Bodhidharma: Myth or Reality?
by Christopher Caile
At a minimum he was a remarkable man. He was but one
of hundreds, if not thousands, who ventured far distances
from India and elsewhere to China to teach. And while
virtually ignored historically in that country, now
after almost 1500 years he is venerated in Japan,
as the great religious figure - part mystic and part
guru - that originated Zen Buddhism.
Bodhidharma's life has become the stuff of fables
and legends - of mysterious sightings and life after
death. It was reported that he crossed a river floating
on a reed. And long after his death he was seen walking
along a road wearing only one sandal. The mystery
deepened when his tomb was later opened and found
empty - save for a single sandal.
These and other stories have been immortalized over
the centuries in legends and in paintings, on scrolls
and wood block prints. His image is easily recognized
- a thick rounded body, swaddled in robes, heavy jowls,
with thick bushy eyebrows and beard that frame large
round eyes that captivate. One Chinese official reported
after meeting him and witnessing his penetrating,
intense stare that Bodhidharma was the most intimidating
person he had ever met.
In Japan today his likeness is most popularly found
in homes and businesses characterized in the form
of a round red "Dharma" doll, comprised of a large
face, shoulders pushed down into the trunk and without
a neck or body. The doll is weighted at the bottom
so if pushed over, it ever rights itself, symbolizing
perseverance through life. The story goes that Bodhidharma
meditated cross-legged facing a wall so long that
he lost his legs, thus the doll's shape. To keep from
sleeping he also cut off his eyelids and threw them
to he ground, from which grew China's first tea plants.
And that's why, it is said, Zen monks even to today
drink tea to keep themselves awake during meditation.
purchased Dharma dolls have blank eyes.
It is customary to paint in one eye to
symbolize the beginning of a project or
challenge and to paint the second eye
But what is historical fact and what is mystical legend?
What made this hermit adventurer, this fierce, enigmatic
bareheaded and scowling monk so remarkable? It was
his revolutionary, crazy wisdom that forever changed
Buddhism in China and produced what the world now
calls Zen, a religion and way of perception that became
central to the Samurai warrior tradition and later
martial arts. He is also credited with inspiring the
martial arts in China and creating mystical teachings
of health and longevity (chi Kung). In this multi-part
series we will examine Bodhidharma and his association
with the legendary Chinese Shaolin temple, and delve
into the truth about his association with the martial
arts and healing arts. The truth is, as with many
ancient Chinese legends, both contradictory and surprising.
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