Bodhidharma is believed to be born in the Kanchipuram city of India, located near the famous Madras city during the early 450-500 A.D. He was the 3rd son of the famous king of Kanchipuram city and grew up in the Warriors cast.
Bodhidharma was not interested in becoming the king of Kanchipuram and was interested in the teachings of the Buddha. He began to show great wisdom at the young age of 7 years old.
He started getting trained under his mentor Prajnatara and became a monk. His name was changed to from Bodhitara to Bodhidharma and started living in his monastery where he learned the way of the Buddha.
After his father’s death, Bodhidharma started spreading the knowledge and beliefs of Buddhism throughout India under the guidance of his mentor.
Years later, after the passing of his mentor, Bodhidharma left the monastery and went to China to fulfill the last request of his master: spreading the real teachings of Buddha further into China.
Bodhidharma left his motherland of India and started his endeavor. Although the actual route of his journey to China is unknown, most scholars believe that he traveled from Madras to Guangzhou province of China through the sea, and then by land to Nanjing.
Some scholars also believe that he cross the Pamir Plateau walking, along the Yellow River to Luoyang. Luoyang was famous as an active center for Buddhism at that time. It is said that Bodhidharma’s journey to China is said to have taken three years.
Once in China, Bodhidharma started to spread Buddhism but had to face skepticism and fierce opposition because of his teaching on real Buddhism. He professed that Buddhist scriptures were only a guide for achieving enlightenment, and that enlightenment itself can only be attained by practicing Dhyana (Zazen). It is important to note that, at the time in China, Buddhist scriptures, and not meditation, were at the heart of Buddhism.
Bodhidharma’s teaching of authentic meditation-based Buddhism got him ostracized and rejected – he had to live as a beggar for many months. He then left the Luoyang province and moved on to the Henan province where he traveled to Shaolin Monastery.
After being refused entry, he lived in a nearby cave, where he practiced Zazen facing a wall for nine long years, not speaking for the entire time.
The Shaolin monks were so impressed with his dedication to his zazen that he was eventually granted entry to the Monastery. He taught his ‘wall-facing” meditation (like in Soto Zen) to the monks, but he quickly realized that they were not robust enough to endure the rigorous and long sessions of meditation. They were so weak that they would often fall asleep during Zazen or get sick. Bodhidharma tried to bolster their stamina and willpower by teaching them Indian breathing exercises as well as martial arts.
Bodhidharma stayed and taught at the temple for many years and died at 100+ years old – he was poisoned by some disciple as revenge because he had not been chosen as the successor.
Bodhidharma was an energetic teacher who called all Buddhists, monks or lay people to make their best effort in this lifetime. He was opposed the idea of earning merits by making donations. Instead, he affirmed that everyone has Buddha-nature and encouraged each and everyone to Awaken.
Bodhidharma is the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism in a line of descent from the Buddha via his disciple Mahākāśyapa, Buddha’s successor after his death.
Besides being known as the father of both Zen Buddhism and Shaolin martial arts, he remains today as a prime symbol of determination, willpower, self-discipline, and Awakening.