The Chinese deity of focus and determination

The strange and wonderful myth of Bodhidharma

To some, he is the inventor of the mysterious and secret doctrines that have long been lost but discoverable through the practice of kung fu. More widely, especially in Japanese and Chinese culture, he is seen as the wandering madman and saint who dressed down Emperors and blessed the human race with ambrosia of the tea plant.

Bodhidharma is the patron-saint of the power of concentration.

He who is ever of unrestrained mind, devoid of true understanding, his sense-desires then become uncontrollable like the wild horses of a charioteer.

- Katha Upanishad

In India, forces and virtues are often worshipped in the form of deities. The holy trinity, Brahma is the God of creation, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva signifies destruction. Durga is a being of sheer power, electricity, and light. Kali is her opposite: the Queen of the darkness and death. Brahma’s daughter, Saraswati, embodies books, knowledge and learning. Lakshmi personifies wealth. Vishwakarma is worshipped by engineers and mechanics because he is machinist to the Gods. So, it should not surprise us that Indians have not only invented a deity in-charge of concentration, but also have completely forgotten about him.

It is in China and Japan, where the legacy of Bodhidharma really flourishes, and perhaps it may be more accurate to describe Bodhidharma more as a creation of Far Eastern culture than an Indian one. He is said to have travelled to China and introduced the monks of the Shaolin temple to meditative practices that included strengthening the body and mind through martial art training. Some myths describe him as Arab and others as Caucasian but most artistic portraits show him as unmistakably Indian. While very few in India would be able to identify him today, Bodhidharma is an integral and popular part of Far Eastern culture, seen in paintings, sculpture, the opera (with his own mask and archetypical role), and even toys for children.

Bruce Lee, no stranger to kung fu, called his beloved wooden mu ren zhuang dummy Bodhidharma. He used it to practice Wing Chun chi sao on it in Ruby Chow’s backyard while he evolved his own philosophy concerning the martial arts — clearly having caught the nuance of Bodhidharma’s teaching.

The mythology surrounding Bodhidharma is so fantastical that it is tempting to think of the existence of the man, to whom the creation of Zen Buddhism and kung fu is attributed to as pure fiction.

Said to have lived in the fifth or sixth centuries, Bodhidharma was initiated by Prajnatara, a female bhikshu, and the 27th patriarch of Chan Buddhism, an unbroken chain of teachers that can be traced to the Shakyamuni, the Gautama Buddha himself. One version of his mythology says that Bodhidharma had performed such intense austerities, sitting in one place for nine years, that his arms and legs had decayed and fallen off. He still managed locomotion, perhaps waddled, concentrated, or floated through magic, and reached the coast of China from Southern India. Bodhidharma could fight and unarm opponents, without limbs.

The other version of the myth is that Bodhidharma arrived in China (with most of his limbs intact; only for the moment, as will see) but was appalled by the state of Buddhism he found being practiced there.

The philosophy had been institutionalised into a state religion, and the monks too fat and corrupt to obtain or provide any spiritual healing. Particularly forceful was his bitch slap of a put down to the powerful emperor and patron of Buddhism, Emperor Wu of Liang. When the Emperor asked him how much karmic merit he had earned by supporting monks, paying for sutras to be copied (the origins of Chinese woodblock printing lie in these endeavours of earning merit through having Buddhist treatises duplicated), and have images of the Buddha made, Bodhidharma replied: “none”.

Eventually, Bodhidharma arrived at the Shaolin temple in the mountains. The temple had been set up a century before by another Indian monk, Buddhabhadra who preached:

“The extreme principle is wordless. The sagely mind is unimpeded.”

This if anything is the core philosophy of zen, yoga, kung fu, tantra, Chan, or dhyana — by whatever name one chooses to call it — in the careful, repeated performance of mindless actions lies the incommunicable nature of the mind, and the key to the riddle of existence itself.

When Bodhidharma arrived at the Shaolin temple, and he ridiculed the monks there as fat and lazy, they rejected him and refused to accept him as a master of Buddhism.

As a result, Bodhidharma installed himself in a freezing cave in the mountains, facing the wall for nine years in absolute meditative concentration. Here, in this version of the myth, is where his arms and legs atrophied. Another mutilation that Bodhidharma performed was ripping out his eyelids when they involuntarily closed for a moment after seven years of concentration. So he tore them off and discarded them. But shoots of the tea plant began to grow from the spot where his eyelashes hit the ground.

This is why tea is drunk, especially by Buddhist monks while studying, as a stimulant. It is believed to contain the very essence of Bodhidharma. The drink it should also be remembered is one of the most refined things to partake and is considered the root of Asian sophistication and high culture. In Eelco Hesse’s Tea: The Eyelids of Bodhidharma (1982), there are reproductions of 19th century European advertisements that invite the public to be more civilised, refined, and intellectual, like Japanese noblewomen, and drink tea.

In Japan, when one seeks to make a solemn oath, one eye of a Daruma doll is painted in. When the resolve is completed, only then is the other eye painted in. Thus, an invocation is made to Bodhidharma is the patron deity of focus, intention, determination, and eye-popping resolve.

While he faced the wall, and without any tweets or posts on Instagram, Bodhidharma attracted a follower: Dazu Huike. Huike stood behind and watched over Bodhidharma for years. Finally, his frustration at being ignored by the master took over and he exclaimed: “when will you teach me?”

Bodhidharma replied: “When it rains blood.”

So Huike chopped off his arm and twirled it around as an offering to Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma sighed and said: “You’ll have to do.”

One part of this is goes to the concept of gurudakshina: the fees of a master. Bodhidharma’s knowledge had come at the cost of losing his limbs and his eyelids. That was the price to know what he knew, and to gain that knowledge, Huike had to make a similar downpayment. However, there is a second-layer to this myth. Bodhidharma was reluctant to take on a discipline was because of the problem of entropy that affected Buddhist teachings in communication.

Buddhism, today, especially in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where monks sworn to non-violence often lead poisonous rhetoric and lynch mobs against religious minorities, is once again in the state Bodhidharma found it in China in the 5th century. In India, it is nearly forgotten, very few people even remember who Bodhidharma was, except for the Dalits. Communist China’s fake-ass Buddhism, its ‘ancient’ temples have yet to allow freshly poured concrete to dry (every one of them was destroyed with typical clinical efficiency during the Cultural Revolution), is quite a brilliant act of fakery to con gullible Americans who have watched one David Carradine film too many. Japan’s zen, via Mary Kondo and Netflix, is appropriated by the wellness industries, and dehydrated into a simple formula of meditation practices or even a critique against material capitalism to realise mindfulness, rather than a full-blown religion with temples, dogmas, rituals, lands, and a people whose lives are tightly circumscribed by their beliefs and symbols — and it all being mostly mindless ritual and dogma. This isn’t some deficiency in the cannon of Buddhism itself but rather the nature of what happens when religion acquires political authority or becomes a productivity fad. Bodhidharma is at variance with the major obsession of Buddhism — buddhi — the mind. He says it doesn’t exist!

Basic common sense would have allowed Bodhidharma to have foreseen how his teachings would be mangled by his disciplines, who would once again emphasise things such lineage, canonical knowledge, sutras and scripture, learning by rote, dogmatic ceremonies rather than knowing and being. Most ironic of all, he would be revered by the fans of mindless violence as someone whose teachings would allow them to beat the world into submission.

Osho said of Bodhidharma:

I have a very soft corner in my heart for Bodhidharma. That makes it a very special occasion to speak about him. Perhaps he is the only man whom I have loved so deeply that speaking on him I will be almost speaking on myself. That also creates a great complexity, because he never wrote anything in his life. No enlightened being has ever written […] But knowing Bodhidharma as intimately as I know him … There are so many fallacies which are possible only if somebody else was taking notes and his own mind entered into it; he has interpreted Bodhidharma — and with not much understanding.

As Lao Tzu put it, “The wise man does not speak.” Yet, Bodhidharma was still bound by dharma to pass on teaching. So he said: “You’ll have to do.” The episode that chronicles Bodhidharma’s final meeting with his core disciples should be seen in this light.

Bodhidharma asked, “Can each of you say something to demonstrate your understanding?”
Dao Fu stepped forward and said, “It is not bound by words and phrases, nor is it separate from words and phrases. This is the function of the Tao.”
Bodhidharma: “You have attained my skin.”
The nun Zong Chi stepped up and said, “It is like a glorious glimpse of the realm of Akshobhya Buddha. Seen once, it need not be seen again.”
Bodhidharma; “You have attained my flesh.”
Dao Yu said, “The four elements are all empty. The five skandhas are without actual existence. Not a single dharma can be grasped.”
Bodhidharma: “You have attained my bones.”
Finally, Huike came forth, bowed deeply in silence and stood up straight.
Bodhidharma said, “You have attained my marrow.”
[From Wikipedia/Bodhidharma]

After his death, Bodhidharma was seen by someone walking towards India with one shoe in his hand. When the person reported this, he was ridiculed, for the master was long dead. Just to be sure, they opened up his grave, and all they found in it was the other shoe.

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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