The Story of Bodhidharma
Modern scholarship places Bodhidharma as living during the 5th century C.E. His origins are disputed.
Bodhidharma is credited with being the founder of the Chan/Zen School; yet little is known about him.
There are two written sources, variously copied into later texts and some oral traditional stories about him. In fact there has been some uncertainty as to his historical existence. What we do have are the elements of a tradition.
Modern scholarship places Bodhidharma as living during the 5th century C.E. His origins are disputed.
The Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang compiled in 547 C.E. states that Bodhidharma was originally a Persian from Central Asia who had travelled extensively and entered China aged 150.
Another text called ‘Two Entrances and Four Acts’ written by Tanlin and found in the Dunhuang cave system, places his origins in South India.
Later tales add details saying he was the third son of a South Indian king who rather like the Buddha renounced his privileged life and took up the black robe of the monk becoming the disciple of the 27th Indian patriarch Prajnatara.
Prajnatara was a victim of one of the occasional persecutions of Buddhism in India. He was imprisoned and finally executed but not before he managed to transmit the lineage, in the outer form of the Buddha’s robe and bowl, to Bodhidharma.
This robe and bowl was the outward evidence of the direct line of transmission of the teachings from the Buddha. As mentioned above, facts are few, but there are a number of important stories, sermons and sayings that are attached to the person called Bodhidharma which encapsulate the spirit of Chan/Zen Buddhism.
THE FOUR LINE VERSE
A special transmission outside the teachings,
Not dependent on words and phrases.
Directly pointing to the human heart,
Seeing into its nature and awakening.
This four line verse, attributed to Bodhidharma by tradition, captures the whole thrust of the Chan/Zen school.
By the 5th century, Mahayana Buddhism was becoming a distinct body of texts, commentaries and schools. It has spawned a complex philosophy, psychology and set of ritual practices. But in some quarters there was felt to be a danger in all this.
The Buddha had originally had his insight without all this elaboration and some felt that the direct insight was in danger of being substituted and lost within a vast edifice of intellectual thought.
The Chan/Zen school arose in reaction to what it saw as an over-elaboration of the teachings. It was not that it ever said these teachings were incorrect. In fact it is clear from the sayings of the Chinese Chan masters that they were fully conversant with them; just that these teachings could distract students from their own direct insight.
The first two lines of the four verses point this out. As some famous Zen sayings put it:
“Buddhas and patriarchs do but point the way.”
And then follow this up by saying:
“Do not mistake the pointing finger for the moon!”
So these first two lines make it clear that the teachings are transmitted heart-to-heart and that what is transmitted is outside all words, teachings and concepts.
In the early history of Zen in the West this was taken as being permission to do away with all the teachings altogether. However it is clear that this is not the case in the history of Chan/Zen in China, SE Asia and Japan, where monks are expected to be knowledgeable about the basic teachings.
The last two lines make clear the necessity for students to cultivate their own direct insight.
AN AUDIENCE WITH THE CHINESE EMPEROR
Having received the transmission from Prajnatara, Bodhidharma travelled to China by sea. His arrival aroused much interest as the Emperor at that time was a devout Buddhist who had done much to promulgate Buddhism already.
However, this Buddhism was not the ‘direct pointing to the human heart’ rather it was the cultivation of merit by the performance of good deeds to ensure a profitable future incarnation.
When Bodhidharma stood before Emperor Wu a long catalogue was read out detailing the money the Emperor had given to pay for copying and translating Buddhists scriptures and texts, opening of monasteries and the permission that he had granted his subjects to ordain as monks and nuns.
At the end of this litany the Emperor asked Bodhidharma:
“What merit have I accumulated by all this wholesome action?
To the Emperors consternation Bodhidharma replied:
The Emperor was rather put out by this as he had been led to believe that according to the doctrine of karma performing pious acts should accumulate good merit for the one who performs them.
However the doctrine of karma is all about motivation. If that giving is truly for the benefit of all then, yes, merit accumulated for the benefit of all including the one who performs it. However if it is really for my own benefit and I am performing them because ‘I’ want a descent re-birth then it is tainted by the delusion of ‘I’ the cause of suffering as laid out in the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.
The Emperor asked a second question:
“What then is the essence of Buddhism?”
The reply came:
“Vast emptiness, nothing holy in it!”
Having had his understanding of what the Buddha’s teachings were all about undermined the Emperor wanted clarification; hence this next question.
Bodhidharma’s response seems rather confusing?
Here he is pointing to one of the great teachings of Mahayana – sunyata or radical emptiness. This teaching states that nowhere is there to be found any self-nature in people or things or the elements that go to make up things.
The second Noble Truth of the Buddha says that the cause of our suffering is the heart’s tendency to cling to things. In particular the tendency to cling to ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘myself’ and ‘mine’. By stating that there is no self anywhere, to what is there to cling? Even holiness is emptied out as ‘I’ am quite capable of masquerading my more devious desires behind a veil of acquired ‘holiness’ and false piety – just as this Emperor had done with all his ‘good’ works.
So finally the Emperor asked a final question:
“Who is it then that stands before us?”
No doubt rather exasperated by now and maybe wondering if he should call for his executioner to dispatch this rather irritating monk; the Emperor asks who he thinks he is? In other words by what authority does he speak?
Bodhidharma’s answer has that complete straight forwardness which marks the spirit of the Zen training.
Sometimes this last answer is translated as ‘I do not know’ or something similar but with what has been explained before to give the pronoun ‘I’ at this point would have undermined all that Bodhidharma has said.
When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree and saw into his own Buddha nature he was speechless and wondered what he could teach as he saw that this essence went beyond words and could not be encapsulated by concepts. It was only when he was exhorted by the great god Brahma to teach those whose eyes were but little covered in dust that he realised although he could not teach the content of his insight he could teach the way to it.
In Bodhidharma’s answer we hear that deep mystery that lies at the heart’s core; which cannot be put into words as it truly ‘passeth beyond understanding’.
HUIKE’S ENCOUNTER WITH BODHIDHARMA
Leaving the Imperial palace it is said that Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtze River on a piece of straw and went to a cave close to the Shaolin monastery in the province of Wei.
Here he sat for nine years, sitting so ardently that his legs rotted away!
Another story goes that when he fell asleep during zazen (sitting meditation), he cut off his eyelashes and where they fell the tea bush sprang up. Hence why tea is served to the monks during the long sitting periods to keep them awake.
Another monk hearing of the patriarch came to visit to beseech Bodhidharma to teach him. This monk was called Huike (jp: Eka).
Standing outside the cave Huike shouted out asking for the teachings but Bodhidharma ignored him.
To show his resolve Huike kept standing there outside the cave as the snow fell. All through the night he stood until in the morning the snow reached up to his knees.
At this point Bodhidharma took pity on him and asked him what he wanted?
Huike replied that he had come for the Dharma.
Bodhidharma rebuked him saying:
“The old masters broke their bones and ground the very marrow of them for the Dharma; yet you with your half-hearted efforts come to demand it!”
We must understand that Bodhidharma was testing Huike; just how determined was he for the Great Treasure store of the Dharma?
Huike’s response was to take out his sword (which everyone carried in those days), and to cut off his right arm at the elbow.
This startling act has, like all these traditional stories, to be read with the ‘single eye of the Dharma’.
We too use the colloquialism ‘to give my right arm’ for something that means so much to us.
But what would I give to attain to the Dharma?
When we read these stories we should understand that Bodhidharma is speaking directly to us.
So Bodhidharma asks Huike: “What is it you have come for?”
Huiki: My heart is not at peace; please pacify my heart.”
Bodhidharma: “Show me this heart and I will pacify it for you.”
Huike’s question already shows that he is well attained in his training. Unlike many, he realises that his problems do not lie outside the heart but stem from it. He also knows that it is in the heart that the solution lies too.
However he is still under the view that the heart is something that requires pacification. He still makes it an object to be stilled and himself one who is subject to it. This is how we can all feel sometimes. Something happens, I don’t like it and in the judgement to which I cling I have set myself in opposition to it. No wonder our hearts are not at peace.
Now we must presume that at this point Huike goes away to search for this heart. Other Zen masters have also used this method.
The great Japanese Zen Master Hakuin had a temper but used the practice that whenever his temper flared he asked himself “Now who has this temper?” He then searched for this ‘owner’. In effect this is the same method, only Huike is looking for the one who’s heart is restless. The one who ‘has’ this restless heart, who owns it can command it and bring it before Bodhidharma. But what is discovered is that this heart has no owner (Vast emptiness…). So Huike returns.
“I cannot find it!”
“There” says Bodhidharma “I have pacified it!”
In time, Bodhidharma passed on the Buddha’s robe and bowl to Huike who became the Second Chinese Patriarch of the Chan/Zen school.
Some years later a Chinese diplomat called Songyun was walking through the Pamir Mountains when he came upon Bodhidharma walking in the opposite direction.
He asked him where he was going?
Bodhidharma replied that he was returning home to India.
Songyun noticed that he was only wearing one shoe and asked why?
Bodhidharma replied that when Songyun reached Shaolin he would find out why and to tell no one of this encounter.
But when Songyun reached the Emperor he told of the meeting at Pamir and was promptly arrested for lying!
However when officials were sent to Shaolin the monks there said that Bodhidharma had already died. The tomb was opened and found to be empty except… for a single shoe.
Some depictions of Bodhidharma show him barefoot on his way to India carrying a shoe attached to a pole over his shoulder.
It is probably just as well.
Bodhidharma had brought the living spirit of the teachings from India to China. Even the Buddha disallowed any images of himself to be made for several centuries after his death.
Without the outer forms to beguile us there is just the teaching which Bodhidharma has come to represent. In this way he can still be found wherever there is one or other who puts his teaching into practice.
Text copyright to Martin Goodson