The Life of Bodhidharma

The First Patriarch of Zen

Bodhidharma by Hakuin
An iconic image of Bodhidharma, painted by Hakuin Zenji (1686-1768). Public Domain

As the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma's influence permeates the culture of Asia and now the West. Yet many details of his life are lost in the fog of time. Of his "official" biography, it's hard to know how much might be factual and how much is myth. The earliest sources contradict each other on many details.

With that in mind, here is what Zen historians generally believe to be true:

Bodhidharma was born some time during the 5th century CE.

He was the third son of King Simhavarman of the Pallava Dynasty of South India.

Bodhidharma's dharma teacher was named Prajnatara, who was 27th of a lineage of teachers that originated with the historical Buddha. Chinese histories record that Prajnatara was a man, but there is a strong argument that Prajnatara actually was a woman. Prajnatara came to South India after Huns swept through northern India in the mid 5th century. It is thought that Prajnatara encouraged Bodhidharma to go to China when she thought he was ready to teach.

Bodhidharma in China

Early chronicles give various dates for Bodhidharma's arrival in southern China, from 475 CE to early in the 6th century, and the early 6th century date seems most likely.

China at that time was divided into northern and southern kingdoms, and according to many accounts Bodhidharma soon was summoned to the court of the Emperor Wu Ti  of the Liang Dynasty, who reigned the southern kingdom from 502 to 549.

The Emperor's capital was in Jiankang, near the modern city of Nanjing.

The Emperor Wu was a great patron of Buddhism.  The Emperor had built many monasteries, and he asked Bodhidharma what merit his generosity had earned. "No merit," said Bodhidharma. Startled, the Emperor asked Bodhidharma the supreme truth of the Dharma.

"Vast emptiness; nothing holy," replied Bodhidharma. Finally, the Emperor asked, "Who are you?" "I know not," said Bodhidharma.

The interview ended abruptly. It's said Bodhidharma left the court and went north, crossing the Yangtze River on a floating reed. He then traveled northwest to the Shaolin Temple, which is located in Zhengzhou, in Henan Province.

For nine years Bodhidharma sat in meditation in a cave near the temple. According to legend, at one point he was frustrated by his own drowsiness and ripped off his eyelids. For this reason, Bodhidharma traditionally (but not always) is portrayed with huge, round eyes.

The discarded eyelids grew into the first tea plants. This marked the beginning of Zen's association with tea.

Read More: Chado: Zen and the Art of Tea

Meeting Hui-k'o

One day Hui-k'o, who would be the Second Patriarch of Zen, stood in the snow outside the cave. To show Bodhidharma his sincerity to learn the Dharma, Hui-k'o cut off his arm and said, "Your disciple's mind has no peace as yet. Master, please, put it to rest." Bodhidharma said, "Bring me your mind, and I will put it to rest." Hui-k'o said, "I have searched for my mind, but I cannot find it." Bodhidharma said, "I have completely put it to rest for you."

At the end of the nine years, the story of Bodhidharma becomes jumbled. Some accounts have him leaving China immediately to travel around Asia. Others say he remained at Shaolin for the rest of his life, teaching the monks. His teachings were based primarily on a Mahayana text called the Lankavatara Sutra. Six short essays are attributed to Bodhidharma, the most noteworthy being "Four Practices for Entering the Mahayana Way."

Shaolin monks are famous for their kung fu practice, and some traditions say they learned kung fu from Bodhidharma. There is no historical evidence to support this, however.

No Coming, No Going

Some legends say Bodhidharma returned to India before his death. Others say he lived to be 150 and was buried in the mountains of Henan Province. Some time later a pilgrim encountered Bodhidharma walking back to India, wearing only one sandal.

When his crypt was opened it was empty, save for one sandal.

Bodhidharma's burial stupa, which contains either his remains or the sandal, is in Luoyang China, several miles west of Zhengzhou.