According to tradition, Zen was brought from India from China by a pilgrim monk named Bodhidharma who came to be recognized as the First Patriarch. When the reigning Emperor, who was a Buddhist, learned that a monk from the land of the Buddha’s birth was in his kingdom, he had Bodhidharma brought to his court.
Concerned about the misdeeds of his younger years – which had brought him to the throne – the Emperor and had tried to compensate for them through a variety of devotional acts. He had sponsored the translation of Buddhist texts, supported large numbers of monks and nuns, and assumed the cost of building temples. Eager to know if his religious activities balanced the crimes of his past, he described all he had done to promote Buddhism in his country then asked Bodhidharma, “What is your opinion? What merit have I accumulated as a result of these deeds?”
Bodhidharma replied bluntly and tactlessly: “No merit whatsoever.”
“Why no merit?” the Emperor asked.
“Motives for such actions are impure,” Bodhidharma told him. “They are undertaken solely for the purposes of attaining future rebirth. They are like shadows cast by bodies, following those bodies but having no reality of their own.”
“Then what is true merit?”
“It is clear seeing, pure knowing, beyond the discriminating intelligence. Its essence is emptiness. Such merit cannot be gained by worldly means.”
This was unlike any exposition of the Buddhist faith the Emperor had heard before, and he asked, “According to your understanding, then, what is the first principle of Buddhism?”
“Vast emptiness and not a thing that can be called holy,” Bodhidharma replied at once.
The Emperor spluttered: “What does that mean? And who are you who now stands before me?”
To which Bodhidharma replied: “I don’t know.” Then he left the court.
[Bodhidharma - Zen Masters of China: 35-44]