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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; c. 483–c. 536) 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 Chánshī (禅师; lit. "Dhyana Master" or "Zen Master"), 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") sūtras (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** 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.

*Yongning Temple (永寧寺; "Forever Peaceful Temple")

**dome-shaped Buddhist shrine

The Northern Wei dynasty (386–535), the first of the five Northern Dynasties of China, built the Yongning Temple in 516. The Yongning Temple was raised within the city of Luoyang on the Central Plain (Traditional Chinese: 中原; pinyin: Zhōngyuán) of northern China, which is the birthplace of Chinese civilization. A wooden pagoda with an earthen foundation covered by a layer of limestone bricks, the Yongning Temple was about 147 meters high, making it one of the tallest buildings in the world at the time. It could be viewed from as far away as 50 kilometers. The Yongning Temple was razed in 534 when it was hit by lightning and set ablaze.

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. The presence of Boddhidharma in Luoyang is estimated to be sometime between the years 516 and 526 before the coming of Bodhidharma to China. 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 Brahmin (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 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 Theravāda (Sanskrit: स्थविरवाद; "Small Vehicle") Buddhism had already taken root and established itself as one of the Three Teachings of China. There he would spread the teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism 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 Bodhidharma's journey to China is uncertain, most scholars believe that he traveled across the sea from Madras to the city of Guangzhou, or Canton, of coastal Guangdong province in southern China, and then by land to the city of Jiankang (present-day Nanjing) of Jiangsu province in China's eastern-central coastal region. Some scholars hold instead that he crossed the mountainous Pamir Plateau and walked along the Yellow River to Luoyang on the Central Plain. Luoyang is one of the oldest cities in China and the earliest of the "Four Great Ancient Capitals of China" (Traditional Chinese: 中國四大古都; pinyin: Zhōngguó Sì Dà Gǔ Dū). The other three capitals are Beijing, Nanjing, and Xi'an (Chang'an). Luoyang was renowned as an active center for Buddhism in China at that time.

Bodhidharma arrived during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period when northern China was ruled by a series of nomadic dynasties and southern China was under the sway of a number of Han Chinese emperors. The accounts of the date of Bodhidharma's arrival differ, though. An early account claims that he arrived around 470 AD during the Liu Song dynasty (420–479 AD), the first of the four Southern Dynasties of China. Later accounts date his arrival to the Liang dynasty (502–557 AD), the third of the Southern Dynasties. These accounts relate that he came about 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.

The records that place Bodhidharma's coming at the later time make his missionary efforts contemporary with the life of Lady Xian (Traditional Chinese: 冼夫人; pinyin: Xiǎn Fūrén; c. 512 to 516–602), queen of the Hlai people, who was renowned for bringing about peace and justice between the native peoples of Guangdong and Han Chinese immigrants. Bodhidharma was also roughly contemporaneous with the semi-legendary Hua Mulan (Traditional Chinese: 花木蘭; pinyin: Huā Mùlán), the heroic woman warrior of the Xianbei-led Northern Wei dynasty.

When Bodhidharma arrived in Guangzhou, he was received by its governor, Xiāo Ān (萧安), and a military official, Shào Yáng (邵杨), who had learned in advance about his arrival. Bodhidharma encountered some Indians, who had settled in Guangzhou. They had first come as traders and later set up home among the residents. Guangzhou was the largest trade port in southeast China at the time.

Bodhidharma resided at a manor in the Liwan District of Guangzhou, which is called the "Landing Ground of Dharma" (Dámó zhuólù chǎng 達摩著陸場). There he practiced and taught Mahāyāna, or Dasheng, (Traditional Chinese: 大乘; pinyin: Dàchéng) Buddhism. One of the core concepts he taught was "no dependence on the written word but the transmission (of knowledge) from mind to mind" ("Bù yīlài shūmiàn wénzì, ér shì cóng sīxiǎng dào sīxiǎng de (zhīshì) chuánbò" "不依賴書面文字,而是從思想到思想的(知識)傳播"). He esteemed the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra (Sanskrit: लंकावतारसूत्र; Traditional Chinese:入楞伽經; "Discourse of the Descent into Laṅka"), a leading Mahāyāna text. This sūtra recounts a teaching mainly between Gautama Buddha and a bodhisattva named Mahāmati, "Great Wisdom." The sūtra takes place in Laṅkā, an island fortress set on a plateau between three mountain peaks called the Trikuta Mountains in Northern Bactria. It was the capital of Rāvaṇa, the asura ("demigod") king of the rākṣasas, undivine power-seeking deities that eat raw human flesh.

Bodhidharma taught from his residence in Guangzhou for three years. During this time, he also talked at the Guangxiao Temple (光孝寺; "Bright Filial-Piety Temple"), which was located a few kilometers away.

Bodhidharma faced skepticism and opposition from Chinese Buddhists, who had been introduced to Theravāda, or Xiaosheng, (Traditional Chinese: 小乘; pinyin: Xiǎochéng) 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 sūtras, not meditation, were at the heart of Xiaosheng Buddhism that was practiced in China at the time of Bodhidharma's arrival. Buddhabadra had stressed the importance of meditation, or dhyāna (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 sūtras were only a guide for achieving Enlightenment and followers could attain it through their own efforts by practicing meditation.

When Bodhidharma left Guangzhou, his residence was converted by followers into the Xilai Temple (西來寺; "Temple of the Visitor from the West"). In 1654, it was expanded and given its present name of Hualin Temple (华林寺; "Flowery Forest Temple").

Bodhidharma Zen Teaching

Bodhidharma is said to have journeyed to Luoyang, where a crowd gathered to greet him and listen to him speak. He 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.

A popular story of Bodhidharma meeting Emperor Wu of Liang (Traditional Chinese: 梁武帝; pinyin: Liáng Wǔdì) is told in the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (Traditional Chinese: 祖堂集; pinyin: Zǔtángjí) a Chinese text compiled by two Chinese Buddhist monks in 952 during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (五代十国; 907–979). Emperor Wu of Liang invited Bodhidharma to his palace in his capital city of Jiankang in 527. The emperor was a fervent follower of Xiaosheng 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.

The emperor also 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.

Bodhidharma's answers were a reflection of Emperor Wu. 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 gōng'àn (Traditional Chinese: 公案; Japanese: kōan) of the Blue Cliff Record (Traditional Chinese: 碧巖錄; pinyin: Bìyán Lù), a collection of Ch'an Buddhist stories and dialogues compiled in 1125 during the Song dynasty (960–1279).

Emperor Wu: "How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sūtras 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 dhyāna 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 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 Yuejiaquan or Yuèjiā quán (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). The Shaolin Five Animals styles became part of what came to be called Ch'an martial arts (Traditional Chinese: 禪宗武術; pinyin: Chánzōng wǔshù) which combined Ch'an philosophy with the martial arts of the Shaolin Temple.

* 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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