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Missing image
Bodhidharma, woodblock print by Yoshitoshi, 1887.

Bodhidharma (Sanskrit: बोधिधमृ; Chinese 菩提達摩, pinyin Ptdm or simply Dm; Wade-Giles Tamo; Japanese ダルマ, Daruma), also known as the Tripitaka Dharma Master, was a semi-legendary Buddhist monk, who lived from approximately 440 - 528 CE. Bodhidharma is traditionally held to be the founder of the Chan school of Buddhism (known in Japan and the West as Zen), and the Shaolin school of Chinese martial arts.



The origins of Bodhidharma are unclear. He is first mentioned in The Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Lo-yang, a 547 Chinese text by Yang Xuanzhi which describes the great eminence of the Luoyang's religious works. Yang mentions Bodhidharma twice in passing, identifying him as a Central Asian monk whom he met at the monastery of Yung-ning. Yang recalls:

Seeing the golden disks at the top of the monastery's stupa reflecting in the sun, the rays of light illuminating the surface of the clouds, the jewel-bells on the stupa blowing in the wind, the echoes reverberating beyond the heavens, Bodhidharma 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. But even in India there is nothing comparable to the pure beauty of this monastery. Even the distant Buddha realms lack this." He chanted homage and placed his palms together in salutation for days on end.
Hsiu-Fan Monastery had a statue of a fierce thunderbolt bearer guarding the gate. Pigeons and doves would neither fly through the gate nor roost upon it. Bodhidharma said: "That catches its true character!"

Yung-ning was short-lived, suffering from natural and military disasters ten years after its construction in 516. This indicates that Bodhidharma was in Luoyang between 516 and 526.

This Japanese scroll calligraphy of Bodhidharma reads “Zen points directly to the human heart, see into your nature and become ”.  It was created by  ( to )
This Japanese scroll calligraphy of Bodhidharma reads “Zen points directly to the human heart, see into your nature and become Buddha”. It was created by Hakuin Ekaku (1685 to 1768)

According to a later text, the Xu Gao Sen Zhuan (Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks), written in 645 by Dao Xuan, Bodhidharma was born in what is now Kerala in southern India around 440 during the Pallava dynasty's rule. He is said to have been born as a clan prince in the poor hunter class and was well versed in martial arts (a form still surviving as Kalaripayattu). According to Dao Xuan, he travelled from India to China by the sea route, arriving at Canton and then crossing the Yangtze River, heading north.

Dao Xuan's description is largely copied from earlier works, T'an Lin's Biography and Bodhidharma's Two Entrances, which form the first two sections of the Long Scroll of the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices, collected and reproduced in 1935 by Japanese Zen layman Suzuki Daisetsu after the discovery of tens of thousands of manuscripts in a hidden chamber of the Tun-huang caves in northwest China. Dao Xuang includes Yang Xuanzhi's statement of Bodhidharma's age, and explicitly declares Bodhidharma's arrival in China by sea, a detail not found in the Biography. (T'an Lin simply stated Bodhidharma had "crossed distant mountains and seas".)

By whatever route, Bodhidharma travelled to teach in China in about 475, where he found would-be Buddhists preoccupied with scholasticism and attempting to earn favorable karma through good works. He travelled to various Chinese monasteries, teaching and giving sermons.

His death

Bodhidharma died around 528, at which time he would have been about 90 years old (according to Dao Xuan) or between 152 and 162 (according to Yang Xuanzhi). Legend claims that he was buried at a Shaolin temple on Mount Hsiung-erh, west of Luoyang, and that a monk named Song Yun met him traveling "back to the west" on the following day, holding one sandal. Bodhidharma's stupa was then opened, and only one sandal was found inside.

However, Dao Xuan states that Bodhidharma died at Lo River Beach and his body concealed in a cave along the river by his disciple Hui-k'o — an unusual funeral for Buddhist masters, who normally received elaborate ceremonies. An explanation for this may be found in the political climate of the time: in 528, the victors of a particular battle carried out a purge of their surviving opponents, and executed them at Lo River Beach. A later report in Taishou shinshuu daizoukyou states that a Buddhist monk was among the victims.

Spiritual approach

Blue-eyed Central Asian Buddhist monk, possibly Bodhidharma, forming the "Vitarka"  (Symbol of teaching/ discussion of the ), in the direction of an East-Asian monk. Eastern , China, 9th-10th century.
Blue-eyed Central Asian Buddhist monk, possibly Bodhidharma, forming the "Vitarka" mudra (Symbol of teaching/ discussion of the dharma), in the direction of an East-Asian monk. Eastern Tarim Basin, China, 9th-10th century.

Tradition holds that Bodhidharma's chosen sutra was the Lankavatara Sutra, a development of the Yogacara or "Mind-only" school of Buddhism established by the Gandharan half-brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu. He is described as a "master of the Lankavatara Sutra", and an early history of Zen in China is titled "Record of the Masters and Disciples of the Lankavatara Sutra" (Chin. Leng-ch'ieh shih-tzu chi). It is also sometimes said that Bodhidharma himself was the one who brought the Lankavatara to Chinese Buddhism.

Bodhidharma's approach tended to reject devotional rituals, doctrinal debates and verbal formalizations, in favour of an intuitive grasp of the "Buddha mind" within everyone, through meditation. In contrast with other Buddhist schools such as Pure Land, Bodhidarma emphasized personal enlightenment, rather than the promise of heaven.

Bodhidharma also considered spiritual, intellectual and physical excellence as an indivisible whole necessary to attain enlightenment. He is famous for having established a training regimen for the monks of the Shaolin Monastery as a way to reinforce the efficiency of meditation. Bodhidharma developed a system of 18 dynamic tension exercises. These exercise were formalized into the Yi Jin Jing of 550, which became the basis of the famous style of kung fu later known as Shaolinquan, and an important influence on the subsequent practice of martial arts in East Asia generally. Bodhidharma is also associated in legend with the use of tea to maintain wakefulness in meditation (the origin of Chado), and favoured paradoxes, conundrums and provocation as a way to break intellectual rigidity (a method which led to the development of koan).

Bodhidharma's mind-and-body approach to enlightenment ultimately proved highly attractive to the Samurai class in Japan, who made Zen their way of life, following their encounter with the martial-arts-oriented Zen Rinzai School introduced to Japan by Eisai in the 12th century.

Portrayals of Bodhidharma

Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is depicted as a rather ill-tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed barbarian. He is described as "The Blue-Eyed Barbarian" in Chinese texts.

Chan texts also present Bodhidharma as the 28th Chan Patriarch, in an uninterrupted line starting with the Buddha, through direct and non-verbal transmission.


Emperor Wu

According to tradition, Bodhidharma was invited to an audience with Emperor Wu Di of the Liang dynasty (Southern dynasties) in 520. When the Emperor asked him how much merit he had accumulated through building temples and endowing monasteries, Bodhidharma replied, "None at all."

Perplexed, the Emperor then asked, "Well, what is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism?"

"Vast emptiness," was the bewildering reply.

"Listen," said the Emperor, now losing all patience, "just who do you think you are?"

"I have no idea," Bodhidharma replied.

With this, Bodhidharma was banished from the Court, and is said to have sat in meditation for the next seven years "listening to the ants scream".

Nine years of wall-examining

Bodhidharma traveled to the recently constructed Shaolin temple in the north of China, where the monks refused him admission. Bodhidharma sat meditating facing a wall for the next 9 years, supposedly burning holes into the wall by staring at it. Only then did the monks of the Shaolin Temple respect Bodhidharma and allow him inside. There, he found the monks so out of shape from a life of study spent copying scrolls that he introduced a regimen of meditation exercises, which later became part of Shaolin kung fu. However, as to whether he founded Shaolin style of Kung Fu, it is unlikely. Historically, many schools of martial arts existed within China centuries prior to his entry and history suggests that the monks most likely began codifying martial arts from retired military personnel who resided at their temple for self protection. For example, textbooks exist from Han times and before relating to self defense. The various styles of the Shaolin subset of Chinese Kung Fu resulted over centuries of mixing of the various self-defense styles in China.

Bringing tea to China

Japanese legends credit Bodhidharma with bringing tea to China. Supposedly, he cut off his eyelids while meditating, to keep from falling asleep. Tea bushes sprung from the spot where his eyelids hit the ground. It is said that this is the reason for tea being so important for meditation and why it helps the meditator to not fall asleep. This legend is unlikely as tea use in China predates Chan Buddhism in China. According to Chinese mythology, in 2737 BC the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, scholar and herbalist, was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water. A leaf from the tree dropped into the water and Shen Nung decided to try the brew. The tree was a wild tea tree. There is an early mention of tea being prepared by servants in a Chinese text of 50 B.C. The first detailed description of tea-drinking is found in an ancient Chinese dictionary, noted by Kuo P'o in A.D. 350.

Daruma dolls

It is also reported that after years of meditation, Bodhidharma lost the usage of his legs. This legend is still alive in Japan, where legless Daruma dolls represent Bodhidharma, and are used to make wishes.

Bodhidharma and Hui-ko

Bodhidharma was the first Zen patriarch of China. All later Chinese and Japanese Zen masters trace their master-disciple lineage to him. Hui-ko, who was to become the second patriach, was first ignored when he tried to approach him, and left outside in the snow, until he cut his own arm and offered it to the Master (a legend which is likely apocryphal; according to Dao Xuan his arm was cut off by wandering bandits). Bodhidharma later transmitted to him the insignia of the patriarchs: the robe, the Buddha's begging bowl, and a copy of the Lankavatara Sutra.

The lineage of Bodhidharma and his disciples

Although Bodhidharma is commonly said to have had two primary disciples (the monks Tao-yu and Hui-ko), a common voice in the "Records" of the Long Scroll is that of a Yuan, possibly identified with the nun Dharani who was said to have received Bodhidharma's flesh — his bones having been received by Tao-yu, and his marrow received by Hui-ko. An list of Bodhidharma's early students follows.

Works attributed to Bodhidharma

  • The Bloodstream Sermon
  • The Breakthrough Sermon
  • The Outline of Practice
  • Two Entrances
  • The Wake-Up Sermon

See also

External links


  • Bodhidharma, T'an-lin, Layman Hsiang, et al.; Jeffrey R. Broughton, translator; The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles. (1999) ISBN 0520219724
  • Tom Lowenstein, The Vision of the Buddha. Duncan Baird Publishers, London. ISBN 1903296919
  • Red Pine, translator; The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma. North Point Press, New York. (1987)
  • Alan Watts, The Way of Zen. ISBN 0375705104
  • Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. ISBN 0415025370

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