7 Mar


One of Zong Rinpoche’s (Tsem Rinpoche’s root guru) previous lives was the famous Indian master Bodhidharma who was famous to have brought Zen/Chen Buddhism to China and is regarded as the first patriarch of this tradition in China. He has an exceptional story of transmitting the teachings without words.

Bodhidharma was born a powerful South Indian prince and was exceptionally intelligent and was the favorite son of the king of Southern India. Bodhidharma was not the only son, he had two older brothers and they were incredibly jealous and afraid that Bodhidharma would eventually inherit the throne. Therefore, the two older brothers plotted to disparage Bodhidharma when they were in the presence of their father and they secretly hoped that their father would turn on their brother. However, that didn’t happen and so they resorted to assassinating him instead but that failed as well.

Meanwhile, Bodhidharma was beginning to feel disenchanted with court politics. He left the palace and sought to be the student of the famous Buddhist master Prajnatara and was duly ordained as a Buddhist monk. Bodhidharma trained under this master for many years. One day, he asked his master on what he should do. His master told him to go to China and when his master did pass away, Bodhidharma prepared to leave for China.

While Bodhidharma was studying under this great master, one of his older brothers ascended the throne and became the king and was succeeded by his son after him. The new king was partial to his uncle and knew of the past and wanted to make amends for the misdeeds of his father. He entreated Bodhidharma to live near the capital so he could protect and care for his uncle. However, Bodhidharma was determined to fulfill his Guru’s instructions.  Unable to dissuade Bodhidharma to remain, the King ordered for many carrier pigeons be released in the direction of China with little messages requesting the Chinese people to be hospitable and care for Bodhidharma when they do encounter him. This made Bodhidharma incredibly famous even before he arrived in China.

In 527 AD, 32 years after Ba Tuo’s (an Indian Theravaden master) built Shaolin temple, Bodhidharma arrived at the Guangdong province of China. In China, he became known as Da Mo. Da Mo arrived in China propagating Mahayana Buddhism. Upon his arrival, a large crowd of people who had heard of this famous Buddhist master greeted him. Instead of teaching, Da Mo sat down and began meditating in front of the large crowd. He meditated for many hours on end and when he arose from meditation, Da Mo just walked away, saying nothing at all. Some were so amused that they laughed, some cried with tears of admiration, some were simply outrage while a few nodded their heads in contemplation and understanding. Bodhidharma simply left everybody with a deep impression regardless of the emotions they felt.

This incident made Da Mo even more famous than ever and news spread so fast that Emperor Wu heard of him. Emperor Wu of Liang ruled over a southern kingdom of China and he extended an imperial invitation to Da Mo to come to his palace. When Da Mo arrived, Emperor Wu immediately engaged in a long conversation with Da Mo about Buddhism. The emperor was a Buddhist and he had erected many Buddha statues and built many Buddhist temples. He had also given a lot of his wealth to Buddhist temples. Emperor Wu related all this to Da Mo and asked Da Mo how much merit he had accrued. Da Mo replied that he had not accrued any merit whatsoever. This response surprised and enraged Emperor Wu and he demanded to know who he was to have the audacity to such things. He simply answered, “I don’t know.”

Da Mo’s replies were a reflection of Emperor Wu’s motivation in building the Buddha statues and temples. Since he wanted recognition and praise, his motivation was definitely not Dharmic and therefore, the emperor accrued no merit for his great sponsorship. The very fact that the emperor was enraged by Bodhidharma’s simple answer revealed his true intentions. Eventually, the emperor ordered Da Mo to leave the palace and never return. So, Da Mo simply smiled, turned and left.

Da Mo continued his journeys all over China and this time, he head north and he eventually arrived at the ancient city of Nanjing. In the city of Nanjing, there was a famous park called the Pavilion of the Rain of Flowers where people gathered to relax and listen to public speeches. When Da Mo arrived, there was a large crowd surrounding a Buddhist monk, who was giving teachings. This Buddhist monk was known as Shen Guang. Shen Guang was once a famous general who had killed a lot of soldiers in battle. One day, he realized that every person he had ever killed had grieving family members and that one-day, tables would turn and someone is bound to kill him. This realization made him regret his actions and he decided to be ordained as a monk.

As Da Mo got closer, he began to listen to Shen Guang’s teachings. Sometimes Da Mo would nod his head in agreement to Shen Guang’s point. Sometimes Da Mo would shake his head in disagreement to some other points in his teachings. Shen Guang began to notice this and was very angry at the audacity of this strange foreign monk who dared to disagree with him. In a fit of anger, Shen Guang took the prayer beads that he normally wore around his neck and shook them in Da Mo’s direction. The beads struck Da Mo’s mouth and dislodged two of his front teeth and Da Mo immediately began to bleed. Shen Guang expected an angry confrontation but instead, Da Mo smiled, turned and walked away without saying a word.

This reaction astounded Shen Guang and faith arose in his mind. So, he decided to follow Da Mo. Da Mo continued to travel up north until he reached the Yangtze River. By the river, there was an old woman with a large bundle of reeds next to her. Da Mo walked up to the old woman and asked if she would give him a reed. She agreed and gave him the reed. Da Mo took the reed, placed it on the surface of the Yangtze River and stepped onto the reed. He was miraculously carried across the Yangtze River.

When he saw this, Shen Guang ran over to the old woman and grabbed a handful of reeds without asking. He hastily threw the reeds onto the Yangtze River and he stepped onto them. However, Shen Guang sank into the water and began drowning. The old woman saw his plight and took pity on Shen Guang so she pulled him out of the river. As Shen Guang lay on the ground shivering and coughing out water, the old woman berated him. She told him off for taking the reeds without asking and by doing that, she explained that he had not respected her and by disrespecting her, Shen Guang had in reality disrespected himself. Then, the old woman told Shen Guang that if he was really seeking a real master, he should pursue Da Mo and she pointed in the direction he had crossed the river. As she said this, the reeds suddenly arose to the surface of the water and Shen Guang found himself on the reeds being carried across the Yangtze River. When he arrived on the other shore, he continued his pursuit of Da Mo. People believed that the old woman was an emanation of a Bodhisattva to help Shen Guang in his pursuit of his Guru.

Da Mo eventually came near the Shaolin Temple and the monks had heard of his reputation and gathered to receive him. When Da Mo arrived, the Shaolin monks greeted him and invited him to stay at the temple. However, Da Mo declined the offer and went to a nearby cave behind the Shaolin Temple to meditate. While in the cave, Da Mo sat facing a wall and meditated for nine years. All through the nine years, Shen Guang stayed faithfully outside Da Mo’s cave and stood guard, ensuring that no harm would come to Da Mo. Periodically, Shen Guang would request Da Mo to teach him but Da Mo never responded. The Shaolin monks would also periodically request Da Mo to come down to the Temple so they could serve him but Da Mo never responded as well. After some time, Da Mo’s concentration became so intense that an image of him was miraculously bored onto the walls of the cave.

Towards the end of the nine years, the Shaolin monks realized that they must do more for Da Mo and so they built a special room for him in the monastery. They called this room, Da Mo Ting. When this room was completed at the end of the nine years, the Shaolin monks once again entreated Da Mo to come to the temple and stay in this room. Without saying a word, he stood up and walked to the room, sat down, and resumed meditating. Needless to say, Shen Guang followed Da Mo to the Shaolin temple and stood guard outside Da Mo’s room. Da Mo meditated in his room for another four years. Shen Guang would still request Da Mo to teach him but Da Mo never responded.

At the end of the four-year period, Shen Guang had followed Da Mo for thirteen years but Da Mo had never uttered a single word to Shen Guang. It was winter of the fourth year and Shen Guang was standing in the snow outside the window to Da Mo’s room. He was cold and a built up of years of frustration made him very angry. In a fit of rage, he picked up a large block of snow and threw it at Da Mo’s room and it crashed through the window. The commotion awoke Da Mo from his meditation and he looked at Shen Guang. In sheer anger and frustration, Shen Guang demanded to know when Da Mo would start to teach him. After years of silence, Da Mo finally spoke up and said that he would teach Shen Guang when red snow fell from the sky. Upon hearing this, frustration stirred deep inside of Shen Guang’s heart and so, he took his sword and cut off his left arm. He held the severed arm above his head and he swung it around. The blood from the arm froze in the cold air and fell like red snow. Seeing this, Da Mo finally agreed to teach Shen Guang.

Da Mo took a spade and went with Shen Guang to the Drum Mountain in front of Shaolin Temple. The Drum Mountain has a large flat plateau at its summit. Da Mo’s gestured Shen Guang to flatten his heart, just like the surface of Drum Mountain. On Drum Mountain, Da Mo dug a well but the water of this well was bitter. After that, Da Mo then left Shen Guang on Drum Mountain. For the rest of the year, Shen Guang consumed the bitter water of the well to take care of all of his needs – cooking, cleaning, bathing and so forth. At the end of the first year, Shen Guang went down the hill to seek Da Mo and asked for more teachings again.

Da Mo returned with Shen Guang to Drum Mountain and dug a second well. The water of this well was spicy. For an entire year, Shen Guang used the spicy water for all of his needs. At the end of the second year, Shen Guang went back down to Da Mo and asked again to be taught. Da Mo dug a third well on Drum Mountain. The water this time was sour. For the third year, Shen Guang used the sour water for all of his needs. At the end of the third year, Shen Guang returned to Da Mo and again asked to be taught.

Da Mo returned to the Drum Mountain and dug the final well. The water of this well tasted sweet. Upon tasting the water, Shen Guang realized that the four wells represented the vicissitude of life. Just like the wells, his life would taste bitter, sour, spicy or sweet. Each of these phases in his life was essentially about his attachment to the pleasant and aversion to the unpleasant and all these was necessary to develop one taste or equanimity in his meditations. Without words, Da Mo had taught Shen Guang the most important of lessons in a kind of sacred transmission. This transmission is called “action language” and is the foundation of Chan Buddhism, which Da Mo began at Shaolin Temple.

After his realization, Shen Guang was renamed Hui Ke and he became abbot of Shaolin temple after Da Mo. In honor of the sacrifice that Hui Ke made, disciples and monks of the Shaolin Temple would greet each by supplicating with only their right hand.

(Story adapted from )


One Response to “Bodhidharma”

  1. gelugpa_kid March 13, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

    I never knew Bodhidharma is connected to Zong Rinpoche. Did you watch a Chinese movie about Bodhidharma? It was one of my most watched movie as a child.

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