Green Koans Case 42: Hui-ke Offers His Arm

Clark Strand

CASE #42:    Hui-ke Offers His Arm

Bodhidharma sat in a cave for nine years gazing at the wall. Hui-ke arrived to inquire about the dharma, but Bodhidharma refused to teach him. Finally, taking a knife, Hui-ke cut off his own arm and presented it as an offering to Bodhidharma, who agreed to become his teacher.


Bodhidharma     The Indian monk who brought the Dhyāna (or “Meditation”) School of Buddhism to China in the 6th century C.E. Considered the founder of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, he is said to have transmitted a teaching “directly from mind to mind, without relying on written scriptures.”

Gazing at the wall     Bodhidharma’s practice of pi-kuan, or “wall gazing,” has been the subject of much debate. Zen devotees generally claim to have transmitted that practice from ancient times. Others, mostly scholars, insist that the original practice, obscure even to its first devotees, has now been lost to antiquity.  A collection of Bodhidharma’s teachings discovered in a cave at the beginning of the last century, and now sometimes referred to as the “Dead Sea Scrolls” of Zen, might be used to support either point of view.

Hui-ke         A Chinese scholar-monk famed for his mastery of Buddhist and Taoist scriptures. According to legend, when Bodhidharma agreed to accept him as a student, Hui-ke cried, “My mind is not at rest!” Whereupon Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind and I will set it at rest for you.” Hui-ke explained that this was just the problem—search as he might for his mind, he could not find it. “There!” proclaimed Bodhidharma, “I have set your mind at rest.” Our green version of the koan omits this episode which, from an ecological point of view, is only a supplement to the main case.

NOTE: A more comprehensive treatment of this koan can be found in the article “Turn Out the Lights” from the Spring 2010 issue of Tricycle.



Hui-ke’s brain is the bigger problem. Why not cut off his head? That way, if Bodhidharma asked, “Where’s your mind?” the answer would be obvious: “It’s right there at your feet!”

But seriously, wouldn’t it be simpler for Hui-ke to say, “I’ve drifted so far from Nature, I no longer know who or what I am”? Why trouble Bodhidharma if he was ready to admit the truth?

Toss a pebble
Into the air, willing it
To remain aloft,
And people will make fun of you—
Though their lives are just like that.


Find all the Green Koans here.




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Mat Osmond's picture

I recently saw that song performed by Richie havens, unforgettable.

Studying the Dharma like it mattered. This just in...another great folk poet.

What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
Of all a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
And in the wither’d field where the farmer plows for bread in vain.It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun
And in the vintage and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn.
It is an easy thing to talk of prudence to the afflicted,
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
To listen to the hungry raven’s cry in wintry season
When the red blood is fill’d with wine and with the marrow of lambs.

It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements,
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughterhouse moan;
To see a god on every wind and a blessing on every blast;
To hear sounds of love in the thunder-storm and destroys our enemies’ house;
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, and the sickness that cuts off his children,
While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door, and our children bring fruits and flowers.

Then the groan and the dolour are quite forgotten, and the slave grinding at the mill,
And the captive in chains, and the poor in the prison, and the soldier in the field
When the shatter’d bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead.
It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:
Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: but it is not so with me.

William Blake

Dominic Gomez's picture

This just in: Hui-ke cuts off own arm and presents it to Bodhidharma, who agrees to become his teacher!

Hui-ke has more fortune than Faust, or Faustus (Latin for "auspicious" or "lucky"). Although a successful scholar, Faust is still dissatisfied with life and strikes a deal with the devil, offering his very soul in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.

A story that appears in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra describes how Shakyamuni Buddha, as a boy in one of his previous lifetimes, masters all non-Buddhist teachings, but has yet to learn of Buddhism. The god Shakra decides to test the boy's sincerity. Appearing before him as a hungry demon, Shakra recites half a verse from a Buddhist teaching: "All is changeable, nothing is constant. This is the law of birth and death."
Inspired by this, the boy begs the demon to tell him the second half of the verse. The demon agrees, but only in exchange for human flesh and blood. The boy gladly promises to offer his own body to the demon, who in turn gives him the latter half of the teaching: "Extinguishing the cycle of birth and death, one enters the joy of nirvana."
Overjoyed, the boy scrawls the complete teaching on rocks and trees for the sake of those who might pass by and then, to fulfill his promise, jumps from a tall tree to give his body to the demon. Just at that moment, the demon changes back to Shakra and catches the boy in his arms. Shakra praises the boy's willingness to give his life for the sake of the dharma and predicts that he will become a Buddha.

ClarkStrand's picture

Or, as the Lotus puts it:

When the multitude see that I [Shakyamuni] have passed into extinction,
far and wide they offer alms to my relics.
All harbor thoughts of yearning
and in their minds thirst to gaze at me.
When living beings have become truly faithful,
honest and upright, gentle in intent,
single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha,
not hesitating even if it costs them their lives,
then I and the assembly of monks
appear together on Holy Eagle Peak. (LS16, 229-30)

Jim Spencer's picture

Seeing as I responded to last week's koan with an excerpt from a song, I think I will do it again.

Joni Mitchell said:

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the Devil's bargain
And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Jim Spencer says:

Genetically modified corporate farming is unsustainable - it is one of the pebbles that we are trying to get to stay aloft - factory farmed meats - the list here is very long. We are no longer good stewards of the land. We've got to get back to the land and set our souls free.

I won't give you my arm, but I will give you a hand.

ClarkStrand's picture

Funny you should mention that song, Jim. We must be on the same wave length. I was listening to the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version on the way up to Wesleyan on Tuesday and I heard that "Devil's bargain" line in a way I never had before.
Oh, and a hand is fine. Better keep your arm for yourself.

Jim Spencer's picture

Caught in the Devil's bargain. Tell ya what - I will see to it that you can live in borrowed comfort and ease, interest-free, no monthly payments. Yes, there is a balloon payment at the end, but fahgeddaboudit... that won't come due for generations! Right now, you have no worries. I will, strictly as a matter of formality, need to hold your humanity, your sense of responsibility for and connectedness to the land, in escrow, the return of which will be subject to certain terms and conditions, but hey, right now, just think about how comfortable YOU will be.

I live close to Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, NY, which is high on the list, if not at the top, of the most polluted bodies of water on the planet. The Haudenosaunee people hold this lake to be sacred. In a lecture given by several elders of the Haudeonsaunee, the indigenous vision for the lake seven generations out was given. As I was listening, I realized that the one thing that was missing was us. I commented on this to my wife, and one of the elders who was sitting in the row in front of me turned around, smiled and nodded. A few moments later, the speaker at the podium said that, if we, the invaders (my word, not his), were still in the area in 500 years, we would be welcome to join them.

Sorry to cut this short, but there is a guy in a red suit at the door. Wonder what he wants? Hey - do you smell rotten eggs or something?

ClarkStrand's picture

A few years ago a friend of mine, Alan Weisman, wrote a best-seller somewhat along the same lines called The World Without Us. I interviewed him for Trike that year:

Another approach can be found in George R. Stewart's classic sci-fi book Earth Abides (1949), which was the basis for Stephen King's book The Stand. It won the first Interntional Fantasy Award in 1951 and is still the most thoughtful and original treatment of the disappeared/disappearing humanity genre, fictional or otherwise--breathtakingly ahead of its time. Here's a link: