In Korean Seon (선) Buddhism (Ch. “Chan”, Jap. “Zen”) practitioners often meditate on paradoxical or nonsensical riddles known as koans (공안 or “ kong-an” in Korean) to gain insight into the nature of thought, perception and reality. One of the most famous of these riddles is “Why did the Bodhidharma (Kr. “Dalma” or달마) come from the west?” The Zen master Zhaozhou answered, “The cypress tree in front of the hall.” I‘m not sure about that myself, but thankfully the mundane answer is a bit more simple.
The Bodhidharma was the legendary founder and first patriarch of Zen Buddhism and he is an icon of Korean Buddhism. His stylized ink and brush portraits often depict him as a burly figure, shrouded and scowling with bulging eyes and a long bushy beard. Originally a prince hailing from Tamil Nadu, or possibly Iran, he was a master of Dhayana meditation (the name of which later permutated into “Chan” in Chinese, then Korean “Seon” and finally “Zen” in Japan). He was also an adherent of the Mahayana Lankavatara Sutra, an esoteric scripture emphasizing self-realization of enlightenment and the primacy of the human mind.
The Bodhidharma is believed to have come to China in the 5th cen. C.E. where Buddhism had already been well established. In fact the current Emperor Wu was an ardent patron and the Bodhidharma’s appearance before the Emperor became something of legend. Their encounter is said to have gone like this (which I shall quote from www.onmarkproductions.com):
“I’ve constructed dozens of Buddhist temples, supported hundreds of monks and nuns, and sponsored countless religious ceremonies,” the proud emperor informed [Bodhidharma]. “How great is my merit?”
“No merit at all,” [Bodhidharma] replied bluntly.
“Tell me then,” the emperor wanted to know, “What is the first principle of Buddhism?”
“Vast emptiness, nothing holy!” [Bodhidharma] shot back.
“Who are you?” the thoroughly perplexed emperor demanded.
“I don’t know!” [Bodhidharma] announced, departing as suddenly as he had appeared.
The legends tell that he then retreated north to the mountains and settled in a cave near the famed Shaolin Monastery. Here he practiced his “wall gazing” Dhayana mediation for nine long years. It was said his practice was so diligent that his legs atrophied from lack of use and he cut off his eye lids to keep from dozing off while meditating! It was through another such gruesome legend (which I’ll be retelling in Part 2) that the Bodhidarma here gained his first disciple, Dazu Huike, who became the 2nd Patriarch of Zen.
Further apocryphal tales (perhaps familiar to fans of 70’s Kung Fu flicks) hold that after his nine years of wall-gazing, he left his cave and settled with the Buddhist monks at the Shaolin temple. He found the Shaolin monks in such poor physical condition that he taught them Indian martial arts forms to whip them into shape. These developed into the bare hand and staff fighting styles for which the Shaolin are famous.
These fighting techniques came in handy in the following centuries when monks had to defend their monasteries from marauding bandits. These skills were in turn transited as Seonmudo (선무도) with the spread of Zen Buddhism in Korea in the 9th cen. CE. This martial art changed the course of Korean history in the 1590’s when it enable Korean monks to form armies and repel the Japanese Hideyoshi Invasions.
Before passing away, or possibly disappearing back to the west, he symbolically left his bowl and robe to his successor, Dazu Huike, the 2nd Patriarch (again, more on that in part 2). It’s also rumored he left several manuscripts behind at the Shaolin Temple. One that has survived until modern times is the “Yi Jin Jing”, a classic manual of Qi Gong martial arts fundamental to Shaolin practice of martial arts.