Bodhidharma (440 – 534 CE) played a seminal role in the transmission of Zen Buddhism from India to China (where it is known as Chan). Zen Buddhists consider him the twenty-eighth Patriarch, and he is credited as the founder of Shaolin martial arts.
His teachings point to a direct experience of buddha-nature rather than an intellectual understanding of it (a characteristic sadly lacking in modern teachings). Bodhidharma was known for his terse style that infuriated the Emperor Wu of Liang. Bodhidharma exemplifies hard work, discipline, and determination on the path to spiritual realization. Concrete details about Bodhidharma’s life are hard to find since many stories about him are filled with mythical elements that have significant meaning for Zen Buddhists. He was probably born to an upper-class family in India, and—like the Buddha—left his social status to follow Mahayana Buddhism under Prajnatara. He left India to restore Buddhism in China.
“A special transmission, outside of the scriptures, Not dependent on the written word. Directly pointing at the mind, Seeing one’s own true nature, and attaining enlightenment.”
Bodhidharma’s most famous meeting was with the emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (502 – 557 CE), who was a strong supporter of Buddhism. The emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma how much merit his building of temples, printing of scriptures, and support for the Buddhist community had accumulated. Bodhidharma replied, “No merit at all.” The Emperor then asked Bodhidharma, “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?” Bodhidharma replied, “Without holiness.” The emperor Wu then demanded to know who Bodhidharma was to say such things. Bodhidharma responded, “I don’t know.” Incensed by Bodhidharma’s answers the emperor Wu had him expelled from the court.
The story of Bodhidharma’s conversation with the Liang emperor illustrates Bodhidharma’s distinctive style of awakening buddha-nature in an incremental, and jarring way that brings about immediate—like a bucket of cold water being thrown over your body—enlightenment.
“Your mind is nirvana, you might think that you can find a Buddha or enlightenment somewhere beyond the mind, but such a place does not exist.”
After leaving the Liang court, Bodhidharma traveled north, across the Yangtze River. He stopped at the Shaolin temple at Mt. Song but was refused entry. Legend says that he sat in meditation outside the monastery, facing its walls, for nine years. The monks were impressed with his dedication and granted him entry to the monastery. Once inside, he was dismayed by the poor physical condition of the monks and begun teaching a set of exercises to the monks to promote their physical health. Note that in this legend the Chinese monks had to be impressed with Bodhidharma’s dedication, although he is the teacher. This legend says that those exercises were the 18 Arhat Hands of Shaolin–a common routine in Shaolin martial arts. It is more likely that these exercises were yoga postures that were mixed with an already developed martial tradition to form the Shaolin arts.
Bodhidharma’s transformative presence at the Shaolin temple was a keystone moment that forever changed martial training. Mankind had always trained to fight–initially to defend himself from animals or to hunt large game–and the Chinese were using form routines in martial practice before Bodhidharma. What changed at the Shaolin temple, is the use of martial training as a form of physical exercise.
Tradition holds that Bodhidharma’s principal text 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.
“The sutras tell us… to see without seeing… to hear without hearing, to know without knowing… Basically, seeing, hearing, and knowing are completely empty.”
Bodhidharma also lectured extensively on the doctrine of emptiness; a defining feature of Mahayana thought. All things and all actions are held to be empty of any intellectual elaborations, and exist freely and spontaneously as direct expressions of nothing other than themselves.
Another characteristic feature of Bodhidharma’s Buddhism was the emphasis he placed on physical well-being. He taught that keeping our bodies healthy increases our mental energy and prepares us for the rigors of meditation. Bodhidharma’s mind-and-body approach to spiritual practice ultimately proved highly attractive to the Samurai class in Japan. The cause of his death is unclear, but—like the Buddha—it is said that he knew the time of his death was approaching, made arrangements with his students, sat in zazen and died.