INDIA: Bodhidharma, a legendary Buddhist monk who lived around the fifth and sixth centuries, is traditionally credited for transmitting Zen Buddhism from India to China. Bodhidharma is revered as the “father” of Zen Buddhism and Ch’an.
Most people who practise Ch’an, Zen, or Buddhism know that the word “Ch’an” is an interpretation of the Pali word jhana, which stands for meditation. Interestingly, the Japanese word “Zen” interprets the Chinese term “Ch’an.”
Throughout the Buddhist world, Bodhidharma is known by various names. He was known as Damo in China and Dharuma in Japan.
In Kanchipuram, South India, Bodhidharma was born as “Jayavarman” in 470 AD into the royal family of the Pallavas.
Bodhidharma had no desire to perform royal duties, unlike his older brothers. He was captivated by Buddhism and eventually gave up his life as a prince to follow Guru Prajnatara. Bodhidharma mastered Dhyana Buddhism and rose to the position of its 28th Indian patriarch.
In 520 AD, after his Guru’s death, Bodhidharma set out for China to fulfil the final wish of his Guru: to foster the spread of the true teachings of Buddha in China.
The actual route after he left his motherland to travel to China is still unknown, but most scholars believe that he journeyed from Madras to the Chinese province of Guangzhou by water and then by land to Nanjing.
Some scholars also contend that he travelled to Luoyang on foot, following the Yellow River along the Pamir Plateau. At that time, Luoyang was well-known as a bustling Buddhist centre. Bodhidharma is reported to have travelled to China for over three years.
As soon as word of his arrival reached his empire’s borders, Emperor Wu-Ti personally travelled there, organised a grand reception, and waited.
The emperor began requesting that local Buddhist monks translate texts from Sanskrit to Chinese, believing that this would allow the general populace to practise the faith and pave the way for nirvana.
Bodhidharma disagreed with Wu-ti and held that one should not behave to gain benefits but instead act to do what is morally good; as a result, he and Wu-Ti parted ways.
Once in China, Bodhidharma began to promote Buddhism, but he was met with scepticism and ferocious opposition because of his emphasis on practising real Buddhism.
In his view, the Buddhist teachings serve as a guide to enlightenment, and only the practice of dhyana (Zazen) can lead to enlightenment. It’s vital to remember that at that time in China, Buddhism’s core wasn’t meditation but rather the Buddhist scriptures.
Later, Bodhidharma travelled to the Shaolin Temple in the neighbourhood to address the translating Buddhist monks. When he arrived, he was not allowed to enter, so he stayed in a cave nearby, where he performed Zazen facing a wall for nine years without speaking, showing that he was worthy.
The Shaolin monks were so impressed by his commitment to his Zazen that they eventually allowed him to enter the monastery. He taught the monks how to meditate “wall facing” (as in Soto Zen).
During his stay, he observed the monks at the temple were frail from the prolonged meditation. They were so frail that they frequently dozed off during Zazen or got sick.
When he saw the monks’ physical fitness, he tried to bolster their willpower and stamina by teaching them self-defense and fitness. He taught them Kalariyapattu, an ancient Indian martial art, in the Shaolin Temple. This technique is now known as “kung fu.”
Chinese writings reveal that Bodhidharma’s ideology was widely embraced and adopted, becoming popular in China. His teachings were spread across Japan and other regions of Southeast Asia, where they were given the name Zen. Today, he is recognised as the founder of Zen Buddhism.
It is said that in his old age, Bodhidharma assembled four of his enlightened followers and questioned them to convey their knowledge of the dharma.
Huike, a disciple monk, rose up, remained silent, bowed to Bodhidharma, and then sat back down while the others spoke in various ways. Considering this reaction, Bodhidharma officially designated Huike as his dharma heir.
This is recognised historically as the first Zen transmission from Bodhidharma—regarded as the originator and first patriarch of Ze—to its second patriarch, Huike. It marks the start of the Zen lineage, an unbroken line that persists today.
Bodhidharma resided and taught at the temple for many years before passing away at over 100.
Bodhidharma was a passionate teacher who exhorted all Buddhists, whether they were monks or laypeople, to put their all into this lifetime. He didn’t believe in merits acquired through charitable giving. Instead, he proclaimed that everyone possesses Buddha nature and encouraged them all to awaken.
In addition to being regarded as the founder of Zen Buddhism and Shaolin martial arts, he is still revered today as a prime example of tenacity, self-discipline, and willpower and as the ideal representation of Buddhist enlightenment.