Select Page The Story of Bodhidharma Shaolin monks and disciples follow a unique practice among Buddhists in that they greet each other using only their right hand. This greeting is a tradition which dates back to Da Mo and his disciple, Hui Ke. Bodhidharma was very intelligent and was the favorite son of the king of a region that is now part of southern India. Bodhidharma had two older brothers who feared that their father, the king, would pass them over and bequeath the kingship to Bodhidharma. In their jealousy, the two older brothers often disparaged Bodhidharma while talking with their father, hoping to turn him against their younger brother.
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The Master had already arrived in China and the stories of various encounters people had with him were spreading like the wind. In fact, even before that, carrier pigeons sent by the Pallava king of South India had also reached there announcing the imminent arrival of the Master. So people in anticipation flocked to the Monastery where Bodhidharma was invited to give a teaching. It did not fit into anything that they know so far. This news promptly reached the Emperor, filling his mind with eagerness to meet the Master.
He supported the monastic Sangha generously, built many Temples and Stupas, promoted vegetarianism and banned the sacrifice of animals and capital punishment. The pious Emperor was least expecting such an answer and was taken aback. Emperor Wu of Liang. The Emperor was sincerely trying to practice Buddhism as he knew it.
And that is what makes everything holy. This is because clinging is at the very root of unholiness. Of course, Bodhidharma knows very well that he is a Buddhist master who travelled from India, who is now in China, meeting the Emperor and so on. Yet his form and thoughts are coming and going like water in a river.
Nothing stays as the true Bodhidharma. It is said that later the Emperor realized the greatness of Bodhidharma. I saw him without seeing him; I met him without meeting him; I encountered him without encountering him; Now as before I regret this deeply!
Who was Bodhidharma? But here in India, his homeland, people hardly know anything about him other than as an esoteric figure who went to China. They especially think of him as a Buddhist monk from South India with mastery in medicine and martial arts. Maybe they learnt this much from the Indians who went on to learn Kungfu and Karate. But in general, people in India are not aware about his background, his realization, his relevance or about his contributions in China. Image courtesy — mapsofindia.
The progenitor of Mahayana as a movement, the great Acharya Nagarjuna himself was from the South and so were many of the other great Panditas and Siddhas of Mahayana. Further, the neighboring forests of Sriparvata and Potalaka were the abodes of choice for many Buddhist Mahasiddhas and Yogis. The prince was then known as Bodhyottara pronounced as Bodhitara in Chinese sources. Their capital was at Kanchi present day Kanchipuram.
Kanchi was the birth place of many eminent Buddhist masters. Dharmapala was also from Kanchi. He also arranged for his three sons to be trained by Prajnottara. During the course of the training, Prajnottara saw that the youngest prince Bodhyottara had deep interest and wisdom. Prajnottara was an accomplished master who taught the Instantaneous Entrance to the Way, according to Mahayana Buddhism.
In this approach, a master starts by preparing the disciple through many modes of training. Having acquired the view of the space-like nature the disciple trains by resting in that view. This lineage started when Buddha Sakyamuni showed a lotus flower in an assembly of disciples. In the assembly, it was only Mahakashyapa who realized the meaning behind this symbolic indication and a smile broke out on his face.
Further the lineage passed on through many great masters such as Upagupta, Ashvaghosha, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu, etc. All of these masters were also great scholars and Siddhas and wrote many important treatises on the Mahayana philosophy and practice. Prajnottara was the 27th Master of this lineage. Bodhyottara remained in meditation for seven days.
After rising from meditation, he decided to dedicate his life to Dharma. He went to Prajnottara and requested to be accepted as his disciple. Prajnottara, realizing that the time was ripe, accepted him under his fold and imparted all the necessary teachings to him. Under the guidance of Prajnottara, Bodhyottara awakened to Bodhi. Then, Prajnottara gave him the name Bodhidharmottara pronounced as Bodhidharmatara in Chinese sources , or in short Bodhidharma.
He became the 28th Master in that unbroken lineage of realized masters. Bodhidharma also mastered Medicine Ayurveda, Siddha-medicine , Marma kala similar to acupressure and martial arts as part of his training.
Buddhist Siddha tradition in South India has always been closely connected with healing and marma kala. For instance Nagarjuna and Aryadeva were also masters of Medicine. The Silence of the Thunder Prajnottara instructed Bodhidharma to go to China and impart the teachings of the Buddha there. Accordingly, Bodhidharma traveled to China by taking the sea route. By this time, Buddhism was already thriving well in China. Most of the Buddhist literature was already translated into Chinese.
People had great faith and were pious. Many Buddhist masters from India used to visit China to teach and people there were eagerly looking forward to these visits.
Many Chinese also used to visit India for pilgrimage and for deeper learning of Buddhism. It was into this China, a flourishing centre of Buddhism that Bodhidharma arrived. Bodhidharma Daruma — a 15th Century painting. Image courtesy — Kyoto National Museum Upon his arrival, Bodhidharma felt that people were getting lost in the conventionalities around Buddhism without getting into the essence of it.
For example, though people were highly fascinated about making a lot of merit through virtuous deeds such as generosity, building temples and stupas, chanting , etc. By losing this crux, even great merit making activities turned into just worldly dharma. Many of the anecdotes on Bodhidharma are narrations about how he shocked his disciples to break them away from their clinging to worldly dharma. Immediately upon landing in China, he was invited to a monastery to deliver a teaching to a large number of people.
Reaching the monastery, the Master went to the teaching dais and sat there in meditation. People waited and waited for his wisdom words and the typical ceremonies of a monastic assembly.
But the Master just remained there silent like an unmoving mountain. Hours passed by and the air of silence was occasionally broken only when the perplexed whispers of people rose up like that of buzzing bees and settling again into a dense silence of anticipation.
Then one moment, the Master just silently go up and simply walked away. Some wondered whether he was crazy, while some others speculated that there is some mystical meaning behind his silence. Whichever is the case, he succeeded in shocking them.
After this, Bodhidharma went on to have his famous encounter with Emperor Wu as portrayed earlier. There he came across a pavilion where a large crowd had gathered to hear the teaching of a famous Buddhist monk Shen Guang.
Bodhidharma also joined the crowd to hear the lecture. For some statements of Shen Guang, Bodhidharma nodded as if in agreement and for some others he nodded as if in disagreement. When this continued for a while, Shen Guang started getting irritated.
Bodhidharma just smiled and walked away peacefully. This intrigued Shen Guang. He thought that any normal man would immediately react instead of just walking away.
Shen Guang became quite restless. Curiosity bubbles up in him, and he rushes behind Bodhidharma. By the time he arrives at the banks of the Yangtse River, he sees Bodhidharma gently sailing northwards by standing on a single reed that floated on the river. He seems to glide through water as effortlessly like a swan.
And, there is an old lady sitting with a bundle of reeds on the bank. Seeing this, Shen Guang follows by quickly grabbing a pair of reeds from her, throwing them on the river and then pushing himself over them.
At this time, the old lady took pity on him and pulled him out. Here, Bodhidharma is said to have crossed Yangtse river by standing on a reed. She exclaimed that the man who sails magnificently on that single reed must be a master of great accomplishment. In contrast, this teacher of many words came rushing with an agitated mind, and grabbed the reeds without even asking for permission.
In fact, Bodhidharma could easily sail on a single reed by virtue of his mindfulness and his control over inner winds. Mindlessly, he too pushed himself into the river on a pair of reeds without bothering about what it takes to sail on a reed.
Then, he saw how easily he got agitated. He was carrying his agitation all the way from the pavilion till the point of getting drowned. That too, while he was trying to imbibe the teachings of peace and awakening in others as a Buddhist teacher!
Shen Guang was a General in the army before ordaining as a monk. He was still carrying the aggression from his military past. Now, a hunch arose in him that the Master was in fact compassionately pointing out his fault. Then there was a deep yearning for meeting the Master and becoming his disciple. He too embarked upon a journey northwards following the Master. Shaolin had already seen some Indian masters before Bodhidharma. Even its first abbot was a master from India with the name Buddhabhadra,.
Transcending Movement and Stillness – The Life of Bodhidharma
The Master had already arrived in China and the stories of various encounters people had with him were spreading like the wind. In fact, even before that, carrier pigeons sent by the Pallava king of South India had also reached there announcing the imminent arrival of the Master. So people in anticipation flocked to the Monastery where Bodhidharma was invited to give a teaching. It did not fit into anything that they know so far. This news promptly reached the Emperor, filling his mind with eagerness to meet the Master. He supported the monastic Sangha generously, built many Temples and Stupas, promoted vegetarianism and banned the sacrifice of animals and capital punishment. The pious Emperor was least expecting such an answer and was taken aback.
Bodhidharma and Emperor Story
Two very brief contemporary accounts disagree on his age one claiming that he was years old, the other depicting him as much younger and nationality one identifies him as Persian , the other as South Indian. He was also credited with aiding the monks of Shaolin Monastery—famous for their prowess in the martial arts —in meditation and training. Bodhidharma was also considered to be the 28th Indian patriarch in a direct line of transmission from the Buddha. Most traditional accounts state that Bodhidharma was a South Indian dhyana master, possibly a Brahman , who traveled to China perhaps in the late 5th century.
The Story of Bodhidharma
There are two known extant accounts written by contemporaries of Bodhidharma. Altishahr or the Tarim Basin in southern Xinjiang. Sometimes it was used more generally to refer to other regions to the west of China as well, such as the Indian subcontinent as in the novel Journey to the West. A fresco from the Bezeklik , dated to the 9th or 10th century; although Albert von Le Coq assumed the red-haired monk was a Tocharian ,  modern scholarship has identified similar Caucasian figures of the same cave temple No. He exclaimed: "Truly this is the work of spirits. There is virtually no country I have not visited.