Bodhidharma Buddhism


Bodhidharma (Sanskrit in devanāgarī: बोधिधर्म "wisdom teaching"; simplified Chinese: 菩提达摩, pútídámó or 達摩, dámó; Japanese: 達磨, daruma; c. late fifth and early fifth centuries), a Persian Buddhist monk from India, is the legendary founder in China of the Chan school, a contemplative stream (dhyāna) of the mahāyāna, which in Japan became the Zen school known in the West.

Since the Chan school claims to trace its roots back to the Buddha, Bodhidharma is considered its 28th patriarch and its first Chinese patriarch.

There is little biographical information contemporary with him, and subsequent indications have been overloaded with legends. The main Chinese sources diverge on his origins, making him come from either India or Central Asia (en).

Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is portrayed as a bad-tempered non-Chinese man with a shaggy beard, large eyes topped by bushy eyebrows, and a somber look. He is nicknamed "The Great Traveler" and "The Bright-Eyed Barbarian" (Chinese: 碧眼胡; pinyin: Bìyǎnhú) in Chán texts.

In addition to the Chinese texts, there are many popular traditions running about Bodhidharma's origins.

The New Collection of Biographies of Eminent Monks has him arriving in China during the Liu-Song dynasty (420-479), an opinion held by the majority of scholars, but The Anthology of the Patriarch's Hall places his arrival under the Liang (502-557). All sources agree that the bulk of his activity was in the Northern Wei kingdom.


There are very few solid indications about his life. The least succinct biographical sources are also the latest, which bodes ill for their reliability. The earliest is the brief notice of Tanlin (曇林; 506-574), a disciple of Huike-or according to some, of Bodhidharma himself-in the preface to Two Entries and Four Practices. This is the earliest of the dynasties.

Since this dynasty is considered by some to be of Indo-Iranian origin, this would reconcile Tanlin's information with the mention of a Persian Bodhidharma encountered in Luoyang between 516 and 526 by Yang Xuanzhi (楊衒之) ; another hypothesis put forward is that the Persian and the first Chan patriarch are two different people.

The date of 440 has been advanced for his birth.

According to Daoxuan's New Collection of the Biographies of Eminent Monks (645), he is of Brahmin origin. He arrived in the kingdom of Nanyue (thus by boat) under the Liu-Song (420-479) and crossed the Chang Jiang towards the Northern Wei kingdom before the end of the dynasty.

According to the author, Bodhidharma died before 534 in the vicinity of the Luo River where Huike buried him in a cave. Some have therefore speculated that he may have died during the executions ordered there in 528 by Emperor Xiaozhuang.

In the Anthology of the Patriarch's Hall (952), the legend of Bodhidharma is already well established. He is presented as a disciple of Prajñātāra. He arrived in China in 527 during the Liang dynasty (502-557) and had a famous interview with the emperor Wudi :

When the emperor asked him how much merit he had earned by building monasteries and copying the sutras, Bodhidharma replied, "No merit." The emperor: "What are the real merits?" Bodhidharma: "Pure wisdom is wonderful and perfect, its essence is empty and peaceful.

Such merits cannot be acquired by worldly methods." Emperor: "What is the supreme meaning of the noble truth?" Bodhidharma: "The vast emptiness without nobility." The emperor: "Who is before me?" Bodhidharma: "I do not know.

Emperor Wu of the Liang being unable to understand the deeper meaning of the Dharma, Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtze River in 527 and entered the Wei kingdom, he stopped at the Shaolin Monastery on Song Mountain in Henan where he meditated for nine years in front of a wall, from which came his nickname "Brahmin contemplating a wall".

According to the Anthology, Bodhidharma, who died before 536, was buried on Mount Xiong'er (熊耳山) east of Luoyang. Nevertheless, three years later, an official of the Western Wei (534-556) named Songyun (宋雲) is said to have met him in the Pamir while he was traveling to India with a single sandal.

He predicted the upcoming death of his sovereign. Soon after Songyun's return, the prediction came true. Bodhidharma's grave was opened and only one sandal was found.

In The Transmission of the Lamp (1004), Daoyuan (道原) claims that Prajñātāra changed his original name from Bodhitāra to Bodhidharma, and that he did not die in China but unceremoniously set out for India one day, holding one of his sandals in his hand. In this way, he was able to make his way to India.

According to Shaolin and Chan legend, in 475, he went to Shaolin Monastery, to preach the Dharma according to the path of Mahāyāna Buddhism. But the monks refused him access. He sat down and fixed his gaze on the surrounding wall of the monastery.

He meditated there for nine years, in the Zazen position. He managed (at least symbolically) to pierce the wall with his gaze. This forced the respect of the monks and allowed him to enter. He developed the Shaolin teaching there. Around the year 520, he left the monastery and stayed in China, to inaugurate Zen.


Philosophy and meditation

Bodhidharma transmitted his contemplative teaching to Huike (487-593) by entrusting him with the four volumes of the Entry to the Island Sutra (sk. Lankāvatārasūtra, ch. Léngjiā ābāduōluó bǎojīng 楞伽阿跋多羅寶經) that he deemed suitable to deliver the Chinese, Huike became the second patriarch of the meditation school in China.

Indeed, this is said to be the main sutra of the early Chan monks according to the History of the Lanka Masters (楞伽師資記 Lengjiā shīzī jì) by the monk Jingjue (淨覺; 683-750). This sutra, which is related to yogacara philosophy, emphasizes the importance of overcoming duality and the uselessness of language for dharma transmission.

This notion is expressed in a famous stanza attributed to Bodhidharma, although it dates, according to H. Dumoulin, from 1008. "Zen goes straight to the heart," he said:

"Zen goes straight to the heart.
See your true nature
and become Buddha.

In Two Entries and Four Practices and the New Collection of Biographies of Eminent Monks, Bodhidharma's meditation technique is called "wall contemplation" (壁觀 bìguān). The author of the second work states that it is "calming the mind" (安心 ān xīn).

This term has been interpreted literally by tradition, which describes Bodhidharma meditating motionless in front of a wall for several years. Nevertheless, some believe that it is a figurative expression and that biguan could be what would later be called zazen (坐禪: zuòchán).

The legends: Shaolin and chan

According to the legend, Bodhidharma created and taught Shaolin kung fu to the monks of the Shaolin temple, to help them defend themselves from the animals and brigands that roamed around the monastery.

Academic research contests this thesis as early as the eighteenth century, and some historians date the creation of this legend to the seventeenth century, with the mention of Shaolin physical practices (qi gong) in passages of the Yì Jīn Jīng (estimated to be later than the seventeenth century).

The tradition also links Bodhidin to the Shaolin monks, who were taught Shaolin kung fu by the monks of the Shaolin Temple.

Tradition also links Bodhidharma to the creation of Chan Buddhism at the Shaolin temple. Academic research disputes this legendary thesis. Even if Bodhidharma had preached doctrines influencing Chan thinkers, most historians consider Bodhidharma's designation as the founder of Chan to be unhistorical.

A legend links Bodhidharma to tea culture: after meditating for 7 years motionless in front of a wall, he fell asleep. To prevent this from happening again, he cut off his eyelids. When they fell to the ground, they gave birth to two tea plants, very useful for keeping zazen practitioners awake.

Another legend says that after nine years of meditation, Bodhidharma's legs and arms rotted, which is the origin of the spherical statuettes of Bodhidharma and the Daruma tumblers in Japan.

Influence in Japan

Zen born in Japan inherited the Chinese chan and Korean sound implanted by Bodhidharma, the 28th patriarch, notably within temples dedicated to the practice of martial arts.

It was Eisai (1141-1215) who, after a study trip to China, brought back to Japan this practice of Chan, Zen Buddhism from the Rinzai school. He returned to Japan in 1191. Within the Japanese aristocracy he came up against the schools of Japanese Buddhism that had appeared in the ninth and seventh centuries (such as the Tendai, Shingon and Pure Land schools).

Thus, in 1199 he left Kyoto for the city of Kamakura where the Shogun and the members of his samurai caste enthusiastically welcomed his Zen teachings oriented towards martial arts. Hôjô Masak, widow of Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo, gave Eisai permission to build the Jufuku-ji temple, the first Zen center in Kamakura.

From then on in Japan Bodhidharma (達磨) is called Daruma (だるま) which comes from Dharma and is highly regarded within the bushido caste. Thus from the beginning of the Edo period and the 250 years of peace put in place by the Tokugawa Shogunate, the way of the sword followed by the samurai castes turned even more towards Buddhism from Daruma.

Takuan Soho (1573-1645), prelate of the Rinzai sect (author of, among other things, The Indomitable Spirit, Writings of a Zen Master to a Sword Master), rubbed shoulders with and greatly influenced Yagyu Munenori (Heiho kadensho) and Miyamoto Musashi (Treatise of the Five Wheels), the most famous samurai in Japan today and part of the Japanese national treasure, an artist and a philosopher who has represented Daruma on several occasions.


In Malaysia, it is said that Bodhidharma in his journey from India landed in Palembang where he spent a good while before heading north. He then traveled to Siam and various parts of Southeast Asia, spreading meditation and martial arts, before finally reaching China.

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