Who is Bodhidharma?

A woodblock print of bodhidharma (daruma)

In Buddhist lore, few figures loom as large and enigmatic as Bodhidharma, a man whose fierce scowl, framed by deep vermillion robes, is pervasive from East to West. 

Revered for transmitting the teachings of Chan Buddhism, the predecessor of Zen Buddhism, from India to China and becoming one of the patriarchs of Zen and Shaolin, Bodhidharma’s legacy spans centuries. Here we’ll unravel the myths surrounding the itinerant monk Bodhidharma, exploring his history and modern day significance.

Bodhidharma travels to China

Bodhidharma, also known as Daruma in Japan, lived during the 5th or 6th century CE. Born in India to a royal lineage, he became a Buddhist monk who traveled to China to spread the teachings of Buddhism. According to historical accounts, Bodhidharma arrived in China during the Northern Wei dynasty. He eventually settled at the Shaolin Monastery in Henan province, where he imparted the principles of Chan Buddhism. These teachings preceded Zen Buddhism in Japan.

A woodblock print of bodhidharma (daruma)

He is often credited with formalizing martial arts practice within the Shaolin temple, although these claims have been disputed.

Buddhist significance in China and Japan

Bodhidharma’s arrival in China marked a pivotal moment in the development of Chan Buddhism. His teachings introducing a radical approach to meditation and enlightenment. An emphasis on direct experience and intuitive insight resonated deeply with practitioners in China. Bodhidharma’s teachings, encapsulated in his seminal work, the “Bloodstream Sermon,” emphasized the importance of realizing one’s inherent Buddha nature through rigorous meditation and self-inquiry.

In Japan, Bodhidharma, known as Daruma, became a revered figure in Zen Buddhism, embodying the spirit of perseverance and enlightenment. Bodhidharma is often depicted as a stern and bearded monk with piercing eyes, reflecting his reputation for discipline. He is sometimes referred to as “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian” owing to his piercing eyes and thick beard. 

Bodhidharma (daruma) statues in Japan.

The legacy of Bodhidharma

The Daruma doll is inspired by Bodhidharma’s legendary meditation posture. It is now a symbol of good luck and resilience, particularly during the New Year’s season. Japanese temples and shrines dedicated to Bodhidharma pay homage to his enduring legacy and teachings. The dolls serve as spiritual landmarks for practitioners seeking wisdom and insight. Artists render Daruma dolls are with one or both eyes blank or white. Traditionally, the owner of the doll sets an intention or visualizes a goal. With this wish, they fill in one of the eyes; then, when the goal has actually been attained they fill in the second.

His life is filled with larger-than-life stories that make it difficult to parse historical fact from legend. After being rejected from a Shaolin monastery, he is said to have spent nine years facing a cave wall in meditation. Eventually unable to stay awake during, he cut off his eyelids to prevent himself from falling asleep in the future.

Tea plants grew then grew on the spot where his eyelids fell. Recognizing the stimulating effects of these tea leaves, Zen monks subsequently began to brew them to assist in extended periods of meditation.

Another popular story recounts Bodhidharma’s encounter with Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty, who sought validation for his virtuous deeds. In response, Bodhidharma famously declared, “There is no merit.” This challenge to the emperor’s understanding prompted him to delve deeper into his understanding of the dharma.

Bodhidharma (daruma) statues in Japan.

Bodhidharma stands as a towering figure in Buddhist history, revered for his profound teachings and enduring influence on Zen Buddhism. While his life may be shrouded in myth and legend, Bodhidharma’s legacy continues to inspire practitioners around the world to seek enlightenment through meditation, self-inquiry, and discipline.

Read more from Still Sitting on Buddhist figures: “The Bodhisattva Jizo: a guide for the weary

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