Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tracking Bodhidharma

When I first received Tracking Bodhidharma in the mail, I quickly scanned its jacket for details about this book I had been very excited to read. I groaned the moment I saw the words "Travel Narrative," expecting the book to be some half-baked story about a Zen enthusiast backpacking through China.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Tracking Bodhidharma is Andy Ferguson's delightful story about how he traveled throughout China to learn about the legendary founder of Zen, Bodhidharma. The book's subtitle, A Journey to the Heart of Chinese Culture, plays a large role in the the story, as much of the book examines modern China. Ferguson, also the author of Zen's Chinese Ancestors, weaves a fascinating tale about contemporary Communist China, Chinese Buddhism recovering from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, Emperor Wu, and of course, Bodhidharma.

Ferguson writes with a true storyteller's voice, and as the author of Zen's Chinese Heritage and a fluent Chinese speaker, he has the chops to write about China. As a practitioner of Buddhism for many decades and a frequent visitor to China, rest assured that Ferguson is fully qualified to write this book.

Like few Zen titles, Tracking Bodhidharma is addictive; I tore through its 350 pages in three or four days. For someone who knows very little about China, other than Taoism and Chan, I was fascinated to learn about modern China. Since much of the book follows Ferguson as he visits temples and other holy Buddhist sites, it's both fast-paced and extremely informative.

My favorite parts of the book concentrate on Emperor Wu, who appears as little more than a side note in Zen history. Wu's influence on Chinese, and almost all East Asian, Buddhism was vast; on average he built 10 temples per year. Talk about a loyal patron.

As this suggests, Emperor Wu, commonly known as the "Bodhisattva Emperor," was a fervent supporter of Buddhism, but I was shocked to learn, even a monk at times. I say "at times," because the quirky emperor would ordain--during which time he would literally stop ruling China, thus sending the country into political chaos--and then eventually return to the palace after the court had bribed the Buddhist church for his return. Okay, "bribed" might be a strong word, but that's pretty much how the story went.

Absolutely fascinating!

Ferguson goes on to contrast two types of Chan--imperial, embodied by Emperor Wu, and Bodhidharma Chan. Although the two occasionally dovetailed on certain issues like vegetarianism and farming, overall they had different religious (and political) agendas. This is best personified in the famous story of Emperor Wu and Bodhidharma's first, and only, meeting. I'm referring to the time when Bodhidharma zinged Wu after the latter asked, "What is the true Dharma?", to which Bodhidharma replied, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy." This is only after Bodhidharma told Wu--the great "Bodhisattva Emperor," mind you--that he didn't gain any merit by supporting Buddhism, a claim that deeply challenged Buddhist doctrine, practice, and tradition.

As this tale illustrates, Bodhidharma was an iconoclast, but his true influence on Chan and all of East Asia transcends this episode; it's virtually unfathomable. That's the focus of this book.

Overall, Tracking Bodhidharma is a great read. It's a enticing page turner, which is not a description you often hear about Buddhist titles. Unlike some of the other books I preview, this one is actually a perfect choice for the beach. Bet you never thought you'd hear that about a Zen book!

Thanks to Counterpoint Press for sending me a copy to review.

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