Abandoning the false and embracing the true, and in simpleness of thought, abiding in pi-kuan or wall meditation, one finds that there is neither selfhood nor otherness, that the masses and the worthies are of one essence. Holding firmly to this belief and never moving away therefrom, one is not guided by any written instructions, for one is in silent communion with the principle itself, free from conceptual discrimination, serene and not-acting.

- Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma aka Damo aka Daruma - Monk, Mystic, and Purported Kung Fu Master

Bodhidharma (c482-c539) was an Indian monk credited with founding Zen Buddhism (in Chinese, Chan Buddhism). In China, Bodhidharma is revered as Damo, the short form of Chinese transliteration of his name, Pu Di Da Mo, and in Japan he is called Daruma, from the Japanese, "Bodaidaruma."

Bodhidharma was born in the Indian city of Kanchipuram in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu in about 482, the third son of a minor king. As a young man, Bodhidharma was training to become one of the leaders of his country when he encountered the teachings of the Buddha and decided to forsake worldly things and become a monk, and began to train under the tutelage of the great Buddhist master Prajnatara, allegedly the 27th Buddhist master in a direct line of descent from the Buddha himself. After many years of training, Prajnatara deemed his disciple to be fully trained, so he gave him the name "Bodhidharma," gave him the "Mind Transmission" (direct mind-to-mind communication of full enlightenment), declared him the 28th master of Buddhism, and commanded him to travel to China, where Buddhism had been waning, to once again show the Chinese the true teachings of the Buddha.

After a grueling trek over the icy Himalayas, Bodhidharma arrived in southern China in 520 and traveled to Guangzhou (Canton) where he found favor with a local potentate named Shang Yao. Word of Bodhidharma's teachings soon reached the Liang Emperor, Wu Di, who requested an audience with the monk. Wudi, a devout Buddhist who was noted for his good deeds, asked Bodhidharma what merit he deserved for building temples and endowing monasteries all across the vast territory he ruled.

"None whatsoever," Bodhidharma replied. He went on to explain that that salvation could never be achieved by worldly deeds.

Now, this was nowhere near the brand of Buddhism that the emperor had been following his entire life. Bewildered, he asked Bodhidharma, "What then, is the true nature of the Buddha's teaching?"

"Vast emptiness," was the even more bewildering reply.

By now the emperor was getting really angry. "Just who do you think you are?" he demanded to know of Bodhidharma.

"I have no idea," the monk answered simply.

This dialogue is thought to reveal the true essence of Zen. Although Bodhidharma and Wu Di had several more interviews, it became increasingly clear that their two views of Buddhism were irreconcilable, and finally the Emperor became so incensed with Bodhidharma's intransigence, he banished the monk from his domains.

Upon his banishment, Bodhidharma set out for northern China, crossing the torrential Chi Shui River (by floating on a single leaf, according to a famous Chinese legend), and climbing up Mount Songshan ("Bear's Ear Mountain") in the Song Range, Hunan province, where the Shaolin temple was located, reaching the temple in 526. But the Shaolin monks refused Bodhidharma admission, so he retreated to a nearby cave where he supposedly spent nine years staring at the cave wall (You can still visit this cave today, and witness the silouette of Bodhidharma on the cave wall). Over the years, some sects have taken this story literally, always meditating facing a wall, while others have argued that Bodhidharma's meditative practice, pi-kuan ("wall perceiving"), actually meant meditating "with mind perceiving (kuan) as a wall (pi) sees," and not actually "perceiving (kuan) a wall (pi)."

At any rate, after the nine years, the Shaolin monks were finally impressed enough to allow Bodhidharma inside their monastery to become their teacher. There, Bodhidharma was greatly dismayed to find that while the Shaolin had admirably devoted themselves to strengthening their minds through meditation, they had neglected to strengthen their bodies, which had become frail and weak. Thus Bodhidharma immediately set the monks about a rigorous regimen of martial exercises which have since become the foundation of Shaolin Kung Fu.

Bodhidharma's greatest disciple among the Shaolin monks was one Shen-kuang. One day, Bodhidharma asked Shen-kuang why he continued to turn to Bodhidharma for teachings, reprimanding him that true enlightenment is not sought through the teachings of another, but from within.

"But my soul is not yet pacified", Shen-kuang replied. "Please help me pacify it."

"Bring your soul here," Bodhidharma said, "and I will have it pacified."

After some hesitation Shen-kuang responded, "But master I cannot, for I know not where my soul is. I have sought it these many years and am yet unable to grasp it."

"There!" Bodhidharma suddenly exclaimed, "It is pacified once and for ever."

Upon hearing these words, Shen-kuang realized that all his years of training had been pointless, and he became enlightened. Had Bodhidharma truly pacified his soul, or had his words merely coincided with a sudden moment of enlightenment? It mattered not. Right then and there Bodhidharma renamed Shen-kuang Huike, gave him the Mind Transmission, and declared him the 29th master of Buddhism, in direct line from the Buddha himself.

Bodhidharma then disappeared from history. Some accounts say he died peacefully at the Shaolin monastery in 539, at the age of 57. Other legends say that he traveled to Mongolia or returned to India. There is even a story that he was poisoned by a jealous rival monk. Some Japanese legends claim that Bodhidharma traveled to Japan, where he lived and taught for almost 200 more years before dying at the age of 250.

In any case, more reliable history tells us that the Japanese monk Eisai brought Bodhidharma's teachings to Japan in 1191, founding Japanese Zen Buddhism, and eventually causing Bodhidharma's visage to be forever memorialized in Japan's ridiculous disembodied Daruma good-luck dolls. Bodhidharma is also ubiquitous in traditional Chinese and Japanese brush painting, always recognizable by his incredible hirsute-ness and his big, bulging eyes. The hairyness was a way for the comparatively hairless Chinese and Japanese to show that Bodhidharma was Indian, while the bulging eyes may derive from a Chinese legend that while he was meditating in the cave for nine years, Bodhidharma's eyelids fell off, becoming the first tea plant.

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