The beginning of this unique tradition is attributed to the monk Bodhidharma (Da Mo in Chinese, Daruma in Japanese) who visited China as a Buddhist missionary around A.D. 520. Most of what is written about Bodhidharma takes the form of myth and legend, but who was Bodhidharma the man, and where did he come from?

Sources vary about his origins. Most agree he was from India and his birthplace is often cited as Kanchipuram in the kingdom of Pallava (modern-day Tamil Nadu, in southeast India). Some have him coming from Persia or Central Asia, which is certainly possible since Buddhism had spread from India into Asia by the time of Bodhidharma. In Zen history it says simply that Bodhidharma came ‘from the West’ which—since almost everywhere is west of China—could have been any of these places!

The most common route between India and China was the long, circuitous trail known as the Silk Roads, which took the traveller through Central Asia to avoid the natural barrier of the Himalayas. However most sources have Bodhidharma coming by sea since, at the time of his journey, the passes of Northern India were occupied by the Huns, making them more dangerous than usual. Other sources have him taking the direct route to China through the mountains of Tibet.

Bodhidharma in China

However he got there, the story continues as follows: Bodhidharma arrives in China at a time when Buddhism is in great demand. The Emperor Wu Di is himself a keen Buddhist, and Bodhidharma meets with him in the southern capital, Nanjing. They have a brief and rather fruitless conversation. The emperor asks how much merit he has acquired for all the benefits he has bestowed on the Buddhist community—earning merit is a Buddhist tradition that brings good karma—and Bodhidharma tells him bluntly, ‘no merit.’ The emperor asks who does Bodhidharma think he is, and Bodhidharma replies that he has no idea. With this, Bodhidharma leaves for the northern capital of Loyang.

This style of enigmatic conversation is typical of the Bodhidharma legend, and, like the famous Zen koans (riddles), is meant to stimulate thought and enquiry rather than be taken at face value. When the emperor asks about achieving merit, Bodhidharma disdains the childish notion that good deeds can somehow notch up points towards good fortune. To him, an enlightened being acts with infinite compassion expecting nothing in return, seeking neither praise nor blame, and finding happiness in good fortune and bad. In the second exchange, Bodhidharma claims not to know himself. This illustrates one of the principle aims of Zen, which is to rid the practitioner of the illusion that we exist as separate entities from the world around us.

Bodhidharma ends up at the Shaolin monastery, where he stays for nine years. Much of his time is spent meditating in a cave, where he faces the wall and, legend has it, his gaze is so powerful that it bores holes in the rock. (The term ‘wall-gazing’ is often heard in Zen, and implies meditation and introspection, rather than staring pointlessly at a blank wall.)

Shaolin Temple

The Shaolin temple had already been in existence for some 20 years before his arrival, but Bodhidharma is credited with adding a new physical dimension to the practices of the monks. These were exercises designed to help with the rigors of long hours of mediation; whether they were martial in nature or simply yoga-style exercises remains unsure. There is no written record to say that the exercises were martial—and it was not until much later that the Shaolin monks became renowned for their martial skills, initially with the long staff—however if, as legend has it, Bodhidharma was the son of a nobleman or a king, it’s probable that he was schooled in warfare from a young age.

While Buddhism was being practiced in Shaolin before his arrival, Bodhidharma introduced his own unique brand of Buddhism, known as Chan in Chinese, and Zen in Japanese. He believed enlightenment (nirvana) is achieved through meditation rather than intellectual learning and did not emphasise the memorization of the Buddhist scriptures that is common in some schools. For him, enlightenment was not achieved through a series of small intellectual stepping-stones, but rather from a sudden dawning realization or ‘awakening’ within the whole of a person’s being (both the conscious and unconscious mind). This profound realization could be triggered by anything: a single word, the sight of a bird in flight, or the thump of the master’s fist on the student’s chest!

Zen Style Painting of Bodhidharma

In Zen paintings, Bodhidharma is depicted as a foreigner with dark skin, round, bulging eyes, black curly hair, a long, hooked nose, and rings in his ears. He is barefoot, wearing a simple robe, and carrying a stick over one shoulder with one sandal hanging from its end. The images of Bodhidharma by his devotees are created to match the legends told of him. His bulging eyes come from the story that as well as Zen and Kung Fu, he also introduced tea to China. The tale goes that Bodhidharma drank tea to stay awake during his long hours of meditation. After falling asleep during one session, he was so angry with himself that he cut off his own eyelids and threw them away—and where the eyelids fell, tea bushes grew. The message here is not meant to be taken literally; it simply shows how Bodhidharma brought ‘wakefulness’ to China, the idea of constantly being in touch with reality and living in the moment. It also shows the master’s determination to remain ‘awakened,’ and how far he is prepared to go to achieve this goal. Of all the many paintings of Bodhidharma, ‘Daruma’ by the Japanese master Hakuin, captures his ‘fierce gaze’ perfectly in typical Zen style, with just a few bold strokes of the brush.

The robe and the bowl signify making do with the essentials of life, just enough to keep warm and stay fed, and nothing more. The single sandal symbolizes ‘non-duality’, the concept in Zen that ultimately, we are all part of a single whole. There is a famous Zen koan that asks ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ The purpose of this koan is to discourage thinking in terms of things ‘existing’ or ‘not-existing’, but rather to see the big picture: the universe in its entirety. In Taoist terms, this would be seeing beyond the duality of Yin and Yang, to looking directly into the Tao itself, where all differentiation is meaningless.

Zen Achievements Require Sacrifice

Zen uses the lives of its founders as examples for its followers in the same way that the saints are used in Christianity, and Bodhidharma’s story is no different. He encounters a young monk in Shaolin called Sheng Kuang, who wishes to be enlightened. Bodhidharma ignores him. To show his dedication, the young student waits outside Bodhidharma’s cave all night in the snow. Bodhidharma is unimpressed and continues to ignore him. Finally, Sheng Kuang cuts off his own hand to show his sincerity. Bodhidharma asks what he wants and the student says he wishes to pacify his mind (achieve nirvana). Bodhidharma orders Sheng Kuang to bring him his mind so he can pacify it and after a long search, Sheng Kuang admits he can’t find it. Bodhidharma says ‘mind-pacifying is over,’ and Sheng Kuang is enlightened.

At first, Bodhidharma’s cold-heartedness seems out of place, especially in a religion that preaches compassion to all sentient beings, but it is symbolic—showing how the teacher does not pander to the student’s whims or make false promises of swift gains, rather he holds back and waits, allowing the student to develop the depth of desire required to reach the highest levels. This anecdote is not meant to provide an answer; instead, it demonstrates two important points in both Zen and the martial arts. The first is that great achievement requires great sacrifice. Sheng Kuang must be prepared to sacrifice more than, at first, he is prepared to do. Standing in the snow is not enough; it is only when he is prepared to give up all worldly attachments (the symbolic severing of his own arm) that Bodhidharma knows he is ready to make the leap. The second is the importance of asking the right questions. As many experienced instructors will tell you, the questions of new students (and even advanced students) are often misplaced, and in seeking answers to these questions the student is looking in the wrong place, or ‘barking up the wrong tree’ as the English saying goes. Sheng Kuang discovers that his mind (consciousness) is not a finite object that can be held down and ‘pacified.’ Once he realizes his mind is not separate from the universe as a whole, Bodhidharma says, essentially: ‘so what’s the problem?’ and Sheng Kuang realizes he never had one to begin with.


Before leaving Shaolin, Bodhidharma speaks to three of his most senior disciples. To the first of them, he says, ‘You have attained my skin.’ To the second, he says, ‘You have attained my bones.’ To the third (Sheng Kuang) he says, ‘You have attained my marrow.’ With this he hands over the traditional robe and bowl of the Buddhist Patriarch to Sheng Kuang and renames him Hui Ko. The speech is metaphorical, and similar symbolism can also be found in the English language: Bodhidharma talks about the difference between gaining a superficial understanding: skin-deep; going deeper: to the bone; and deeper still: to the marrow in the center of the bones. Again, his words should not be taken literally, and Bodhidharma’s famous ‘marrow-cleansing exercises’ simply implies that the exercises work on the whole person, affecting them deeply, to the core.

The stories of Bodhidharma are brief, enigmatic and open to wide interpretation, making him a figure that, even today, has the power to inspire thought and debate as well as action. There were monks at Shaolin before Bodhidharma, and many thousands after him, but Bodhidharma is remembered as the father of the warrior-monk tradition—the original Shaolin monk.

Since his time, the Shaolin temple has survived 1,500 years of war, revolution and, at times, persecution; changing, growing and evolving as it did. In recent years it has become something of a tourist trap where, some argue, there is plenty of Kung Fu but very little Zen to be found. This doesn’t matter. Bodhidharma’s work is done and the true nature of his ‘Way’ has spread far beyond the walls of Shaolin, to countless dojos, dojangs, kwoons and gyms across the globe, where the legend of Bodhidharma continues to have meaning for new generations of martial artists.

Bodhidharma is the main character in A Sudden Dawn by Goran Powell.

Read more about Da Mo.