Why did the Patriarch come from the West?

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Layman Pang was a celebrated Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist who is well-known for his wisdom. Once, he visited Master Mazu and asked him this question: “What is the meaning of the patriarch (Bodhidharma) coming from the East?” Mazu answered, “I will tell you once you have swallowed the water of the West River in one gulp.” This is a famous Zen koan.

What does this mean? The answer is actually very simple. Just as it is impossible to swallow the water of the West River in one gulp, it is also impossible to answer Layman Pang’s question about the meaning of the patriarch. It is not because Mazu was clueless. Mazu understood very well that such a question cannot be answered. It is a kind of trick question in Zen. There are many such trick questions. This is one.

Layman Pang was asking about the Ultimate Truth. In Buddhist understanding, there are two types of truths — conventional truth and Ultimate Truth. Conventional truths can be spoken. They are all based on relative concepts. They are also conditional truths. All the truths we can grasp with our human intellect are relative and conditional truths. For one thing, they are based on human understanding and the human condition. Would what is true for a human also be true to cat, a butterfly or an earthworm? If not, then it is not an absolute truth. It is just a relative truth, relative to the human situation. Another example of a conventional truth is what we mean by “up.” What we call “up” in North American is actually “down” in Australia. Notions of “up” and “down” are relative to our geographical location. They are not absolute.

The Tao Te Ching opens with this statement: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” Why? The Tao is equivalent to the notion of Ultimate Truth in Buddhism. Every idea and concept that can be grasped by the human mind are relative and not absolute. If something cannot be expressed in terms of concepts, then it cannot be expressed in words either. Hence, the Tao cannot be spoken. Our notion of the Tao has to be necessarily vague, ambiguous and partial. For we cannot see the whole.

Saint John’s gospel is a Gnostic gospel. It opens with this statement, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Note that the Greek term for this “Word” is Logos.

The Chinese version of this verse in the Bible is literally this: “In the beginning was the Tao. The Tao and God existed together. The Tao was God.” Thus, Word, God, Tao and Logos all point to the Absolute. They are not the Absolute itself. But they are made-up names for the Absolute. The Buddhist equivalent for this is Nirvana. Nirvana is the Unborn, Uncreated, and Unconditioned. Nirvana is another name for the Absolute.

The bottom line is that the Absolute is beyond human language, intellect and conception. We must recognize the limits of reason and stay humble. It is better not to speculate. The practical lesson is that there is much we don’t know. To recognize our human limitations is a form of wisdom.

Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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