Bodhidharma | Historical Overview

1. Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma (ca. early 5th century), known in China as Damo and in Japan as Daruma; traditionally considered the 28th patriarch of Indian Buddhism and the founder of the Chan (Jpn., Zen) school of Chinese Buddhism.

2. The “Historical” Bodhidharma

Accounts of Bodhidharma’s life have been based until recently on largely hagiographical materials such as the Transmission of the Lamp (1004).

However, the discovery of new documents among the Dunhuang manuscripts found in Central Asia at the turn of 20th century has led Chinese and Japanese scholars to question the authenticity of these accounts.

The oldest text in which Bodhidharma’s name is mentioned is The Monasteries of Luoyang, a description of Buddhist monasteries in Luoyang written in 547 by Yang Xuanzhi:

In this work, a monk called Bodhidharma from “Po-ssu in the western regions” (possibly Persia) is said to have visited and admired the Yongning Monastery:

This monastery was built in 516 and became a military camp after 528. Consequently, Bodhidharma’s visit must have taken place around 520:

But no other biographical details can be inferred from this, and the aged western monk (he was purportedly 150 years old at the time) bears no resemblance to the legendary founder of Chinese Chan.

The most important source for Bodhidharma’s life is the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks, a work written by Daoxuan in 645 and revised before his death in 667:

It states that Bodhidharma was a Brahmin from Southern India:

After studying the Buddhist tradition of the Greater Vehicle (Mahāyāna), Bodhidharma decided to travel to China in order to spread Mahāyāna doctrine.

He arrived by sea at Nanyue, in the domain of the Liu Sung dynasty (420-479), and later travelled to Luoyang, the capital of the Northern Wei (386-534).

In Luoyang, he attempted to win converts, apparently without great success.

Nonetheless, he eventually acquired 2 worthy disciples, Huike (487-593) and Daoyou (dates unknown), who studied with him for several years.

He is said to have transmitted the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, the scripture he deemed best fitted for Chinese practitioners, to Huike.

Bodhidharma seems also to have met with some hostility and slander.

Daoxuan stresses that Bodhidharma’s teaching, known as “wall-gazing” (biguan), or as the “two entrances” (via “principle,” and via “practice,”), was difficult to understand compared to the more traditional and popular teachings of Sengchou (480-560).

Daoxuan concludes by saying that he does not know where Bodhidharma died. In another section of the text, however, Daoxuan states that Bodhidharma died on the banks of the Lo River.

That Bodhidharma’s teachings evoked hostility in China is evident from the fact that after his death, his disciple Huike felt it necessary to hide for a period.

Since the locale mentioned is known to have been an execution ground, it is possible that Bodhidharma was executed during the late Wei rebellions.

Although Daoxuan’s account is straightforward, succinct, and apparently fairly authentic, it presents some problems:

Most important, it presents 2 different, almost contradictory, images of Bodhidharma - as a practitioner of “wall-gazing,” intent on not relying on the written word, and as a partisan of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.

Daoxuan clearly has some difficulty in reconciling his divergent sources:

Primarily, he draws on the preface to the so-called Treatise on the 2 entrances and 4 practices, written around 600 by Bodhidharma’s (or Huike’s) disciple Tanlin (dates unknown) and on information concerning the reputed transmission of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.

This latter had probably been given to Daoxuan by Fachong (587?-665), an heir of the tradition.

In any case, at the time of Daoxuan’s writing, Bodhidharma was not yet considered the 28th patriarch of Indian Buddhism.

In Daoxuan’s time, a new school was developing on the Eastern Mountain (Dongshan, in modern Hunan) around the dhyāna masters Dayi Daoxin (580-651) and Hongren (601-674).

Hongren’s disciples, Faru (638-689), Yuquan Shenxiu (606-706), and Huian (attested dates 582-709), spread this new teaching, known as the “Dongshan doctrine,” in the region of the Tang capitals (Chang’an and Luoyang).

Faru’s epitaph and 2 historiographical works of this metropolitan Chan written in the first decades of the 8th century,

- the Annals of the Transmission of the Dharma-treasure and
- the Chronicle of the Laṅkāvatāra Masters,

- succeeded in linking the Dongshan tradition to the Laṅkāvatāra tradition.

Bodhidharma and Huike were defined in these texts as the first two Chinese patriarchs of the Chan school and Daoxin and Hongren were designated the 4th and 5th patriarchs.

The missing link was conveniently provided by an obscure disciple of Huike, Sengcan (d. 606) - baptized “third patriarch.”

Having established its orthodoxy and spiritual filiation, the new Chan School, popularly known as the Bodhidharma School or the Laṅkāvatāra school, quickly developed as the main trend of Chinese Buddhism and its “founderBodhidharma accordingly acquired legendary status.

3. The Legend of Bodhidharma within the Chan Sect

About 150 years after Bodhidharma’s death, his legend had already grown considerably:

His Indian origin plus the very scarcity of information available from the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks seem to have been the essential factors in Bodhidharma’s posthumous assumption of the status of “First Patriarch” of the new Chan School.

In 686, Faru settled at Song Shan, near Luoyang (in modern Henan). Song Shan was already a Buddhist stronghold; Sengchou, Bodhidharma’s lucky rival, had once studied under another Indian monk named Fotuo (dates unknown) at Song Shan:

Fotuo was revered by the Northern Wei emperor, Xiaowen (467-499), who, after moving the capital to Luoyang in 496, had the Shaolin Monastery built for him at Song Shan.

It seems that later, in Faru’s circle, an amalgam was made of the legends of Fotuo, Sengchou, and Bodhidharma. This may be the reason why Bodhidharma became associated with the Shaolin Monastery.

According to the Annals of the Transmission of the Dharma-treasure, Bodhidharma practiced wall-gazing at Song Shan for several years:

He thus became known as the “wall-gazing Brahmin,” the monk who remained without moving for 9 years in meditation in a cave on Song Shan.

There he also met Huike, who, to show his earnestness in searching for the Way, cut off his own arm. (The Annals of the Transmission severely criticizes Daoxuan for claiming that Huike had his arm cut off by bandits.)

This tradition, fusing with the martial tradition that developed at Song Shan, resulted in Bodhidharma becoming the “founder” of the martial art known as Shaolin boxing. 

Bodhidharma’s legend continued to develop with several other chronicles, and reached its classical stage in 1004 with the Transmission of the Lamp:

In the process, it borrowed features from other popular Buddhist or Daoist figures such as Baozhi or Fuxi (alias Fu Dashi, “Fu the Mahā-sattva,” 497-569, considered an incarnation of Maitreya).

But its main aspects were already fixed at the beginning of the 8th century:

For example, the Annals of the Transmission of the Dharma-treasure contains the following account concerning Bodhidharma’s “deliverance from the corpse” (a typical Daoist practice):

On the day of his death, he was met in the Pamir Mountains by Songyun, a Northern Wei emissary on his way back from India:

After his arrival in China, Songyun told Bodhidharma’s disciples of his encounter. The disciples, opening their master’s grave, found it empty except for a single straw sandal.

Bodhidharma returning to his home in the Western regions on one sandal has become a standard motif in Chan iconography.

Another important - if somewhat later - motif is Bodhidharma’s encounter with Liang Wudi (r. 502-549) on his arrival in China:

This story, which became a favourite theme of Chanriddles” or Gong’an (Jpn., Kōan), has its prototype in Fuxi’s encounter with Liang Wudi. In both cases, the Emperor failed to understand the eminence of the person he had in front of him.

It is also noteworthy that many early Chan works formerly attributed to Bodhidharma have recently been proved to have been written by later Chan masters such as Niutou Farong (594-657) or Shenxiu (606-706).

That so many works were erroneously attributed to Bodhidharma may be due simply to the fact that the Chan School was at the time known as the Bodhidharma School, and that all works of the school could thus be considered expressive of Bodhidharma’s thought.

Whatever the case, these works have greatly contributed to the development of Bodhidharma’s image, especially in the Japanese Zen tradition.

Further confusing the issue is the “discovery,” throughout the 8th century, of epitaphs supposedly written shortly after his death. In fact, these epitaphs were products of the struggle for hegemony among various factions of Chan.

4. Bodhidharma in Popular Religion

The Genkoshakusho (Historiography of Japanese Buddhism), a well-known account of Japanese Buddhism written by a Zen monk named Kokan Shiren (1278-1346),

opens with the story of Bodhidharma crossing over to Japan to spread his teachings (a development of the iconographic tradition representing him crossing the Yangtze River).

In Japan, Bodhidharma’s legend seems to have developed first within the Tendai (Chin., Tiantai) tradition brought from China at the beginning of the Heian period (794-1191) by the Japanese monk Saichō (767-822) and his disciples:

One of them in particular, Kojo (779-858), was instrumental in linking the Bodhidharma legend to the Tendai tradition

and to the legend of the regent Shōtoku (Shōtoku Taishi, 574-622), who was considered a reincarnation of Nanyue Huisi (515-577), one of the founders of the Tiantai School (notwithstanding the fact that Shōtoku was born before Huisi died).

In his The Record of the Precepts in a Mind, a work presented to the emperor, Kojo mentions the encounter that took place near Kataoka Hill (Nara Prefecture)

between Shōtoku and a strange, starving beggar - considered a Daoist immortal in the version of the story given by the Kojiki.

Kojo, arguing from a former legendary encounter between Huisi and Bodhidharma on Mount Tiantai in China, and from Bodhidharma’s prediction that both would be reborn in Japan, has no difficulty establishing that the beggar was none other than Bodhidharma himself.

This amalgam proved very successful and reached far beyond the Tendai School.

Toward the end of the Heian period a Zen school emerged from the Tendai tradition, and its leader, Dainichibō Nōnin (fl. 1190s), labelled it the “Japanese school of Bodhidharma” (Nihon Daruma s):

This movement was a forerunner of the Japanese Zen sect, whose 2 main branches were founded by Eisai (1141-1215) and Dōgen (1200-1253) at the beginning of the Kamakura period (1192-1337).

This eventually led to the publication of a Biography of Bodhidharma in the Three Kingdoms [India, China, and Japan]) during the Edo period.

But it is in popular religion that Bodhidharma’s figure developed most flamboyantly:

Early in China, Bodhidharma not only borrowed features from Daoist immortals but became completely assimilated by the Daoist tradition; there are several Daoist works extant concerning Bodhidharma.

In Japan, Bodhidharma’s legend developed in tandem with that of Shōtoku Taishi; a temple dedicated to Daruma is still to be found on the top of Kataoka Hill.

The Japanese image of Daruma, a legless doll known as fuku-Daruma (“Daruma of happiness”), presides over many aspects of everyday life (household safety, prosperity in business, political campaigns, etc.). This figure, impressed on every child’s mind, has come to play an important role in Japanese art and culture.