Sunday, 24 March 2019


297. Master Wakuan asks a question about 'the Barbarian from the West'. Anyone familiar with the Zen literary tradition will know that Wakuan is here referring to Bodhidharma, the semi-legendary twenty-eighth Indian patriarch who is credited with introducing Zen to China in the first half of the sixth century of the Common Era. The puzzling aspect of the master's question has to do with its belief that the heavily bearded Bodhidharma has no beard. But perhaps equally puzzling is why does Wakuan refer to Bodhidharma as 'the Barbarian from the West'. Given that Wakuan is a Chinese Ch'an master of the twelfth-century and Bodhidharma an Indian of the sixth-century, it is worthwhile spending some time reflecting on his use of the word 'barbarian' here. Clearly, he means something more than foreign. But what is even more worthwhile is to examine how we feel about the Indian patriarch. Has familiarity with the koan made us insensitive to the shock of hearing the revered patriarch referred to in such a derogatory way?   

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