Bodhidharma’s Outline of Practice

Bodhidharma lived in the 5th or 6th century. He is traditionally thought of as the man who brought Buddhism to China and is called the First Ancestor in China. The “Outline of Practice” is his best known sermon. I was refreshingly surprised at how current this treatise feels to me. It is truly an outline of how Buddhist practice manifests in a human’s life. I am going to paraphrase from the sermon so we can get a sense of how to understand it.

There are two ways to enter a Buddhist life.

  1. Entering by principle
  2. Entering by practice

1. Entering by principle.

The first way is to enter by experiencing the principle or eternal essence. I like the interpretation of emptiness, which unpacks it as – that which lacks inherent existence. Lacking inherent existence means each form is not a separate unit of life. There is no unit independent from others. You can extrapolate that by saying emptiness is truly the expression for interdependence. It is acknowledging unity by seeing that there is no unit that is not interdependent with everything else. We are a unified whole or a network of functioning.

We can experience “the principle” (suchness or emptiness) in two ways.

  1. We can experience the principle by a silent, nondiscriminating, inactive moment of meditation.
  2. Or we might experience the principle by truly experiencing inter-being. Forsaking the idea of others as opposed to the self. Or by seeing that so-called ordinary reality and the mystery itself, all naturally and inherently co-arise. They are not ever separated.

2. Entering by practice

The second avenue for entering the Way is through practice. Bodhidharma lists four practices that enable this actualization of the Way.

  1. Enduring the results of past actions
  2. Practice of acting according to conditions
  3. Practice of seeking nothing
  4. Practicing the dharma.

Enduring the results of past actions is the practice of accepting the karma from your past. There is nothing you can do about your past actions but accept their consequences. This is an indication of the First Noble Truth. Katagiri Roshi called it the sacred act of accepting suffering. The suffering that is occurring in this moment is the energy of this moment produced by conditions in the past. As Pema Chodron often says, over and over, “Learn how to stay. Stay, stay, stay with the energy of the moment.” I learn, especially through meditation, to increase my capacity to stay with the feelings of the moment. If these feelings are allowed to be experienced, they will release themselves. I have learned to trust that last statement. Experience will release itself. Bodhidharma wrote, “Upon meeting hardship, do not grieve, but just recognize from whence it came.”

Practice of acting according to conditions.  We live in a world of ever-changing outer conditions. The Eight Worldly Winds are constantly blowing: pleasure and pain, gain and loss, success and failure, praise and blame. But no matter what condition we find ourselves in, we can practice equanimity. Bodhidharma said, “Unmoved by (the Eight Worldly Winds) pleasure, we are steadfastly in accord with the Way.”

Practice of seeking nothing. This is a very difficult practice. If every moment is whole and complete in and of itself, then there is nothing to seek. Every moment is connected with the Whole. And yet our discursive thinking is always wanting more. Our ego-centric minds are inherently greedy. Our practice encourages us to go against the trend of human life and let go of covetousness and greed. Bodhidharma encourages us to let go of our thoughts, which interpret everything as not enough, and stop seeking more. This sutra says, “To seek is but bitterness, Non-seeking is Joy.”

Practicing the dharma. It behooves us to keep in our minds continuously the teaching. We need deep familiarity with the main teaching of the inherent emptiness of all things. Everything is constantly changing and therefore, there can be no centralized self, or no separate independent unit of existence. Because everything is constantly in motion, the boundaries between “things” become porous and each “thing” influences the other. If we have enough concentration to keep this in the forefront of our minds, how we act and relate to our so-called ordinary life changes. This is deeply transformative.

Practice has a quality of vow in it. We vow to over and over, notice when we are off, and return to the teaching. Notice when we are distracted and return to this moment. Notice when we are turning the wheel of the three poisonous minds; greed, anger and ignorance, and return to the dharma teaching.

If we can do this, each step of our life IS the essence. Each step turns samsara into nirvana.