A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?” Zhaozhou said, “The oak tree in the courtyard.”
This encounter is part of a collection of stories from Wumen Huikai (1183-1260) a Chinese, Chan (Zen) master. The Oak Tree inspired Wumen to write a poem, which directs us to the teaching of this brief story.
Words do not convey the fact;
language is not an expedient.
Attached to words, your life is lost;
Blocked by phrases, you are bewildered.
Zhaozhou was a Chan master who lived from 778-897, 119 years!
Bodhidharma is the 1st Ancestor of Chan (in English, Zen). He is a legendary figure who lived in the 5th or 6th centuries. He traveled from India to China and established the Way. For the Chinese, he literally came from the west.
The monk’s question is similar to others that might be more familiar: Who am I? What is the meaning of life? Or maybe, why is an orange, orange?
Wumen and Zhaozhou point us away from pursuing an intellectual understanding. Instead, encouraging the direct experience. Words cannot fully express the subtle and continuous influence of our ancestors nor the profundity of an oak. In this moment Bodhidharma is coming from the west. In this moment, an oak tree.
These great teachers of the Way are not encouraging illiteracy and ignorance though, and they are not correcting the monk. The monk’s question is complete; it isn’t a matter of right or wrong. Zhaozhou simply honors him by offering the oak tree in the courtyard.