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BODHIDHARMA: Zen Patriarch and Father of the Martial Arts


Even as historians bend their backs trying to retrace the steps of those whose footprints have stood the test of time, there are some, whose trails gets lost and their stories are produced by the blurring lines of history and lores. In India, one such prominent person is Bodhidharma- whose life and deeds are shrouded with just enough mystery to find a place in the silver screen. ‘7th sense’ anyone? What about ‘Why has Bodhidharma left for the East’?

Life of Bodhidharma depicted in 7th Sense, Tamil movie,Director A R Murugadoss and lead actor Suriya - Mythical India
Life of Bodhidharma depicted in Tamil movie 7th Sense


1) A glimpse of his life:

According to many legends and some historical sources, Bodhidharma was born a prince of the Pallava dynasty, who left his worldly space at Kancheepuram at an early age, to become a monk. It is believed that his teacher Prajnatara, changed his name from Bodhitara to Bodhidharma. Soon after Prajantara’s death, he embarked on a journey to spread his learnings to China and elsewhere.

Accounts differ on the precise date of his arrival in China- the estimate generally ranging between 470 AD and 520 AD.

A Chinese painting of Bodhidharma - Mythical India


At the court of Wu Dai and subsequent itinerary:

Upon his arrival, Bodhidharma spent some time in the court of Emperor Wu Dai. A lore has it, that he was soon compelled to leave after a particular incident- the Emperor one day, had rattled a list of all the good things he had done like feeding the poor, building meditation halls for the spread of Buddhism, etc. After having done that, he asked Bodhidharma whether all this had been enough to mould a key to his ‘mukti’. An enraged Bodhidharma, is said to have thundered- “You will only burn in the seventh hell”- meaning that deeds done with a selfish interest only result in mental torment.

Shaolin Monks, Bodhidharma - Mythical India


Subsequently, wherever he went- Luoyung, Mount Song and finally to the Shaolin Temple in the Henan province; he gathered cohorts of followers but also elicited disdain from certain Buddhist scholars owing to his dismissal of rituals and scriptures.

2) Astounding Legends:

There are also certain eyebrow-raising legends revolving around the great monk.

  • One of these says that, once when Bodhidharma was meditating in a mountain cave, sleep was repeatedly taking better of him and so out of frustration he cut off his eyelids. The fallen eyelids then sprouted into the first tea plant and thereafter, the drink was used by the monks to ward off sleep.
  • Another legend says that when initially ignored by the Shaolin monks, Bodhidharma took up a ‘wall-gazing’ meditation in a cave opposite the Shaolin monastery. He did this for 9 years- as an effort to bring out the true essence of Buddhism. The cave came to be known as the Bodhidharma Cave.

3) Teachings of Bodhidharma:

Bodhidharma’s teachings are replete with pearls of wisdom serving as a guide to enlightenment, such as-

  • “The mind is always present. You just don’t see it”

He asks people to challenge themselves to stay focused; progressively moving from awareness of one’s breath, to sensations, to emotions and then finally, the mind.

  • “Many roads lead to the Path, but basically there are only two: reason and practice.”

According to Bodhidharma, entering through reason is about believing in the uniform nature of all living beings, and entering through practice refers to four all-inclusive practices: suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and practicing the Dharma.

 The mind is the root from which all things grow if you can understand the mind, everything else is included


4)  Influence:

    It is said that a Chinese monk Shen Guang impressed by Bodhidharma’s teachings, made him his disciple and successor, which was the first step towards his gradual monumental influence. To India and the world, his greatest contributions were Zen Buddhism and martial arts.

To the monks of the Shaolin monastery, Bodhidharma introduced his brand of dhyana meditation. This is intrinsic to the Zen branch of Mahayana Buddhism which believes that awakening can be achieved through proper spiritual cultivation guided by a master. Today, this sect garners considerable followers from China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan.

Bodhidharma is also credited with the founding of the martial arts beginning with Kalaripayattu. Today, a number of karate components such as kiba dachi, Sanchin kata, etc. are attributed to the great monk.

Statue of Bodhidharma - Mythical India


Given the life and deeds of Bodhidharma, it is indeed worth the time of every man in today’s world to tap into the repository of his rich legacy and thus tread on an enlightened path.

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Written by Bhargavee Das

Bhargavee is an avid reader and wants to be a powerful voice in the advocacy of positive change. Apart from deep passion for writing, she loves playing keeping keyboard and watching movies of various genres.

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