A bearded Indian monk, the third son of a South Indian Brahmin king, appeared one day at the Chinese port of Canton and made his way from there to  Nanking, near the mouth of the Yangtze River. He was responding to an invitation from China’s Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty. Whatever the monk’s name may have been then, history now bequeaths him the name Bodhidharma.

Emperor Wu was to southern Chinese Buddhism what Emperor Constantine was to Christianity. He led Buddhist assemblies, wrote learned commentaries on various sutras, and performed menial work at temples as a lay devotee. He also arranged to have all the Chinese commentaries on the sutras assembled and catalogued.  He banished meat and wine from the imperial table and was merciful in enforcing criminal statutes, particularly capital punishment. He was also known for his hospitality to visiting Buddhist monks from India.

When Bodhidharma appeared before Emperor Wu, the emperor began to inform him at length about his dedication to the faith, mentioning temples built, clergy invested, sutras promulgated. However, he soon realized that Bodhidharma showed no interest. So he paused and asked, “Given all I have done, what Merit have I earned?” 

Bodhidharma replied harshly, “None whatsoever, your majesty.”

The emperor was taken aback by the reply, and so tried another tack. Asking what was at the time a popular question, he said, “What is the most important principle of Buddhism?”

Bodhidharma replied, “Vast emptiness.”

Puzzled, the emperor asked almost out of desperation, “Who, exactly, are you?”

Bodhidharma cheerfully responded, “I have no idea.”

Bodhidharma then excused himself and left the court. He set out to the North where there were renowned Buddhist centers. It is said that when he came to the Yangtze river just outside Nanking he crossed it standing on a single reed. He arrived some time later at the Shao-lin monastery on Mt. Sung where, for nine years, he meditated staring at a wall.

It is also claimed that while at the Shao-lin monastery he introduced a Chinese-style martial art to the monks at the monastery whom he regarded as weaklings. This martial art eventually spread throughout China.

One day, he caught himself dozing and in a fit of self-rage he tore off his eyelids and cast them contemptuously to the ground. It is said that bushes of the tea plant grew from the ground where his eyelids fell.

At another time, one of Bodhidharma’s disciples, Hui-k’o, came to him and entreated him, saying, “Master, I have not found peace of mind. I beg you to pacify my mind for me.”

Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind and I will pacify it for you.”

Hui-k’o was silent until he finally conceded, “I cannot find my mind.”

“There,” said Bodhidharma, “I have pacified it for you.” 

What is known of the teachings of Bodhidharma can be found in the Chinese Buddhist history entitled Further Biographies of Eminent Priests, (A. D. 645) and also in  The Records of the Transmission of the Lamp (A.D. 1004). What is recorded is brief. It says:

There are two types of ways to enter the Path. The first is “Entrance by Reason” and the second is “Entrance by Conduct.”

“Entrance by Reason” initially means the realization of the spirit of Buddhism through the sutras. This brings the disciple to a deep faith in the True Nature which is the same in all sentient beings. It fails to manifest itself because of false thoughts and attachments. When one abandons the false and embraces the true, and in simpleness of thought, abides in pi-kuan (pure meditation or “wall-gazing”), one discovers that there is neither selfhood nor otherness. Then he will no longer be guided by the sutras, for he is in silent communication with the principle itself, serene and not-acting.

“Entrance by Conduct” means the Four Acts in which all other acts are included. The Four acts are:

1. How to requite hatred

2. To be obedient to karma.

3. Not to seek after anything.

4. To be in accord with the Dharma.

“How to requite hatred” acknowledges that in the past one has wandered through a many existences, giving oneself to the unimportant at the expense of essentials, thus creating infinite occasions for hate, ill-will, and wrong-doing. The fruits of evil deeds in the past must be gathered. One will submit willingly and patiently to all the ills that befall me, without complaint. Thus the disciple makes use of hatred and turns it to the service of his advance towards the Path. This is called the “way to requite hatred.”

“To be obedient to karma” is to be reconciled to whatever comes, good or evil. When good comes, it is the result of meritorious deeds in a past existence and when bad comes it is the result of wrongful acts of the past. Both will vanish when the karma that causes them is exhausted. None of it matters. Therefore, let gains and losses run their natural courses according to the ever-changing conditions and circumstances of life. The  Mind neither increases with the gains nor decreases with the losses.

“Not to seek after anything” means to cease seeking and to turn toward non-attachment. Men of the world are bound by their craving. The sage  understands the truth, and reason tells him to turn from worldly ways. He adjusts his bodily movements to the vicissitudes of fortune, always aware of the emptiness of the phenomenal world, in which he finds nothing to covet and nothing to delight in.

“To be in accord with the Dharma” means to dissolve our perception of object-subject dualities and view life as a unified whole. This merging of self and exterior world is called “pure mind” or “pure reason.” The Dharma is nothing other than Reason which is pure in its essence. This pure Reason is the formless Form of all Forms; it is free of all defilements and attachments, and it knows of neither “self” nor “other.”

The death of Bodhidharma is swathed in legend. It is told that after nine years at the Shao-lin monastery Bodhidharma decided to return to India and called together his disciples to test their attainment. 

The first disciple reportedly said, “As I view it, to realize the truth we should neither rely entirely on words and letters nor dispense with them entirely, but rather we should use them as an instrument of the Way.” 

To this, Bodhidharma replied, “You have attained my skin.”

Next came forward a nun, who said, “As I view it, the Truth is like an auspicious sighting of the Buddhist Paradise; it is seen once and never again.” 

To this Bodhidharma replied, “You have attained my flesh.”

The third disciple said, “The four great elements are empty and the five skandhas  (constituents of the personality: body, feelings, perception, will, and consciousness) are nonexistent. There is, in fact, nothing that can be grasped.” 

To this Bodhidharma replied, “You have attained my bones.”

Finally, it was the turn of Hui-k’o’s, Bodhidharma’s chief disciple. He only bowed to the master and stood silent at his place. 

To him, Bodhidharma said, “You have attained my marrow.”

A competing story claims that Bodhidharma died of poisoning at the age of 150 and was buried in the mountains of Honan. Not too long thereafter a lay Buddhist named Sung Yun, who was returning to China after a trip to India to gather sutras, met Bodhidharma in the mountains of Turkestan. 

Bodhidharma was walking barefoot carrying a single shoe. He said he was returning to India and that a native Chinese would continue his teaching. Sung Yun reported this to Bodhidharma’s disciples on his return. So they opened the master’s grave and found it empty save for the other shoe.

~Thomas Hoover