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 it 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.]


D. T. Suzuki (R) in China 1934

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 [esoteric teachings] as stated above. He encountered malefactors who cut off his arm. He [relied on] the Dharma to control his mind 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 malefactors. 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 was using only one 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’ve lost an arm! You don’t know this, K’o?” Hui-k’o said: “I too have lost an arm. How can you be 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.

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

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

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

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