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The Struggles of Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan Buddhism, overcame cultural barriers and ridicule to spread meditation and self-awareness teachings in China.

Bodhidharma carving in soapstone from the Qing dynasty (1644–1911)

Bodhidharma, also known as Da Mo in Chinese, is widely regarded as the founder of Chan Buddhism, which later became Zen Buddhism in Japan. He is a legendary figure who lived in China during the fifth or sixth century CE. According to the legend, Bodhidharma traveled to China from India to spread the teachings of Buddhism, but he faced numerous struggles in finding students who were receptive to his ideas.

Bodhidharma was born into Indian royalty in the 5th Century AD and renounced his royal life to spread the teachings of Buddhism. One of the main challenges that Bodhidharma faced was the cultural barrier between India and China. Chinese people at that time had little knowledge of Buddhism and its practices, and they were skeptical of Bodhidharma's teachings. Bodhidharma's appearance also made him stand out from the local population, which made it difficult for him to gain acceptance. Despite these challenges, Bodhidharma persevered and sought to spread his teachings in China.

He eventually arrived at the Shaolin Temple in Songshan province, China, in 527 AD. However, what he found there was disheartening. The monks were weak, sickly, and lacked the vitality for deep meditation, which was not Bodhidharma's vision of spiritual cultivation. He is said to have spent several years in Shaolin Temple, where he meditated and taught the monks. He is also credited with creating the Shaolin martial arts, which combine elements of Zen Buddhism with physical training.

Shaolin Temple
Shaolin Temple

However, even within Shaolin Temple, Bodhidharma struggled to find students who were willing to learn from him. He is said to have sat in front of a wall for nine years, waiting for a student who was truly committed to learning from him. During this time, he was ridiculed and mocked by the other monks, who saw his dedication as a waste of time.

Despite the difficulties, Bodhidharma's teachings eventually began to spread throughout China. His emphasis on meditation and self-awareness, as opposed to the traditional focus on religious rituals and practices, resonated with many people. His ideas laid the foundation for Chan Buddhism, which became one of the most influential schools of Buddhism in China.

A well-known story of Bodhidharma goes like this:

Once, a young monk named Huike came to Bodhidharma and asked him to teach him about Buddhism. Bodhidharma asked Huike what he wanted to achieve by studying Buddhism. Huike replied that he wanted to achieve enlightenment.

Bodhidharma then asked Huike to bring his mind to him, to which Huike replied that he could not find his mind. Bodhidharma then famously said, "Then I have already pacified your mind."

This story highlights the importance of being present in the moment and letting go of distractions in order to achieve inner peace and enlightenment. The quote, "Then I have already pacified your mind," reminds us that true peace and enlightenment come from within and cannot be found in external sources.

Today, Bodhidharma is remembered as a symbol of perseverance and dedication in the face of adversity. His struggles to find students in China are a testament to the challenges that come with spreading new ideas and practices in an unfamiliar culture. But his persistence and commitment to his beliefs ultimately helped to create a new form of Buddhism that has had a lasting impact on China and the world.

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About Andrew

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At the age 17, through the guidance of his older brother Chris, he discovered the path of Buddhism. His journey with the practice has taken him across oceans and deep within himself. As a Zen bodhisattva, he works towards helping others find their own path without reward.


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