Excerpts from Baker Roshi’s Forthcoming Book


The classic question of Chinese Zen Buddhism is: “Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?” (India is southwest of China. Bodhidharma is the iconic Indian Zen Patriarch and purported founder of Chan in China. ‘Zen’ is Japanese for the Chinese word ‘Chan’, which comes from the Sanskrit ‘dhyana’, meaning absorption. Chan and Zen are the names for the Buddhist school and the meditative-absorption practice that evolved in China, and later Japan, from Indian Buddhism.)

This question, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?’ has been regularly asked of practitioners – explicitly, implicitly, iconically – throughout the history of Zen Buddhism. It also has been repeatedly presented in koans since the early centuries of Zen in China. While it must have begun as a question that had degrees of personal relevance for early practitioners, eventually it became the classic doctrinal testing question, with a variety of questions, challenges, and alternative worldviews implied in it.

For early practitioners, there would have been questions like: Why are we practicing a foreign teaching in China? What are the relationships of this foreign teaching to traditional Chinese teachings, customs, and practices? Was Bodhidharma on an intentional mission to bring Zen to China, or was he just an itinerant monk? And if his journey was intentional, what was that intention? And if it was, what teachings and practices did he bring to fulfill that intention?

After Bodhidharma came to China, the legend is that he sat in meditation facing a wall without speaking for nine years. Thus the question of “Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?” includes other questions: Why did he sit facing a wall for nine years? What is the practice of wall-gazing? And what is ‘arriving’? Is wall-gazing sitting the only way to ‘arrive’ at yourself, at your Buddha Nature?

Western practitioners may have similarly fundamental questions – at least they ought to. Why are ‘we’ practicing a foreign religion? A Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Tibetan religion? Are all religions versions of the same Truth? Do Western religions contain the same basic teachings as Buddhism? Are there Western traditions, views, crafts in philosophy, literature, poetry, painting, or science that are the same, or similar to, or that overlap with Buddhist teachings and yogic practices? If that is the case, are Western Buddhists practicing partially, or even to a significant degree, a Western tradition, a Western inheritance as well as an Asian Buddhist inheritance?

Is ‘Western’ Buddhism an idealization of Asian Buddhism?

Are our Western Zen practices true to Asian Zen practices?

Are we using psychology and science as ‘Trojan Horses’ to smuggle Buddhism into the West? And if so, are we thereby inflecting – or diluting, or fundamentally changing – Buddhism with science and psychology?

And then, for me as a practitioner, what really was Suzuki-roshi’s Zen practice? Is my practice true to his? Was Suzuki-roshi’s own understanding and practice true to the Japanese Zen tradition, to the Chinese tradition, to the lineage? Was it true to Dogen’s and Dongshan’s practice and teaching?

What do our centuries of separation from Buddha and Bodhidharma mean? Is the concept and practice of the teachings as a lineage a real connection, a real continuation? What does my separation from Suzuki-roshi mean, now forty years after his death? What conception of time does Bodhidharma sitting for nine years imply? What conception of time is implied by the mind and body of a Buddha being a real possibility for us now?

Why did Suzuki-roshi come from the west? Why are you reading this book?

Has Bodhidharma already come to the west? Are you part of his arrival?

Such exploratory questions (doubtings, wonderings, inspections) should be held in mind, mused over, incubated within the immediacy of the ‘ten-thousand things’, carried in the background and foreground (sometimes) of our meditation practice, and sometimes thought about, until they are no longer questions or until we feel resolutions and even answers. The presence and feel of the ten-thousand things (phenomenal reality) are part of the equipment necessary for thorough, existential questioning.


In the end, Zen Buddhism is a teaching about aliveness: what it is and what it can be. As fifteen centuries ago, the Chinese could develop Chinese Zen Buddhism from Indian Buddhism, so we Westerners will be able to develop a Western Zen Buddhism from Asian Zen Buddhism. We will need to understand and practice, of course, the basic teachings and practices of Buddhism, and let them settle into us and settle into our lived lives. As part of this development, it will be necessary (and beneficial) for practitioners to understand and have a feel, knowingly or unknowingly, for Western philosophical and cultural views which support or contradict the views of Buddhism. Many Western practitioners (mostly without knowing it) have come to, have been prepared for, Buddhism through Western philosophical, psychological, and artistic lineages – perhaps more than through their encounter with Asian teachings and practices. Moreover, the art, philosophy, and psychological-therapeutic practices of the West during the last one or two hundred years have already absorbed a lot of Buddhism and yogic views. Western encounters with Asian teachings, martial arts, yoga, poetry, and the visual arts have often been the catalyst for realizing that Buddhism can be part of our life and being.

At the same time, Buddhism still confronts contemporary practitioners with worldviews, teachings, and crafts of practice which are significantly different from anything commonly present in the West. When practitioners don’t really get a feel for these worldview differences, they easily drift back into the cultural and personal views they grew up with. Then they lose interest in Buddhism or end up being a Buddhist in name only.

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