Within the Chan School or tradition, Bodhidharma (ca. early 5th century) is considered the First Patriarch of China, who brought Chan teachings from India to China, and the 28th patriarch in the transmission of the torch of enlightenment down from Śākyamuni Buddha.
Bodhidharma is the subject of countless portraits, where he is represented as an Indian wearing a full beard with rings in his ears and a monk’s robe,
frequently engaged in the 9 years of cross-legged sitting which he was loath to interrupt, even when a prospective disciple cut off his own arm to prove his sincerity.
Modern scholars have come to doubt many of the elements in this legendary picture.
Of the 10 texts attributed to Bodhidharma, the most authentic is probably an unnamed compilation one can provisionally call the Bodhidharma Anthology, also called The Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices:
This anthology opens with a biography and an exposition of his teaching,
both composed by Tanlin (506–574), a 6th century specialist in the Śrīmālā-Devī-Siṁhanāda Sūtra (Sūtra of Queen Śrīmālā).
Tanlin’s biography presents Bodhidharma as the 3rd son of a south Indian king:
Of Bodhidharma’s route to China, Tanlin says, “He subsequently crossed distant mountains and seas, traveling about propagating the teaching in North China.” This more historically feasible Bodhidharma came to North China via Central Asia.
Tanlin explains Bodhidharma’s teaching as “entrance by principle and entrance by practice”:
“Entrance by principle” involves awakening to the realization that all Sentient Beings are identical to the True Nature (dharmatā) - if one abides in “wall examining” (biguan) without dabbling in the scriptures, one will “tally with principle.”
“Wall examining” has been the subject of countless exegeses, from the most imaginative and metaphorical -
(be like a wall painting of a Bodhisattva gazing down upon the suffering of Saṁsāra) to the suggestion that it refers to the physical posture of cross-legged sitting in front of a wall.
Later Tibetan translations gloss it as “abiding in brightness”, a tantric interpretation that also invites scrutiny.
“Entrance by practice” is 4-fold:
1. having patience in the face of suffering;
2. being aware that the conditions for good things will eventually run out;
3. seeking for nothing; and
4. being in accord with intrinsic purity.
The anthology also includes 3 Records (again the title is provisional) consisting of lecture materials, dialogues, and sayings. Record 1 has a saying attributed to Bodhidharma:
“When one does not understand, the person pursues dharmas;
when one understands, dharmas pursue the person.”
Later Chan did not appropriate this saying for its Bodhidharma story.
2 other early sources of information on Bodhidharma deserve mention:
1) The first is a 6th century non-Buddhist source, the Record of the Buddhist Edifices of Luoyang, which twice mentions an Iranian-speaking Bodhidharma from Central Asia.
2) The second is the 7th century Further Biographies of Eminent Monks by Daoxuan (596-667):
It contains a Bodhidharma entry (a slightly reworked version of Tanlin’s piece), an entry on Bodhidharma’s successor, Dazu Huike (487–593), and a critique of Bodhidharma’s style of meditation:
Here, Bodhidharma is said to have
(1) come to China by the Southern Sea route, and
(2) handed down a powerful mystery text, the Laṅkāvatāra-Sūtra (Discourse of the Descent into Lanka), to Huike. Holders of this Sūtra were thought to be capable of uncanny feats, such as sitting cross-legged all night in a snowbank.
The later Chan picture of Bodhidharma incorporates both Daoxuan’s Southern Sea route and his sacramental transmission of the Laṅkāvatāra.
By the early 8th century, the first Chan histories had assembled these key elements as the Bodhidharma story, drawing principally upon Daoxuan’s work.