Saturday, 20 August 2016


55. Ch'an master Wakuan refers to Bodhidharma as 'the Western Barbarian'. In common parlance this is a derogatory expression, saying in effect that someone is uncultured, rude, wild, ignorant. It points to behaviour that is at odds with accepted civilised standards. But in the Zen tradition Bodhidharma cuts a great figure. So why is he referred to as a barbarian? Various explanations are given. All of them fixed on the bearded Indian monk who is credited with introducing Zen Buddhism to China. Yet given that Wakuan's derogatory expression occurs within a koan, it might well be the case that the focus of Wakuan's gaze is not so much on the figure of Bodhidharma as on the practice he represents and teaches. Perhaps Wakuan is alerting his disciples to a feature of Zen practice that many might find disturbing. This is its propensity to take a practitioner very quickly out of his or her comfort zone. For the practice can at times appear foreign, wild, rude and unpredictable. The novice who might look to Zen for an experience that is all sweetness and light is in for a very rude awakening.  

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