is the outcome of my past deeds which by reason of causation affect my present life. When the force of karma is exhausted, the result I am enjoying now will disappear; what is then the use of being joyful over it? Gain or loss, let me accept the karma as it brings to me the one or the other; the Mind itself knows neither increase nor decrease. The wind of pleasure [and pain] will not stir me, for I am silently in harmony with the Path. Therefore this is called "being obedient to karma".

This is saying that life is as it is. Good things in life happen and bad things in life happen. Your good actions can lead to good things (such as working to make money gives you the ability to buy things, i.e. “good” actions leads to good results, and so on). The goal of this paragraph seems more to detach a person from the sense of profit and loss that people associate with living due to their attachment to life.

This idea is expressed by this story;

There was a farmer whose horse ran away. All his neighbors came by to say how sorry they were at his misfortune. All he said was, "We shall see". Next, his horse returns fallen by a group of wild horses. His neighbors congratulate on his good fortune and the farmer once again says, "We shall see". Then his son falls off the same horse and breaks his leg. The neighbors once again exclaim at his misfortune and once again he says, "We shall see". In a few days the army comes by collecting young men for a war. The farmer's son was ignored as his leg was broken. His neighbors congratulate him and all he says is, "We shall see".

Notice that in this story every event of the day or week did not make the farmer giddy with happiness or depressed at having a bad day. This is the goal Boddhidharma is asking the reader to strive for.

3. By "not craving (ch'iu) anything" is meant this: Men of the world, in eternal confusion, are attached everywhere to one thing or another, which is called craving. The wise however understand the truth and are not like the ignorant. Their minds abide serenely in the uncreated while the body moves about in accordance with the laws of causation. All things are empty and there is nothing desirable to seek after. Where there is the merit of brightness there surely lurks the demerit of darkness. This triple world where we stay altogether too long is like a house on fire; all that has a body suffers, and nobody really knows what peace is. Because the wise are thoroughly acquainted with this truth, they are never attached to things that change; their thoughts are quieted, they never crave anything. Says the Sutra: "Wherever there is a craving, there is pain; cease from craving and you are blessed." Thus we know that not to crave anything is indeed the way to the Truth. Therefore, it is taught not "to crave anything".

As in basic yogic philosophy craving is considered to be the source of all mental ills affecting society and man. Thus the concept of non-attachment to the world is a central pillar of zen buddhism and of practicing zen itself. I’ve covered this concept in the introduction. 

Bodhidharma is saying that since your concepts and stories change with your imagination and how you label the world changes with how you categorize it… why crave anything in the world at all? Clearly you attachment to the world is what cause pain and anguish to begin with. Even heightened pleasure followed by the low is a sort of pain as you wish you could have that heightened feelings again and are thus back in attachment of craving of the world.

4. By "being in accord with the Dharma" is meant that the Reason which we call the Dharma in its essence is pure, and that this Reason is the principle of emptiness (sunyata) in all that is manifested; it is above defilements and attachments, and there is no "self", no "other" in it. Says the Sutra: "In the Dharma there are no sentient beings, because it is free from the stain of being; in the Dharma there is no 'self' because it is free from the stain of selfhood." When the wise understand this truth and believe in it, their lives will be "in accordance with the Dharma".

In other words, Bodhidharma is saying that if you live life from zen (the emptiness of zen, i.e., non, attachment and alert awareness), then dharma, or doing your duty, becomes easy. Life is easier when you aren't constantly chasing it. This reminds me of the verse in the Tao Te Ching ‘the sage does everything while doing nothing’ and so I agree with the belief of D.T.Suzuki and Alan Watts that the Tao Te Ching is the world oldest zen poem and zen is essentially a far eastern (ancient Chinese) practice derived from the ancient Indian yogic practice of dhayana.

As there is in the essence of the Dharma no desire to possess, the wise are ever ready to practise charity with their body, life, and property, and they never begrudge, they never know what an ill grace means. As they have a perfect understanding of the threefold nature of emptiness, they are above partiality and attachment. Only because of their will to cleanse all beings of their stains, they come among them as of them, but they are not attached to form. This is the self-benefiting phase of their lives. They, however, know also how to benefit others, and again how to glorify the truth of enlightenment. As with the virtue of charity, so with the other five virtues [of the Prajnaparamita]. The wise practise the six virtues of perfection to get rid of confused thoughts, and yet there is no specific consciousness on their part that they are engaged in any meritorious deeds. This is called "being in accord with the Dharma".

Describes what living a life of zen is like.

Note on enlightenment: Once you understand Zen you are “enlightened”. It’s not something you seek to practice forever as such striving tends to become the goal in and of itself. As one writer explains: “That followers of Zen fail to recognize the Buddha is due to their not rightly recognizing Where their own Mind is. They seek it outwardly, set up all kinds of exercises which they hope to master by degrees, and themselves work out diligently throughout ages. Yet they fail to reach enlightenment. No works compare with an immediate awakening to a state of mushin itself”                

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