61, A commitment 'to follow the Way of the Dharma' might appear to be no more than a pious nod in the direction of honouring some vague Buddhist ideal. After all it is a little difficult to pin down exactly just what the word 'dharma' means in the context of Buddhist discourse. Clearly it has more than one meaning.
In some contexts the word is used in a plural sense so that the word 'dharmas' points to all those things that are encountered in the world. These are what the Zen practitioner gestures towards with the formula 'the ten thousand things'. Such things (or dharmas) come into being and pass out of being.
But in the expression 'the Way of the Dharma' the word is used in the singular sense and its first letter is capitalised. For here it is said to point to the law that is at work in the universe, what has been called 'the cosmic order'. Buddhists find this universal law manifested and articulated in the teachings of Gautama Shakyamuni, the Buddha. So a commitment 'to follow the Way of the Dharma' would seem to be an undertaking to study and put into practice the teachings of the Buddha and thus come into harmony with the law that governs all of reality. But the question then arises as to the most effective way to pursue such a study and practice. That Buddhism has taken diverse forms testifies to the different ways in which this question has been answered.
The answer found in the Zen tradition is distinctive in that it privileges meditative inquiry over intellectual study and academic research. The Zen approach is encapsulated in an ancient verse that reads as follows:
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to one's heart-mind
It lets one see into one's own true nature
And thus realise Buddhahood.
This verse has been attributed to Bodhidharma, the Indian monk and dhyana master who is credited with transmitting the Dharma from India to China in the early part of the sixth century of the Common Era. What the verse expresses is exemplified in the behaviour of Bodhidharma himself at his interview with Emperor Wu of Liang. It seems that the emperor, being on his own account a devout Buddhist, wanted to know what merit he had gained through all his good works. But Bodhidharma bluntly told him 'no merit at all'. Visibly taken aback the emperor then inquired as to what was the first principle of the holy teaching. Again he was in for a shock when the master answered 'vast emptiness, nothing sacred'. Flabbergasted the emperor found himself compelled to question the identity of the one standing before him. Bodhidharma simply replied 'I don't know' and then left the royal presence.
For the Zen practitioner a commitment 'to follow the Way of the Dharma' entails a readiness to enter into the mysterious vast emptiness of which Bodhidharma spoke, an emptiness that transcends 'words and letters', an emptiness in which 'not knowing is most intimate'. To enter this vast emptiness one must follow the Way that is not a way, the Way in which there is neither coming nor going.