Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th or 6th century. He is traditionally credited as the transmitter of Chan Buddhism to China, and regarded as its first Chinese patriarch. According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the monks of Shaolin Monastery that led to the creation of Shaolin kungfu. In Japan, he is known as Daruma.
Little contemporary biographical information on Bodhidharma is extant, and subsequent accounts became layered with legend.
According to the principal Chinese sources, Bodhidharma came from the Western Regions, which refers to Central Asia but may also include the Indian subcontinent, and was either a “Persian Central Asian” or a “South Indian […] the third son of a great Indian king.” Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is depicted as an ill-tempered, profusely-bearded, wide-eyed non-Chinese person. He is referred as “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian” (Chinese: 碧眼胡; pinyin: Bìyǎnhú) in Chan texts.
Aside from the Chinese accounts, several popular traditions also exist regarding Bodhidharma’s origins.
The accounts also differ on the date of his arrival, with one early account claiming that he arrived during the Liu Song dynasty (420–479) and later accounts dating his arrival to the Liang dynasty (502–557). Bodhidharma was primarily active in the territory of the Northern Wei (386-634). Modern scholarship dates him to about the early 5th century.
Bodhidharma’s teachings and practice centered on meditation and the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. The Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (952) identifies Bodhidharma as the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism in an uninterrupted line that extends all the way back to the Gautama Buddha himself.
Bodhidharma at Shaolin
Some Chinese myths and legends describe Bodhidharma as being disturbed by the poor physical shape of the Shaolin monks, after which he instructed them in techniques to maintain their physical condition as well as teaching meditation.He is said to have taught a series of external exercises called the Eighteen Arhat Hands and an internal practice called the Sinew Metamorphosis Classic. In addition, after his departure from the temple, two manuscripts by Bodhidharma were said to be discovered inside the temple: the Yijin Jingand the Xisui Jing. Copies and translations of the Yijin Jing survive to the modern day. The Xisui Jing has been lost.
Travels in Southeast Asia
According to Southeast Asian folklore, Bodhidharma travelled from Jambudvipa by sea to Palembang, Indonesia. Passing through Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Malaysia, he eventually entered China through Nanyue. In his travels through the region, Bodhidharma is said to have transmitted his knowledge of the Mahayana doctrine and the martial arts. Malay legend holds that he introduced forms to silat.
Vajrayana tradition links Bodhidharma with the 11th-century south Indian monk Dampa Sangye who travelled extensively to Tibet and China spreading tantric teachings.
Appearance after his death
Three years after Bodhidharma’s death, Ambassador Sòngyún of northern Wei is said to have seen him walking while holding a shoe at the Pamir Heights. Sòngyún asked Bodhidharma where he was going, to which Bodhidharma replied “I am going home”. When asked why he was holding his shoe, Bodhidharma answered “You will know when you reach Shaolin monastery. Don’t mention that you saw me or you will meet with disaster”. After arriving at the palace, Sòngyún told the emperor that he met Bodhidharma on the way. The emperor said Bodhidharma was already dead and buried and had Sòngyún arrested for lying. At Shaolin Monastery, the monks informed them that Bodhidharma was dead and had been buried in a hill behind the temple. The grave was exhumed and was found to contain a single shoe. The monks then said “Master has gone back home” and prostrated three times: “For nine years he had remained and nobody knew him; Carrying a shoe in hand he went home quietly, without ceremony.”
Practice and teaching
Bodhidharma is traditionally seen as introducing dhyana-practice in China.
Pointing directly to one’s mind
One of the fundamental Chán texts attributed to Bodhidharma is a four-line stanza whose first two verses echo the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra’s disdain for words and whose second two verses stress the importance of the insight into reality achieved through “self-realization”:
A special transmission outside the scriptures
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to [one’s] mind
It lets one see into [one’s own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.
The stanza, in fact, is not Bodhidharma’s, but rather dates to the year 1108.
Tanlin, in the preface to Two Entrances and Four Acts, and Daoxuan, in the Further Biographies of Eminent Monks, mention a practice of Bodhidharma’s termed “wall-gazing” (壁觀 bìguān). Both Tanlin[note 8] and Daoxuan[web 5] associate this “wall-gazing” with “quieting [the] mind” (Chinese: 安心; pinyin: ānxīn).
In the Two Entrances and Four Acts, traditionally attributed to Bodhidharma, the term “wall-gazing” is given as follows:
Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason”.
Daoxuan states, “The merits of Mahāyāna wall-gazing are the highest”.
These are the first mentions in the historical record of what may be a type of meditation being ascribed to Bodhidharma.
Exactly what sort of practice Bodhidharma’s “wall-gazing” was remains uncertain. Nearly all accounts have treated it either as an undefined variety of meditation, as Daoxuan and Dumoulin,or as a variety of seated meditation akin to the zazen (Chinese: 坐禪; pinyin: zuòchán) that later became a defining characteristic of Chan. The latter interpretation is particularly common among those working from a Chan standpoint.
There have also, however, been interpretations of “wall-gazing” as a non-meditative phenomenon.