From New World Encyclopedia
Bodhidharma, woodblock print by Yoshitoshi, 1887

Bodhidharma (Sanskrit: बोधिधर्म Chinese 菩提達摩, Japanese ダルマ), was a legendary Buddhist monk who lived during the fifth and sixth century C.E. and played a seminal role in the transmission of Zen Buddhism from India to China (where it is known as Chan). He is considered by Zen Buddhists to be the twenty-eighth Patriarch in a lineage that is traced directly back to Gautama Buddha himself. Bodhidharma is also credited with founding the famous Shaolin school of Chinese martial arts and is known as a Tripitaka Dharma Master.

His teachings point to a direct experience of Buddha-Nature rather than an intellectual understanding of it, and he is best known for his terse style that infuriated some (such as Emperor Wu of Liang), while leading others to enlightenment. His life and teachings continue to be an inspiration to practitioners of Zen Buddhism today, and he exemplifies hard work, discipline and determination on the path to spiritual realization.


Details concerning Bodhidharma's biography are unclear because major sources of information about his life are inconsistent with regard to his origins, the chronology of his journey to China, his death, and other details. The primary sources of his biographical details are Yang Xuanzhi’s Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang (547 C.E.), Tanlin's biography of Bodhidharma found in the Long Scroll of the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices (sixth century C.E.), Daoxuan’s Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks (645 C.E.), and the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (952 C.E.), written by two students of Hsüeh-feng I-ts'un. These accounts of his life are filled with mythical elements, making an historically accurate biography impossible. What is more significant is the meaning that his stories hold for Zen Buddhists, and how they continue to influence the tradition today.

The two most commonly cited sets of Bodhidharma's dates are 440–528 C.E. and 470–543 C.E. It is said that Bodhidharma was born to an upper-caste family (either a Brahmin or a Kshatrya) in India. However, he left his high social status to pursue a life of renunciation and became a follower of Mahayana Buddhism under the twenty-seventh Patriarch Prajnatara, from whom he received the mind-to-mind transmission of enlightenment that is still a defining feature of the Zen tradition. With Prajnatara's permission to transmit the Dharma to others, Bodhidharma left India to reinvigorate Buddhism in China with his unique message:

A special transmission, outside of the scriptures,
Not dependent on the written word.
Directly pointing at the mind,
Seeing one’s own true nature, and attaining enlightenment (Mitchell 2002, 201).

According to traditional accounts, Bodhidharma’s journey to China is said to have taken three years by boat. His most famous encounter in China was with the Emperor Wu of Liang, who was a strong supporter of Buddhism. The Emperor asked him how much merit all of his donations to the building of temples, printing of scriptures, and supporting of the Sangha (Buddhist community) had accumulated for him, to which Bodhidharma replied, “no merit at all.” This surprising answer is commonly explained by the view that because the Emperor was doing these deeds for his own benefit and not for the good of others, he was acting out of selfishness, and therefore deserved no merit at all.

The Emperor then asked Bodhidharma, “what is the highest meaning of the holy truths?” to which he replied, “empty, without holiness,” a reference to the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness (shunyata). The Emperor, now exasperated, asks Bodhidharma “who are you?” Bodhidharma enigmatically responds, “I don’t know” (Cleary and Cleary 1992, 1).

This confrontation with Emperor Wu is paradigmatic of both the style and relationship between master and disciple in Zen, and illustrates its distinctive tradition of koans (this episode is the first koan in the Blue Cliff Record). The goal of the Mahayana path is bring about insight in followers of their inherent Buddha-nature. Bodhidharma’s distinctive style of achieving this goal of awakening was not gentle and incremental, but jarring and immediate, like a bucket of cold water being thrown over ordinary everyday thinking.

After this short encounter, Bodhidharma was expelled from the court and traveled further north, crossing the Yangtze River. He stopped at the Shaolin temple at Mt. Song but was refused entry, and is said to have subsequently sat in meditation outside the monastery facing its walls (or in a nearby cave in other accounts) for nine years. The monks were so impressed with his dedication to his zazen that he was finally granted entry. This episode elucidates a central theme of Zen practice: the almost exclusive value placed on zazen (sitting meditation) and the resulting self-realization. Once inside, he was dismayed by how weak and tired the Shaolin monks had become from their studying and meditation without any physical labor. To rectify the situation, he is said to have instituted a set of exercises for the monks to promote their physical health. As a result, Bodhidharma is said to have created the foundation of many schools of Chinese martial arts.

This Japanese scroll depicting Bodhidharma reads “Zen points directly to the human heart, see into your nature and become Buddha”. It was created by Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768)

The cause and age of his death are unclear. One story recounts how two teachers, jealous of his renown, tried to poison him on several occasions. After their sixth attempt, he decided that, having successfully spread his teaching to China, it was time for him to pass into parinirvana. He is said to have died soon after sitting in zazen.

Spiritual Teachings

Bodhidharma was not a prolific writer or philosopher like other Buddhist figures, yet the central elements of his teachings can be seen in stories of his life such as his emphasis on zazen, his style of interacting with students (often referred to as “dharma-dueling” and found in many koans), the lack of emphasis on scholarship and intellectual debate, and the importance of personal realization and mind-to-mind transmission from teacher to disciple. These distinctive features that Bodhidharma brought from India to China almost 1,500 years ago still define Zen Buddhism today.

Tradition holds that Bodhidharma's principal text was the Lankavatara Sutra, a development of the Yogacara or "Mind-only" school of Buddhism established by the Gandharan half-brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu. He is described as a "master of the Lankavatara Sutra," and an early history of Zen in China is titled Record of the Masters and Disciples of the Lankavatara Sutra (Chinese, Leng-ch'ieh shih-tzu chi). Some sources go so far as to credit Bodhidharma with being the first to introduce this sutra to China. This emphasis on the Yogacara philosophy of "Mind-only" is often expressed in his discourses:

"Your mind is nirvana, you might think that you can find a Buddha or enlightenment somewhere beyond the mind, but such a place does not exist." (Red Pine 1987, 45)

He also lectured extensively on the doctrine of emptiness (shunyata), a defining feature of Mahayana thought found in the Prajnaparamita Sutras and the writings of Nagarjuna (c. 150-250) and his school of Madhyamaka. In one example, he states that "the sutras tell us... to see without seeing... to hear without hearing, to know without knowing... Basically, seeing, hearing, and knowing are completely empty" (Red Pine 1987, 27). This passage expresses another distinct feature of Zen: we should act without conceptualization or (as a result) hesitation. All things and all actions are held to be "empty" of any intellectual elaborations, and exist freely and spontaneously as direct expressions of nothing other than themselves. This influence is seen in Zen's insistence on natural and immediate actions and responses, as seen in numerous koans, interactions between teachers and students, and in Zen art. One common example of this is a student shouting in response to a teacher's question as a way of demonstrating their understanding. If the student is able to do so without hesitation and with their whole being, then they are said to have shown their master their ‘Zen Mind.’

Another characteristic feature of Bodhidharma’s presentation of Buddhism was the emphasis he placed on physical well-being. He taught that keeping our bodies healthy increases our mental energy and prepares us for the rigors that serious meditation practice requires. Bodhidharma's mind-and-body approach to spiritual practice ultimately proved highly attractive to the Samurai class in Japan, who incorporated Zen into their way of life, following their encounter with the martial-arts-oriented Zen Rinzai School introduced to Japan by Eisai in the twelfth century.

Portrayals and Legends of Bodhidharma

Despite his revered status as the 28th Chan Patriarch, Bodhidharma is commonly depicted in Buddhist art as a rather ill tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed barbarian (he is described as "The Blue-Eyed Barbarian" in Chinese texts). These ill-tempered portrayals are perhaps partly due to Bodhidharma's disdain for conventions and his overturning of societal expectations.

Several legends are associated with Bodhidharma, notably his role in founding Chinese martial arts, introducing tea to China, and the alleged paralysis of his legs from stillness, which is still seen in the Japanese cultural practice of making Daruma dolls.

Bodhidharma inventing Chinese Martial Arts

Historically, Bodhidharma is credited with inventing kung fu; however, this claim is unlikely because there are martial arts manuals that date back to at least the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), predating both Bodhidharma and the Shaolin temple at which he stayed. The codification of the martial arts by monks most likely began with military personnel who retired to monasteries or sought sanctuary there.

Bodhidharma Bringing tea to China

One popular legend about Bodhidharma recounts how during his period of meditation for nine years near the Shaolin monastery he fell asleep, and when he awoke, he was so furious that he cut off his eyelids to avoid sleeping again during meditation practice. He then threw his eyelids behind him, where upon hitting the earth they allegedly sprouted into tea plants. In this manner, legend holds that Bodhidharma “brought” tea to China. However, a detailed description of tea-drinking is found in an ancient Chinese dictionary, noted by Kuo P'o in 350 C.E., almost two centuries before Bodhidharma came to China, and there is an early mention of tea being prepared by servants in a Chinese text of 50 B.C.E. Thus, it is likely that Chinese tea drinking predates the arrival of Bodhidharma.

Bodhidharma and Meditation

During his travels in China, Bodhidharma stopped at the Shaolin temple at Mt. Song but was refused entry. He is said to have subsequently sat in meditation outside the monastery facing its walls (or in a nearby cave in other accounts) for nine years. The Shaolin monks were so impressed with his dedication to his zazen that he was finally granted entry. However, it is reported that after sitting for so many years in meditation, Bodhidharma lost the use of his legs through the process of atrophy. This legend is still alive in Japan, where legless Daruma dolls representing Bodhidharma, and are used to make wishes. Even today, zazen (sitting meditation) is an important part of Zen Buddhist practice. However, the story of Bodhidharma losing the use of his legs contradicts other legends about him founding martial arts to combat physical weakness.

Bodhidharma's Successors

Before Bodhidharma died in China (or returned to India in some versions of the story), he needed to pass on the lineage title to one of his four main students: the three monks, Daofu, Daoyu, and Huike, and the nun Zongchi. Bodhidharma asked his students:

"The time has come. Can you express your understanding?" One of the students, Daofu said, "My present view is that we should neither be attached to letters, nor be apart from letters, and to allow the Way to function freely." Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my skin." Nun Zongchi said, "My view is that it is like the joy of seeing Akshobhya Buddha’s land just once and not again." Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my flesh." Daoyu said, "The four great elements are originally empty and the five skandhas do not exist. Therefore, I see nothing to be attained." Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my bones." Finally Huike came forward, made a full bow, stood up, and returned to where he was. Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my marrow." Thus he transmitted the Dharma and robe to Huike. (

It was traditionally held that this meant that Huike had understood the "marrow" or heart of his master's teachings, while Daofu understood the least. However, Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Japanese Zen, taught that they in fact all understood his teaching, and thus were each given a symbol of their understanding. Only one could be the head of the lineage, so he gave the Buddha’s begging bowl, his robes, and a copy of the Lankavatara Sutra to Huike. The meaning of this exchange in intentionally ambiguous, as it is part of a koan (Master Dogen's 300 Koan Shobogenzo, Case 201. See for the full koan and a discussion of its meaning).

Works Attributed to Bodhidharma

  • The Bloodstream Sermon
  • The Breakthrough Sermon
  • The Outline of Practice
  • Two Entrances
  • The Wake-Up Sermon

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Broughton, Jeffrey L. (1999). The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520219724.
  • Cleary, Thomas, and J. C. Cleary. 1992. The Blue Cliff Record. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 0877736227
  • Ferguson, Andrew. 2000. Zen's Chinese Heritage. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0861711637
  • Lowenstein, Tom. 1996. The Vision of the Buddha. London: Duncan Baird Publishers. ISBN 1903296919
  • Mitchell, Donald W. 2002. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195139518
  • Red Pine, translator. 1987. The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma. New York: North Point Press.
  • Watts, Alan W. 1957. The Way of Zen. New York: Pantheon. Reprinted 1989. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0375705104
  • Williams, Paul. 1989. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. Reprinted 2001. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415025370

External links

All links retrieved November 17, 2023.

Preceded by:
Buddhist Patriach
Succeeded by:
Title Extinct
Preceded by:
New Creation
Chinese Ch'an Patriarch
Succeeded by:
Hui Ke


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