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The Root of it All - Bodhidharma

Mark W. Swarthout

Shido Kan Kanji

When starting a journey, one begins at the beginning, the root of it all. And in the Eastern martial arts, almost every tradition traces their legends and history to a single individual.

Almost every book on the history of the Asian Martial Arts begins with a reference to Bodhidharma. Somewhere in time, contact with his teachings has occurred in most of the major branches of these arts. He has been given many names over time. In addition to Bodhidharma, he was Tamo to the Chinese, he is named Pu Tai Ta Mo in Sanskrit and Daruma Daishi in Japanese. In the Buddhist world he is known as the 28th Patriarch of Indian Buddhism or the First Patriarch of the Chinese Zen Lineage.

The history is based upon many legends and stories, complicated by the many names. I have attempted to provide a summary of these stories as a starting point. The dates vary from the 400’s to the 500’s AD. I have used the most widely accepted dates in this brief history. Recommendations on his history and his Buddhist teachings can be found in the bibliography at the end of this article.

Bodhidharma was born a prince in the southern regions of India and raised as a warrior to succeed his father as king. He had been trained in the Kalaprayat technique of martial arts. Bored with his training Bodhidharma began to study with a Buddhist teacher named Prajnatara. On his deathbed, Prajnatara asked him to go to China to re-awaken the followers of Buddha. Some sources say that almost five percent of the population were Buddhist Monks even before the arrival of Bodhidharma. Legends vary in the method of his arrival, some say he traversed the Himalayan Mountains, others say he rode a ship around the coast. Regardless, he arrived around 526 A.D.

Upon arriving in China, the Emperor Wu Ti, a Buddhist himself, requested a meeting with Bodhidharma. The Emperor asked him what reward he had received for all of his good works. Bodhidharma answered that he had accrued none. Bodhidharma was unable to convince Wu Ti of the value of the new teachings he brought from India.

Frustrated, Bodhidharma set out on a northerly direction. He crossed the Tse River, and climbed Bear's Ear Mountain in the Sung Mountain range to where the Shaolin Temple was located. It had been founded forty years before by Buddhist monks and was famous for its translations of the Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Bodhidharma sought entrance into the Shaolin temple. He was accepted after he was able to prove that he was committed to Buddhism.

When he arrived Boddhidharma was appalled to find the monks fat, and without the ability to even stay awake during his lectures. In addition, the monks were unarmed and easy pray to bandits when they attempted to go out into the world to teach. So they decided to stay in the safety of the monastery. This explained one reason that Buddhism was no longer as widespread as it had been.

Legend has it that Boddhidharma then went to a cave and stared at a wall for seven years. He is said to have cut off his eyelids to stay awake in meditation, and so is usually depicted with bulging eyes. Others say that he cut off his eyelashes and that they fell to the ground and became tea plants. Recognizing the ability of tea to help a person stay awake has made tea a part of the practice of zazen.

Bodhidharma created an exercise program for the monks which involved physical techniques that were efficient, strengthened the body, and eventually, could be used practically in self-defense. When Bodhidharma instituted these practices, his primary concern was to make the monks physically strong enough to withstand both their isolated lifestyle and the deceptively demanding training that meditation requires. It turned out that the techniques served a dual purpose as a very efficient fighting system, which evolved into a marital arts style.

His system involved dynamic tension exercises. These movements found their way into print as early as 550 A.D. as the Yi Gin Ching, or Changing Muscle/Tendon Classic. We know this system today as the Lohan (Priest-Scholar) 18 Hand Movements, which serves as the basis of Chinese Temple Boxing and the Shaolin Arts. Many of the basic moves of both tai chi chuan and kung fu can be seen in the scenes recorded on the walls of the temple.

These skills helped the monks to defend themselves against invading warlords and bandits. Bodhidharma taught that martial arts should be used for self-defense, and never to hurt or injure needlessly. In fact, it is one of the oldest Shaolin axioms that "one who engages in combat has already lost the battle." Bodhidharma also taught medicine to the monks and arranged for Chinese doctors to come to share their knowledge with the Shaolin. In three years the monks became so skilled in both the martial arts and medicine that they start to be feared and respected by the bandits. This went a long way toward continuing the spread of Buddhism and Zen thoughout China and the rest of Asia. Even the death of Bodhidharma is shrouded in mystery. Legend has it that he was poisoned by one of his followers disappointed at not being selected as the successor. Regardless of the reason, Bodhidharma died in 539 A.D. at the Shaolin Temple at age 57. They laid him to rest in a tomb there.

The strangest legend regarding Bodhidharma is that three years later he was met on the road by a government official, walking out of China towards the Himalayas with his staff in his hand and one of his sandals hanging from it. Having dined with Bodhidharma on many occasions, the official was certain it was him. When the official arrived at the monastery and recounted his experience, the monks opened the tomb only to find it contain just a single sandal.

The forms created and taught to these monks are generally believed to be the root of the martial arts in China. While there is evidence that portions of these movements existed prior to the arrival of Bodhidharma, he was the one who codified and recorded them and from there they have gone to spread throughout the world.


Zen Mind International

Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun

The Spread of Mind-Body Disciplines Through Buddhism

The Self Discovery Portal

Mysticism in World Religions

The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma, translated by Red Pine (North Point Press, 1987).

Any corrections or additions, please contact me!

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A version of this article was originally published on Suite101

Copyright 2006, Marek Swarthout