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Bodhidharma Meditating

Bodhidharma –The First Patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism

Bodhidharma, "Self-Nature of Awareness," (Sanskrit: बोधिधर्म; Traditional Chinese: 達摩; pinyin: Pútídámó) was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th or 6th century AD. In China, he is known as Damo or Putidamo. In Japan, he is called Daruma. Bodhidharma was one of many Buddhist missionaries who journeyed from the Western Regions of India and Central Asia to China. Bodhidharma is considered to be the transmitter of Ch'an (Chinese Zen) Buddhism to China. He is the 28th Indian patriarch in a direct line of transmission from Buddha via his disciple Mahākāśyapa, Buddha's successor after his death, and the first patriarch of China. He also began the meditative and physical training of the monks and nuns of the Shaolin Temple that led to the formation of Shaolin martial arts. Said to have a fierce countenance and piercing eyes, Bodhidharma was not an ordinary monk.

In Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is portrayed as a bad-tempered, heavily bearded, wide-eyed non-Chinese. In Chinese Ch'an texts, he is called "The Blue-Eyed Barbarian" (Traditional Chinese: 碧眼胡; pinyin: Bìyǎnhú). Several traditions about Bodhidharma's origins exist, depicting him either as a Persian from Central Asia or a South Indian.

The earliest contemporary text referring to Bodhidharma is The Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang (Traditional Chinese: 洛陽伽藍記; pinyin: Luòyáng Qiélánjì), which was compiled in 547 AD by Yáng Xuànzhī (Traditional Chinese: 楊衒之), a Chinese writer and translator of Indian Mahāyāna (Sanskrit: महायान; "Great Vehicle") sutras (scriptures). Yang provided the following narration:

At that time there was a monk of the Western Region named Bodhidharma, a Persian Central Asian. He traveled from the wild borderlands to China. Seeing the golden disks on the pole on top of Yǒngníng's stūpa [dome-shaped Buddhist shrine] reflecting in the sun, the rays of light illuminating the surface of the clouds, the jewel-bells on the stūpa blowing in the wind, the echoes reverberating beyond the heavens, he sang its praises. He exclaimed: "Truly this is the work of spirits." He said: "I am 150 years old, and I have passed through numerous countries. There is virtually no country I have not visited. Even the distant Buddha-realms lack this." He chanted homage and placed his palms together in salutation for days on end.

Scholars remark that Yáng may have been writing of another monk called Boddhidharma (Sanskrit: बोद्धिधर्मा; Traditional Chinese: 佛教; pinyin: Fójiào), who was unrelated to the founder of Ch'an Buddhism, though. Yáng may also have confused Pahalva with the Pallava dynasty that ruled a portion of southern India, which Bodhidharma was born into. Pahalva is an Indian term for Parthian or Persian. Yáng's book is considered to be undependable, filled with exaggeration and miracles.


A second contemporary account was written by Tánlín (Traditional Chinese: 曇林; 506–574), who was a disciple of Bodhidharma's. Tánlín's brief biography of the "Dharma Master" is found in his introduction to the Long Scroll of the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices, a text traditionally credited to Bodhidharma and the first literary source to name him as South Indian:

The Dharma Master was a South Indian of the Western Region. He was the third son of a great Indian king. His ambition lay in the Mahāyāna path, and so he put aside his white layman’s robe for the black robe of a monk […] Lamenting the decline of the true teaching in the outlands, he subsequently crossed distant mountains and seas, traveling about propagating the teaching in Han and Wei.*

* The Northern and Southern dynasties (Traditional Chinese: 南北朝; pinyin: Nán-Běi Cháo) period in China from 420 to 589 AD.

Tanlin's introduction is preserved in Jingjue's (683–750) later account Lengjie Shizi ji "Chronicle of the Laṅkāvatāra Masters", written about 713–716. Jingue recorded:

"The teacher of the Dharma, who came from South India in the Western Regions, the third son of a great Brahman king."

In the Indian tradition, Bodhidharma was born on October 5th of the Chinese Kan-chih lunisolar calendar in 483 AD in the Kanchipuram city of India, located near the famous Madras city. He was the third son of Sugandha, the famous Pallava king of Kanchipuram city. His birth name was Bodhitara, "Star of Awareness," (Sanskrit: बोधितरा. ; Chinese Traditional: 菩提多羅; pinyin: Pútíduōluó). He may have been of mixed castes and considered a Murdhabhishikta, the son of a Brahim (religious caste) father and a Kshatriya (warrior-ruler caste) mother.

Bodhitara was very intelligent and began to show great wisdom at the age of 7. He soon became the favorite son of his father. Bodhitara's two older brothers feared that their father would pass them over and name Bodhitara as his heir. Consequently, the two older brothers often ridiculed Bodhitara to their father. They also attempted to assassinate Bodhitara, but the attempts failed due to Bodhitara's good karma.

Bodhitara soon realized that he was not interested in a life of politics. He chose instead to become a Buddhist monk and study with the famous woman Buddhist master Prajñātāra, "Pearl of Wisdom" (Sanskrit: प्रजनारो; Traditional Chinese: 般若多羅; pinyin: Bōrě Duōluó). Prajñātāra, who was the 27th Indian patriarch, renamed him Bodhidharma and he started living in his monastery as a monk or śramaṇa (Sanskrit: श्रमण ; Traditional Chinese: 沙門 ; pinyin: shāmén), a "seeker" of the Truth or "one who strives" towards Enlightenment. Bodhidharma spent the next several years studying under Prajñātāra's tutelage in a direct mind-to-mind line of transmission from Buddha.

Bodhidharma's training included instruction in the high ethical code of the Kshatriya (available on both Facebook and Google Plus) and Vajramukti yoga, "Thunderbolt Fist," (Sanskrit: वज्रमुक्ति; Traditional Chinese: 霹靂解放; pinyin: Pīlì Jiěfàng). This form of yoga encompassed: mental techniques for unlocking higher states of consciousness; physical techniques for wrestling, throws, and hand strikes; and tactics of movement and evasion. Vajramukti yoga was essential to Kshatriya warriors for integrating the mind, body, and spirit.

After his father's death, Bodhidharma spread the knowledge and beliefs of meditation-based Mahāyāna Buddhism throughout India under the guidance of his mentor for many years.

One day Bodhidharma asked his master, "Master, when you pass away, where should I go? What should I do?"

Prajñātāra told him that he should journey to Zhen Dan (Traditional Chinese: 震旦; pinyin: Zhèn dàn), which was the ancient Indian name for China, where sutra-based Theravāda (Sanskrit: स्थविरवाद; "Small Vehicle") Buddhism had already taken root. There he would spread the teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism further among the Chinese people.

While Bodhidharma studied under Prajñātāra, one of his older brothers had ascended to the throne of Kanchipuram city. That brother's son later succeeded him as king. The new king, Bodhidharma's nephew, was caring of his uncle and desired to atone for the actions of Bodhidharma's older brothers when they sought to remove him from contention for the royal throne. The new king asked Bodhidharma to remain near Kanchipuram, where he could watch over and honor his uncle, but Bodhidharma remained determined to follow Prajñātāra's wishes.

Years after the passing of Prajñātāra, Bodhidharma left his homeland of India and began his task. Bodhidharma's nephew commanded that carrier pigeons be released toward China with messages asking the Chinese people to honor and respect Bodhidharma. His fame grew among the Chinese who puzzled over what was so remarkable about this particular śramaṇa that an Indian king would make such a petition on his behalf.

Bodhidharma On An Elephant

Although the exact route of his journey to China is uncertain, most scholars believe that he traveled from Madras to Guangzhou province of China across the sea, and then by land to Nanjing. Some scholars hold instead that he crossed the mountainous Pamir Plateau and walked along the Yellow River to Luoyang. Luoyang was renowned as an active center for Buddhism in China at that time.

The accounts of the date of his arrival differ. An early account claims that he arrived during the Liu Song dynasty (420–479 AD). Later accounts date his arrival to the Liang dynasty (502–557 AD) to 527 AD, thirty-two years after the founding of the Shaolin Temple by Buddhabhadra and 459 years after the founding of the White Horse Temple in 68 AD, the first Buddhist temple in China. Bodhidharma's journey to China is said to have lasted three years.

Once in China, Bodhidharma started to practice Mahāyāna, or Da Sheng, (Traditional Chinese: 大乘; pinyin: Dàchéng) Buddhism. He faced skepticism and opposition from Chinese Buddhists, who had been introduced to Theravāda, or Xiao Sheng, (Traditional Chinese: 小騎; pinyin: Xiǎo Qí) Buddhism, by Buddhabhadra and other earlier missionaries, or ācāryas (preceptors or instructors), who had journeyed from India and Central Asia to China beginning in the first century AD during the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Though meditation was part of the Theravāda tradition in India (with periods of varying importance), Buddhist sutras, not meditation, were at the heart of Xiao Sheng Buddhism that was practiced in China at the time of Bodhidharma's arrival. Buddhabadra had stressed the importance of meditation, or Dhyana (Sanskrit: ध्यान; Traditional Chinese: 禪; pinyin: Chán), but its practice waned following his time among Chinese Buddhists.

Bodhidharma sought to reemphasize the importance of meditation to Chinese Buddhists. He taught that Buddhist sutras were only a guide for achieving Enlightenment and followers could attain it through their own efforts by practicing meditation.

Bodhidharma Zen Teaching

In Luoyang, a crowd had gathered to greet him and listen to him speak. Bodhidharma instead sat before the people and meditated for several hours. When he completed his meditation, he rose and walked away without a word.

Reactions in the crowd varied. There were those who laughed in mockery, others who wept, others who muttered angrily, and some who nodded in comprehension. Bodhidharma's renown in China grew.

Soon after, Emperor Wu of Liang (Traditional Chinese: 梁武帝; pinyin: Liáng Wǔdì), ruler of the southern kingdom of Liang, invited Bodhidharma to his palace in his capital city of Jiankang (present-day Nanjing). The emperor was a fervent follower of Xiao Sheng Buddhism, who had commissioned many Buddhist statues, temples, and stūpas (dome-shaped Buddhist shrines). He had also donated much wealth to Buddhist temples and supported the monastic sangha (communities of monks and nuns) generously. He promoted vegetarianism and prohibited capital punishment and the sacrifice of animals. Due to his support for Buddhist causes, he was hailed as the "Bodhisattva Emperor."

Bodhidharma & Emperor Wu

Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu meet.

Emperor Wu detailed his actions and asked Bodhidharma if they were good. Bodhidharma answered that they were not.

Emperor Wu was surprised, but continued talking with Bodhidharma. He asked if there was Buddha in this world. Bodhidharma replied that there was not.

Bodhidharma's answers were a reflection of Emperor Wu. The emperor asked how much merit, or positive karma, he had gained through his actions. Bodhidharma replied that good deeds done with the intention of accumulating merit were without value. They would lead to favorable rebirths, but not Enlightenment. By asking if his actions were good, Emperor Wu was seeking validation from Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma denied that Emperor Wu's actions were good because it is the duty of the ruler to care for his subjects. Rather than seek praise, Emperor Wu should have been satisfied to help his people by following Buddha's teachings. If one asks if there is Buddha in the world, then one has already answered the question. Buddha is a matter of faith. By questioning the existence of Buddha, Emperor Wu had shown a lack of faith.

Bodhidharma's talk with Emperor Wu is recorded as the first kōan of the Blue Cliff Record.

Emperor Wu: "How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?"
Bodhidharma: "None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit."
Emperor Wu: "So what is the highest meaning of noble truth?"
Bodhidharma: "There is no noble truth, there is only emptiness."
Emperor Wu: "Then, who is standing before me?"
Bodhidharma: "I know not, Your Majesty."

When answering the first question, Bodhidharma was attempting to end Emperor Wu's clinging to "spiritual materialism" and open his awareness to the uncompounded nature of reality. Emperor Wu was practicing Buddhism as he understood it. He was doing so with the sense of "I am," though, which was the root of delusion that Buddhism is supposed to gain mastery over. Though Emperor Wu performed many virtuous deeds, he was reinforcing his sense of "I am" and trapping himself deeper within samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). Since Emperor Wu's acts were done with a sense of "I" he would gain a more favorable samsara, but come no closer to nirvana (liberation).

Bodhidharma's response to Emperor Wu's second question pointed out that there is nothing to hold on to as noble or holy. Doing so and embracing emptiness makes everything holy since clinging is at the root of unholiness.

The answer to the third query was intended to end Emperor Wu's attachment to "I am." There is nothing to know and hold on to as "I am." Bodhidharma knew very well that he was a dhyana Buddhist master who had journeyed from India and was now in China, meeting Emperor Wu, and so on. Yet his form and thoughts came and went like water in a river. Nothing remained to point to as the "true" Bodhidharma.

Angered by Bodhidharma's answers, Emperor Wu commanded Bodhidharma to leave his palace and never return. Bodhidharma merely smiled, turned, and left.

As Bodhidharma journeyed from Jiankang (modern Nanjing) in Southern China to the northern Henan province, he came across the mighty Yangtze river. Legends tell that Bodhidharma used supernatural powers to ford the Yangtze on a single reed stalk.

Bodhidharma crossing the Yangtze

However Bodhidharma crossed the river, robbers and murderers, some who even killed traveling monks to take their religious relics, roamed throughout the countryside. Nevertheless, Bodhidharma arrived safely at the Shaolin Temple, a testament to his martial skills.

In some accounts, Bodhidharma was refused entry to the Shaolin Temple by the head abbot Fāng Chāng (方昌), who viewed him as a barbarian upstart and troublemaker. In others, Bodhidharma declined to stay at the Temple. Five mountains shaped like breasts lie behind the Shaolin Temple: Bell Mountain, Drum Mountain, Sword Mountain, Stamp Mountain, and Flag Mountain. According to legend, he went to a cave on one of the Breast Mountains, sat down, and meditated for nine years. Bodhidharma’s concentration became so intense that his image was carved on the cave wall before him.

Shaolin Cave

Shaolin Cave where Bodhidharma sheltered and meditated. Present day photo of the cave.

In one legend, it is said that Bodhidharma fell asleep seven years into his period of wall-gazing. Angry with himself, he cut off his eyelids to keep it from occurring again. When his eyelids landed on the cave floor, the first tea plants sprouted, offering tea to keep meditating Ch'an followers awake.

Bodhidharma in a Cave

At the end of the nine years, Bodhidharma accepted Fāng Chāng's invitation to enter the Temple. He taught his wall-gazing meditation to the monks, but he saw that they were not strong enough to endure the long and exhaustive meditation sessions. The monks would often fall asleep or even get sick. Bodhidharma boosted their stamina and willpower by teaching them Indian breathing and energization exercises as well as external exercises he called the 18 Arhat* Hands, which were based upon Vajramukti yoga. In doing so, he set the base for Shaolin martial arts. The Shaolin Five Animals styles emerged, which gave rise to offshoots like Northern Shaolin Yue Chia or Yuejiaquan (岳家拳, literally Yue Family Fist, alternately Yue Ch'uan) and T'ai chi chuan (Taijiquan), or T'ai chi ch'üan (pinyin: tàijíquán; 太极拳).

* One who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and has achieved nirvana.


Bodhidharma stayed and taught at the temple for many years. But eventually he decided to return to India and called his disciples together.

The Jǐngdé Records of the Transmission of the Lamp (Traditional Chinese: 景德传灯录; pinyin: Jǐngdé chuándēng lù) written by Dàoyuán (道原) in 1004 records Bodhidharma's transmission of his skin, flesh, bone, and marrow to his disciples:

Bodhidharma asked, "Can each of you say something to demonstrate your understanding?"
Dao Fu stepped forward and said, "It is not bound by words and phrases, nor is it separate from words and phrases. This is the function of the Tao."
Bodhidharma: "You have attained my skin."
The nun Zong Chi stepped up and said, "It is like a glorious glimpse of the realm of Akshobhya Buddha. Seen once, it need not be seen again."
Bodhidharma; "You have attained my flesh."
Dao Yu said, "The four elements are all empty. The five skandhas are without actual existence. Not a single dharma can be grasped."
Bodhidharma: "You have attained my bones."
Finally, Huike came forth, bowed deeply in silence and stood up straight.
Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my marrow."

Bodhidharma passed on the symbolic robe and bowl of dharma succession and a copy of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra to his principle disciple Dazu Huike. He then either returned to India or passed away.

Stories are told of Bodhidharma going to Chen Sung (One Thousand Saints) Temple to spread the Dharma. He passed into Nirvana in 536 AD and was buried in Hsiung-erh Shan (Traditional Chinese: 熊耳山; Pinyin: Xióng'ěr shān; Bear's Ear Mountain) in Henan. A stūpa was built for him at Paolin Temple.

Upon learning of Bodhidharma's death, Emperor Wu wrote the following tribute:

"Alas! I saw him without seeing him;
I met him without meeting him;
I encountered him without encountering him;
Now as before I regret this deeply!"

One legend tells that three years after Bodhidharma's death, though, Ambassador Sòngyún (宋雲) of Northern Wei was said to have seen Bodhidharma walking while holding a shoe at the Pamir Heights, a range of mountains in Central Asia at the convergence of the Himalayas.

Sòngyún asked Bodhidharma where he was going. Bodhidharma replied, "I am going home."

When asked why he was holding his shoe, Bodhidharma answered, "You will know when you reach Shaolin monastery. Don't mention that you saw me or you will meet with disaster."

After arriving at the palace, Sòngyún told the emperor that he met Bodhidharma on the way. The emperor said Bodhidharma was already dead and buried and had Sòngyún arrested for lying.

At the Shaolin Temple, the monks informed them that Bodhidharma was dead and had been buried in a hill behind the temple. The grave was exhumed and was found to contain a single shoe.

The monks then said, "Master has gone back home."

They prostrated three times and said, "For nine years he had remained and nobody knew him. Carrying a shoe in hand he went home quietly, without ceremony."

The single shoe left behind symbolized the footprint of the teachings that Bodhidharma left in China.


Bodhidharma was an inspiring teacher who called on Buddhists to make their best effort towards Enlightenment in this lifetime. He was opposed to the idea of earning merits by making donations. Instead, he taught that everyone has Buddha-nature and encouraged all to set out on their personal journeys to Awaken.  He laid the foundation for the emergence of numerous noteworthy people in China across the ages like Shaolin Abbot Xueting Fuyu, Grand Master Chang San-Feng, and Shaolin Nun Ng Mui.

Besides being the father of Ch'an Buddhism and Shaolin martial arts, Bodhidharma stands as an exemplar of determination, willpower, self-discipline, and the embodiment of Buddhist Enlightenment. This tradition is carried on in martial arts classes for men, women, and children offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.


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