Under the cover of night, Clark Strand discovers a lost state essential to wakefulness.
When I woke from this dream one morning two summers ago, I was already thinking of the famous koan in which the Indian monk Bodhidharma (the patriarch who conveyed Zen Buddhism to China) meditates for nine years in a mountain cave. Eventually his fame spreads far enough to reach the Chinese scholar-monk Huike. It is snowing heavily below the summit when, after a long journey, Huike arrives at the cave to ask for Bodhidharma’s guidance. But the sage refuses to break off his meditation. Again and again, Huike asks for guidance, standing for so long outside the cave that by evening the snow has risen to his waist. Still, Bodhidharma will not honor his request.
Finally, out of desperation, Huike cuts off his left arm and presents it as an offering and a show of his sincerity. At this point, Bodhidharma asks him what the problem is and Huike tells him that his mind is not at rest. “Bring me your mind and I will set it at rest for you,” Bodhidharma says. But Huike explains that this is just the problem—he has searched for it earnestly for many years but has never been able to find it. On hearing this, Bodhidharma replies, “Then I have set your mind at rest.”
In the Zen tradition, this story is seen as a foundational myth, a kind of creation story of how Zen came to be, since Bodhidharma is the original patriarch from whom all subsequent Zen masters trace their lineage. As such, it purports to be the first story of a new tradition. But the question that occurred to me that morning in a flash was this: What if, in the course of establishing that new tradition, an older tradition had inadvertently been concealed? What if Bodhidharma wasn’t who we thought he was? What if his teachings were far older than we knew?
In Asian art, Bodhidharma looks more like a caveman than any other figure. He is often referred to as the “hairy barbarian” in Zen lore, and his sitting in a cave for nine years doing pi-kuan, or “wall gazing,” suggests that he represents a kind of “primitive.” This is taken at face value as a bit of added color in the stories about him from the Zen tradition. But if color is what such details add to the story, it is important to understand what color that color is.
The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss died at one hundred last year, just before Halloween, an ancient holiday that, coincidentally, celebrates the beginning of the “darker half ” of the year. Lévi-Strauss often pointed out that the term “primitive” was a misnomer. He insisted on using the phrase “without writing” to describe those cultures that are more directly connected to nature and whose oral traditions, lacking written records and the relationship to property that such records both express and encourage, are primarily concerned with nature—how to live with it and within it, and how to discern its rhythms and shifting patterns in day-to-day life. This idea becomes relevant once we remember that the main tenet of Bodhidharma’s teaching (as recorded in texts discovered in a cave at the beginning of the last century and now sometimes referred to as the “Dead Sea Scrolls” of Zen) was a special transmission from mind to mind, “not relying in any way on written scripture.” Bodhidharma’s transmission was, then, one that existed “without writing.”
The figure in my dream was not the Bodhidharma whose tradition, subsequently written down by generations of patriarchs, I’d taken up when I dropped out of college many years ago. That Bodhidharma was a figure of fierce resolve, worthy of the kind of sacrifice Huike had offered in cutting off his arm. When I was a monk, he inspired me to feats of concentration and endurance I’d never have thought myself capable of (and, indeed, could not replicate today). According to legend, once when Bodhidharma became sleepy, he cut off his eyelids in anger and tossed them outside the entrance to his cave. There they took root and sprouted into the first tea plants, thus establishing an affinity between Zen and caffeine consumption that persists to the present day.
The “wallah” of my dream couldn’t have been more different. Middle-aged and utterly ordinary-looking in his polyester slacks and blue short-sleeve shirt, he would have said fierceness of resolve was strictly counterproductive, and eyelid-cutting a form of spiritual suicide. If these were on my agenda, I’d be better off practicing my Zen by daylight than wandering with him all night on a guided tour of the abandoned prehistoric monasteries of the world.
Although it had something in common with what I’d learned from my Japanese roshi, this wallah’s dharma was of a different order. The difference was one of scale. His were the teachings of a species, passed on through evolutionary life forces rather than through the written documents and established rituals of a particular sect or school. According to that older dharma, one’s wakefulness was calibrated to the shifting patterns and cycles of nature—both externally and as they existed within one’s own body in response to the changing seasons and the daily ebb and flow of light. If you were in harmony with those patterns and cycles, you were awake. If not, you weren’t—no matter what you did.
Once I realized this, I wasn’t surprised that the figure in my dream had spoken only one word to me. He probably wasn’t capable of speech as we modern humans are. The casual attire and modern human appearance had fooled me into thinking I’d encountered someone more or less like myself, when, in fact, we stood on either side of a vast divide—one species communing with another in that liminal dreamspace that is now, millions of years later, the only place they can meet one another other than an archaeological excavation. Perhaps what I’d stumbled upon in my midnight meditations, slipping in and of sleep, in and out of crisis and self-doubt, as the hours of sleeplessness piled up like slack rope in a far corner of my mind, was the spiritual equivalent of that— an archaeology of the soul.
If the arm-cutting had shocked me, this thought took my breath away. If the dream was meant to convey a teaching not only “without writing,” but possibly even “without words,” that would mean that what I’d been calling Green Meditation had existed for far longer than I’d thought—that it represented a way of being in the world that preceded the consciousness of the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens with its enhanced capacity for language and the intricacies of symbolic thought. I’d known that it predated Bodhidharma, who, after all, was a kind of symbol for its origins in antiquity. But there is an enormous difference between antiquity and prehistory—like the difference between treading water at the deep end of a swimming pool and floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean atop miles of deep blue sea. If Green Meditation were older than Shakyamuni Buddha himself—not by thousands of years, as I had thought previously, but by hundreds of thousands, or even millions—then Shakyamuni’s was simply one of the first versions of that teaching ever to get written down.
The meeting between Huike and Bodhidharma records a collision between two very different kinds of spiritual culture: one with writing, and one without. The first is driven to achieve increasingly higher levels of contrast and illumination (along with the enhanced powers of discernment that inevitably accompany them), but in so doing it becomes divorced from nature to such an extent that it can no longer find itself anywhere in the world. It can’t locate its own consciousness, much less locate its mind as Huike had tried to do. And yet it can’t help but look for them, and so it can never really sleep. It can never come to rest.
The other kind of culture is content to be in nature as nature, occupying caves and catacombs and other twilit margins of the world where the distinction between self and other is far more numinous, biological, and vague—where much can happen, but it is all right if nothing does, or if the same thing happens year after year (even for nine years), so long as it happens naturally. That world craves no novelty, is indifferent to fame or profit, and to most possessions, and would surely find it puzzling that one person should be considered more (or less) awake than another. But it always knows where it is—simply because it is connected to the earth.