Much has been uttered about the semi-legendary Shao-lin Monastery in China. However little or no research has been done to clarify the many stories surrounding the history of this place, thought by many to be the birthplace of the traditional oriental martial arts. Closely related with the story of the Shao-lin Monastery is the name Bodhidharma, also referred to as Ta-mo, Damo, Daruma. Bodhidharma, revered by Buddhists as the 28th direct spiritual descendant of the Lord Buddha and First Patriarch of Chinese Zen. Bodhidharma was born near Kanchipuram in the Pallava Kingdom in South India.
Pragyatara, Bodhidharma’s master, told him to go to China because the people who had reached there before him had made a great impact, although none of them were enlightened. They were great scholars, much disciplined people, very loving and peaceful and compassionate, but none of them were enlightened. And now China needed another Gautama Buddha. The ground was ready.
Bodhidharma was the first enlightened man to reach China. The point I want to make clear is that while Gautama Buddha was afraid to initiate women into his commune, Bodhidharma was courageous enough to be initiated by a woman on the path of Gautama Buddha. There were other enlightened people, but he chose a woman for a certain purpose. And the purpose was to show that a woman can be enlightened. Not only that, her disciples can be enlightened. Bodhidharma’s name stands out amongst all the Buddhist enlightened people second only to Gautama Buddha.
Being an adept in Kalaripayattu (fighting art) which was popular in Pallava Kingdom, Bodhidharma taught the martial arts to Shaolin monks. He is credited with inventing Kung-Fu and associated martial arts in East Asia. Bodhidharma put up the essence of Mahayana Buddhism as a four-fold practice that encompass all other practices. They are: accepting adversity, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and acting in accordance with the Dharma.
The first Patriarch Bodhidharma arrived in Canton from T’ien-Chu (India), and stayed at the Harilakit Grove. At that time, Emperor Wu was a faithful adherent of Buddhism. The Emperor sent emissaries to receive the monk at Chin-ling (Nanking). They had a meeting, but no impression was made on the Emperor. The monk crossed the Yang-tze to the north and stayed at the Shao-lin Monastery at Sung-shan.
There are many legends about the man; they all have some significance. The first legend is: When he reached China – it took him three years – the Chinese emperor Wu came to receive him. His fame had reached ahead of him. Emperor Wu had done great service to the philosophy of Gautama Buddha. Thousands of scholars were translating Buddhist scriptures from Pali into Chinese and the emperor was the patron of all that great work of translation. He had made thousands of temples and monasteries, and he was feeding thousands of monks. He had put his whole treasure at the service of Gautama Buddha, and naturally the Buddhist monks who had reached before Bodhidharma had been telling him that he was earning great virtue, that he will be born as a god in heaven.
The dialogue between Emperor Wu and Bodhidharma is recorded in the book, Fu-tsu li tai t’ung tsai, it reads:
When Bodhidharma was presented to the Emperor by the magistrate of Canton, Hsiao Ang, the Emperor said, “I cannot enumerate the number of monks that I have supported, since I ascended the throne, in erecting monasteries and transcribing the sutras. I wonder what merit is gained by all this.”
Bodhidharma answered “There is no merit at all.” The Emperor asked, “What achievement is considered without merit?”
Bodhidharma answered, “All these are insignificant doings that would not free the doer from being reborn into this earth again. These deeds still show traces of worldliness; they are like the shadows following objects.
“Although they appear actually existing, they are no more than mere nonentities.”
The Emperor asked, “What then can be considered true merit?”
Bodhidharma answered, “A deed of true merit is full of pure wisdom and is perfect and mysterious, and its real nature is beyond the grasp of human intelligence. Such as this is not to be sought after by any worldly achievement.”
The Emperor asked, “What is the principle of the sacred truth?”
Bodhidharma answered, “Emptiness, and not sacred.”
The Emperor asked, “Then who is it that stands before me?”
Bodhidharma answered, “I do not know.”
The Emperor could not understand the deep meaning of all this. Bodhidharma remained for a few days and then he crossed the Yangtze River and proceeded north to the Shao-lin Monastery to remain there gazing at the walls.
What the Emperor did not understand was that Bodhidharma was advocating Cha’an (Zen) Buddhism, which centers its teaching “directly pointing to the human mind” and “becoming a Buddha just as you are,” believing that the Buddha nature is inherent in all human beings and that through meditative introspection this nature can readily be seen. By the Buddha-nature is meant the Buddha-mind in its highest attributes and true essence, which transcends all distinctions of object and subject or duality of any kind. It is emptiness, that is, empty of any specific character. The world of appearances, with all its specific characters, is but a product of the imagination.
To penetrate the Buddha-mind, the great masters of meditation variously advocated “absence of thought” in the sense that the mind should be freed from the influence of the external world. They taught “ignoring one’s feelings” so as to eliminate all defilement’s and attachments.
From its distaste for book-learning, Cha’an (Zen) Buddhism became known as the doctrine “Not founded on words or scriptures.” It was rather a teaching “transmitted from mind to mind,” that is, from one master directly to his disciple without the intervention of rational argumentation or formulation in conceptual terms. In essence, Cha’an (Zen) Buddhism is highly individualistic and often irreverent and iconoclastic with respect to tradition.