uddhism.org   Buddhist eLibrary

Buddhist News

Dharma Talks


Seon Masters

Buddhist Studies

Gateless Gate


Dharma Talks

Share |


Buddhism came to China 2,000 years ago. As early as 65 A.D, a community of Buddhist monks was reported living under royal patronage in the northern part of Kiangsu Province, not far from the birth place of Confucious, and the first monks probably arrived a 100 years earlier. Since then, tens of thousands of Indian and Central Asian monks have journed(journeyed) to China, none has had the impact of Bodhidharma.

Unknown to all but a few disciples during his life time, Bodhdharma is the patriarch of millions of Zen Buddhists and students of kung-fu. He's also the subject of many legends. Along with zen and kung-fu, Bodhidharma, we are told, also brought tea to China. To keep from falling asleep while meditating, he cutting his eyelids, and, and where they fell, tea bushes grew. Since then, tea has become the beverage of not only monks but everyone in the Orient. Faithful to this tradition, artists invariably depict Bodhidharma with bulging, lidless eyes.

As often happens with legends, it's become impossible to saperate fact from fiction. Not only are his dates uncertain, I've met at least one Buddhist scholar who doubted that Bodhidharma ever existed. But at the risk of writing about a man who never lived, I've put together a likely biograhy based on the earliest records available to provide a backdrop for the sermons attributed to him.

Bodhidharma was born around the year 440 in Kanchi, the capital of Southern Indian kingdom of Pallava. He was the third son of King Simhavarman and a Brahman by birth. When he was young, he was converted to Buddhism, and later, he received instruction in the Dharma from Prajnatara, whom his father had invited from the ancient Buddhist heartland Magadha. It was also Prajantara who told Bodhidharma to go to China. Since the traditional overland route was blocked by Huns in the 5th century, and since Kanchi was a commercial power as well as a center for Buddhist studies,  Bodhidharma left by ship from the nearby port of Mahaballiputram. After skirting the Indian coast and the Malay Peninsula for three years, he finally arrived in Southern China around 475.

At that time, the counry was divided into the Northern Wei and Liu Song dynasties. This division of China into a series of northern and southern dynasties began in the early third century and conntinued until the country was reunited under the Sui dynasty in the late six century. It was during this period of division and strife that Indian Buddhism developed into Chinese Buddhism. This political division also led to differences in the kind of Buddhism practiced in the North and  South. The more millitary minded northerners emphasized meditation and magic. The more intellectual southerners preferred philosopical discussion and intuitive grasp of principles.

When Bodhidharma arrived in the latter part of the fifth century, there were approximately 2,000 Buddhist temples and 36,000 clergy in the South. In the North, a census in 477 counted 6,500 temples and nearly 80,000 clergy. Less than fifty years later, another census conducted in the North raised these figures to 30,000 temples and 2,000,000 clergy, or aboubt five percent of the population. This undoubtedly included many people who were trying to avoid taxes and conscription or who sought the protection of the Church for other, non religious, reasons. But clearly, Buddhism north of the Yangze was spreading among the common people. In the South, it reamined largely confined to the educated elite until well into the sixth century.

Following his arrival in the port of Nanhai, Bodhidharma probably visited Buddhist center in the South and began learning Chinese, if he hadn't done so already on his way from India. According to Tao-yuan's 'Transmission of the lamp' finished in 1002, Boddhidharma arrived in the South as late as 520 and was invited to the capital in Chienkang for an audience with Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty, successor to the Liu Sung. During this meeting, the Emperor asked about the merit of performing religious works, and Boddhidharma responded with the doctrine of emptiness. The Emperor didn,t  understand, and Boddhidharma left.  No early records, however, mention such a meeting.

In any case, Bodhidharma crossed the Yangze - according to legend, on a hollow reed - settled in the North.  At first, he stayed near the Northern Wei capital of Pingcheng. Later, in 494, Emperor Hsiao-wen moved his capital south to Loyang on the northern bank of the Lo river, and most of the monks living in the Pingcheng area moved too, Bodhidharma among them. According to Tao-hsuan's Further Lives of Exemplary Monks, the first draft of which was written in 645, Bodhidharma ordained a monk by the name of Seng-fu. When Bodhidharma moved to Loyang, Sheng-fu moved to the South. Since ordination normally requires a three-year apprenticeship, Bodhidharma must have already been in the North by 490 and must have been reasonably conversant in Chinese by then.

A few years later,in 496, the Emperor ordered the construction of Shaolin Temple on the highest of China's five sacred mountains, Mount Sung, in Honan Province south of Loyang. The temple was built for Fo-t'o(Buddhata?), another meditation master from India, not for Bodhidharma. But While zen masters have come and gone at the temple for the past 1,500 years, Bodhidharma is the only monk anyone but a Buddhist historian associates with Shaolin. It was here,on Mount Sung's western Shaoshih Peak that  Bodhidharma is said have spent nine years facing a rock wall near the temple meditating. Shaolin later became famous for training monks in in kung-fu, and  Bodhidharma is honored as the founder of this art as well. Coming from India, he undoubtedly instructed hisdisciples in some form of yoga, but no early records mention him teaching any exercise or martial art.

By the year 500, Loyang was one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of over half a million. When Emperor Hsuan-wu died in 516, and the Empress Dowager Ling assumed control of the governmet, one of the first things she did was order work to begin on Yong-ning temple. The construction of this temple and its 400-foot high pagoda nearly exausted(exhausted) the imperial treasury. According to a record of Loyang's temples written in 547 by Yang Hsuan-chih, golden wind - chimes that hung along the temple's eaves could be heard for three miles, and the spire of the temple's pagoda could be seen over 30 miles away. Yang's account also includes the comments of a monk from the west named Bodhidharma, who calls it the most imposing structure he had ever seen. Since the temple wasn't built until 516 and was destroyed by fire in 534, Bodhidharma must have been in the capital around 520. Early records say he travelled throughout the Loyang area, coming and going with the seasons. In the capital, though, he must have stayed at Yung-ming Temple. Not to be confused

with Yung-ning Temple, Yung-ming was built a few years earlier by Emperor Hsuan-wu  at the beginning of the sixth century as a headquarters for foreign monks. Before the mass evacuation of the city during the collapse of the Northern Wei in 534, the temple reportedly housed over 3,000 monks from countries as far as Syria.

Despite the sudden popularity of Buddhism in China, Bodhidharma found few disciples. Besides Sheng-fu, who moved to the South soon after his ordination, the only other  disciples mentioned are Tao-yu and Hui-k'o, both of whom are said to have studied with  Bodhidharma for five to six years. Tao-yu, we're told, understood the Way but never taught. It was Hui-k'o that  Bodhidharma entrusted the robe and bowl of his lineage and, according to Tao-hsuan, a copy of Gunabhadra's translation of the Lankavatara sutras. In the sermons translated here, though, Bodhidharma quotes mostly from Nirvana, Avatamsaka, and Vimilakirti Sutras and uses none of the terminology characteristic of the Lankavatara. Perhaps it was Hui-k'o, not  Bodhidharma , who thought so highly of this sutra

In his transmission of the lamp, Tao-yuan says that soon after Bodhidharma transmitted the patriarchship of his lineage to Hui-k'o, he died in 528 on the fifth day of the tenth month, poisoned by a jealous monk. Tao-hsuan's much earlier biography of Bodhidharma says only that he died on the banks of the Lo River. He doesn't mention the date or cause of death. According to Tao-yuan, Bodhidharma's remains were interred near Loyang at Tinglin Temple on the Bear Ear Mountain. Tao-yuan adds that three years later a official met Bodhidharma walking in the mountains of Central Asia. He was carrying a staff from which hung a single sandal, and he told the official he was going back to India. This meeting aroused the curiosity of other monks, and they agreed to open  Bodhidharma's tomb. But all they found was a single sandal, and ever since then,  Bodhidharma has been pictured carrying a staff from which hangs the missing sandal.

With the assassination of Emperor Hsiao-wu several years later in 534, the Northern Wei split into the Western and Eastern Wei dynasties, and Loyang came under attack. Since the powerful Kao family of the Eastern Wei was renowned for its patronage of Buddhism, many of the monks living in Loyang moved to the Eastern Wei capital Yeh. Hui-k'o moved to Yeh  too, and eventually he met T'an-lin there. T'an-lin worked first in Loyang and later in Yeh writing prefaces and commentaries to new translations of Buddhist sutras. After meeting Hui-k'o, he became interested in Bodhidharma's approach to Buddhism and added a brief prefaces to the Outline of Practice. In this preface, he says that Bodhidharma was from Southern India and that following his arrival in China, he had found only two worthy disciples, namely Hui-k'o and Tao-yu. He also says that Bodhidharma taught wall-meditation and the four practices descrived in the Outline.

If this is all we know about Bodhidharma, why is he the most famous of all the millions of monks who taught and studied the Dharma in China? For the simple reason that he is credited with bringing zen to China. Of course, zen, as meditation, had been taught and practiced for several hundred years before Bodhidharma arrived. And, as far as doctrine is concerned, much of what he had to say had been said before, by Tao-sheng for exemple, a hundred years earlier. But Bodhidharma's approach to zen was unique. As he says in these sermons, "Seeing your nature is zen. . . Not thinking about anything is zen. . . Everything you do is zen." While others viewed zen as purification of the mind or as a stage on the way to Buddhahood, Bodhidharma equated zen with Buddhahood - and Buddhahood with the mind, the everyday mind. Instead of telling his disciples to purify their minds, he pointed them to rock walls, to the movements of tigers and cranes, to hollow reed floating across the Yangze, to a single sandal. For Bodhidharma, zen wasn't meditation. Zen was the sword of wisdom. As did other masters, he undoubtedly instructed his disciples in Buddhist discipline, meditation, and doctrine, but he used the sword that Prajnatara had given him to cut their minds free from rules, trances and scriptures. Such a sword, though, is hard to grasp and hard to use. Small wonder that his sole successor, Hui-k'o, was a one-armed man.

But such a radical understanding of zen didn't originate with Bodhidharma, nor with Prajnatara. It's said that one day Brahma, lord of creation, offered the Buddha a flower anf asked him to preach the Dharma. When the Buddha held up the flower, his audience was puzzled. Except for Kashyapa, who smiled. This is how zen began. And this is how it was transmitted. With a flower, with a rock wall, with a shout. This approach, once it was made known by Bodhidharma and his successors, revolutionized the understanding and practice of zen in China.

Such an approach doesn't come across very well in books. But in his Further Lives of Exemplary Monks, Tao- hshuan says that Bodhidharma's teachings were written down. Most of scholar agree that the Outline of Practice is one such record, but opinion is divided concerning the other three sermons translated here. All three have long been attributted to Bodhidharma, but in recent years, a number of scholars have suggested that these sermons are the work of later disciples. Yanagida, for exemple, thinks that the Blood Stream Sermon was written by a member of the Oxenhead Zen School, which flourished in the seventh and eighth centuries. He also thinks that the wake-up sermon was an eighth-century work of the Northern Zen School and the Breakthrough Sermon was by Shen-hsiu, the seventh-entury patriarch of the Northern School.

Unfortunately, documentary evidence that would conclusively prove or disprove the traditional attribution is lacking. Until the present century, the earliest copies of these sermons were fourteenth-century version of T'ang dynasty(618-907) originals in the collection of Japan's Kanazaws Bunko. But with the discovery earlier in this century of thousands of T'ang dynasty Buddhist manuscripts in China's Tunhuang caves, we now have seventh and eighth century copies of these sermons. Clearly, they were compiled by monks who trace their ancestry to Bodhidharma at a very early date. If it wasn't Huik'o, it might have been one of his disciples, or perhaps T'anlin who wrote them down. In any case, in the absence of convincing evidence to the contrary, I see no reason why they shouldn't be accepted as the sermons of the man to whom they've been attributed for more than 1200 years.

Bodhidharma's disciples were few. And the zen tradition that traced its ancestry to him didn't begin its full flowering until nearly two hundred years after his death. Given the spontaneity and detachment fostered by  Bodhidharma's approach to zen, it's easy to see why these sermons were eventually neglected by native Chinese zen masters. By comparison, Bodhidharma's sermons seem somewhat alien and bare. I only found them myself by accident in an edition of Huangpo's Essentials on the transmission of Mind. That was twelve years ago. Since then, I've grown quite fond of their bare-bone zen, and I've often wondered why they aren't more popular. But popular or not, here there are again. Before they fade once more into the dust of time, read them through once or twice. And look for the one thing that Bodhidharma brought to China. Look for the print of the mind.

Red Pine, Taiwan

                    modify/Delete     Prev Next    
     11. NOTES
     Sublime Functioning of True Mind
     Golden Teaching of the Mind Cultivation
     Bodhi-dharma's Breakthrough Sermon
     Bodhi-dharma's Bloodstream Sermon
     The Great Master Bodhi-dharma's Teaching on the Two Enterings and the Four Practices
     On Mind-Watching
     On Lineage

top Prev       List

Copyright(c) 2544 Digital International Buddhism Organization.