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(3rd-4th c. ce).

According to Ch'an andzen legends, Bodhidharma is the Indian monk and missionary who brought Ch'an to China. Legend portrays him as a south Indian prince who left the household life and, upon attaining enlightenment (bodhi), became the 28th in a series of patriarchs through which the Buddha's original enlightenment experience had been transmitted directly without the mediation of ‘words and scriptures’. Upon bringing Ch'an to China, he became the first Chinese patriarch.and all subsequent Chinese Ch'an and Japanese Zen masters trace their master-disciple lineages back to him.

According to the legend, Bodhidharma arrived in Canton via the sea route in 526, and was invited to the court of Emperor Wu, founder of the Liang dynasty in the south. Expecting the master's praise of his temple-building and lavish support of the Saṃgha.the emperor received instead enigmatic responses and a brusque discounting of his activities. Bodhidharma then left for the north, reportedly crossing the Yangtze River on a reed, and arrived at the Shao-lin Temple. Finding the resident clergy weak and prone to the depredations of local bandits, he taught them exercises and self-defence, from which evolved the famous Shao-lin style of martial arts. He then sequestered himself in a cave for nine years and sat gazing at the wall. Once, enraged at his drowsiness, he ripped off his eyelids and threw them down to the ground, where they sprouted as tea plants. In addition, his legs are said to have withered away because of his constant sitting. (This is the origin of the Daruma doll, a Japanese toy shaped like an egg with a weighted bottom that springs upright again when knocked over. Its wide-open eyes and lack of legs derive from these stories of Bodhidharma.) Hui-k'o, the man who would become his disciple and the second patriarch, came to him to study during this period, but was unable to get Bodhidharma's attention. The latter looked up and received him only after the former cut off his arm and offered it. When Bodhidharma died at the age of 160, he was buried at the Shao-lin Temple, but the same day one of the temple's monks who was out travelling met him heading west holding up one of his sandals. When the monk returned, he recounted the story, whereupon the other clergy opened the tomb, and found only a single sandal inside.

Much of the above legend clearly is based on later stories, many of which serve to make polemical points in defence of the Ch'an school as it strove for acceptance and self-definition. However, there is no compelling reason to doubt the historicity of Bodhidharma himself. Numerous early records speak approvingly of him (or someone by that name) as wise and compassionate, and there exists a work purported to be of his composition called The Two Entrances and Four Practices. These witnesses confirm that he came from the west, that he was well practised in meditation.and that he had a disciple named Hui-k'o. The Two Entrances and Four Practices gives his teaching on meditation and wisdom in terms that echo later Ch'an practice. However, far from being an iconoclastic and mysterious figure who rejects ‘words and letters’, these early sources present him as a master of a particular scripture, the Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra, and remark on his willingness to speak quite plainly and openly about his understanding of the teachings. All earlier sources report that he himself claimed to be over 150 years old, and one says that the time and circumstances of his death were unknown.


Subjects: Buddhism.

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