There is a Zen legend that a bearded Indian monk named Bodhidharma (ca. 470-532), son of a South Indian Brahmin king, appeared one day at the southern Chinese port city of Canton, sometime around the year 520. From there he traveled northeast to Nanking, near the mouth of the Yangtze River, to honor an invitation from China's most devout Buddhist, Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty. After a famous interview in which his irreverence left the emperor dismayed, Bodhidharma pressed onward to the Buddhist centers of the north, finally settling in at the Shao-lin monastery on Mt. Sung for nine years of meditation staring at a wall. He then transmitted his insights and a copy of the Lankavatara sutra to a successor and passed on—either physically, spiritually, or both. His devotion to meditation and to the aforementioned sutra were his legacies to China. He was later honored as father of the Chinese Dhyana, or "Meditation," school of Buddhism, called Ch'an.
Bodhidharma attracted little notice during his years in China, and the first historical account of his life is a brief mention in a chronicle compiled well over a hundred years after the fact, identifying him merely as a practitioner of meditation. However, later stories of his life became increasingly embellished, as he was slowly elevated to the office of First Patriarch of Chinese Ch'an. His life was made to fulfill admirably the requirements of a legend, as it was slowly enveloped in symbolic anecdotes illustrating the truth more richly than did mere fact. However, most scholars do agree that there actually was a Bodhidharma, that he was a South Indian who came to China, that he practiced an intensive form of meditation, and that a short treatise ascribed to him is probably more or less authentic. Although the legend attached to this unshaven Indian Buddhist tells us fully as much about early Ch'an as it does about the man himself, it is nonetheless the first page in the book of Zen.
[Bodhidharma], the Teacher of the Law, was the third son of a great Brahmin king in South India, of the Western Lands. He was a man of wonderful intelligence, bright and far-reaching; he thoroughly understood everything that he had ever learned. As his ambition was to master the doctrine of the Mahayana, he abandoned the white dress of a layman and put on the black robe of monkhood, wishing to cultivate the seeds of holiness. He practiced contemplation and tranquillization; he knew well what was the true significance of worldly affairs. Inside and outside he was transpicuous; his virtues were more than a model to the world. He was grieved very much over the decline of the orthodox teaching of the Buddha in the remoter parts of the earth. He finally made up his mind to cross over land and sea and come to China and preach his doctrine in the kingdom of Wei.1
China at the time of Bodhidharma's arrival was a politically divided land, with the new faith of Buddhism often supplying a spiritual common denominator. Bodhidharma happened to appear at a moment when an emperor in the northwest, the aforementioned Wu (reigned 502-49), had become a fanatic Buddhist. Shortly after taking power, Wu actually ordered his imperial household and all associated with the court to take up Buddhism and abandon Taoism. Buddhist monks became court advisers, opening the imperial coffers to build many lavish and subsequently famous temples.
Emperor Wu led Buddhist assemblies, wrote learned commen-taries on various sutras, and actually donated menial work at temples as a lay devotee. He also arranged to have all the Chinese commentaries on the sutras assembled and catalogued. Concerned about the sanctity of life, he banished meat (and wine) from the imperial table and became so lax about enforcing criminal statutes, particularly capital punishment, that critics credited his good nature with an increase in corruption and lawlessness. While the Taoists understandably hated him and the Confucianists branded him a distracted ineffectual sovereign, the Buddhists saw in him a model emperor. Quite simply, Emperor Wu was to southern Chinese Buddhism what Emperor Constantine was to Christianity.
The emperor was known for his hospitality to visiting Indian monks, and it is entirely possible he did invite Bodhidharma for an audience.2 According to the legend, Emperor Wu began almost immediately to regale his visiting dignitary with a checklist of his own dedication to the faith, mentioning temples built, clergy invested, sutras promulgated. The list was long, but at last he paused, no doubt puzzled by his guest's indifference. Probing for a response, he asked, "Given all I have done, what Merit have I earned?" Bodhidharma scowled, "None whatsoever, your majesty." The emperor was stunned by this reply, but he pressed on, trying another popular question. "What is the most important principle of Buddhism?" This second point Bodhidharma reportedly answered with the abrupt "Vast emptiness."3 The emperor was equally puzzled by this answer and in desperation finally inquired who, exactly, was the bearded visitor standing before him—to which Bodhidharma cheerfully admitted he had no idea. The interview ended as abruptly as it began, with Bodhidharma excusing himself and pressing on. For his first miracle, he crossed the Yangtze just outside Nanking on a reed and headed north.
The legend of Bodhidharma picks up again in North China, near the city of Loyang. The stories differ, but the most enduring ones link his name with the famous Shao-lin monastery on Mt. Sung. There, we are told, he meditated for nine years facing a wall (thereby inventing "wall gazing") until at last, a pious version reports, his legs fell off. At one time, relates another Zen story, he caught himself dozing and in a fit of rage tore off his eyelids and cast them contemp-tuously to the ground, whereupon bushes of the tea plant—Zen's sacramental drink—sprang forth. Another story has him inventing a Chinese style of boxing as physical education for the weakling monks at Shao-lin, thereby founding a classic Chinese discipline. But the most famous episode surrounding his stay at the Shao-lin concerns the monk Hui-k'o, who was to be his successor. The story tells that Hui-k'o waited in the snows outside Shao-lin for days on end, hoping in vain to attract Bodhidharma's notice, until finally in desperation he cut off his own arm to attract the master's attention.
Bodhidharma advocated meditation, sutras, and the trappings of traditional Buddhism as a way to see into one's own nature. His legends represent Zen in its formative period, before the more unorthodox methods for shaking disciples into a new mode of consciousness had been devised. However, one of the stories attributed to him by later writers sounds suspiciously like a Zen mondo (the traditional consciousness-testing exchange between master and monk). According to this story, the disciple Hui-k'o
entreated Bodhidharma, 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 for a time, finally conceding he could not actually find his mind. "There," said Bodhidharma, "I have pacified it for you." This symbolic story illustrates eloquently the concept of the mind as a perceiver, something that cannot itself be subject to analysis. Logical introspection is impossible. The mind cannot examine itself any more than the eye can see itself. Since the mind cannot become the object of its own perception, its existence can only be understood intuitively, as Hui-k'o realized when he tried to plumb its whereabouts objectively.
The actual teachings of Bodhidharma are not fully known. The first notice of the "blue-eyed barbarian" (as later Chinese called him) is in the Chinese Buddhist history entitled Further Biographies of Eminent Priests, usually dated around the year 645, more than a century after he came to China. This biography also contains the brief text of an essay attributed to Bodhidharma. At the time it was compiled, Bodhidharma had not yet been anointed the First Patriarch of Zen: rather he was merely one of a number of priests teaching meditation. Accordingly there would have been no incentive to embellish his story with an apocryphal essay, and for this reason most authorities think it is authentic.4 A later, more detailed version of the essay by Bodhidharma is contained in the Records of the Transmission of the Lamp (A.D. 1004). This latter text is usually the one quoted, and it is agreed to be the superior literary document.5 We are in good company if we accept this essay as a more or less accurate record of the thoughts of the First Patriarch.
The text that Bodhidharma left was meant to show others the several ways to enlightenment.
There are many ways to enter the Path, but briefly speaking, they are two sorts only. The one is "Entrance by Reason" and the other "Entrance by Conduct."6
The first of these paths, the Entrance by Reason, might more properly be called entrance by pure insight. The path advocated seems a blending of Buddhism and Taoism, by which the sutras are used as a vehicle for leading the seeker first to meditation, and then to a nonliterary state of consciousness in which all dualities, all sense of oneself as apart from the world, are erased. This is an early and eloquent summary of Zen's objectives.
By "Entrance by Reason" we mean the realization of the spirit of Buddhism by the aid of scriptural teaching. We then come to
have a deep faith in the True Nature which is one and the same in all sentient beings. The reason that it does not manifest itself is due to the overwrapping of external objects and false thoughts. When one, abandoning the false and embracing the true, and in simpleness of thought, abides in pi-kuan [pure meditation or "wall-gazing"], one finds that there is neither selfhood nor otherness, that the masses and the worthies are of one essence, and firmly holds on to this belief and never moves away therefrom. He will not then be guided by any literary instructions, for he is in silent communication with the principle itself, free from concep¬tual discrimination, for he is serene and not-acting.7
Bodhidharma is given credit for inventing the term pi-kuan, whose literal translation is "wall-gazing," but whose actual meaning is anyone's guess. Pi-kuan is sometimes called a metaphor for the mind's confrontation with the barrier of intellect—which must eventually be hurdled if one is to reach enlightenment. In any case, this text is an unmistakable endorsement of meditation as a means for tranquilizing the mind while simultaneously dissolving our impulse to discriminate between ourselves and the world around us. It points out that literary instructions can go only so far, and at last they must be abandoned in favor of reliance on the intuitive mind.8
The other Path (or Tao) he described was called the "Entrance by Conduct" and invokes his Indian Buddhist origins. The descrip-tion of "conduct" was divided into four sections which, taken together, were intended to subsume or include all the possible types of Buddhist practice.
By "Entrance by Conduct" is meant the Four Acts in which all other acts are included. What are the four? 1. How to requite hatred; 2. To be obedient to karma; 3. Not to seek after anything; and 4. To be in accord with the Dharma.9
The first Act of Conduct counseled the believer to endure all hardships, since they are payment for evil deeds committed in past existences.
What is meant by "How to requite hatred"? Those who discipline themselves in the Path should think thus when they have to struggle with adverse conditions: During the innumerable past ages I have wandered through multiplicity of existences, all the while giving myself to unimportant details of life at the expense of essentials, and thus creating infinite occasions for hate, ill-will, and wrong-doing. While no violations have been committed in this life, the fruits of evil deeds in the past are to be gathered now. Neither gods nor men can foretell what is coming upon me. I will submit myself willingly and patiently to all the ills that befall me, and I will never bemoan or complain. In the Sutra it is said not to worry over ills that may happen to you. Why? Because through intelligence one can survey [the whole chain of causation]. When this thought arises, one is in concord with the principle because he makes the best use of hatred and turns it into the service of his advance towards the Path. This is called the "way to requite hatred."10
The second Rule of Conduct is to be reconciled to whatever comes, good or evil. It seems to reflect the Taoist attitude that everything is what it is and consequently value judgments are irrelevant. If good comes, it is the result of meritorious deeds in a past existence and will vanish when the store of causative karma is exhausted. The important thing to realize is that none of it matters anyway.
We should know that all sentient beings are produced by the interplay of karmic conditions, and as such there can be no real self in them. The mingled yarns of pleasure and pain are all woven of the threads of conditioning causes. . . . Therefore, let gains and losses run their natural courses according to the ever changing conditions and circumstances of life, for the Mind itself does not increase with the gains nor decrease with the losses. In this way, no gales of self-complacency will arise, and your mind will remain in hidden harmony with the Tao. It is in this sense that we must understand the rule of adaptation to the variable conditions and circumstances of life.11
The third Rule of Conduct was the teaching of the Buddha that a cessation of seeking and a turning toward nonattachment brings peace.
Men of the world remain unawakened for life; everywhere we find them bound by their craving and clinging. This is called "attachment." The wise, however, understand the truth, and their reason tells them to turn from the worldly ways. They enjoy peace of mind and perfect detachment. They adjust their bodily movements to the vicissitudes of fortune, always aware of the emptiness of the phenomenal world, in which they find nothing to covet, nothing to delight in. . . . Everyone who has a body is an heir to suffering and a stranger to peace. Having comprehended this point, the wise are detached from all things of the phenomenal world, with their minds free of desires and craving. As the scripture has it, "All sufferings spring from attachment; true joy arises from detachment." To know clearly the bliss of detachment is truly to walk on the path of the Tao.12
The fourth Rule of Conduct was to dissolve our perception of object-subject dualities and view life as a unified whole. This merging of self and exterior world Bodhidharma calls pure mind or pure reason.
The Dharma is nothing else 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."13
Having set forth this rather elegant statement of Zen and Buddhist ideals, as ascribed to Bodhidharma, it unfortunately is necessary to add that it appears to have been taken directly from the Vajrasamadhi Sutra (attributing quotations from the sutras to Patriarchs was common), with the sole exception of the term pi-kuan.14 At the very least, the legend at this time does not portray Bodhidharma as a despiser of the sutras. He was, in fact, using a sutra as a vehicle to promote his practice of intensive meditation. It is not known what role meditation played in Buddhism at this time. However, the scholar Hu Shih questions how well it was understood. "[An early Buddhist historian's] Biographies, which covered the whole period of early Buddhism in China from the first century to the year 519, contained only 21 names of 'practitioners of dhyana (meditation)' out of a total of about 450. And practically all of the 21dhyana monks were recorded because of their remarkable asceticism and miracu¬lous powers. This shows that in spite of the numerous yoga manuals in translation, and in spite of the high respect paid by intellectual Buddhists to the doctrine and practice of dhyana, there were, as late as 500, practically no Chinese Buddhists who really understood or seriously practiced dhyana or Zen."15
Perhaps Bodhidharma, arriving in 520, felt his praise of meditation, using the words of an existing sutra, could rouse Chinese interest in this form of Buddhism. As it turned out, he was successful beyond anything he could have imagined, although his success took several centuries. As D. T. Suzuki sums it up, "While there was nothing specifically Zen in his doctrine of 'Two Entrances and Four Acts,' the teaching of pi-kuan, wall-contemplation, was what made Bodhidharma the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China."16 Suzuki interprets pi-kuan as referring to the mind in a thoughtless state, in which meditation has permitted the rational mind to be suppressed entirely. The use of meditation for this goal instead of for developing magical powers, as had been the goal of earlier dhyana masters, seems to have been the profound new idea introduced to China by Bodhidharma.17
The passage of Bodhidharma is also swathed in legend. What eventually happened to this traveling Indian guru? Did he die of poison, as one legend says; or did he wander off to Central Asia, as another reports; or did he go to Japan, as still another story would have it? The story that has been the most enduring (recorded in a Sung work, Ching-te ch'uan-teng-lu) tells that after nine years at the Shao-lin monastery 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 got my skin."
Next a nun came forward and 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 Hui-k'o's turn. But he only bowed to the master and stood silent at his place. To him Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my marrow."18
According to a competing story, Bodhidharma died of poisoning at the age of 150 and was buried in the mountains of Honan.19 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. The First Patriarch, who was walking barefoot carrying a single shoe, announced he was returning to India and that a native Chinese would arise to continue his teaching. Sung Yun reported this to Bodhidharma's disciples on his return and they opened the master's grave, only to find it empty save for the other shoe.
How much of the story of Bodhidharma is legend? The answer does not really matter all that much. As with Moses, if Bodhidharma had not existed it would have been necessary to
invent him. Although his first full biography (ca. 645) makes no particular fuss over him, less than a century after this, he was declared the founder of Zen, provided with a lineage stretching directly back through Nagarjuna to the Buddha, and furnished an exciting anecdotal history. Yet as founders go, he was a worthy enough individual. He does seem to have devised a strain of Buddhist thought that could successfully be grafted onto the hardy native Chinese Taoist organism. He also left an active disciple, later to be known as the Second Patriarch, Hui-k'o, so he must have had either a charismatic personality or a philosophical position that distinguished him from the general run of meditation masters.
It is important to keep in mind that Bodhidharma, man and myth, was the product of an early form of Zen. The later masters needed a lineage, and he was tapped for the role of First Patriarch. The major problem with Bodhidharma was that many of his ideas were in direct contradiction to the position adopted by later Zen teachings. For instance, recall that he promoted the reliance on a sutra (the Lankavatara); and he heavily stressed meditation (something later Zen masters would partially circumvent). The Jesuit scholar Heinrich Dumoulin has declared that Bodhidharma's attributed teaching in no way deviates from the great Mahayana sutras.20 It is, in fact, a far cry from later Zen ideas, says John Wu, the Chinese authority.21 Finally, he left no claim to patriarchy, nor did his first biographer offer to do this for him.
Perhaps the evolution of Zen is best demonstrated by the slow change in the paintings of Bodhidharma, culminating in the latter-day portrayals of him as a scowling grump. His image became successively more misanthropic through the centuries, perhaps as a way of underscoring the later Zen practice of establishing a rather dehumanized relationship between the Zen master and pupil, as the master shouts, beats a monk, and destroys his ego through merciless question-and-answer sessions. For all we know, the "wall-gazing Brahmin" of ancient China may have had a wry smile to go along with his droll sense of humor. Perhaps it is fitting to close with the most lasting apocrypha associated with his name, to wit the stanza that later masters attributed to him as an alleged summary of his teaching, but which he, promulgator of the Lankavatara Sutra, would undoubtedly have disowned:
A special transmission outside the sutras;
No reliance upon words and letters;
Direct pointing to the very mind;
Seeing into one's own nature.