(Founder of Chan Buddhism)
In fact, little
is known about the man who is said to have founded Chan Buddhism in
From Birth to Traveling to
The historic person of Bodhidharma is hardly
to trace, as apart from his main place of teaching, the
Even about the dates of his life, there is no
common sense, partly because of the different calenders used in
It seems to be evident,
that he was born in
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
His way to
The second possible route is the one mostly
favoured by legends saying, he had stayed most of his life in
Meeting the Emperor
One thing that is commonly stated is that
Bodhidharma has met the Southern Emperor Wu Di. Some say, in
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
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
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 without leaving
marks. There are testimonies that he must have been at Sung-shan and definitely
has had influence in the life of
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
Thus he continued
his travel towards the already as-holy regarded
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
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
If he ever left
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
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.