Give that funny-looking sage a hand

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Give that funny-looking sage a hand

The eyes, they say, are windows to the soul. If so, Dalma had the soul of an express train running downhill. Which seems to be the case.

You will spot his remarkable eyes on the outside of many Korean temples. His look of fierce surprise seems a deliberate contrast to the serene figure of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, within. Sakyamuni: eyes half closed, cast down, serene smile, face and body hairless, seated lotus-style in meditation. Dalma: eyes the size of dinner plates, scowling, with a thick black beard.

Dalma, one legend has it, believed so strongly in meditation that he resented the interruption of sleep. Finally, to have done with it, he cut off his eyelids and discarded them.

Perhaps. Yet he is often shown standing, not seated; and he is a founder of a martial art, suggesting a man of action, not an anchorite.

His eyes may simply be Caucasian. Dalma was a foreigner. An Indian missionary monk, also known as Bodhidharma, he came to China in 520, introducing Son (Zen) Buddhism. To the Chinese, unaccustomed to Caucasian looks, his eyes might have seemed unnaturally wide. His large nose, dark skin, and beard also seem to be plausibly exaggerated South Asian features.

But Dalma may also be a symbol. He differs from Sakyamuni in the same ways Son differs from other Buddhist schools. Son is radical, a simplification, cutting to bare essentials: "direct pointing at the soul of man." It is the Enlightenment Express. So Dalma's eyes may be wide with the amazement of revelation.

More: Dalma seems a kind of contrarian, a court jester puncturing pomposity within Buddhism. "What is enlightenment?" this strange visitor was asked. "Staring at a blank wall," he replied.

The Emperor of Liang, who was very devout, had given much to the monasteries. He asked how much merit he had accumulated.

"None," Dalma replied.

"What is Buddhism's essential teaching?" the emperor asked.

"It is void; nothing in it is holy," Dalma replied promptly.

"Who says so?" the emperor asked.

"I have no idea," Dalma replied.

Reversal of expectations is the essence of humor, of the punch line. And there is undeniably something in Dalma of the carnival tumbler, of the gruff and sad-faced clown. When Korean children build a snowman, he is a "snow Dalma." In Japan, the characteristic Dalma doll immediately pops back up when knocked over. Legend has it that when Dalma was blocked by the Yangtze River, he stepped onto a rice stalk and floated across. What we have here is a cartoon hero.

This seems to be Dalma's, and Zen's, technique: Whatever you think Buddhism or enlightenment is, whatever you think is of value, Dalma posits the reverse -- forcefully. Not that the truth is the reverse. But the shock, the sudden yanking of safe assumptions from beneath your feet, may make you see the bare truth. Enlightenment, the universe and everything is a very good joke.

Dalma refused to teach. His great disciple, Hui Kou, after years of entreaty, cut off and presented his left hand to get Dalma's attention.

"What do you want?" Dalma asked.

"My soul is not at rest," answered Hui Kou.

"Pass it over." said Dalma, "I'll pacify it."

"But I cannot grasp it and move it."

"There; it is at rest."

For this, Hui Kou had given his left hand.

You must admit, it was a pretty good punch line. The sacrifice of an arm was not worth it? You have missed the enormity of the joke.

Dalma stares from most Korean temples. Try Bongeunsa, once Son's headquarters. Take the green line to Samseong station and walk north. Just past the Coex Center, go west. The entrance is toward the middle of the block, on your right.

Stephen Roney is now at University College of the Cariboo in Canada. Contact him at, or on the Web at

by Stephen Roney

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