The Third Don’t Know in Adhyatma Teachings

Uesugi Kenshin was the Galahad of mediaeval Japanese chivalry, and like the Galahad of the Western Arthurian legend was somewhat tactless and even arrogant in his youth. Kenshin was keenly interested in Buddhism and came to hear of the discourses on Zen given at a certain temple by a great Zen abbot, also as it happened with the same Buddhist name Kenshin. The young Uesugi decided to go to one of the sermons and engage the abbot in debate afterward, so he rode up one day without announcing his coming and went in to hear the sermon. That day the abbot was speaking on a case from the Zen classic Hekiganroku:

Bodhidharma’s “Vastness, No Holiness!”

The Ryo Emperor Bu asked the teacher Bodhidharma:
“What is the first principle of the holy truth?”
Bodhidharma said: “Vastness, no holiness!”
Quoth the emperor: “Who is it that confronts Us?”
Bodhidharma said: “Don’t know.”
The emperor did not understand, and Bodhidharma crossed the river and went to Gi. Later the emperor asked Abbot Shiko, who said: “Does Your Majesty yet know who is this man, or not?”
The emperor said: “Don’t know.”
Shiko said: “It is the Bodhisattva Kannon, who is transmitting the seal of the Buddha heart.”
The emperor in regret would have sent an envoy to ask him to return, but Shiko said:
“Though the emperor send an envoy for him, nay, though the whole people go after him, never never will he turn back.”

After hearing the abbot lecture on this incident confrontation between Bodhidharma and the emperor Uesugi did not leave with the audience but asked for an interview with the abbot. This was granted. As he went in the abbot glared at him and almost shouted: “What does the story mean? How do you understand it?”

The words were like a thunderclap and Uesugi found himself speechless. The abbot growled: “So ready with words – where are they now, what does the story mean? Speak! Speak!”

Dumbfounded Uesugi made a reverence and went out.

It is said that he pondered on this interview for 3 years before he could face the abbot again. He ultimately became a great figure in Japanese Zen and Buddhism generally. The story is called The Three Don’t Knows: Bodhidharma said he didn’t know, the emperor didn’t know and Uesugi didn’t know.

From Bodhidharmas Don’t Know sprang the whole Zen sect, from the emperors Don’t know came a great flowering of Buddhism in China, and from Uesugi’s Don’t know came a life of unmatched chivalry and purity still featured in magazines and TV as a perfect exemplar for young Japanese.


© 2000 Trevor Leggett