Bodhidharma is a highly renowned name among those interested in traditional Chinese martial arts. It is said that he authored the masterpiece “Yi Jin Jing” and “Xi Sui Jing”, and founded the famous Shaolin martial arts school.
The truth of this story is still a matter of debate. However, one thing is certain: Bodhidharma is a great master who cannot be ignored in the history of Chinese Zen. Among the 28 Indian Zen patriarchs, Bodhidharma was the last patriarch in India and was the patriarch who made significant contributions in spreading Zen Buddhism to countries in the East such as China, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand and other regions.
In this article, LotusBuddhas will share useful information about Bodhidharma, including his story, teachings and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death.
Who was Bodhidharma?
Bodhidharma was a seminal figure in the history of Buddhism, particularly within the tradition known as Chan or Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes meditation and mindfulness. Born in Southern India in the 5th or 6th century CE, Bodhidharma is traditionally considered to have been a prince before becoming a monk in the Buddhist tradition.
Bodhidharma traveled to China, likely around the beginning of the 6th century, where he is credited with bringing the Mahayana Buddhist teachings from India. His teachings focused on direct insight into one’s true nature, rather than scholastic learning or devotion to icons. This emphasis on personal realization through meditation would form the cornerstone of Zen Buddhism, which views the so-called ‘mind-to-mind transmission’ of the Buddha’s teachings as more important than scriptural study.
Bodhidharma is often represented in East Asian art as a bearded, wide-eyed foreigner and his image is well-known throughout East Asia. He is also associated with the Shaolin Monastery, where he is said to have taught for many years. Legend has it that Bodhidharma sat in meditation for nine years, facing a wall (known as “wall-gazing”), which has become emblematic of the rigorous meditative practice espoused by the Chan tradition.
Bodhidharma’s teachings, particularly those encapsulated in texts attributed to him such as the “Two Entrances and Four Practices” and the “Bloodstream Sermon,” continue to be influential in contemporary Buddhist thought. Despite the lack of historical clarity around his life, Bodhidharma’s influence on the development and spread of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly the Chan tradition, is undeniable. His emphasis on meditation and direct realization have helped shape the character of East Asian Buddhism and continue to inspire practitioners to this day.
Story of Bodhidharma
The story of Bodhidharma, also known as Ta-mo in Chinese, is a subject of legend and historical speculation. However, it is widely believed that Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk from India who traveled to China in the 5th or 6th century CE and introduced the Zen school of Buddhism to the Chinese people. Here is a detailed description of the biography of Bodhidharma:
Early Life and Training: According to legend, Bodhidharma was born a prince in the Pallava dynasty in Kanchipuram, a city in southern India. He was born to a royal family and received a traditional education. However, he was drawn to Buddhism and became a monk, traveling to China to spread the teachings of Buddhism.
Journey to China: Bodhidharma arrived in China during the Liang dynasty (502-557 CE) and is said to have traveled to the Shaolin Temple in the Henan Province. There, he is said to have meditated for nine years in a cave, facing a wall, until he achieved enlightenment. During this time, he is said to have developed the martial arts style known as Shaolin Kung Fu, which was taught to the Shaolin monks.
Teaching in China: After his nine years of meditation, Bodhidharma began teaching Chan Buddhism in China. His teachings emphasized the importance of direct experience and the attainment of enlightenment through meditation and self-reflection. He is also credited with introducing the concept of the “Buddha-nature,” which suggests that all beings have the potential to attain enlightenment.
Bodhidharma’s teachings were highly influential in China and became the basis for the Chan school of Buddhism. He also had a significant impact on Chinese culture, influencing not only Buddhist practices but also martial arts, calligraphy and other arts.
Death: The details of Bodhidharma’s death are also shrouded in legend. According to some accounts, he died at a very old age, while others suggest that he was assassinated by jealous rivals. However, his legacy continued to grow after his death, and he is revered as a founding father of Zen Buddhism.
Legacy: Bodhidharma’s legacy continues to inspire Zen practitioners around the world. His teachings emphasized the importance of direct experience and self-reflection, and his influence can be seen in the Zen tradition’s emphasis on meditation and mindfulness. Today, he is remembered as a spiritual master who brought the teachings of Buddhism to China and laid the foundation for the development of Zen Buddhism.
Teachings of Bodhidharma
Bodhidharma’s teachings form the cornerstone of Zen Buddhism and revolve around the central theme of direct realization of one’s own Buddha-nature through meditation. These teachings are conveyed in a number of texts attributed to him, such as the “Two Entrances and Four Practices“, the “Bloodstream Sermon” and the “Wake-up Sermon.”
In the “Two Entrances and Four Practices”, Bodhidharma outlines two methods for entering the path of Enlightenment: the entry through principle and the entry through practice. Entry through principle involves the direct realization of the truth that all sentient beings have the same true nature, which is obscured by adventitious impurities. Entry through practice, on the other hand, entails the implementation of four practices that cultivate an enlightened mind. These practices are:
- Acceptance of circumstances in accordance with karmic conditions: This involves the acceptance of suffering and misfortune as the results of past karma, without animosity or complaint.
- Adaptation to conditions: This refers to the ability to remain at peace regardless of the external circumstances, thus reflecting the impermanent and selfless nature of all phenomena.
- Seeking nothing: In line with the Buddhist concept of non-attachment, this practice involves seeking nothing, not even Enlightenment, as seeking implies a lack and contradicts the truth of the inherent Buddha-nature.
- Acting in accordance with the Dharma: This is the practice of non-duality, acting without any distinction between oneself and others, reflecting the fundamental Buddhist principle of emptiness.
The “Bloodstream Sermon” emphasizes the direct insight into one’s own nature, stating that one’s true nature is not located in the physical body but in the mind. According to Bodhidharma, understanding one’s mind directly is the key to understanding Buddha-nature.
The “Wake-up Sermon” further expounds on the concept of Buddha-nature, stating that all sentient beings inherently possess it. The illusion of duality and the false perception of a separate self are the main obstacles preventing one from realizing this nature. Bodhidharma teaches that through meditation and mindfulness, one can awaken to this inherent Buddha-nature.
Portrait and Legends of Bodhidharma
LotusBuddhas was a bit surprised when learning about this Zen master. Despite being revered as the 28th patriarch of Zen, Bodhidharma is often depicted in Buddhist art as a wild-looking man with a beard and large eyes. In Chinese texts, he is referred to as the “blue-eyed barbarian.” These unflattering portraits may be partly due to his disregard for conventions and rejection of societal expectations.
Many legends are associated with Bodhidharma, including his role in establishing Chinese martial arts, introducing tea to China, and the story of him becoming paralyzed from meditation. These legends continue to influence the tradition of making Daruma dolls in Japan.
1. Bodhidharma invented Kung-fu in China
It is a common belief that Bodhidharma invented Kung-fu in China. However, this is a misconception. While Bodhidharma is associated with the Shaolin Temple and its martial arts tradition, he did not invent Kung-fu or any specific martial art. The origins of Chinese martial arts are complex and multifaceted, with various styles and techniques evolving over centuries through a combination of influences from indigenous traditions and outside sources, including Indian and Central Asian martial arts.
2. Bodhidharma brought tea to China
According to legend, Bodhidharma is credited with introducing tea to China. While there is no historical evidence to support this claim, Bodhidharma is said to have traveled to China from India with a bundle of tea leaves and used them as a form of nourishment during his nine-year meditation retreat.
Tea was already known and used in China prior to Bodhidharma’s arrival, but it was primarily used for medicinal purposes. Bodhidharma’s supposed introduction of tea as a beverage is seen as a significant cultural and social development in Chinese history, as tea later became an integral part of Chinese culture and a symbol of refinement and hospitality.
3. Bodhidharma meditated for 9 years
According to legend, Bodhidharma meditated for nine years in a cave at the Shao Shih Temple in China, facing a wall in deep contemplation. This intense period of meditation is said to have been a crucial part of his spiritual journey and the development of his teachings on meditation and mindfulness. While there is no historical evidence to support the legend, Bodhidharma’s emphasis on meditation and direct experience continues to be a central part of Zen Buddhist practice.
Successors of Bodhidharma
The first recognized successor of Bodhidharma was Huike (487–593 CE). Regarded as the Second Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Huike is said to have received Bodhidharma’s robe and bowl as a symbol of transmission of the Dharma. He is known for his dedication to the practice of meditation and his role in preserving and spreading Bodhidharma’s teachings, despite facing periods of persecution during his lifetime.
Succeeding Huike, the lineage continues with Sengcan (d. 606 CE), known as the Third Patriarch. Sengcan’s contributions to Zen Buddhism include the composition of the Xinxin Ming (Inscription on Faith in Mind), a pivotal text emphasizing the non-dual nature of reality and the futility of intellectual analysis in seeking enlightenment.
The Fourth Patriarch, Daoxin (580–651 CE), is known for establishing the first permanent Zen monastic community, marking a shift from the tradition’s earlier, more hermitic practice. Under his stewardship, Zen Buddhism began to take a more institutional form, which was vital for its survival and propagation.
The Fifth Patriarch, Hongren (601–674 CE), further solidified the institutionalization of Zen Buddhism and is best known for identifying and transmitting the Dharma to Huineng (638–713 CE), who became the Sixth and last Patriarch of Zen Buddhism. Hongren’s teachings emphasized the inherent nature of Buddha within all beings and the potential for enlightenment in every moment of daily life.
Huineng’s teachings became central to the development of Zen Buddhism. Known for his concept of “sudden enlightenment,” he is often associated with the Platform Sutra, one of the most influential texts in the Chan tradition. Huineng’s successors divided into various “houses” or schools of Chan, each interpreting and teaching the principles of Zen Buddhism in distinctive ways.
These successors of Bodhidharma played instrumental roles in the development, propagation and preservation of Zen Buddhism. Through their dedicated practice and teachings, they ensured the survival of this philosophical tradition, allowing it to flourish and influence generations of practitioners and thinkers.
The mysterious death of Bodhidharma
Historical records about Bodhidharma’s life and death are limited and often contradictory, leading to various interpretations and speculations.
The most widely accepted account, based on the earliest extant records, suggests that Bodhidharma died around 532 CE, approximately at the age of 150 years. The cause of his death remains unknown. However, the context of the era in which he lived, characterized by political turmoil and occasional religious persecution, contributes to the speculation surrounding his demise.
In keeping with the mystical aura surrounding his life and teachings, several legendary accounts of Bodhidharma’s death have emerged. One such tale asserts that he was poisoned by a jealous fellow monk who resented his influence and status. Another popular narrative suggests that, after his death, Bodhidharma was seen by a Chinese diplomat walking in the mountains of Central Asia with a shoe in hand. Upon hearing this news, his tomb was opened, only to find a single shoe left behind, reinforcing the belief that he had not truly died but had instead departed to the West in an act of spiritual transcendence.
These stories, while intriguing, should be viewed within the broader context of hagiography and myth-making common in religious traditions. They serve to enhance the mystical persona of Bodhidharma and illustrate the difficulty in discerning historical fact from religious legend. Furthermore, they underscore the enduring cultural and spiritual impact of Bodhidharma and the profound influence of his teachings, which continue to resonate with practitioners of Zen Buddhism today.
Given the scarcity of verifiable historical data, the circumstances surrounding Bodhidharma’s death remain a subject of conjecture and debate among scholars. As with many aspects of his life, his passing is shrouded in mystery, and the line between historical fact and religious legend is blurred. Nevertheless, the significance of Bodhidharma’s contributions to the development of Buddhism, particularly the Zen tradition, is undebatable and continues to be recognized and studied in academic and religious circles worldwide.
How to worship Bodhidharma at home
Worshipping the statue of Bodhidharma in your home is a common practice for followers of Zen Buddhism. However, for those who are not familiar with this practice, it may seem difficult to understand. Bodhidharma’s statue is often placed behind the main hall or in the grounds of Zen Buddhist temples, but according to Feng Shui, worshiping Bodhidharma at home can help ward off evil spirits and remove negative energy from the house.
Many Buddhist families now worship and decorate Bodhidharma’s statue in their homes. These statues come in various shapes, such as the statue of Bodhidharma meditating, the statue of Bodhidharma performing martial arts, the statue of Bodhidharma overlooking the sea, or the statue of Bodhidharma holding a shoe, which symbolizes freedom in the world. They are made from different materials, such as wood, bronze, ceramic, stone, cement, or plastic composite.
When inviting the statue of Bodhidharma to your home, it is important to choose a location that is in accordance with feng shui principles to protect the house and help the family thrive. The statue can be placed outside the house premises in an artificial cave, but its face must face the main door to prevent negative energy from entering the house.
Buddhists can also choose a small statue of Bodhidharma to keep in the office or on the car dashboard for protection and a sense of security on the road. It is recommended to find a reputable sculptor to receive advice and choose a satisfactory Bodhidharma statue.
In summary, worshipping Bodhidharma at home is a way to bring spiritual meaning and protection to the household. By understanding the proper placement of the statue, Buddhists can ensure a positive and beneficial energy flow within their homes.
Above are useful information about the Zen patriarch with the eccentric name Bodhidharma. LotusBuddhas hopes that through this information, you can better understand who Bodhidharma is, his life, and the philosophical teachings of this Zen master.
- Life of Bodhidharma: https://study.com/academy/lesson/bodhidharma-life-history-significance.html
- Who was Bodhidharma: https://isha.sadhguru.org/us/en/wisdom/article/bodhidharma