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Huike’s Dream


One of the more horrifying Zen stories is the backstory to Huike’s enlightenment experience. Maybe it’s the most horrifying mutilation story in Zen. The great teacher, Bodhidharma, has arrived in China, bringing Zen to India. All Zen students trace their lineage from Shakyamuni Buddha, our original teacher, through Bodhidharma to their own teacher. When Bodhidharma arrived in China, he was immediately summoned for his famous meeting with the Emperor.


When the Emperor failed to reveal even a glimmering of understanding, Bodhidharma walked off to find a cave to sit in. He was sitting facing the wall of his cave — he eventually sat facing the wall for nine years — when Huike arrived seeking the teaching. Huike stood outside the cave waiting for Bodhiharma to admit him. Day and night, he stood. Huike was eventually standing in snow up to his waist, but still he received no response from Bodhidharma.


Finally, seeing no alternative and intent on receiving the teaching of the master, Huike cut off his own arm. Only then does Bodhidharma recognize the seriousness of Huike’s intent and accept him as a disciple.


I was horrified by this story. It seems that it is being held up as a wonderful expression of religious fervor. I had no idea how to wrap my mind around this story, but it was only a backstory. I put it out of my mind the best I could when I first confronted this koan and worked on the main case. There was plenty to chew on there.


But still year after year, the backstory lingered. What a nightmare!


And then, Wow! What a nightmare! What if it’s all a dream?


I’ve had more than my share of Freudian training. As a psychotherapist, I never did much with dreams. I never felt on sure enough grounds, and I don’t think dream analysis played much of a part in my own Adlerian analysis. But I was trained in a classical Freudian environment. Even I could handle Huike’s dream.


You probably don’t need much of an introduction to Freud at all to know about phallic symbols. Towers, famously. Sticks and umbrellas.


I once left my umbrella in Erika’s office after a session. The rain had already stopped on my way in. In the next session, Erika insisted on exploring what leaving my umbrella in her office might have meant. This was all too crazy. Erika was an old lady. She had been my mother’s analyst. I wasn’t going there. Freud had once been asked about his cigar. Size, shape, color: it could be an oral symbol or an anal symbol or a phallic symbol. The questioner was provocative. “Which is it, your cigar, Dr. Freud?” 


“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” was Freud’s famous retort.


Sometimes an umbrella is just an umbrella, but I was careful after that not to leave anything in Erika’s office.


I got it now after so many years. Huike symbolically cuts off his penis and presents it to Bodhidharma. The master sees that his future successor is serious and accepts him as a disciple. What a dream! But not so difficult to interpret, even for me.


In those days in India and in China, in some places and lineages today, to follow the Buddha is to commit to celibacy. To a vigorous young man, which is how I imagine Huike, to enter the stream, to opt for celibacy, is to renounce his sexuality. He might as well castrate himself. So, he does. Symbolically. Bodhidharma can see his commitment and accepts him as a disciple. Maybe Huike only tells Bodhidharma his dream!


Or maybe it’s Bodhidharma’s dream. This young seeker has been standing outside the cave waiting for admission. He’s been standing for days. He’s up to his waist in snow. But is he serious? Bodhidharma isn’t sure. Is this young man ready to give it all up, everything, in the quest for enlightenment, for ultimate peace? And then Bodhidharma has a dream. Huike cuts off his arm and presents it to Bodhidharma. The image wakes the master from his slumbers. Horrible, but then Bodhidharma realizes he was dreaming. What a relief!


Bodhidharma’s never heard of Freud. Freud won’t be born for another thousand years, but Bodhidharma gets it. This young man is serious. He accepts Huike as a disciple.


Actually, two good dreams. Huike’s dream of monasticism recalls my own Tokudo, the first step on the Soto Zen path to the priesthood. It is the best-known step, the famous head-shaving ritual. Tokudo is the “homeleaving.”


Homeleaving is important in adolescent psychiatry. I had done a lot of work with troubled teenagers. I had learned a lot from Chloe Medanes and Jay Haley. Troubled teenagers were often struggling unsuccessfully to leave home. Should we maybe have been trying head-shaving on our inpatient adolescent unit?


During my Tokudo, I had peaked over at my mother as I knelt before Jishu in the Yonkers chapel. I was happy Mom had decided to attend. I expected her to be beaming. Mom was always proud of me, whatever my achievement. She was crying. I had to look away, focus on the pain in my knees. Mom explained to me later when I asked what the tears were about, “I thought I would never see you again.” Mom really understood homeleaving. I don’t know how she got it. So many of the Zen greats — Hui-neng, the immortal 6th Ancestor; Tozan, the founder of our Soto sect — had abandoned their impoverished mothers to follow the Way. How did Mom sense that? Mom was reassured when I explained to her that my homeleaving was symbolic. We would still be going out to dinner every week.


The morning after Tokudo, stopping on my way into the clinic office to pick up my coffee and buttered roll, the counter lady, who had never seemed to notice me, thought I was looking very sexy. My hair grew back.


But I like Bodhidharma’s dream better. It reflects the side of psychoanalysis that I love. Analysts often spend too much time turning the spotlight on the “patient’s unconscious,” imagining they can really see inside another’s mind. Better to use the spotlight to look inward, to discover the ways in which the analyst’s unconscious conditioning is distorting the therapeutic process.


I am loving Bodhidharma in the moment in which he wakes from his dream. What has been going on with him? Sitting facing the wall — some might say he was contemplating his navel — while this kid is standing outside his cave, day and night, rain and snow waiting for the teaching. “What do I want from him?” Bodhidharma asks himself. “Cut off his cock? What kind of a barbarian am I?”


I love Bodhidharma for turning the spotlight on himself.



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