Bodhidharma – the founder of Gongfu
The Buddhist monk Bodhidharma (5th – 6th century, Simple Chinese: 菩提达摩 or 菩提達磨) was a student of Prajnatara of India, the 27th patriarch in a transmission of Buddhist teachings. As such he is considered to be the 28th patriarch in an uninterrupted lineage of great masters that extends back all the way to Buddha Shakyamuni himself. Since Bodhidharma is credited with transmitting these teachings in China, he is regarded as the first Chinese patriarch of what would become Chan Buddhism. Bodhidharma is also believed to have founded the Chinese martial arts of the Shaolin School, which led to the creation of the world-famous Shaolin Gongfu.
Information on Bodhidharma that has survived over the years is limited, and the major sources of this master’s life conflict with each with regards to his origins, journey to China, death and other significant events. In addition to this, there are even two proposed sets of dates for his birth and death, i.e. c. 440-528 CE and c. 470-543 CE. so he is generally believed to have lived during the 5th and 6th centuries.
According to the principal Chinese sources, Bodhidharma came from the ‘Western Regions’ which refers to Central Asia. He is believed to have been born in Kanchipuram city, which was located near Madras (modern day Chennai) in India. He was born into the warrior cast as a prince, and was known as Bodhitara. He was the third son of the king of Kanchipuram, and had a keen interested in the Buddha’s teachings. At the young age of 7, he had already begun to show great wisdom.
Bodhitara began to train under Prajnatara and subsequently became a monk. He was given the name Bodhidharma and began living in the monastery where he learnt the Buddhadharma. After the passing of his father, Bodhidharma began to spread the Dharma throughout India. With the pure motivation to fulfil his master’s last request, Bodhidharma then travelled to China after Prajnatara’s death in order to spread the Dharma and further revive Buddhism there. Prajnatara’s wish was for Bodhidharma to teach the Chinese the various lessons and rigorous discipline required for a perfect meditative state leading to liberation from samsara – a state of spiritual attainments where one is no longer attached to the materialistic world.
Emperor Wu Di
Bodhidharma is believed to have travelled from Madras to Guangzhou, China, via sea and then by land to Nanjing in three years. Hearing the news of his arrival in a different part of China, the devoted Buddhist Emperor Wu Di requested an audience with him. During the initial meeting, Emperor Wu Di listed everything he had done for the spread of Buddhism in China, and asked Bodhidharma to tell him what merits he would have accumulated from doing so. In the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall, the conversation was recorded as follows:
Emperor Wu: “How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?”
Bodhidharma: “None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit.”
Emperor Wu: “So what is the highest meaning of noble truth?”
Bodhidharma: “There is no noble truth, there is only emptiness.”
Emperor Wu: “Then, who is standing before me?”
Bodhidharma: “I know not, Your Majesty.”
This encounter was included as the first gong-an of the Blue Cliff Record (Simplified Chinese: 碧巖錄; pinyin: bìyánlù).
Emperor Wu Di was not impressed by Bodhidharma’s reply, and therefore did not think highly of the teachings he had brought from India. Bodhidharma faced fierce skepticism and opposition when he first started to spread Buddhism in China, mainly due to his claim that the Buddhist texts were only guides for achieving enlightenment. Rather, he taught that enlightenment itself can only be attained by practicing dhyana, or cultivated states of mind which lead practitioners to a perfect state of awareness and equanimity. At that time in China, meditation was not generally practiced but the veneration of Buddhist texts was prevalent.
As Bodhidharma’s teachings were based on meditation, he was ostracised and rejected, causing him to live as a beggar for many months. Bodhidharma travelled to Luoyang and then moved on to Henan, after which he arrived at the Shaolin Monastery located on Songshan. However, Bodhidharma was not accepted by Shaolin Monastery in the beginning, so he lived in a nearby cave where he meditated in complete silence for nine years while facing the cave wall.
News about Bodhidharma travelled and the Shaolin monks were impressed. They eventually granted him entry to the monastery. The monks requested Bodhidharma to teach meditation which he did, but he soon realised that the monks did not have the stamina needed for meditation. Many would often fall asleep or get sick during the meditations. As the monks were unable to endure the rigorous and long sessions of meditation, Bodhidharma began teaching them both physical exercise and Indian breathing techniques.
According to Bodhidharma, once the physical body is pushed beyond its limits, the mind would begin to take over. Thus the mind can help push the body engage in the strenuous physical discomfort that is required for training in meditation. Furthermore, he taught that once the mind has reached this level of strength, then it would be transformed forever, and its capacity to focus and concentrate would likewise be fortified. Over time his theory was proven right, the minds of the Shaolin monks became incredibly strong, and their focus in meditation became unparalleled and more disciplined.
Bodhidharma created an exercise regime for the monks which involved physical techniques that were efficient, strengthened the body, and could be used in self-defense on a practical level. Primarily, the practises were instituted to make the monks physically stronger to cope with their isolated lifestyle, and the demanding meditation training that they wished to engage in. Eventually, the techniques came to serve a dual purpose: training the body for meditation, while also becoming a very efficient form of self-defence, which later evolved into a martial art. These techniques helped the monks defend themselves against invading warlords and bandits, but they would never hurt or injure others needlessly. In fact one of Bodhidharma’s oldest axiom reads “one who engaged in combat has already lost the battle.”
Thereafter, Bodhidharma continued to develop a system of 18 dynamic tension exercises which were printed as Yi Gin Ching (Changing Muscle/Tendon Classic) in 550 CE. It is known as the Luohan (arhat) 18 Hand Movements today which serves as the basis of both Chinese Temple Boxing and the Shaolin Martial Arts. An ancient Sanskrit text recorded that Bodhidharma settled in the Shaolin Monastery of Songshan in 526 CE.
Bodhidharma was believed to have introduced the Lankavatara Sutra to Chinese Buddhism. This sutra was a development of the Yogacara (“Mind-only”) school of Buddhism established by the great masters Asanga and Vasubandhu, and Bodhidharma is described as a “master of the Lankavatara Sutra”.
Bodhidharma’s approach tended to reject devotional rituals, doctrinal debates and verbal formalisations. Rather, he favoured meditation, through which people are able to intuitively grasp the Buddha nature within. In contrast with other prevalent Buddhist schools such as the Pure Land schools, Bodhidharma emphasised personal enlightenment rather than the promise of reaching a pure land.
Bodhidharma considered spirituality, intellectualism and physical excellence as an indivisible whole that is necessary for enlightenment. He was an energetic master who urged all Buddhists, lay or ordained, to do their best in their lifetime in order to become awakened and allow their Buddha nature to shine forth. In Chan texts, he is referred to as “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian” (Simplified Chinese: 碧眼胡; pinyin: bìyǎnhú), therefore his is often depicted as an ill-tempered, bearded, wide-eyed non-Chinese person throughout Buddhist art. Bodhidharma is believed to have remained at the Shaolin Monastery until his death, aged 150 years, and is thought to have died after being poisoned.
For more interesting information:
- The Six Patriarchs of Chan Buddhism
- Amongst White Clouds -Amazing!
- Ji Gong – The Crazy Monk of China
- Empty Cloud
- After the Monastery
- Bill Porter (Red Pine): The Translator of Chinese Poems and Promoter of Zen Buddhism
- Shaolin Monastery
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