Bodhidharma: His life and teachings

[All of the information contained herein is taken from Jeffrey Broughton, The Bodhidharma Anthology (1999), and from John Jorgensen, The Earliest Text of Ch’an Buddhism: The Long Scroll (1979). — Editor]

Born in India in around A.D. 440, Bodhidharma became the first patriarch of what later became the Ch’an school of Buddhism in China. According to Ch’an history, he was the 28th patriarch in a direct line of Dharma succession from the Buddha; this line of succession was what made Ch’an an orthodox teaching.

The earliest biography of Bodhidharma is in the preface to what is considered the most authentic record of his teachings, a seven-part anthology called “Long Scroll of the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices,” compiled by a scholar who lived during Bodhidharma’s time named T’an-lin. According to this brief biography, Bodhidharma was the son of a great king in South India; he showed wisdom from a young age and he left home to become a monk. Some years later, “grieved over the decline of the orthodox teaching of the Buddha in the remoter parts of the world,” he traveled “a great distance over mountains and oceans,” eventually arriving in northern China (c. 527). There he taught at Shaolin Monastery, near the city of Lo-yang, capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty.

A later biography of Bodhidharma, as well as one of his successor Hui-k’o, is found in an encyclopedic work by Tao-Hsuan called Further Biographies of Eminent Monks, redacted 645-667 (see Jorgensen’s translation of the entry, p. 106). It is from this that we learn that Bodhidharma arrived by boat on the south coast of China within the borders of the Sung Dynasty. (This could mean that he arrived before 479, the year in which the Sung fell, or could merely be a geographical designation that survived the Sung.) Eventually he traveled north, crossing the Yangtze river and arriving in the Lo-yang region.

Bodhidharma taught during a period of political instability with its concomitant violence; apart from that his teaching met with opposition from some quarters. He trained at least three great masters: Tao-fu (a.k.a. Seng-fu, a.k.a. Tao-yu,), a monk named Yuan,  and Hui-k’o, who studied under him for six years. Before he died Bodhidharma passed on the symbolic robe and bowl of succession to Hui-k’o. He also passed on the “four-roll” Lankavatara Sutra, saying, “As I survey China, there is only the Lankavatara Sutra.” The bestowal of the “four-roll Lanka” seems to have become for a time a symbolic bestowal of “the Dharma” (the esoteric teaching) from master to pupil.

Bodhidharma died and was buried on Mount Hisung-erh to the west of Lo-yang. The circumstances of his death are unknown, and only the following is given in the Hui-k’o entry of Further Biographies of Eminent Monks:

Bodhidharma died on the banks of the Lo River. K’o then hid himself on the banks of the river, but because he had been famed in the past an announcement was sent around the capital, and so the clergy and laity came respectfully to request to follow him. (Jorgensen, p. 118)

The year of Bodhidharma’s death is suggested in the entry. It continues: “Later, at the beginning of the T’ien-p’ing era [534-37], he (Hui-k’o) went north to Yeh, the new capital of the Eastern Wei, and opened many secret parks.” (Broughton, p. 58) If Bodhidharma arrived in northern China in 527 and died in 534 or shortly before, there would have been just enough time for him to train and pass along the Dharma to his successor. This would give us an approximate lifetime of A.D. 440-534.

There is a story of an incident that occurred after Bodhidharma’s death. As told by Broughton, “Three years later, a Chinese diplomatic official, the Wei commissioner Sung Yun, returning from a mission to the West, meets Bodhidharma in the Pamirs Mountains; Bodhidharma is on his way back to the West. The patriarch, with a single shoe in hand, predicts to Sung Yun that his sovereign has died—a prediction that is duly confirmed upon the commissioner’s return to China. Bodhidharma’s stupa, or reliquary mound, is subsequently opened, and indeed the contents consist of a single shoe.”

Of several texts attributed to Bodhidharma, the one generally held to authentically represent his teachings is the above-mentioned “Long Scroll of the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices,” which owes its name to D. T. Suzuki. Suzuki discovered it when he visited the National Library in Beijing in 1935 and looked through the catalogue of the Chinese collection of Tun-huang manuscripts.* Before this, much of the Long Scroll was unknown or unidentified, although portions of it had found their way into several other works. In fact, Suzuki had already translated the most well-known text, “The Twofold Entrance,” using Records of the Transmission of the Lamp (A.D. 1004) as his source. His translation was published that same year in Manual of Zen Buddhism before he had had the opportunity to reproduce the Long Scroll manuscript, which he did, in Japanese, in 1936. [*Tun-huang manuscripts: tens of thousands of scrolls discovered hidden in the Tun-huang cave complex in North-west China at the beginning of the twentieth century.]


The Long Scroll was most likely compiled by the author of the preface, T’an-lin. Besides being an illustrious scholar and Sanskrit translator, T’an-lin is thought to have been a pupil of Hui-k’o. T’an-lin took part in many Sanskrit translation projects at the great monasteries of the Eastern Wei capital Yeh during the late 530s and early 540s (Broughton, p. 68).

There is a wonderful story in Further Biographies of Eminent Monks (“Hui-k’o B”) that tells of Hui-k’o and T’an-lin each having an arm cut off by criminals at about the same time. Broughton’s translation follows:

Hui-k’o specialized in handing over the dark principle as stated above. He encountered scoundrels who cut off his arm. He [relied on] the Dharma to manage mind [bring his senses under control] so that he was not aware of the pain. He burned the wound with fire, and when the bleeding abated, he bandaged it with silk. He then went on his begging rounds as before, informing no one. Later T’an-lin also had his arm cut off by scoundrels. He cried out throughout the night. Hui-k’o applied bandages to his arm, begged food and offered it to T’an-lin. T’an-lin thought it strange that Hui-k’o did not have full use of his hand and so became angry with him. Hui-k’o said: “The pastries are in front of you. Why don’t you wrap them up yourself?” T’an-lin said: “I don’t have an arm! You didn’t know this, K’o?” Hui-k’o said: “I too lack an arm. How could you become angry with me?” And thus they questioned each other and realized that there was karmic merit in their situation. This is why the world speaks of “Armless Lin.” (p. 62)

The first translation of the Long Scroll in its entirety was done by Yanagida Seizan, who translated it into Japanese in 1969. After this, several more manuscripts identified as being parts of the Long Scroll surfaced, including Tibetan translations. In 1979 John Jorgensen published the first English translation as a master’s thesis, relying heavily on Yanagida’s translation as well as some of the more recently identified sources. Jorgensen’s thesis is titled, The Earliest Text of Ch’an Buddhism: The Long Scroll. Twenty years later, Jeffery Broughton published his translation and study of the manuscript in The Bodhidharma Anthology (1999).

I have gone into some detail about the text—its sources and translations—to give readers an idea of where it came from. Below is Suzuki’s preface to “The Twofold Entrance,” from his essay, “History of Zen” (Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series, first published in 1927.)

Our knowledge of the life of Bodhidharma comes from two sources. One, which is the earliest record we have of him is by Tao-hsuan in his Biographies of the High Priests, which was compiled early in the T’ang dynasty, A.D. 645. The author was the founder of a Vinaya sect in China and a learned scholar, who, however, was living before the movement of the new school to be known as Zen came into maturity under Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, who was nine years old when Tao-hsuan wrote his Biographies. The other source is the Records of the Transmission of the Lamp, A.D. 1004, compiled by Tao-yuan early in the Sung dynasty. This was written by a Zen monk after Zen had received full recognition as a special branch of Buddhism, and contains sayings and doings of its masters. The author often refers to some earlier Zen histories as his authorities, which are, however, lost now, being known by the titles only.

Biography (Suzuki)

Bodhidharma, the Teacher of the Dharma, was the third son of a great Brahman 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 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 practised 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. Those that were spiritually inclined gathered about him full of devotion, while those that could not rise above their own one-sided views talked about him slanderingly.

At the time there were only two monks called Tao-yu and Hui-k’o, who while yet young (lit. ‘born later’) had a strong will and desire to learn higher things. Thinking it a great opportunity of their lives to have such a teacher of the Dharma in their own land, they put themselves under his instruction for several years. Most reverently they followed him, asked questions to be enlightened, and observed his directions well. The Teacher of the Dharma was moved by their spirit of sincerity and disciplined them in the true path, telling them, “This is the way to obtain peace of mind,” “This is the way to behave in the world,” “This is the way to live harmoniously with your surroundings,” and “These are the Upaya (means).” These being the Mahayana ways to keep the mind tranquil, one has to be on guard against their wrongful applications. By this mental pacification Pi-kuan1 is meant; by this behaviour, the Four Practices; by this harmony with things, the protection from slander and ill-will; and by Upaya, detachment.

Thus I have briefly stated the story of what follows.2  (Suzuki, 1949, p. 179)

1 This is the most significant phrase in Dharma’s writing. I have left it untranslated, for later this will be explained fully.
2 The author of this story or prefatory note is T’an-lin, who, according to Dr. Tokiwa, of the Tokyo Imperial University, was a learned scholar partaking in the translation of several Sanskrit works. He is also mentioned in connection with Hui-k’o in the biography of the latter by Tao-hsuan.

 *  *  *

When Bodhidharma taught that there are two kinds of entrances to the Dharma, he did not mean that some people might use one and some might use the other, but that one should apply both. Suzuki understood it in this way as well, hence his title “Twofold Entrance” instead of “Two Entrances.”

Bodhidharma said, “By Entrance by Reason we mean the realization of the spirit of Buddhism by the aid of the scriptural teaching.” Thus armed with Right View gained from the scriptures, one abandons false views, embraces the true view, and practices one-pointed concentration or ‘wall-gazing’ (pi-kuan) in order to attain self-realization.

Bodhidharma on the Twofold Entrance to the Tao 1

There are many ways to enter the Path, but briefly speaking they are of two sorts only. The one is “Entrance by Reason” [Principle–Jorgensen] and the other “Entrance by Conduct.”2  By “Entrance by Reason” we mean the realization of the spirit of Buddhism by the aid of the scriptural teaching. We then come to have a deep faith in the True Nature which is the same in all sentient beings. The reason why it does not manifest itself is due to the overlayering of external objects and false thoughts.

1 From The Transmission of the Lamp, XXX.
2 “Entrance by Reason” may also be rendered “Entrance by Higher Intuition”; and
“Entrance by Conduct,” “Entrance by Practical Living.”

When a man, abandoning the false and embracing the true, in singleness of thought practises the Pi-kuan (wall-gazing) he finds that there is neither self nor other, that the masses and the worthies are of one essence, and he firmly holds on to this belief and never moves away therefrom. He will not then be a slave to words, for he is in silent communion with the Reason itself, free from conceptual discrimination; he is serene and not-acting. This is called “Entrance by Reason.”

By “Entrance by Conduct” is meant the four acts in which all other acts are included. What are the four? 1. To know how to requite hatred; 2. To be obedient to karma; 3. Not to crave anything; and 4. To be in accord with the Dharma.

1. What is meant by “How to requite hatred”? He who disciplines himself in the Path should think thus when he has to struggle with adverse conditions:

“During the innumerable past ages I have wandered through a 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 wrongdoing. 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. The Sutra teaches me not to worry over ills that may happen to me. Why? Because when things are surveyed by a higher intelligence, the foundation of causation is reached.”

When this thought is awakened in a man, he will be in accord with the Reason because he makes the best use of hatred and turns it into the service in his advance towards the Path. This is called the “way to requite hatred.”

2. By “being obedient to karma” is meant this: There is no self (atman) in whatever beings are produced by the interplay of karmaic conditions; the pleasure and pain I suffer are also the results of my previous action. If I am rewarded with fortune, honour, etc., this is the outcome of my past deeds which by reason of causation affect my present life. When the force of karma is exhausted, the result I am enjoying now will disappear; what is then the use of being joyful over it? Gain or loss, let me accept the karma as it brings to me the one or the other; the Mind itself knows neither increase nor decrease. The wind of pleasure [and pain] will not stir me, for I am silently in harmony with the Path. Therefore this is called “being obedient to karma.”

3. By “not craving (ch’iu) anything” is meant this: Men of the world, in eternal confusion, are attached everywhere to one thing or another, which is called craving. The wise however understand the truth and are not like the ignorant. Their minds abide serenely in the uncreated while the body moves about in accordance with the laws of causation. All things are empty and there is nothing desirable to seek after. Where there is the [good] of brightness there surely lurks the [evil] of darkness. This triple world where we abide altogether too long is like a house on fire; all that has a body suffers, and nobody really knows what peace is. Because the wise are thoroughly acquainted with this truth, they are never attached to things that change; their thoughts are quieted, they never crave anything. Says the Sutra: “Wherever there is a craving, there is pain; cease to crave and you are blessed.” Thus we know that not to crave anything is indeed the way to the Truth. Therefore, it is taught that we must not crave anything.

4. By “being in accord with the Dharma” is meant that the Reason which we call the Dharma in its essence is pure, and that this Reason is the principle of emptiness in all that is manifested; it is above defilements and attachments, and there is no “self,” no “other” in it. Says the Sutra: “In the Dharma there are no sentient beings, because it is free from the stain of being; in the Dharma there is no ‘self’ because it is free from the stain of selfhood.” When the wise understand this truth and believe in it, their lives will be in accord with the Dharma.

As there is in the essence of the Dharma no desire to possess, the wise are ever ready to practise charity (dana) with their body, life, and property, and they never begrudge, they never know what an ill grace means. As they have a perfect understanding of the threefold nature of emptiness (no giver, nothing given, no recipient—Diamond Sutra), they are above partiality and attachment. Only because of their will to cleanse all beings of their stains, they come among them as of them, but they are not attached to form. This is the self-benefiting phase of their lives. They, however, know also how to benefit others, and again how to glorify the truth of enlightenment. As with the virtue of charity, so with the other five virtues. The wise practise the six virtues of perfection in order to get rid of confused thoughts, and yet there is no specific consciousness on their part that they are engaged in any meritorious deeds. This is called being in accord with the Dharma.

* * *

4 Since this translation from the Transmission of the Lamp, two Tun-huang MSS. containing the text have come to light. The one is in the Masters and Disciples of the Lanka (Lengchia Shih-tzu Chi), already published, and the other still in MS., which however the present author intends to have reproduced in facsimile before long. They differ in minor points with the translation here given.

[Editor’s note: The term ‘dharma’ has three meanings, two of which are opposites: material things (dharma) and the Absolute (Dharma). Dharma written with a capital ‘D’ also means the teaching by the masters regarding the nature of the Absolute and how to realize it. This threefold ambiguity has caused confusion for translators of the Long Scroll, which is further complicated by the antonym adharma, which are thought-things (concepts), as opposed to material things (phenomena). In the Long Scroll adharma is written by putting ‘not’ in front of ‘dharma’.]

Broughton, Jeffrey L. The Bodhidharma Anthology. University of California Press, 1999.

Jorgensen, John A. The Earliest Text of Ch’an Buddhism: The Long Scroll. The Australian National University, 1979.

Suzuki, D. T. Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series). New York, Grove Press, 1949 (pp. 179-183).

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