Chinese Texts, Texts, The Masters, Zen Stories

Bodhidharma, Hui-k’o and Hui-k’o’s Arm

One of the most popular chapters in Zen lore, this scene between Bodhidharma, the first Zen ancestor in China, and the student who eventually became his successor, Hui-k’o, is a demonstration of the potential intensity and determination of a bonafide teacher-student relationship. Hui-k’o famously tracked Bodhidharma down to the Shao-lin Temple where he was residing (some versions even have him cloistered in a cave on top of the mountain beyond the temple) on a snowy night. Hui-k’o entreated Bodhidharma for instruction, but the master tested his resolve and Hui-k’o cut off his arm in response. This version of the tale is taken from Sohaku Ogata’s translation of Tao Yuan’s Transmission of the Lamp


Residing at the Shao-lin Temple of Sung Mountain, Master Bodhidharma sat [in meditation] facing the wall all day long in silence. People wondered who he was and called him the wall-gazing Brahmin.

At that time there was a Buddhist monk named Shen-kuang who was widely informed and who had been living in Lo-yang for a long time, He read [great] quantities of all kinds of books which told of the profound Principle. He sighed and said, “The teachings of Confucius and Lao-tzu are but customs and etiquette, and the books of Chuang-tzu and the I Ching still do not plumb the depths of the wonderful Principle. Lately I hear that Master Dharma is living in Shao-lin Temple. With this supreme man so near, I should reach the deeper realms [of understanding]. Then he went to him, wanting to be instructed from morning till night. The Master, however, would give him no instruction, but sat in meditation all the time facing the wall. 

Kuang thought to himself: “Men of old sought the Way by smashing their bones to take out the marrow, slashing their veins to feed hungry [animals], spreading their hair to cover the muddy road in order to let a spiritual man pass through safely, or leaping off a cliff to feed a hungry tigress. All through the ages people have behaved like this. Who am I [not to do so]?” 

On December 9th of that year it snowed heavily in the night. Shen-kuang stood firmly without moving [in the yard of Shao-lin Temple]. By dawn of the next day, the falling snow had piled so deep that it reached his knees. 

Master Bodhidharma then took pity on him and asked him, “What are you seeking, standing in the snow for this long time?” 

Shen-kuang sobbed, and in tears begged him, “Please, Master, have mercy. Open the gate of nectar. Deliver the message that liberates sentient beings!” 

The master said, “The supreme, unequalled, spiritual Way of the buddhas is accessible only after vast eons of striving to overcome the impossible and to bear the unbearable. How could a man of small virtue, little wisdom, slight interest, and slow mind attain the True Vehicle? Striving for it would be vain effort.” 

After listening to this exhortation from the master, Shen-kuang secretly took a sharp knife and cut off his own left arm; placing it in front of the master. 

Realizing that he was a good vessel for the dharma, the master said, “All buddhas in search of the Way have begun by ignoring their bodies for the sake of the Dharma. Now you have cut off your arm in front of me. You may have the right disposition.” 

The master then renamed him Hui-k’o. Hui-k’o asked, “May I hear about the Dharma-seal of the Buddha?” 

The master said, “The Dharma-seal is not something that can be heard about from others.” 

Hui-k’o said, “My mind is not yet at peace. Pray set it at peace for me, Master!”

The master said, “Bring me your mind, and I will set it at peace for you.” Hui-k’o answered, “I have searched for it, but in the end it is unobtainable.” 

The master said, “Your mind has been set at peace. “ 


Tao Yuan (10th century, China)
From: Transmission of the Lamp – Early Masters


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