The figure of the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism
stands on a raised footed platform decorated
with geometric design against a red
background, the body in a highly controlled
meditative padmasana posture, hands in dhyana
mudra, the beard and long moustaches pointing
at the Indian origin of Bodhidharma, his bare
chest betraying the signs of ascetic fasting.
Bodhidharma in Sanskrit means virtuous and
sagacious. It is also the name of a rare tree in
India, the bodhi tree which has become famous
and known as the tree of wisdom as Sakyamuni
became enlightened under its shade. This luohan
was born under such a tree and was given the
name of Bodhidharma. Legend has it that
Bodhidharma was responsible for spreading
Buddhism to the East Indies and has since been
venerated as the first patriarch of Chan (Zen)
One of the most fascinating figures in the history
of Buddhism, Bodhidharma is credited with
bringing Buddhism to China and founding Chan
Buddhism (in China), which later became known
as Zen Buddhism in Japan. He was born in
Southern India, a son of a wealthy Brahmin. He
later became a monk and, alongside the
development of his prodigious spiritual powers,
he came to consider that the true value of the
religious experience lay in experience rather than
scripture. With this conviction in his mind
perhaps he set out for China, arriving there in
around 520 C.E.
The stories that have been passed down paint a
rather larger than life figure. One such story has
it that to stop himself falling asleep in meditation
he cut off his eyelids. Another tells that his legs
fell off after nine years of unceasing meditation.
Though these accounts are no doubt apocryphal,
they are important in that they show the
significance of meditation to his religious
practice. Indeed the word 'Zen' ultimately derives
from the Sanskrit word dhyana which means
'meditation'. Bodhidharma emphasized direct
methods rather than over-reliance on scriptures.
Consequently, he emphasized the importance of
a teacher to help one realize the Buddha nature.
In addition to this renewed commitment to
meditation as a way of gaining insight into the
true nature of reality, Bodhidharma taught that
within all beings is the Buddha nature.
Unfortunately, the Buddha nature is obscured by
the poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. To
see the Buddha nature, we must let go of desire.
Paradoxically, it's not something we can grasp.
Once we try to grasp it we are caught up in the
web of desire. It's not something 'out there'. It's
something here and now, to be uncovered
through the practice of meditation. The
teachings of Bodhidharma are encapsulated in
the following verses, written after his death but
attributed to him:
A special transmission outside the scriptures;
Depending not on words and letters;
Pointing directly to the human mind
Seeing into one's nature, one becomes a Buddha.