Translator’s Note: There have been a number of Bodhidharmas in the history of Buddhism. On this post, the name refers to the Bodhidharma who came from India to China in the late fifth century CE or early sixth century CE (depending on which scholar of Buddhism history one believes), who allegedly wrote the “Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices” (in Chinese: Er-ru Si-xing Lun [二入四行論]), and who has been commonly held to be the first Patriarch of Chinese Chan Buddhism and Japanese Zen Buddhism.
By the late fifth century CE, Buddhism in China was in the middle of the “Period of Domestication” (according to Arthur F. Wright’s periodisation of Chinese Buddhism), when its indigenous character was being developed and when it gradually moved towards the formation of various schools due to differences in their emphases on either sutra studying or Buddhist practicing. Against such a background, Bodhidharma’s importance in Chinese Buddhism is that he provided the Chan School with a concrete link with the Indian tradition. Bodhidharma did not leave behind any written work when he allegedly returned to India, but the authorship of the “Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices” is commonly attributed to him. Hence the importance of the Four Essential Practices in Chinese Chan Buddhism.
To introduce Bodhidharma’s Four Essential Practices to English-reading readers of this post, I have translated them into English from the Chinese original of the part on them in the “Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices”. The Chinese original, appended to the English translation here, is in Classical Chinese. The translator may, someday, translate it into modern Chinese.
Bodhidharma’s “Four Essential Practices”:
What is meant by the “Practice of Retribution of Emnity”? It is meant that when a path-to-enlightenment-practitioner encounters sufferings, he would think to himself this way: In the past numerous kalpas, I have given up the fundamental and followed the superficial, and wandered around various existences, during which I have engendered much injustice and hatred and have left behind limitless harm; now although I have not committed any sin, it is time the evil karma of my past calamities ripened, and no deities or human beings would be able to share that with me; I will therefore wholeheartedly accept whatever befalls me without complaining about injustice. The Sutra says, “Encounter sufferings without worry”. Why can that be? It is because our consciousness has attained the understanding. When our mind has been activated to the extent that it complies with the principle of the Dharma, we still enter the path of enlightenment despite experiencing injustice. That is why it is called the “Practice of Retribution of Enmity”.
Secondly, the “Practice of Accepting the Circumstances” means that there is no self for all sentient beings, who cycle in the sea of samsara along with circumstances and karma. The sufferings and pleasures they have to experience are all results of circumstances. If I get to experience desirable rewards, glories, etc., they were effected by causes I made in the past which now bring forth their consequences, and when the circumstances cease to exist nothing will remain. For such reasons what joy is there? One should accept the circumstances whether one gains or loses, and keep one’s mind steady without increase or decrease, not affected by joyous situations and all the time following the path. This is why it is called the “Practice of Acceptance the Circumstances”.
Thirdly, by the “Practice of Non-craving”, it means that people in this world are always deluded and get attached to everything, which is called craving. A person with wisdom who understands what is real will reasonably go against what is customary and will rest his heart with asking for nothing and allowing his body to go along with fate and, with the understanding that all existences are empty, he has no wish for joy. He understands that both merits and darkness constantly follow each other and it is like living in a house on fire when one stays long in the three planes of existence, and that as long as there is this body of existence no one can achieve calm. Once one understands this one will abandon various existences, stop craving, and desire nothing. The Sutra says, “All cravings are sufferings. The absence of craving means joy”. Once one understands this absence of craving, one will really be practising the path. That is why it is the “Practice of Non-craving”.
Fourthly, the “Practice of Abiding by the Dharma” means one sees the principle of the purity of our nature as Dharma. According to this principle, various characteristics are all empty, without clinging, without attachment, and without differentiation into this or that. The Sutra says: “There is no sentient being in the Dharma, because the Dharma is not stained by the concept of ‘sentient beings’. There is no self in the Dharma, because the Dharma is not stained by the concept of ‘self’. If a person with wisdom can believe and comprehend this principle, it would be natural that he abides in the Dharma with his practicing. He should then practice the Dharma without being miserly with his body and his wealth but instead do the Buddhist practices of giving without hesitation and regret. He would fully understand the Three-Empty, would have no clinging or attachment, would aim for removing all stains, and would attempt to help the sentient beings to achieve enlightenment without attaching to characteristics. Although this is practice of oneself, it also benefits others and can also bring prestige to the bodhi path. The Paramita of Giving is like this, and so are the other five Paramitas. When one practises the six Paramitas in order to rid oneself of delusions and yet not attached to any particular practice, that is what is meant by the “Practice of Abiding by the Dharma”.
Chinese original of Bodhidharma’s “Four Essential Practices”: