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Bodhidharma: A Patriarch of Mahayana Buddhism

Submitted by Phuntsog Dolma, Ph. D


Bodhidharma, a revered Buddhist monk who lived during 5th or 6th century is credited with the diffusion of Chan Buddhism (Chinese school of Mahayana Buddhism) to China. The word Chan is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Dhyana’ means ‘mental absorption’ or ‘meditation’ which was later transmitted to Vietnam as Thien, Korea as Seon and in Japan as Zen Buddhism. Bodhidharma was the second Indian Buddhist monk who traveled to Southern China and is known as Putidamo in China and Daruma in Japan.

Territories of the Pallava Dynasty : IBH FORUM
Territories of the Pallava Dynasty

The account of the life of Bodhidharma is mostly legendary and historical sources are scanty. He was said to be the third son of Pallava king Simhavarman II of the ancient Pallava dynasty of South India. The ancient Pallava kingdom consisted of the present state of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Telangana. Back then South India was a cradle of Mahayana Buddhism and was the birthplace of great Buddhist panditas such as Acharya Nagarjuna. The Chinese monk traveler Xuanzang (Hsüan tsang) who visited India roughly 100 years after Bodhidharma in his travelogue recorded hundreds of Mahayana monasteries and 10,000 monks in Kanchi, the capital of the ancient Pallava dynasty of India.

master Prajnatara IBH Forum
master Prajnatara

After the passing away of his father, Bodhidharma decided to renounce his princely life. As a child, he was a bright student and received instruction in Dharma from master Prajnatara who was an accomplished Buddhist master from the heartland of Magadha. Acknowledging the spiritual potential of his student, Prajnotara trained him in the ‘Instantaneous Entrance to the Way’ according to the Mahayana Tradition and attained Bodhi, thus, became the 28th patriarch of Mahayana Buddhism in India and the 1st patriarch of Chan Buddhism in China.

On the advice of master Prajnatara, Bodhidharma undertook a journey to China that took him about three years. Upon reaching China, he met Emperor Wu-ti, a devout Buddhist of the Liang dynasty. Their famous meeting is recorded in the Blue Cliff Record, a collection of Buddhist koans compiled in 1125. The dialogue between the two is recorded as follows: The Emperor asked: “I have constructed many temples for Buddhists and used to serve for transcribing a number of Buddhism sutras. What karmic merit is promised?” Bodhi-Dharma replied: “No merit.

After this celebrated confrontation with Emperor Wu, Bodhidharma traveled north to live in a cave at Shaolin monastery located on Songshan on Mount Sung near Lo-yang, where he is said to have sat in meditation facing a wall for nine years. Here, he met with his first disciple Huike who further carried out the lineage of Chan tradition in China. He is believed to have founded the Chinese martial arts of the Shaolin School, which later led to the creation of the world-famous Shaolin Gongfu.

Kalaripayat : Lion Posture or Simha Vadivu IBH Forum
Kalaripayat : Lion Posture or Simha Vadivu

In a conference paper titled ‘Contribution of Tamils to the Composite Culture of Asia’ it is mentioned that “During his stay at Shaolin monastery Bodhidharma taught the monks the fighting art of India, which today is known as Kalaripayat and which in those days, was known as Vermanie. These ancient martial art forms also had a medicinal aspect, because if any student got injured he would go to his teacher for treatment, as is being done even today at Kalaripayat schools. As a prince, Bodhidharma would have been taught the traditional arts, which he also propagated to his Chinese students. It all started because the long hours of the meditative practice of Mahayana Buddhism was not conducive to the proper circulation of blood. So he taught his students not only martial arts but also breathing techniques, which was related to the Pranayama and other techniques of Yoga, again which he would have learnt as part of the traditional arts training during his princely studies. Another reason for the training of the martial arts, which he imparted to the monks, was to prepare them to be able to defend themselves against highway robbers, thieves and animals as they went from place to place preaching Buddhism”.

Thus, Bodhidharma’s approach tended to reject devotional rituals, doctrinal debates, and verbal formalizations. Rather, he favored meditation, through which people are able to intuitively grasp the Buddha nature within. He was also believed to have introduced the Lankavatara Sutra to Chinese Buddhism. He was highly revered by the monks and soon became an icon among the people of China who made visits to the cave to pay their respects to him, which they do even today.

Fiery Daruma Temple : Osaka, Japan
Fiery Daruma Temple : Osaka, Japan

In Japan, there are eight major temples that are dedicated to Daruma and he is revered in every aspect of Japanese life and culture. Moreover, the statue of Bodhidharma is enshrined in almost every Japanese Zen temple along with a statue of Buddha. Thus, the teaching of this great saint from Indian soil transformed the life and culture of people in China, Japan, and many other South East Asian countries.


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