Bodhidharma on “No-mind”

From D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism: Third Series (New York, Samuel Weiser, 1970; first published in 1953)

Bodhidharma was an Indian master of the Mahayana school. He arrived in northern China in 527 C.E., where he became the first patriarch of what later developed into Ch’an. According to tradition, Bodhidharma bestowed only one sutra on his successor, Hui-k’e: The Lankavatara Sutra. However, Hui-k’e was already quite learned in the Buddhist cannon when he sought out Bodhidharma, and although the Lanka was taken as the principal scripture in the early years of Ch’an, the masters also made use of other sutras, such as the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedika), the Vimalakirti, the Prajnaparamita and the Avatamsaka. 

The following is Suzuki’s footnote on the origin of this sermon, attributed to the First Patriarch:

This is taken from Dr. Keiki Yabuki’s Echoes of the Desert (folio 77) containing collotype reproductions of some of the Tun-huang Buddhist MSS kept in the British Museum. This Discourse ascribed to Bodhidharma is not mentioned in any of the Zen histories we have at present and there is no way to decide its authenticity. The MS. is not in the best style of writing.

The theme of this sermon is wu-hsin, ‘no-mind’, for which Suzuki used several terms, but mostly The Unconscious. He used the word ‘Reason’ for ‘Tao’ in his translation of the Tao Te Ching, and in 1932, he and Dwight Goddard used ‘Universal Mind’ for Goddard’s epitomized edition of the Lankavatara Sutra. In the 1950s, when he spoke to psychologists, Suzuki adopted ‘The Unconscious’ to denote the indescribable That which in China was originally known as the Tao:

(1) The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The Unnamable is of Heaven and Earth the beginning. The Namable becomes of the ten thousand things the mother.

(25) There is a Being wondrous and complete. Before Heaven and Earth, it was. How calm it is! How spiritual!

Alone it standeth, and it changeth not; around it moveth, and it suffereth not; yet therefore can it be the mother of the ten thousand things.

Its name I know not, but its nature I call the Tao. (Suzuki, Carus)

In copying this translation, for the sake of simplicity I have replaced the various terms that Suzuki employed with ‘wu-hsin’.



Wu-hsin itself is without words, but to express it words are borrowed. Wu-hsin has no form, but in order to come into contact with the ignorant it reveals itself in form. Now let us suppose that there are two persons engaged in a discussion of wu-hsin. The disciple asks the master:

D. : Is wu-hsin conscious or unconscious?

M. : It is unconscious.

D. : If it is unconscious, what is it that sees, hears, thinks and knows? Who is it that knows wu-hsin?

M. : Only because of wu-hsin are seeing, hearing, thinking and knowing possible; only because of wu-hsin is wu-hsin known.

D. : How is it possible for wu-hsin to see, hear, think and know? Wu-hsin would be incapable of all this.

M. : Though I am of wu-hsin, I can see, hear, think and know.

D. : If you can see hear, think and know, you cannot be of wu-hsin; you must be a sentient being.

M. : To see, hear, think and know—these are the activities of wu-hsin itself. Apart from wu-hsin there is nothing seen, heard, thought and known. I am afraid you do not understand this, and I will see to it that the matter is explained step by step and you are led to see into the truth.

For instance, something being seen, it is said that there is seeing; but this is because there is the not-seeing, so even the seeing is of wu-hsin. Something being heard, it is said that there is hearing; but this is because there is the not-hearing, so even the hearing is of wu-hsin. There being the thought, it is said that there is thinking; but this is because there is the not-thinking, so even the thinking is of wu-hsin. Something being known, it is said that there is knowing; but this is because of the not-knowing, so even the knowing is of wu-hsin. A deed being done, it is said that there is doing; but this doing is in reality not-doing, so even the doing is of wu-hsin. Therefore, we say that the seen, heard, thought and known—all these are of wu-hsin.

D. : How can we know that this is of wu-hsin?

M. : You investigate the matter more closely and tell me if wu-hsin has any perceptible form. If you say that it has, such will not be wu-hsin. Is it to be seen as existing within, or without, or in the middle? Wu-hsin is not to be found at any of these three points, nor is it to be seen as existing in any other possible places. Hence wu-hsin.

D. : O master, if it is wu-hsin that prevails everywhere, there should be neither fault nor merit. Why do all beings transmigrate along the six paths of existence and constantly go through birth and death?

M. : This is because all beings are so confused in mind as to believe in the illusive reality in wu-hsin. Creating all kinds of karma, they erroneously cling to the notion that there is really a conscious mind. For this reason, they transmigrate along the six paths of existence and constantly go through birth and death.

It is like a man’s seeing a table or a piece of rope in the dark and taking it for a departed spirit or a serpent, being terrified by something of his own imagining. In like manner all beings delusively cling to their own creations. Where there is wu-hsin they erroneously imagine the reality of a conscious mind. Thus various kinds of karma are performed and there is truly transmigration along the six paths of existence. Such beings are advised to see a good friend, of great insight, and to practise meditation, which will lead them to the realization of wu-hsin. When this is done, all their karma-hindrances vanish and the chain of birth and death is cut asunder. As the sunlight once penetrating the darkness dispels all darkness, all their karma is destroyed when they realize wu-hsin.

D. : Being deluded, my mind is not yet quite clear as to the functioning of the six senses as they respond everywhere.

M. : [Various contrivances employed here to explain the nature of the six senses.]

D. : Evil passions (klesa) and enlightenment (bodhi), birth-and-death (samsara) and nirvana — are these indeed of wu-hsin?

M. : Assuredly they are of wu-hsin. Only because of all beings’ erroneous clinging to the idea of a conscious mind are there all kinds of klesa and bodhi, samsara and nirvana. If they are awakened to wu-hsin, there are no klesa, no samsara, no nirvana. Therefore, for the sake of those who harbour the idea of a conscious mind, the Tathagata talks of samsara: bodhi is opposed to klesa, and nirvana to samsara. All of these names are mutually conditioning. When wu-hsin is attained, there are neither klesa nor bodhi, neither samsara nor nirvana.

D. : If there is neither bodhi nor nirvana, how do we account for the bodhi which the buddhas of the past are said to have attained?

M. : This is spoken of because of convention. As long as wu-hsin is considered there is no such thing. Therefore, it is said in the Vimalakirti that there is no body in which bodhi is to be realized, no mind by which bodhi is to be realized. Furthermore, it is said in the Vajracchedika (Diamond Sutra) that there is no thing, no reality which one can claim to have attained, that all the attainment of the buddhas is really non-attainment. Therefore, let it be known that all things rise when a conscious mind is asserted, and that all things cease to exist when wu-hsin is realized.

D. : O master, you say that wu-hsin obtains everywhere. Now, wood and stone are of wu-hsin; are we not then like wood and stone?

M. : But the wu-hsin realized in my conscious mind is not that of wood and stone. Why? It is like the celestial drum, which, while lying still, spontaneously and without conscious effort produces varieties of exquisite sound in order to teach and discipline all beings. It is further like a wish-fulfilling gem (mani), which, without conscious effort on its part spontaneously creates varieties of form. In like manner, wu-hsin works through my conscious mind, making it understand the true nature of wu-hsin. It is furnished with true transcendental wisdom, it is the master of the threefold body, it functions with the utmost freedom. So, we read in the Ratnakuta that the mind functions by means of wu-hsin without being conscious of it. How can we then be like wood and stone? Wu-hsin is the true Mind, the true Mind is wu-hsin.

D. : How shall we discipline ourselves then with this mind of ours?

M. : Only let us be awakened to wu-hsin in all things, in all our doings—this is the way of discipline; there is no other way. Thus we know that when wu-hsin is realized, all things cease to trouble us.

Hearing this, the disciple all at once had an illumination and realized that there is no matter outside of the mind, and no mind outside of matter; in all his conduct and activities he acquired perfect freedom; his entire web of doubts we torn to shreds and he felt limitless.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s