(Founder of Chan Buddhism)



In fact, little is known about the man who is said to have founded Chan Buddhism in China, of which Japanese Zen and Korean Son developed. Due to his assumed importance and the fact that little is only known, legends have come alive around his life and teaching, of which some may be partly true, others are more or less fantastic. However, with his own way of teaching the Dhyana vehicle, his is also said to be the founder of the Chinese martial art of Kung Fu and the one to have introduced tea to China, all at about 1,500 years ago. Bodhidharma is his Sangha name as read in Sanskrit. For Chinese tongues, it was transread into Buti-Damo, whis is read in Japanese as Bodai Daruma.






From Birth to Traveling to China

Meeting the Emperor

Bodhidharma at Shaolin

Records and Legends until the End

About Bodhidharma’s Teachings





From Birth to Traveling to China


The historic person of Bodhidharma is hardly to trace, as apart from his main place of teaching, the Shaolin Temple at the bottom of the honored Mount Song in Honan province, Northern China, he has left almost no trace. We will however try to reconstruct his life as far as possible from the legends and traditions, and give some brilliant examples of the legends as they are an important part of the example he has given.


Even about the dates of his life, there is no common sense, partly because of the different calenders used in China and India, partly because of the different years counted since the appearance of the Enlightened, Gautama Buddha. Earliest date for his birth given is the year 984 B.E. (440 C.E.), while the majority of sources want to know he was born around 1014 (470) to 1026 (482). For one tradition, his birthday is recorded as to be the 05th of October, Gregorian Calender.


It seems to be evident, that he was born in Southern India, and legends have it that it was in the town of Kanchi (Kanchipuram) in the long-forgotten kingdom of Pallava. Some want to know he came from a royal family called Sardili, but it leaves the impression that some familiarity with Siddharta Gautama’s heritage should be drawn. However, it seems more likely he was part of the Brahmin caste, as other sources say. It would at least serve as good explanation why the young man entered religious education early in his life, and, being amidst of it, encountering Buddhist teachings, namely in the early Mahayana school of Sarvastivada, at that time led by ven. Prajnatara.


Of course, little is also known about his character, but Bodhidharma is said to have been rather bold in behaviour. This of course serves as another evidence that he might not have come out of a noble family. His boldness might have served as a reason why – merely as part of his education – he was later on sent abroad to the East.


Prajnatara was at that time counted as the 27th patriarch of the Indian Buddhist line, within the Sarvastivada. (At that time, schools had split already, hence it is rather a matter to make the whole thing important if one takes into account, that ever since the the first century had passed after Gautama left the world, there was no sole “Indian lineage” any more). It is a matter of making even the person of Bodhidharma look overimportant if he is counted as 28th patriarch in his home lineage. This might be true, as the ascension of the patriarch’s position might have been put onto several disciples shoulders, as sanghas at that time still spread out. Something we still experience in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, that a master defines more than one as his heir, and that the one, who sticks closest to the sangha eventually becomes the new “master” at home, while the others, same honored are likely to go out to found their own sanghas within the same school.


We will discuss legends about Bodhidharma being sent out to China later. But it seems that he must have accomplished at least a certain state in his education that he was allowed to go. But it may be doubted if he had already encompassed enlightenment when he went. Although some legends say so, and it seems to be some truth in it that Satori was something familiar for him. At that stage, traditional Buddhism was decaying once in a while both in India and in China. While India saw the development of the Mahayana, Chinese Buddhism was confronted by native spirituality and religion, and would have needed refreshenment from the outside. We doubt, however, that it must have been the intention of Prajnatara to do so when sending out his disciple Bodhidharma.


His way to China is also unknown. He might have taken either of two routes. One towards the north on old pilgrim’s tracks and then taking the Silk Road to China, making him pass along the imposing Himalaya. Once in China he must have traveled south, because there seems to be some evidence in his meeting the southern emperor Wu Di around 1065 (520), before he turned north again. If this had been his route, he had surely used his travel to deepen his insight. That would also mean, that he had travelled longer than usually asumed, giving some possibility about his earlier year of birth, meaning he had spent several years in China already before he came into public.


The second possible route is the one mostly favoured by legends saying, he had stayed most of his life in Southern India, where he embarqued for Southern China to arrive in Kwang Chou (Canton city) by ship at around 1065. The third route which is proposed, is a direct crossing of the Himalaya which legends want to be the source of his love towards the mountains. It is however less likely, not so much because of the rough kind of ancient Tibetans but as for the fact, that Tibet did not see Buddhism until 200 years later.




Meeting the Emperor


One thing that is commonly stated is that Bodhidharma has met the Southern Emperor Wu Di. Some say, in Canton, upon his arrival, others want to know that he went to the capital of the Southern Empire, Nanking. While we still have no evident record of Wu Di’s life, this meeting favours the dates after the 1060ies rather than fifty years before.


We learn from legends, that Wu Di had been a dedicated favourer of Buddhism in his country at his time, however from the point of view of a Chinese noble, meaning he favoured the Buddhists, in the hope that this religion if supported would grant him most benefits in his afterlife. It is said that his support has led him to build several temples and monasteries in order to “melliorate” his karma. Thus with the arrival of the strange barbarian in his premises who was said to be a “Si Fu”, an Old Teacher, it seems most likely that he must have ordered this new guy into his pallace to test upon his gathered “good karma” – and to satisfy his curiosity likewise. But it should go all wrong…


The dialogue that must have had happened is stated in many different versions in the legends. Here’s the one we find is the most beautiful one:


“Wu Di is said that he must have known about the arrival of an Indian Buddhist monk coming to China, partly as the Chinese sangha had requested some “fresh wind” from the mother country where the Enlightened had live. Thus Wu was joyful to see that man, “I have been waiting for you! Let me ask you a few questions.”


The first question he asked was, “I have devoted all my treasures, my armies, my bureaucracy – everything that I have – to convert this vast land into a land of Buddha, and I have made hundreds of temples for Buddha … what may be my benefit in the next life?” One has to consider that the Chinese monks had kept telling him, that for all the things he had done, he had accomplished such a good karma, that for the passage to the next life, maybe even Gautama Buddha would accompany him.


But Bodhidharma said, “All that you have done is absolutely meaningless. You have not even started your journey, not even the very first step – you will be reborn in the seventh hell as a worm, that I grant you!” Imagine the astonished and embarrassed silence after that. When Wu Di got back control of his speech, he asked incredibly, “I have done so much, and I will go to hell for that?”


Bodhidharma laughed, “Anything you have done, you have done out of greed, and that cannot make you religious. All the riches you have renounced you have not renounced unconditionally. You were trying to bargain, like a business. You want to buy your next life in splendour. You want to transfer your balance from one life to another to make it eternal. Is it that what these other monks have been trying to tell you? Did you try to transfer you momentary treasures into eternity? Sounds like a good deal, but whom are you trying to deceive?”


Wu Di started to understand a little. Thus he put his next question, “But then, what is the first principle of the holy teachings?”. And with a deep glance, Bodhidharma replied, “Emptiness, sire, vast emptiness. And there is nothing in it to call it holy.”


Wu Di was puzzled, and with a rush of anger, he directly attacked Bodhidharma by saying “Well, if so, who are you then to address me with such authority?”


And Bodhidharma shrugged his shoulders with innocent face of a baby child saying, “I don’t know, sire. This is the one point I definitely don’t know. I have been to the very centre of my being and have come back as ignorant as before. I simply don’t know.” – And with two hands folded together and a humble bow, Bodhidharma turned around and went away.


There must have been some authority in Bodhidharma’s appearance, otherwise one should believe he must had been instantly killed. But he was not. He had the chance to leave the Kwang Tung province to travel up north and he did. But there is a similarity in Names of Chinese Kings, that some decades later another Wu Di forbid Buddhism in his realm. We do not know if this was the same, but it might have been that as some sort of revenge, the humbling Chinese priest had to suffer what that enlightened and notorious mind had done. But this is mere speculation.





Bodhidharma at Shaolin


If there is some hints that Bodhidharma must have encompassed Buddhahood in his life then it is that he has vanished Founded the chan sect melting taoism and buddhism.without leaving marks. There are testimonies that he must have been at Sung-shan and definitely has had influence in the life of Shaolin Temple. But except from some nice stone and a statue, of Bodhidharma nothing is left. But Zen exists, and Kung Fu exists, and several paintings have been created centuries after his life. But direct evidence of his life and work cannot be found. This must have been a master!


What happened? We actually don’t know. However one may understand that after the meeting with Emperor Wu Di, Bodhidharma must have come to the conclusion, that Buddhist Life in China was not yet ready to receive the teachings he had brought with him. He is also said, that on his travel up North, he has crossed the Yang-tse, came to the Nothern Kindom of Wei, and was seen at the Yung-nin temple at Lo-yang. It is said, that he stayed there for a while, as he found pleasure in that temple, gathering a small group of disciples around him. Contrary to the habits of Buddhist teachers of that time and place, he only wrote a few short texts, but instead focussed on a more rigorous method of meditation, trying to re-inforce the basic practise of Gautama, which had become to fade out of daily life. That he only had few disciples speaks for his own shrewdness, but also that he must not have made any attempt to gather more. Perhaps he was still sure by himself that he had not found the proper time and place.


Thus he continued his travel towards the already as-holy regarded Mount Sung at Honan province, coming to a small monastery called “Shao-lin” or “young forrest”, located at the foot of Sung-shan. There, his first contacts to the inhabitants have led to a secluded life for years, inhabiting a small cave further down hill, where he meditated for nine years, sitting amidst the cave, face not to the front nor the rear but the wall. There is saying about it, him sitting still and motionless facing the walls of the cave, with his mind in open perception without clinging to anything. In chines it is “perception” (kuan) “wall” (pi) “nine” (kiu) “years” (nien), which translated into Sino-Japanes is read “men-piki ku-nen” and is still a proverb in Zen.


However, the nouns need filling to be understood. The usual transskription goes “perceiving the wall for nine years” stating literally how Bodhidharm sat. However, a more daring transscription hints at the motionless, unanimous perception of the awakened mind, saying “with the perception of a wall sitting still for nine years”.


What we assume is, that he must have taken the chance with the quiet place to finish his own practice towards enlightenment, knowing that his disciples would come if he was ready. At least when he ended the cave period, he must have had the zero experience.


Two Shaolin monks were attracted by his unbendable practice who would become his disciples, Dao-yi and Hui-ke, the latter to become later on his Dharma heir to enter history as second patriarch of Chan after Damo in China.


It was after both had presented their true willigness to accept the teaching of Bodhidharma that he accepted them as disciples and – after nine years – ended his period in the cave, which is said, that the shadow he had cast had left trace in the stone. Bodhidharma then moved into the monastery teaching his understanding of Gautamas doctrine.


When living in Shoalin temple, he saw the terrible physical condition of the monks there and decided to give them some physical practise as addition to their meditation efforts. Exercise that needed the same unfocussed but concentered mind as meditation itself. He is said to have taught eighteen basic movements which are today regarded as the foundations of Kung Fu.

After about 12 or 13 years at the Shaolin, Bodhidharma passed on his bowl to Hui-Ke and disappeared. Some say, he died, was buried in the temple, others say, he left without leaving traces, as his heart after all his efforts had become homesick. All this is said to have happened between 1080 (536) and 1091 (547).


What is kept today in Shalin’s museum is a stone, which shows the shadow of a man sitting in front of it for a definite longer time so that the sun has changed the colour around that shadow. This stone is said to be carved out of Bodhidharma’s cave and showing the master in his nine years’ retreat.




Records and Legends until the End


Bodhidharma’s end is unclear as his birth and appearance in China was. If he had come the Northern route via the Silk Road, then his love for the high Mountain range of the Himalaya called him to travel there to die in the eternal snows. This legend is is combined with another legend, that when he was about to leave, he suddenly became ill. When a monk came to see for him, he only found one shoe left back. If that had really happened it would have been good stuff for superstitious legends about that strange barbarian. – There are pictures of Bodhidharma travelling showing him with only one shoe bound to his stick himself walking bare feet.


If he ever left China, or came back to India, we don’t know. Legends want to know almost everything. The most likely however is, that he must simply have died at the age around 60 in Shaolin, and that his ashes as well as the place his ashes had been buried into must have either been lost or forgotten during the periods where Shaolin temple was sacked in latter times. At least, as this man has provided the background for a bunch of legends, nobody would have really cared about that, as the legends were more important than the true knowledge about the happening.


 The most famous legend is that during his nine year period, he one day became angry about his tendency to fall asleep. He is said either to have ripped off his eyebrows and thrown the to floor outside the cave, and out of those remarkable brows, the first tea bushed in China have grown. Another version of the legend goes that he cut off his eye-lids so that his eyes could not close. The hint to this legend is that he is sometimes painted with bulk eyes showing no lids. Another legend says, that his meditation was so deep that he did not even care a wolf trying to eat him. Pure wolf was chased away by Hui-Ke who suddenly came to see Bodhidharma.





About Bodhidharma’s Teachings


To close the picture about the founder of Chan / Zen, we want to give a short impression on what Bodhidharma had taught:

As Bodhidharma unlike some of his later following masters did not write much except some smaller treatizes, he made use of the suttras he knew and particularly drew his disciples’ attention onto the Lankavatara Sutra, one of the early Mahayana-sutras called “about descending to Lanka (Ceylon)”. As references quote, his merely used it as a reference for those who wanted further asurement by scriptures.


From his example it seems he was more a man of practice and what he had to give was a simple but thorough system to understand forms of meditation and use them for the intention towards enlightenment. In priciple, he acknowledged the various forms and ways toward the zero-experience, but tried to systemize into a fourfold way which again he put under two priciples, the entrance by reason and the entrance by conduct to the practice.


Entrance by Reason, so he is said to have it, contains the first two ways of the practice, as (1) realizing the spirit of Buddha’s teachings by aid of (reading) the scriptures, and there basically Lankavatara Sutra. Yet reading alone would only obscure the mind with clouds of objects and deluded thoughts, hence (2) thourough practice of meditation, until silence has come to the mind, is necessary. It is here where he is said to have referred to his nine years retreat and have used the term of pi-kuan. It resembles to us, that his example has led to the later Shikantaza (sitting just so, and hitting IT) of Ciao-Tung (Soto) Chan.


The second principle, Entrance by Conduct, contains the other two ways of practice as (3) educating the mind to abandon hatred (and violence, yet the practice of Kung Fu was merely a way to harmonize the violent impuls so that it would vanish from daily habits), to live with understanding of the karmic rules, not to seek after anything and to thoroughly follow the Buddha Dharma. The fourth way (4) was the practice according to righteous mind and habits with the unbendible trust in all beings sharing the same ultimate nature, which was later apostrophed as the “Buddha Nature”.


Hence, Bodhidharma did not teach a certain system of meditation, but meditativeness which could be taken into daily life with the strong faith that this practice would lead to the enlightened state of mind. It may be interesting to understand that this is within the teachings of the Vajrasamadhi Sutra, with smaller deviations in terms.