The founder of Chan Buddhism in China
Who is this mystical character, oft represented with a stern face, bristly beard and a single sandale
hanging from his pilgrims' staff? Why is this representation so famous? What role did he play that
was so important that it gave him great notoriety in the history of buddhism and martial arts? These
are but a few questions that we will attempt to answer, briefly, in this article.
Of course, we speak of none other than Bodhidharma, also known under the alias Da Mo, the
founder of Chan Buddhism in China. Before going any further, we must first explain the historical
context into which this legendary character was born.
Considering the immense vastness of its' territory (4 500 000 km²), its geographic diversity, the
presence of innumerable ethnic groups with as many different sociopolitical contexts, ancient India
did not know any lasting political unity. It is only with the arrival of the Gupta empire, between the
IV and VI century, that India knew a period of unity accompanied by peace and prosperity. Indeed,
it is under the Gupta that a common currency was adopted and sanskrit became the language of the
elite. Being a dynasty that was favorable to buddhism, the great buddist university at Nalanda,
founded in the second century, saw great development during the Vth century.
However, this empire declined rapidly following succession quarrels with the Hephthalites (White
Huns), a warmongering people of central Asia. It is thus, that around the year 510 A.C., that the
Gupta empire was eradicated. Many buddhist temples suffered from the fall of the empire and many
were destroyed by the invaders. The modern Indian territory was once again fragmented and
dissolved into smaller, independant kingdoms.
It is in this period of time, during the decline of buddhism and the Gupta empire, that the man who
would become known as Bodhidharma came into this world. There is little to no modern
biographical literature available and the texts written after his death are contradictory on matters of
both his birthplace and the account of his life. He would have live approximately around the years
470 to 543 of our era. His given family name was Sardili. Born into royalty as a prince of a small
southern kingdom, he renounces his royal lineage in order to devote himself to the pursuit of
buddhist teachings. He is issued of the Mahayana school and becomes the spiritual successor of
Prajnatara, 27th descendant that transmitted him the essence of the Dharma (Dharma refers to
absolute truth, the veritable nature of a phenomenon) of Buddha. Considered by many as a
bodhisattva, which means one who has attained illumination, he renounces nirvana in order to teach
humanity. In the meantime, India was no longer the promised paradise for buddhist schools and the
Hindu religion hampered the spread of buddhist teachings. For the Hindi, Buddha was but one god
among many (Shiva, Vishnu, etc.). It is thus that Bodhidharma, in accordance with his masters'
wish, decided to leave India on a pilgrimage to teach buddhism in foreign lands.
It would take him three years to reach China.
In China, the Han dynasty (1st and 2nd century) was infatuated by buddhism and allowed the
teaching of the philosophy to enter their borders. It managed to find a place between confucianism
and taoism which were then the two dominant philosophies.
For the confucianists, the Emperor is the son of the heavens. He has a celestial mandate to rule for
the wellbeing of mankind. Thus, a series of rules were established to govern the decisions of the
Emperor and in turn insure the loyalty of his subjects. When the Emperor strayed from the
prescribed rules it would be said that he had lost the celestial mandate and his subjects were within
their right to rebel.
On the other hand, Taoism is much harder to comprehend. Let us simply say that it appears as a
mysticism of nature in regards to the joy and wonderment that comes with the awakening brought
forth by contact with the universe. It is a metaphysical view of the universe based upon the
knowledge of natural laws with immortality as its' ultimate achievement.
Buddhism for its' part teaches the way to illumination and freedom from the cycle of reincarnation.
Multiple training methods, whether Buddhist or Taoist, were invented to reach the goals of either
philosophy. There were two kinds of Chi-Kung, one was practised by the Taoists and the erudites to
maintain their health, and another practised was developped by doctors to heal their patients.
However, due to the communication methods of the time and the difficulty of transporting
knowledge over such long distances, only a fraction of the buddhist teachings had reached China.
Chinese buddhist monks resorted to learning fragments from what writings they could find, not
knowing that the practice of Buddhism must be supervised by an experienced master and cannot be
gleamed from mere literature. At the time of the Liang dynasty (5th century), it was said that only
two indian monks had come to China to spread the teachings in the past 500 years. The chinese
monks then focused on the cultivation of their spirit, the highest form of learning, neglecting their
bodies that were seen as temporary coils that would be discarded!
When Bodhidharma arrived in China around the year 527 of our era, Buddhism is at its' lowest
point. It had lost its' popularity and influence. It was at its' highest only 30 years earlier during the
construction of the Shaolin temple, but had since known a steep decline following criticism from
the Chinese academic world.
Shortly after his arrival in Nankin, the capital of the southern Liang kingdom, Bodhidharma is
summoned to court by the Emperor Liang Wudi, who sought the praises of a buddhist authority – as
India was seen as the cultural capital of Buddhism. He would not be pleased with the answers
Bodhidharma had for him, as can be seen in this famous exchange:
"I have built and furnished many temples, had many sutras translated and helped countless monks",
boasted the Emperor. "What are my merits?" he asked.
"Absolutely none," Bodhidharma answered calmly.
"Your merits will become the source of your illusions and your desire. It is like chasing a shadow!
Wisdom that is pure is wonderful and perfect in its' realization."
"Who do you think you are?!" the Emperor asked, vexed by the monks' answers.
"I don't know" replied Bodhidharma.
And thus, he was chased from court.
A famous paintaing represents Bodhidharma crossing the Yangzi river on a reed. This painting
depicts his flight to the northern kingdom of Wei following his departure from the court of the
Emperor Liang Wudi. The latter, upon counselling from his trusted advisors, changed his mind
about changing Bodhidharma and sent his army to bring him back to court. It is said that is was thus
that Bodhidharma chose to cross the Yangzi, a river 2 kilometers in width, on a reed.
He made his way to the sacred Songshan mountain where the Shaolin templed resided. There,
taking note of the poor physical state of the monks, he retired to a cave for 9 years. At the end of
this long meditation, he wrote two books of great renown; the Yi Jin Jing (classic work pertaining to
the transformation of the muscles and tendons) and the Xi Sui Jing (another classic work, pertaining
to the cleaning of the brain and bone marrow). Bodhidharma put forth a much more pragmatic
approach to Buddhism, although few modern schools take heed of those teachings! This Chan way
leads to a comprehension of the self from the outside-in, akin to russian dolls. It is there that we find
the 3 steps of the Shaolin Kung Fu teachings. First, we begin to understand ourselves through our
physical bodies. The choregraphies that are executed bare-handed, the Yi Jin Jing, weapon handling
and even combat techniques are often linked to emotions, mental wellbeing and intelligence. The
second stage relates to energy; it concerns itself with Chi and the esoteric aspect of the invisible
world. Lastly, the domain of the mental body, of intelligence and comprehension of the why and
how; many stories and enigmas call upon us to reflect and unblock our intelligence, to liberate it
from ordinary logic to reach the world beyond and finally, to cross the door without a door and
leave behind the mortal world.
The rest, as they say, is history; thanks to the teaching of Bodhidharma the Shaolin temple
developped martial techniques of great quality. It gained renown and soon became a major centre
for the teaching of Kung Fu.
Many dates are put forth between 528 and 543 for the death of Bodhidharma. Whatever the actual
date may be, the legend goes that "a short time after his death a pilgrim named Songyun, travelling
across the Pamir mountains in search of Buddhist texts, came across the monk. Holding one sandal
in his hands, Bodhidharma announced the imminent death of Songyuns' ruler, a fact that would later
be confirmed upon the latters' return to the kingdom of Wei. Stupefied, they opened the tomb of
bodhidharma... only to find that there was a single sandal left!" (1).
The teaching of Bodhidharma can be resumed as follows:
"No writings, a teaching different from all others, that touches the spirit directly to awaken the true
nature of Buddha" (2).
Four key concepts of the Chan philosophy come from the following:
" - A personnal transmission beyond writing.
– Not dependant on concepts, nor on words.
– A practice that directly reveals the original spirit.
– Contemplate your nature and realize the state of Buddha." (3)
In traditionnal martial arts schools, the representation of Bodhidharma upon the altar takes on a
special signification; underlining that the school in question follows the Path of Kung Fu in
accordance to the principles taught in a direct line from the first Buddha. This tradition signifies an
individualized teaching transmitted by an experienced and competent master that guides their
students upon the long road of the Path. It is a road that has many steps, including arduous physical,
energetic and mental (spiritual) work. It is a road upon which ego must cede to the students' heart.
Meditation takes an important role for advanced students; it allows them to know the awakening of
their spirit and reach another state of consciousness. Individual meditation, practiced sitting and
silent by this founder for 9 years forever linked the qualities of inner peace, stability, perseverence
and determination to the Chan teachings. Also known as zen meditation in Japand and Occident,
this doctrine has many adepts across the world even today.
We leave you with this quote that summarizes Bodhidharmas' thoughts:
"Weather with patience the suffering of the present, for they are the fruit of intentionally bad actions
from the past; be aware that the conditions for the enjoyment of a belonging can disappeard at any
time; keep yourselved from any excessive desire, be at one with the fundamental purity of the
Nam Ngu (Pierre François Flores)
Red belt, 4th Dan
September 6th 2016
(1) Cochini, Christian, 50 grands maîtres du bouddhisme chinois, 2015, p. 104, translated by Luc William Méthot from french to english.
(2) Cochini, Christian, 50 grands maîtres du bouddhisme chinois, 2015, p. 103, translated by Luc William Méthot from french to english.
(3) Grosrey, Alain, Le grand livre du bouddhisme, 2007, p. 278, translated by Luc William Méthot from french to english.