Emperor Wu asks, “What is my merit?”

1001 Tales told by the Master Discourses

Bodhidharma: “No action is holy, because every action arises out of the ego…”


Bodhidharma reached China. He was one of the greatest buddhas of all the ages. After Gautam Buddha, Bodhidharma seems to be the most precious person in the Buddhist heritage. When he reached China, his fame had reached far ahead of him. Even Emperor Wu who ruled over the whole of China came to receive him at the boundary. And the conversation that transpired between the two is of immense importance. It has to be meditated upon again and again. It has a tremendous message for you all.

Emperor Wu was not only a great emperor, he was very religious too, and he had done much for Gautam Buddha’s message. In fact no other person except Emperor Ashoka had done so much for Buddhism as Emperor Wu had done. He transformed the whole of China into a Buddhist world. He made thousands of temples for Buddha, he made hundreds of monasteries – millions of Buddhist monks were supported by the royal treasury. He translated all the Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Thousands of scholars worked for years, almost their whole lives. He had done great work. Naturally, he wanted to know from Bodhidharma, “What is my merit?”

The first thing that he asked Bodhidharma was, “I have done so much, what is my merit? What have I gained? What virtue?”

Bodhidharma looked at him very sternly. If you have seen Bodhidharma’s pictures you will be puzzled. He looks more like a lion than like a man – very fierce; his eyes are very penetrating, like swords. He must have cut Wu down to his proper size just by his look.

Wu started trembling, he had never come up against such a man. He had conquered many enemies, he had conquered many dangerous kings, but Bodhidharma was the most dangerous person he had come across. It was a cool morning, but he started perspiring.

And Bodhidharma said, “Merit? Virtue? You are stupid! Now this is the ego and nothing else getting nourished and fat in the name of religion and spirituality. You are bound for the seventh hell, mind you!”

Wu could not believe his ears, could not believe his eyes. He said, “But thousands of other monks have come from India and they have all said, ‘Wu, you have done a great service to Buddha’s religion. You are a beloved of Buddha, you are blessed by Buddha.’ But you are saying just the opposite!”

Bodhidharma said, “Forget all about those monks! They were buttressing you, they were praising you because they knew that that’s what you expected from them. They are cunning and crafty people. They know nothing of Buddha and his message. I am a buddha myself, I am not a Buddhist monk. I speak on my own authority, and I say to you: You are cursed!”

Emperor Wu asked, “Do you mean to say there is nothing holy, nothing spiritual, in all these beautiful acts?”

Bodhidharma said, “No action is holy, because every action arises out of the ego. When you forget all about actions, when you disappear and things start happening on their own and you cannot claim that they are your actions, only then does something of immense value, of immense beauty penetrate your life.

“Spirituality has nothing to do with doing, spirituality is the fragrance of being, and you are not a being yet. You are still concerned that you have done this, you have done that.

“The ego is a doer, your self-nature is a non-doer. Your self-nature simply allows existence to flow through it, it simply allows the ultimate law to function through it. Your self-nature is just a hollow bamboo. In the hands of the ultimate nature it becomes a flute and a beautiful song is born out of it. But the flute cannot say, ‘This is my song. What is my merit? What am I going to gain out of it? To what heaven, to what joys will I attain?’ The bamboo flute is just nothing. Its whole being consists of nothingness. That’s why the song can flow through it, it is utterly empty.”

Shocked – but he could see the point – Wu said, “You are the first man who is not impressed by my great power, money, my empire. You are the first man with whom I am feeling that something is possible. How can I drop this ego? Yes, I can understand your point. First, I was claiming a great empire, now I am claiming something of the beyond. But the claim is the same and the claimer is the same. I can see your point. I bow my head to you. I am grateful that you have not been polite to me, that you have hit me hard. You have wounded me but I am thankful. How can I drop this ego?”

Emperor Wu
Emperor Wu of Liang (梁武帝) (464–549)

And Bodhidharma asked, “What ego do you want to drop? Again you want to do something. If you drop it, then the ego will persist. This is the subtle game of ego: if you drop it, the ego starts coming from the back door. It starts saying, ‘Look! I have dropped the ego. Look how humble I am. There is nobody who is more humble than me. I am the humblest person in the world – just dust under your feet.’ But look into the eyes, look into the heart of the man who is claiming that he is the humblest person – it is the same ego. It is not egolessness. Egolessness cannot claim humbleness. Egolessness cannot claim egolessness. Egolessness cannot claim at all, it simply falls silent. It cannot even say, ‘I am not, I am nobody’ – because the ‘I’ can exist in any claim whatsoever.”

The emperor asked, “Then help me because I cannot get out of this ego.”

Bodhidharma said, “Come early in the morning, three o’clock. Come alone, don’t bring anybody with you. And don’t be worried – I will finish it once and for all.”

The emperor could not sleep the whole night. “What does he mean? – this mad monk. He will finish it once and for all? And the man looks so dangerous… and three o’clock is not the time to meet such a person. He can do anything, he’s so unpredictable. And he has asked that I should come alone.”

Many times he decided not to go, but the pull was great, the man had something magnetic. He had to go. At three o’clock he found himself getting ready. He went. Bodhidharma was staying outside the town in a small temple. It was dark, and Bodhidharma was waiting… with his staff in his hand.

And he said, “So you have come! although you hesitated much. You decided many times not to come. You could not sleep the whole night, neither did you allow me to sleep – because I had to go on pulling you. But now that you have come things can be settled forever. Sit in front of me, close your eyes, go in, and find out where the ego is! And don’t fall asleep because I am sitting in front of you with my staff. I will hit you on the head immediately if you go to sleep! Be alert because when I hit I hit really hard. And find out…. If you can find the ego, just show me that this is the ego and I will finish it. First you have to find it, where it is.”

The emperor followed the logic. He closed his eyes. It was impossible to fall asleep. Bodhidharma was sitting there. Even with closed eyes he could see Bodhidharma sitting there, and once in a while Bodhidharma would hit his staff on the ground just to let him know that “I am here. You go on searching.”

Two hours passed, three hours passed. Wu looked and looked. For the first time he looked inside. In fact if you look inside and you can remain alert, just for forty-eight minutes…. That is the limit. The ego can go on eluding you only for forty-eight minutes, not more than that. This has been the experience of all the buddhas down the ages. Now, don’t ask why forty-eight minutes, because that’s impossible to answer. It is just like at a hundred degrees water evaporates, nobody asks why. Why not at ninety-nine degrees? Why not at a hundred and one degrees? There is no question about it, it is simply so, the law of nature. At a hundred degrees water evaporates. Exactly like that, if you can remain alert and watchful continuously without wavering, for forty-eight minutes, your whole inner being becomes so quiet, so silent, so peaceful, so alert. For the first time there is clarity, transparent clarity. You can see everything that is there.

And Wu looked and looked and looked and could not find any ego – because ego cannot be found. It is fictitious, it is just your idea, it has no substance in it. It is not even a shadow, what to say about substance? It exists only because you have not looked in. Looking in, your light is discovered – which is always there, you just have to look in and find it. He was looking for the ego but he found the light, because the ego is not there and the light is there. He had gone to search for the ego but he found the light. And once the light was found there was no darkness.

Three hours passed and then the sun was rising, and Wu’s face was transformed. He had a new beauty, a new grace. Bodhidharma laughed and he said, “Now, open your eyes. You have not been able to find it… so I have finished it forever.”

Wu opened his eyes, touched Bodhidharma’s feet and said, “Master, you have not done anything and yet you have finished it.”

That’s the miracle of a master; he never does a thing, and yet the ultimate miracle happens in his presence. His presence is the miracle, his presence has the magical quality.

Osho, The Dhammapada: The Way of the Buddha, Vol 12, Ch 10, Q 1

Series compiled by Shanti
All excerpts of this series can be found in: 1001 Tales

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