Mahakashyapa became the first patriarch of the Zen tradition. After him there have been six others. Again and again from master to disciple the flame has been transferred in silence. The sixth was a woman, and Bodhidharma was her disciple. Those were the golden days – when a woman, particularly in the East, was not thought to be inferior to man. She could become the master. She transferred her understanding to Bodhidharma and told him, ”Your work is to pass over the Himalayas and go to China.”
It is a difficult task, first, to go by foot across the Himalayas. It took three years for poor Bodhidharma to reach China. And then the greatest barrier was that he knew nothing of Chinese – it would be difficult even if you knew Chinese – but he managed. He was surrounded slowly, slowly by people who were really thirsty.
All that was happening was that he would sit silently facing the wall. He sat for nine years continuously, and those who wanted to sit would come and sit around him. Just sitting around him without any language, without any communication, some energy started moving. Something started happening to people. Their lifestyles changed, their lives became a grace and a beauty.
After fourteen years Bodhidharma left China and went back to disappear into the Himalayas. He was too old now. You cannot find a better place to disappear than the Himalayas – utter silence, eternal snows which have never melted, thousands of places where nobody has ever reached.
Before leaving he called four of his disciples and told them, ”I am leaving, my time has come. This body cannot contain me anymore. Soon my consciousness will open its wings and will be gone. Before it happens, I want to reach to the Himalayas. I have called you four; one of you is going to be my successor. So this is a great test. I am asking the same question to all four. Who is my successor will depend on your answers.”
Bodhidharma asked, ”What is the essence of my coming from India to China?”
The first man said, ”You have come to spread the great experience of Gautam Buddha.”
Bodhidharma said, ”You are right, but barely. You are just my skin. Sit down.”
He looked to the next disciple, who said, ”Your coming to China means bringing the very revolution in the innermost being from unconsciousness to consciousness.”
Bodhidharma said, ”A little better, but still not satisfactory. Sit down.”
He looked at the third disciple, and the third disciple said, ”You have come to spread that which cannot be said.”
Bodhidharma said, ”You are far better than the other two. But even saying this much, that nothing can be said about it, you have said something. Just sit down. The first one has my skin, the second one has my bones, you have my flesh.”
He looked at the fourth one who had only tears of gratitude and joy and just collapsed at the feet of Bodhidharma without saying a word.
Bodhidharma told him, ”You have my very marrow, you are my chosen disciple. What others could not say with their words you have said with your tears. What others could not say with great significant statements, you have stated by your gratitude.”