TAMO -- BODHIDHARMA
Ch'an Buddhism, another major school of Chinese Mahayana
Buddhism, came about as a result of the historical visit to China
by the great Indian sage, Bodhidharma, who arrived at Can-
ton in 520 AD. Chan is the Chinese equivalent for the Sanskrit
word `Dhyana', meaning meditation. Ch'an Buddhism therefore
requires its adherents to practise strict and deep meditational
practices which cut off intel ectualism. is sometimes leads one
to believe that it is quite similar to Pure Land practice which
also does away with intel ectual knowledge and teaches its fol-
lowers to put their full faith in the Buddha Amitabha for salva-
tion, although it is not, for Ch'an Buddhism is no `easy-path'. It
requires self power or effort to reach salvation and does not rely
on any Buddha for help to attain full enlightenment. However,
both schools became just as popular to the Chinese and then to
the Japanese by the twelveth century. In Japan it is known as
Zen Buddhism and the two major schools arising from it being
that of Rinzai (Lin-Chi) and Soto (Tsao-tung) which differ only
in their methods of approach towards enlightenment.
Bodhidharma (AD 470543) the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism was
also the 1st Patriarch of the Ch'an Buddhism, the school which
he founded in China. His teaching was handed on in succession
by what is known as `mind-transmission' to a number of Patri-
archs, the most famous of whom was Hui-neng (AD 637713),
the Sixth Patriarch.
Upon his arrival to China, Bodhidharma was summoned to
court by Emperor Wu-ti of the Liang Dynasty, who was an
ardent Buddhist and prided himself on his great support for the
Buddhist religion. Proud of his knowledge in Buddhism and the
contributions he had made towards the Sangha, he asked the
sage `how much merit he had gained'.
"No merit whatsoever" was the shocking reply of Bodhidharma.
e Emperor had often heard teachings from wel -known
masters who said, "Do good, and you will receive good; do bad
and you will receive bad. e Law of Karma is unchangeable,
effects fol ow causes as shadows fol ow figures" but now this sage
declared that he had earned no merit at al . e Emperor was
Why did Bodhidharma reply the way he did? Perhaps he was
trying to say, in a few words, that if one does good with the desire
to gain merit for oneself, that is no longer a Buddhist practice.
It will mean that one is not real y practising the Dharma but
more towards satisfying one's own ego, or promoting one's own
welfare, or even for the sake of being recognised and appreciated.
In this case how could there be any merit in such acts at al ? And,
being a Zen master, words were not to be wasted, so he answered,
"No merit whatsoever."
Emperor, taken aback, then asked the next question, "What
then, is the essence of Buddhism?"
Bodhidharma's immediated reply was, "Vast emptiness and no
essence at al !" is stunned the Emperor as he could not grasp
the deep meaning of `no essence at al ' in the Buddha's teach-
ing. Other masters had taken great pains to explain that the es-
sence was contained in the doctrines such as `Cause and Effect,
the Four Noble Truths,the Bodhisat va Ideals, etc', but this so-
cal ed great patriarch of Buddhism had just declared that there
was `no essence at al '.
e Emperor then put his final question, "Since you say that
in Buddhism all things have no essence, who then is speaking
before me now?" Bodhidharma replied "I do not know." e
Emperor was taken aback, for he could not understand what
e thoroughly confused Emperor then dismissed the sage from
the court and thus, China had its first taste of Ch'an teaching.
ereafter, Bodhidharma, left to himself, reflected, `Since a
learned and great scholar such as the Emperor was not able to
understand what I am trying to impart perhaps the conditions
are not ripe enough for me to teach yet....' He then retired to a
cave in the famous Shao Lin Temple where he sat in deep con-
templation, facing a wal , for some nine years, waiting for the
time when his teachings could be understood and accepted by
Bodhidharma came to China to give his special teaching which
can be said to be contained in this verse:
"A special transmission outside the Scriptures;
No dependence upon words or let ers;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one's own nature."
Bodhidharma then lived in China for some fifty years, teaching
when the occasion arose and using the Lankavatara scripture
in his teachings. He was succeeded by Hui K'e (AD 486593)
as the second patriarch while Seng T'san (died 606), Tao-Hsin
(580651), Hung Jen (602675) and Hui Neng (638713), be-
came the third, fourth, fifth and sixth patriarch respectively. It
was Hui Neng, the il iterate woodcut er, who eventual y made
Ch'an flourish in China as never before.
It may be interesting to remark here that after Bodhidharma's
departure, Emperor Wu discussed the incident with his spir-
itual teacher, Master Chih, who asked him; "Does your majesty
know who this man is?... is is the Mahasat va Avalokitesvara
transmit ing the Buddha Mind Seal...."
is made the Emperor fil ed with regret for having sent him
out of the court. Years later; upon learning of the death of the
sage, he mourned deeply and then wrote an inscription to pay
his tribute to the great Patriarch which read:
"Alas! I saw him without seeing him;
I met him without meeting him;
I encountered him without encountering him;
Now as before I regret this deeply!"
Bodhidharma has a large fol owing of devoted fol owers and his
festive day fal s on the 5th day of the 10th lunar month of the
year. He is often depicted as a travel ing monk, or in a meditative
posture, or standing on top of a reed which carried him across
a river, a feat which led people to have faith in his power as an
Arhant or Lohan, the Chinese term for an Immortal. According
to the Chinese tradition, Bodhidharma is one of the famous 18
immortals who has a great affinity with mankind. is group
of Lohans are general y found in many temples and they are
represented as possessing various kinds of supernatural power,
symbolised either by the wild animals crouching submissively
beside them and/or the special objects that are associated with
them. Although the Lohans are a step below the rank of a
Bodhisat va, they are Enlightened Beings who deserve our
reverence. Bodhidharma or Ta Mo is venerated for being the
founder of the Great Contemplative School of Ch'an or Zen by
the Buddhists, and others, for his protective powers or as the
great Sage of Shaolin Temple.
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