On Wednesday, we will celebrate the traditional birthday of Bodhidharma, a quasi-historical figure who may -- or may not -- have been many things: an Indian prince, the bearer of Buddhism from India to China, the confounder of Emperor Wu. Third in line for his father's realm, Bodhidharma didn't have much chance at inheritance. So, he studied and traveled and faced a wall for a few years. And in that flexibly vagrant life, he was able to become what was needed in the moment, not as a chameleon, but as a witness to the cries and suffering of the world. Before the Emperor, he refused to define himself. "I don't know," was all he said, eerily mirroring the response of another spiritual adept five centuries earlier who said to another prefect, "That's what you say I am."
It's interesting that the first question we ask new acquaintances, perhaps even before we know their name, is "What do you do?" As if occupation were identity. We confidently identify several "I's" that are "me." Parent, worker, student, child, retiree. The more, the better. Proof that we are somebody because we are somebodies. (Don't ask where the "I" is in that agglomeration.)
Now, imagine answering What do you do? with, "I listen to your inmost request and become what is needed to support you to fulfill it." Well, that would certainly change the conversation, wouldn't it? We might find that the party had suddenly moved to a far corner of the room. Having someone offer to be your mirror isn't exactly the basis for chit-chat.
Bodhidharma knew that Emperor Wu needed to be told that his temples and pious good works were not his true nature. In refusing to define himself, Bodhidharma suggested that perhaps the Emperor, too, might take a break from his identity. But the Emperor did not understand, and missed a golden opportunity to find the sacred within himself.
"The goal of those who practice is freedom from appearances," Bodhidharma says in his Wake-up Sermon. "Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness." Appearances involve a small number of tightly-held, carefully-crafted, deeply-cherished "I's." Awareness gives the capacity to end the suffering thereof.